IN the week of Gerard Houllier’s 70th birthday, it would have been delinquent of me not to indulge in the nostalgia of my coming of age as a Liverpool supporter.
As an impressionable 14-year-old with a yearning for identity and realisation of values, the education bestowed upon me in the treble-winning 2000-1 season instilled a lot of the fundamental traits and beliefs I took forward and still hold to this day.
It was a season that had everything and more. From learning that the art of revenge was a dish served in stoppage time in the form of Leeds away in the FA Cup, to the gallant nature of the underdog at Old Trafford and the sheer force of momentum in people embodied by the galvanised figure of the versed Gary McAllister in the season’s run in, I was on an educational journey with The Reds that I still hold the dear memories of and always will.
One thing that strikes me more prominently now looking back was just how much we as fans adored the players Liverpool had. I’ve pondered this a great deal due to recent events, was it just me in my adolescent naivety? In a permanent state of adulation, constantly thinking of a chant that rhymes with Litmanen, while simultaneously being youthfully blind to the same realities of football that now slightly blight my own adult match-day experience.
There are Liverpool teams of past held in as much reverence with fans of different ages. Grown men will still rightly adulate over that late ‘80s side or just the mere mention of Kenny Dalglish. This was of course a different time. A time of fantastic footballers and teams but with a core home-grown makeup along with more modest lifestyles, this led to an inevitable feeling of attachment. It is fact that Liverpool supporters have always adored local players, and Houllier’s treble winners had what seemed an embarrassment of them. In the FA Cup quarter-final tie against Tranmere that year, the manager masterfully fielded eight British players in the lineup. This always helps with the identity and relatable notion. The feeling that they “get it” a bit more is open to discussion in itself. However generally, this was a time, maybe the end of the time, when love and affection for players was a proud quality of the match-going Liverpool fan. It was part of the Liverpool way.
This showed itself in forms that simply don’t exist any longer. As a fan I would always make sure I got in the ground before the game so I could join in with the songbook of individual player chants that would circulate prior to kick off eagerly awaiting a couple of claps or a thumbs up from said player when they were going through their pre-game routine.
That season, the thought of anybody leaving that squad would have devastated me. I’d have sat outside Melwood all night in a one-boy protest had I found out Bernard Diomede was being shipped out for being the underwhelming footballer he inevitably was. When, around the Christmas period of the 2000-1 season rumours were rife that Robbie Fowler was to be sold to Chelsea, the mood around the fan base was notably sombre. Around this period The Reds ran out 4-0 winners over Arsenal, however Anfield was amass with a feeling of impending mourning that was only heightened when a somewhat muted Fowler came on and scored the fourth.
Fowler may be a different case for numerous emotional reasons, I get that. But fast forward some 17 years and it feels as though we have, by attrition, become more battle hardened to the business nature of the game and it’s players. As a fan base, we have endured the pain and disappointment of the Fernando Torres, Luis Suarez, Raheem Sterling and now Phillipe Coutinho ordeals which have arguably left us all feeling somewhat neutralised to the whole enterprise. I’m not ignorant enough to think that there isn’t an abundance of wide-eyed youth who aren’t absolutely devastated that their hero Phil wants to leave as I would have been in 2000-1. However, in terms of a general mood, there is significantly more acceptance and indifference to these situations now.
The reasons can be pointed in several directions. As I’ve mentioned, past experience in any form will always make you more cautious, more apprehensive to the idea of loving again. We have all had collective pain from the aforementioned departures at different levels and for different reasons. The once-touted notion of a player showing the unmannerliness to wish to leave Liverpool will always be felt by us because we use our own sense of emotion and affection to the club as a measuring stick for situations, which mainly involve individuals who have no real cultural or personal affinity to the club or city enough to hold sway over their own personal goals or ambitions.
History also tells us we can’t have this both ways. Compare the colossal 2005-6 figure of Steven Gerrard holding all the cards to his career, and his eventual decision to stay with his boyhood club, to the mid-30s Gerrard who is left dangling regards a new contract and gets the feeling he is no longer wanted around the place. A player of Gerrard’s standing at Liverpool should have had more input into how and when he eventually departed. The point is that it is actually quite rare for a player and a club to be equally as important to each other at the same time. One will always inevitably need the other more to quench their relative needs at a given moment. This flat circle evolving around the process of ageing that we all, as people but particularly in the case of footballers, must face is more increasingly at odds with the ageless immortality of football clubs. Therefore, it is more likely that the player is left needing the organisation of which he serves rather than vice versa. On the rare occasion this process is reversed, the sudden sense of objectification felt is slightly contradictory when pondered.
In addition, the modern-day access and intrusiveness via social media and other portals must be considered. There is now a constant requirement for the internet to provide answers to the inextricable nature of things like transfers, which meddle in everything from a player’s ambition to his wife’s unhappiness with regular bin collections where they live.
The effect this has on the perception of the player can vary. In the case of Sterling, the notion he was greedy were countered by the opinion he had been badly advised and exploited by his pantomime villain agent. Either way, it allows fans more insight into the cold-hearted business dealings of a transfer. The seedy and underhanded tactics used by players, clubs and representatives that after a prolonged period leave you feeling completely ingrained in the whole repugnant process and in desperate need of cleansing.
The interest now will inevitably turn to Coutinho and how he reacts to not getting his summer wish. His every expression and trait in body language will be over analysed to the point of saturation for the first few weeks at the very least. However, as a fan base, we now know how this game is played. We’ve seen the bigger picture in varied formats times before. We’ve moved with the times, there is no longer an unconditional love. As long as Coutinho is going to work and do his bit then the rest can be temporarily patched up until the inevitable parting of ways takes place.
Liverpool’s pursuit of Virgil van Dijk and his subsequent position with Southampton is evidence that we’re all a bit guilty of double standards at times. However, we are also a lot more versed in the graphic nature of the very beast we all know and love. Therefore finding the right balance will never lay with Coutinho or any other player. It will come from above all else our love of the club and what it stands for. It will come from upholding the values of the club and adhering to them and the passing on of those values to younger generations so future custodians can come and go but still uphold them, because if they don’t there is no measuring stick, no Liverpool way. The idea of no player being bigger than the club will always be fundamental to those values.
The modern-day player detachment we all feel may not be a bad thing. We know their job, as do they, as does the manager. One job, return Liverpool to the top of the summit and everything else can be worked out in the wash. Do that job, that ultimate job in this small moment in time we will share together, and you will have a place within our weathered hearts. You will be loved even from a distance, in our own unique way.
Crack on, Phil. No hard feelings, we’re already over it. Let’s enjoy each other for however long it may last.
For more discussion surrounding the Philippe Coutinho saga and a look at Liverpool’s summer transfer business as a whole, listen to The Anfield Wrap’s FREE show and SUBSCRIBE to TAW Player. A subscription also gives you access to our podcast archive – here are some of the highlights so far…