“Normal service is resumed!” So said one of the managers in work after Liverpool’s thrilling demolition of the evil legions of Joe Royle, of whom it is indeed written that he has a big fat head. Yep, we showed them who was boss all right.
Ah, enough of the sarcasm. Sneering at the Worthington Cup is easier than finding ugly teenage footballers at the Pit. The League Cup, in all its diverse guises, was never a particularly compelling competition, but the snivelling contempt in which it is now held can be traced back to about ten years ago, when Demento Ferguson fielded a scratch team against Port Vale. Up until that point, the FA had periodically banged the drum for the notion that teams would be punished for fielding deliberately weakened teams, and rightly so. But due to the rank cowardice of the mandarins at Lancaster Gate and the uncomfortable fact that the Mancs actually won the game, they let this blatant example of the genre slide. This gave new life to the sport of League Cup bashing. Where before it was enough to say “it’s only the League/Milk/Littlewoods/Rumbelows/Coca-Cola/Worthington Cup” after you had been knocked out, it wouldn’t be long before teams were falling over themselves to emulate Man U and field weakened sides, topped off last season by the farcical sight of Bolton fielding a weakened team and being walloped 6-0 by Spurs. As if Bolton could afford to sneer at the Worthington Cup, seeing as the reports of their most recent trophy success were written on papyrus.
No, this Red remembers the horrors of going six years without winning a single trophy, although a Bolton fan might consider two cups in six years to be greedy. So when Diouf knocked in that winning penalty, the cheer that went up in Anfield was completely justified, and not just because we now had five players who we knew could take a penalty – Michael Owen, take note.
There was plenty to take from the Ipswich game – and this is even after the Charlton debacle. Watching – and winning – a penalty shoot-out is immensely entertaining, and somehow knowing that Jamie Carragher was going to bury his peno brought a smile to many a face. Beating Joe Royle . . . no more need be said about that, except to remind you that he does have a big fat head.
Then there was the whole Jerzy Dudek affair. I’m certain I’m not alone in being bemused by all the fuss generated after the game about how wonderful we were to him and how he didn’t expect it and how touching it was and all that jazz. I mean, what did he and Chris Bascombe expect? Even those with very short memories will vaguely remember various recent acts of heroism, such as his extraordinary save from Gustavo Poyet against Spurs. – I nearly had to be wheeled away in a trolley after that one. Perhaps he might have been jeered at another club, but not at Liverpool. I’m certain Dudek will be back before long, and it was great to be able to show that we still rate him and adore him, in spite of recent clangers.
The most important thing about Ipswich was simply to get that winning feeling again, even if only via the pseudo-victory that is a penalty shoot-out. When Liverpool won seven Premiership games on the trot, there was always a feeling that we were winning because we felt we could win every game, and other teams were struggling to puncture that veneer of invincibility. Defeat to Middlesbrough cracked that veneer, and the calamitous first half against Basle shattered it entirely. Sunderland were hardly the first team to come to Anfield and put eleven men behind the ball, but they were the first to play like they would get away with it. There was no sense from the Reds that they were going to nick it like they had against Chelsea and Spurs. This was just the opportune moment for the Scum came to town.
Everything went swimmingly for 45 minutes. Aided by the fact that this was easily the worst Manchester United team to play at Anfield in the history of the Premiership, packed with journeymen like Fortune and (groan) Forlan, Liverpool looked well in charge at half-time, even if we hadn’t exactly battered them. Seated in my all-seeing perch in the Lower Centenary, I was confident that victory would be ours. With Everton and Man Utd being the marquee games of the league season, I was pleasantly chuffed at the notion that my record attending those games would be played four, won three, drew one, lost none.
Ten minutes into the second half, I knew we were screwed. Our midfield was being overrun by the Mancs, and every attempt to launch an attack foundered on the necessity to simply get rid of the danger as soon as possible. Astonishing as Jerzy’s horror show was, there was a sense of grim inevitability about their lead goal, and a kind of cosmic comedy to the fact that Forlan was the man to benefit from it. He had been dire up until that point, and I don’t feel embarrassed to confess that as he lined up his shot, I was convinced he would miss.
As mentioned previously (see: Exiled in the Kemmy), the location of my seat afforded a perfect view of the incident, and I didn’t need a replay to know that Jerzy had dropped the baby right on its skull. People were still insisting by Wednesday night that Carragher bore some of the responsibility for daring to head the ball back in that position. This is complete bunkum, and a lame effort to blame the easily maligned Carragher ahead of the previously invincible Dudek. There are certain rules of defending which are cast in stone, such as “don’t play it across your own goal” or “don’t let it bounce” (a rule Jamie ignored against Basle, with disastrous long term results). But there is no such prohibition on heading the ball back to the goalie. The only rule there is “get it right”, which is exactly what he did. He couldn’t have been more precise if he had picked the ball up and handed it to the goalie. So when Jerzy let it slide through his arms like a football-sized bar of soap, the responsibility for what happened subsequently was his and his alone.
It could have been worse. Unfortunately a few minutes later it got much, much worse. Had it been 0-0, there is no doubt in my mind that the Uruguayan bungler would have made a hash of the second chance presented to him. But with Dudek now feeling mortal in the Liverpool goal and Forlan thinking he was fantastic because he had demonstrated that he could indeed hit a cows arse with a banjo, the shot managed to squeeze in at the near post and forty thousand people wished the ground would open up and swallow the stadium whole.
In fact, the lad sitting beside me got up after the first goal and didn’t return. No further comment is necessary on that one.
The worst thing about going two goals down to Man Ure at home was the onset of doubt about the current Liverpool. Much ink has been spilled / bytes compiled to denounce certain individuals currently plying their wares at our club, the upshot being if we only got shot of Heskey / Murphy / Traore / Smicer / Owen (!), we’d win the lot. But when you see the entire team floundering like a beached whale against the most mediocre Man Utd side since the days when Thatcher ruined this land, you can’t help but feel that something more fundamental is wrong.
It’s ridiculous of course. Had Hamann’s thunderous effort being pushed under the bar by Barthez rather than onto it, we’d have been crowing at the resilience of our team and winding the Mancs up like those old Evil Keneval dolls. But destiny turns on such moments. When Thierry Henry missed the chance to put Arsenal two up in the 2001 FA Cup final, he opened the door barely an inch wide, which was enough to allow Michael Owen to boot it down. Over the course of four years, moments like that will even themselves out and it’s up to you to be good enough to overcome them or capitalise on them. Had we taken seven points out of nine against ‘Boro, Sunderland and Fulham, we’d have been able to shrug our shoulders at the missed opportunity. We only took one point in those three games though, and when you add in the euros lost in Europe, the only shrugging being done will be to remove the stress-induced knots in your shoulders.
Think of it this way. Can you imagine what things would have been like had we been knocked out by Ipswich – and apart from one only marginally dodgy penalty, Ipswich gave as good as they got. Can you imagine having to endure Joe Royle’s gigantic overweight cranium filling our screens, revelling in our misery? Can you imagine how intolerable life would have been had Everton clung on to beat Newcastle, elevating them above us at this stage of the season for the first time in such a long time that even metaphors about the Stone Age seem inadequate? Things could well have been worse, but the idea of how close we sailed to them being worse sends a shiver down the spine. The Charlton defeat has made things much worse, but we’ll hang on to whatever trophy is going, ta very much.
Let’s keep it cheerful though. No one – least of all me – is suggesting the nuclear option, an option so dastardly after all these happy years that I can’t even articulate it yet. And through it all, remember this: I’d rather experience the misery of being a Red last Sunday week than the joy of the thousands of living dead that sat in the Main Stand side of the Lower Anny Road. We are Liverpool, and for that we can be forever grateful.