Where Did It All Go Wrong?


We’ve all heard the story, but for the sake of a little scene-setting and to pad out the word count, let’s go over it again.

George Best returned to his five-star hotel room after a successful speaking engagement where he regaled the punters with tales of boozing, hammering Benfica, how modern football is rubbish and boozing. In one hand was Miss World. In the other, an envelope stuffed with crisp fivers. Pausing only to casually fling the envelope on the bed where the notes fanned out like confetti, Bestie ordered room service while Miss World retired to the bathroom to slip into something more ‘comfortable’. Presently the porter arrived with a bottle of champagne and the finest caviar money can buy. The man, a lifelong Manc (poor wretch), was giddy with excitement at meeting his hero. After basking in the Belfast boy’s glow, the man turned to survey the scene: champagne, caviar, more money than he’d ever seen in one place and Miss World appearing at the bathroom door in a dressing gown that had been strategically sawn in half. Seeing all this, the man couldn’t help himself. “George”, he inquired. “Where did it all go wrong?”

Best’s reply isn’t recorded, perhaps because it was a stupid question, perhaps because he had a vision of the pickled has-been he would become or perhaps because the whole thing is so obviously apocryphal. After all, it’s a little known fact that the primary criterion for selecting Miss World is being a Red. We know this because the current incumbent is daughter of die-hard Red and all-round loon, Chris de Burgh. So there’s no way any self-respecting Miss World would ever be caught in the same time zone as East Belfast’s favourite son (Ian Paisley excepted).

[The fact that no woman with any self-respect would ever be caught dead near the Miss World contest is neither here nor there. Oooh, I’ll have to edit this out later.]

Teams must progress every year; standing still is going backwards. Putting it in less abstract terms, perfection is winning every game without conceding a goal, so even if you’ve won a skipload of trophies and gone unbeaten in the league season, you can still theoretically improve. Applying this idea to the Reds, let’s wind back two years to Liverpool’s first appearance in new, improved, less compelling than when we won it repeatedly, Champions League. Ignoring our imperious 9-1 swatting-aside of Haka (although can you imagine us doing that now?), a brief look at the fortunes since of the teams we played that season is instructive . . .

Boavista: languishing in the nether regions of the Portuguese league at the moment, though having become only the fifth team EVER to win the title in Portugal the previous season, the only way was down.

Dynamo Kiev: continue to occupy that cursed position of former Soviet countries, flying out of the blocks in the early stages then running out of steam as the distance from the end of their regular season grows ever wider. Still, good enough this season to wallop Inter and come within a whisker of ousting Arsenal. Back then, we were good enough to beat them twice.

Borussia Dortmund: 2001-2 saw us squeeze the life out of them in our third home – Cardiff being our second home – in the Westfalstadion then run rings around them at Anfield, another truly splendid European night at the ground. They had the last laugh as they stole the German title from under Leverkusen’s nose (see below) that very season. So we were good enough to clobber the eventual German champions.

Barcelona: they’ve never reached the heights they did at Anfield that season – then again, neither has anyone else. Have basically sunk off the radar, languishing in mid-table obscurity and forlornly plodding through the Uefa Cup. Sounds familiar.

Galatasaray: see Barcelona. Gone through more managers than Spinal Tap have drummers.

Roma: swept away in the dam-burst of emotion on 19 March 2002. Many’s the club that has been ground down under such a beating, but have bounced back to the extent that they are bigging it up in Serie A.

Bayer Leverkusen: the Treble runners-up. Fell just short in their domestic league and cup, and the European Cup as well. Plummeted to the relegation zone last season, so got shot of their iconic manager – well, his Einsteinesque hair was certainly iconic. Now within sniffing distance of the top of the Bundesliga.

So. We’re worse off than four of those teams, and only definitively doing better than Boavista. We seem to occupy the same water-treading position as Barca and Gala, which is probably more depressing than comparing us with the excellence of the teams that are showing us how it’s meant to be done – if ever there were two clubs in Europe we don’t want to be bracketed with, it’s that pair.

It doesn’t get any more cheerful domestically. Forget about Chelsea, the world’s biggest / richest anomaly. Current speculation suggests that had we beaten them in the Champions League showdown last season, it would be us benefiting from Roman’s roubles. This is pure garbage (if garbage can ever said to be ‘pure’). Abramovich would have had to come up with ~£300 million to buy Liverpool rather than the £90 million for bad debts and a bag of magic beans that was needed to buy out Ken Bates. Try tracking down the disparate bunch that comprises Liverpool’s principal shareholders – how many people know who Steve Morgan is, let alone his telephone number? It’s not as if they’re in it for the money, the Liverpool principals. You only have to see how much they’ve shelled out over the last decade since football went supernova to work that out. Owning Liverpool is more an ego thing than a business proposition, which is in marked contrast to Chelsea where Ken Bates revelled in the metaphorical equivalent of rubbing your thumb and index finger together and shouting “loadsamoney!”, not that he had that. Then there’s the cachet of owning a club in the most fashionable area of one of Europe’s most fashionable cities – by far the most fashionable if you exclude those places where the sun shines 364 days a year. Roman Abramovich, with his billions and his blonde wife from Sveden was never going to buy into Liverpool. Pah, we didn’t want his money anyway, built on the back of a robber baronocracy. We have consciences, after all (do we? – Ed)

The failure of the last two seasons has not been dropping behind Chelsea. Besides, after the recent game at the Bridge we can rest assured that the tide is ebbing in our direction again. (The last sentence was brought to you by Volte Face Inc, providers of lines to gloss over unfortunate changes in events which might conceivably invalidate weeks of careful planning since Moses slipped on a banana skin and broke the tablets containing the Ten Commandments only to claim he did it deliberately). The real failure has been drifting so far out Man Utd and Arsenal’s slipstream that they’re in danger of lapping us, something that is really disturbing if you remember that this is a marathon and not a sprint. Revisionists will claim that they always knew that we were crap under Houllier, but this is to wilfully ignore the heights we scaled between 2000 and 2002. That glorious week in 2001 when we won the FA Cup, Uefa Cup and qualified for the Champions League was simply out of this world, and they followed it up the following season with a succession of stellar performances, not least some of those aforementioned European nights and an end-of-season run which saw us pick up 40 of the 45 points available, a run we hadn’t gone on since 1986 when we won the Double. To be at Anfield when we trashed Ipswich out of sight and packed Gary McAllister off to Coventry with the hysterical thanks of us all, that was to be present at the start of something special, the end of a beautiful beginning.

Instead, it was the beginning of the end. We had leapfrogged the Mancs, and could reasonably assume that they were going into reverse. There was still the little problem of Arsenal, so imperious that season in winning the league. But had we been told that, two years on, the only changes they would have wrought in their squad would be to swap a 39 year-old goalie for one in his early 30’s, the orders for champagne to arrive in Liverpool in early May 2003 would have had scalls running white wine through their Soda Stream to try and cash in on the expectation of the end of 13 years of hurt.

What really happened doesn’t bear thinking about, the traumas and slights we endured after losing to Middlesbrough. I’m not going to think about individual games – still trying to forget – and instead focus on the bald statistics. They’re horrific enough anyway. Even in 2001-2, our performances at Anfield were two points worse off than the Treble-winning season. Our away performances were a remarkable thirteen points better which accounted for the eleven point gain. So there was room for improvement at Anfield, of all places. Incredibly things got worse at the ground, dropping six points in 2002-3 over our performances the previous season, a fall of eight points from 2000-1. And (hope you’re sitting comfortably, although God knows why you’d be standing up while online) on a match-for-match comparison with last season, we are currently five points worse again this season at home than we were last year. The scale of ineptitude simply beggars belief.

What’s to de done then. I can’t subscribe to this idea that less is more, that we need to lose to the likes of Yeovil so that the bullet with Le Boss’s name on it is loaded into the barrel that bit quicker. The recent win over Villa was an exercise in drudgery. The fact that we couldn’t beat them (or Wolves, for that matter) out of sight was an abject example of our current failings. But we still left the ground smiling, all because we won. The whole point of the day was to come away smiling, something no amount of “at least that puts another nail in Houllier’s coffin” could ever match.

But there’s no getting away, unfortunately, from the failure of the current regime at Anfield. It’s galling to say it, not least because the I-told-you-so merchants will engage in orgy of I-told-you-so’s. Still, when Liverpool picked up that hat-trick of cups in 2001, I remember thinking that Gerard had bought himself two years in which to win the championship, i.e. he didn’t have to win it in 2002. Duly 2002 came along and no title, but never mind, it was going to come in 2003, guaranteed. This guarantee was about as useful as those you get from catalogue companies as we crashed and, er, burnt spectacularly.

We could endure it, we could give Gerard another year or two. I don’t see why we should have to though. Speaking to a noteworthy LFC-related personage before the Steaua Bucharest game (strictly off the record, of course), we both agreed that we were crap. There was no sense of recrimination, no desire to slit any wrists, least of all our own. We’re still Liverpool fans, after all, and we’d rather be the lowest Liverpudlian than the highest citizen of any other club – with apologies to every nationalist bigot that has ever lived.

Still, the flap surrounding Martin O’Neill has not dimmed my belief that he is The Man for the hot seat at Anfield, and Gerard needs to realise that he has had his chance and the time has come – for the good of the club, of course – for him to gracefully step aside – for the good of the club, of course. Some doubt O’Neill’s bona fides, seduced by the thought of appointing someone who understands ‘The Liverpool Way’. Looking at ex-Reds currently plying their trade in English football, Kevin Keegan and Graeme Souness are the most successful, and something gives me the feeling we won’t be turning to either of them any time soon. The next most successful former Red is Steve McMahon, giving it large with Blackpool on mid-table Division Two. So unless you have such insight into the future that you can spot a potential Chris Coleman waiting in the wings, forget about continuity.

Which brings us back to Mr O’Neill and his supposed lack of experience of a big club. Looking at his career curve, he dragged Wycombe up through two divisions, had a brief blip with Norwich, pushed Leicester to the heights of two League Cup victories and Europe then transformed Celtic into double Scottish title winners and Uefa Cup finalists, neither of which they had managed in decades. His career path is on a gentle but inexorable upward curve which could conceivably lead him to the Bernabeau. In the meantime, there’s one more step to be made, and if we don’t move fast, it could be to Old Trafford.

It’s been a rambling missive this time – God be with the good ol’ days when absence work pressure (or work, for that matter) permitted an article a week at a mere 1,500 words at a time. But in answer to the question so beloved of Georgie watchers, I haven’t a clue where it all went wrong. I know it has gone wrong though, and the time has come to look for answers somewhere else.