It’s probably a bit early to be talking in such terms – in fact, it’s definitely too early – but let’s be honest, what some poxy Paddy on a flatulent ego trip says isn’t going to make a jot of difference to the destination of the title. So with that caveat in place, and having touched more wood than a hyperactive lumberjack, we can face up to the terror of being at the top.
Because make no mistake, it’s been a scary time. I was chatting to a friend after beating Boro and she stated, with all the zeal of the true believer that she is, that she couldn’t wait for the Fulham game. I staggered like someone who had just had his family jewels vigorously massaged with a mallet. Because it wasn’t a fun thought. Here we are, stowing away points like a squirrel hoarding nuts in the face of an Ice Age, only to have it all jeopardised by the sheer inconvenience of another bloody game! Why couldn’t we have a bit more time to savour our new-found invincibility, rather than having it put to the test again?
For a number of years recently, we were living in a success-starved comfort zone. Okay, that may be my mind playing tricks on me, it wasn’t the least bit comfortable. In reality it was a soul-destroying experience, always close enough to the summit to get want to reach it first only to be beaten to it by a cackling sherpa, flicking the bird at us with impunity. But we adjusted to every disappointment and became experts in squashing every hope and dream. The Reds also did their bit, resolutely refusing to progress beyond the fourth round of the FA Cup and losing Uefa Cup ties with such predictability that we were all able to brace ourselves for the shuddering impact of yet another failure. It all became rather comfortable, and when the second worst thing that could have ever happened, happened – Man Ure’s clean sweep; the worst being the Reds going down, so it was de facto the worst thing that could ever happen – and I survived, I felt that I could live with mediocrity.
Happily (because a comfort zone is a very bad thing indeed, causing you to miss out on all the fiery emotions that make life so damn appealing) Gary McAllister was determined to chuck hand grenades into this cosy little foxhole. With one fatal swing of his sweet right foot against the Blueslime last season, he showed us a Brave New World, one where the Reds could aspire to be back among the great names of the game. With that one win – that one goal! – energy pulsed through Liverpool like a particularly weird creature on Star Trek. The next six weeks were absolute torture as we eyed the prize yet seemed unable to grasp it. My brother put it best after we beat Bradford and our destiny remained in our own hands. We had to win the lot, the two cups and qualify for the Champions League, to be happy. Anything else simply wouldn’t be good enough.
Obviously it was all worth it in the end. But you have to speculate to accumulate. While there was much fevered debate about what would be the minimum that was acceptable in that late season charge, and I personally expressed the opinion that the Champions League could go kiss my fat, hairy arse, we all probably secretly yearned to win the lot, despite the inevitable disappointment if we had failed. And my goodness, we did our level best to try and screw it up, constantly shying away from the silverware as if someone had sprinkled it with anthrax. The rewards were immeasurable, but the price we paid could be easily measured in terms of moth-eaten wallets, nights sleep lost, sick days scabbed off work, blood pressure boosting brawls with fans of other teams, hyperventilation, cuts and bruises from punching inanimate objects with your fist, violent mood swings between all-consuming despair and orgasmic ecstasy…and what would it have availed us had Thierry Henry remembered his shooting boots? Had Alaves not forgotten how to defend? Had Charlton’s first half post hitter crept inside the woodwork? Had Sander Westerveld not been touched by the Gods in that same game? It genuinely doesn’t even bear thinking about.
To make matters worse, the new season rolls around and it starts all over again. The bald facts of Liverpool’s twelve match run undefeated in the league disguise the amount of blood, sweat and tears shed in pursuit of that run. We shouted ourselves hoarse for eighty-seven minutes against Derby, and yet our happiness was still dependent on getting a result in the game of roulette – for the goalie – that is a penalty. Joy unconfined when Jerzy saved the day (pun unintended) but I would have been suicidal had it gone in. It’s quite a change from the last few years when I would have been disappointed had the Reds made a hash of such a game, but I would have shrugged my shoulders and forgot about it. The stakes are so much higher now, and it’s difficult to cope.
There seem to be three ways of dealing with success. The first is not an option for Reds. When you are a middling club with middling expectations like Leicester, winning the odd cup or having an extended stay in the top half of the table is riches that would make the most decadent pharaoh blush. To their mind. But those who have supped at the top table can’t subsist on such thin gruel. That’s not selfishness, but we simply can’t make the mental adjustment necessary because our glory days are so relatively recent. To demonstrate the truth of this, we need look no further than the ground made of wood. One trophy in fourteen years – the reserve league doesn’t count! – a debt mountain that would dwarf the Himalayas, a succession of crappy players, countless relegation battles and three defeats in a row in their biannual cup final. Yet Evertonians still think that they can be great again, that aspiring to get into Europe is beneath them and that they will win European Cups. All they need is a new stadium, a philosophy which makes me congratulate myself for sending Luvvie Kenwright a copy of Field of Dreams a few years back. We can’t ever become like them, because…again, it doesn’t bear contemplating.
The second response to success is overweening, obnoxious arrogance. A quick trip up the M62 to the Salford School of Sleaze would show why that won’t work, not just for us but for anyone else without a lobotomy. Watching them crowing insufferably after whacking a few past Derby was instructive, coming only a few days after United We Stand reacted to yet another home defeat to rubbish opposition by refusing to publish a match report. In case you missed it, they had a poem! And what’s more, it neither mentioned the match, West Ham, Moan United or even football. With enemies like that, you don’t ever need a single ally, a concept that I happily follow through to its logical conclusion.
And then there is the Third Way, the Liverpool Way. Yep, that’s the one that involves being modest in victory and generous in defeat, but doesn’t involve having to be generous too much. Back in the glory days, I wasn’t obsessed enough with Liverpool to put these ideas in to practice. Hopefully I’ll get the chance during this World Cup summer as I bask in the post-Championship glow. Because yes, I obviously hope we do it. But in the meantime, I’ll be watching every game, heart beating faster than a mouse’s and my face performing more movements than an orchestra performing all the works of Mozart. If you have found the secret of remaining cool during the match while enjoying success every bit as much as anyone else, then please let me know. For both my physical and mental well-being.