Summer of Sham

It is good that I am well-rounded, urbane, Renaissance Man-type figure. Okay, I’m not, but a wide range of unhealthy and usually stress-inducing pastimes form the totality of the entity known to Shankly users as deiseach, thus when one of these interests splutters and chokes like an asthmatic standing outside a Dublin pub, there’s usually something else that picks up the slack, another pursuit to which energy can be diverted when the main interest begins to look a bit unhealthy. And you’ll never guess which interest has driven me mad this summer…

Ah, but let’s dwell on the positive first. In over 4½ years ‘working’ for this site, I’ve strived to keep my personal life out of the column – note this does not imply a commitment to avoiding the first person singular; there’s been more me me me than in a rehearsal for The Sound of Music. There’s not been much about the ups and downs in my life. The anal nature of some of the columns in the British and Irish media are breathtaking in their self-indulgence. Stuck for something to write about? Tell everyone about your incredible life. Private Eye has recently taken to satirising a writer in The Times called Mary Ann Sieghart, who never tires of telling us all how brilliant her daughter is. Never was a p*ss-take more deserved, but she’s not alone in her devotion to dissecting her own life, as if it’s the least bit interesting to anyone who doesn’t know her. I like to think that I’ve avoided that particular pitfall, and few know anything about me removed from being an Irishman who follows the Reds.

Having established that rule, it is now okay to break it – that’s the way it works; once you pompously establish the principle, any deviation from it can be justified by reference to the rule. Don’t you just love circular arguments? Anyway, this summer saw the culmination of something that was set in motion on that heady night in 2002 when we defeated Roma in the Champions League. That was a night when magic was in the air, and some of it spilled over onto my furrowed brow. In short, love blossomed in Liverpool that night.

We all have, whether we care to acknowledge it, certain minimum requirements from someone if they are to become our partner-in-life. But I doubt if any of the male of the species anticipates finding a woman who not only shares a passion for your football team, but actually outstrips you. I’m not trying to be funny (for the uninitiated, this is a Scouse phrase which not only means the comment is going to be anything but funny, it also warns the listener that it could be downright nasty), but the median woman is almost entirely, indeed gleefully, ignorant of football. Worse that that, many that do profess to liking football do so because they think Player X is a total dreamboat, ohmigod look at the legs on HIM! The man who insists that his woman love not only football but also your team, and actually knows what she’s on about, is going to end his days alone.

Yet here I am, married to a lifelong, knowledgeable and utterly fanatical Red. In a turn of fate that would have been dismissed as too fanciful by Jane Austen, it all started that night against Roma. Events couldn’t have been more romantic had we met in Rome on the Spanish Steps, and the warmth of the post-marital glow distracts from the irritation of Liverpool’s failings this summer.

So if you’ve lasted this far, then you’re probably battle-hardened enough for the piece of iconoclasm that is about to follow, the whole thing that I have been happy for lurve to distract me from. For I am exceedingly vexed with Mr Steven Gerrard and his antics over the course of this summer. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that unless Liverpool win the title this season, we will bitterly regret not telling him to shove his ‘loyalty’ up his high moral ground.

Thoughts like that will make you appreciate why it’s been good to have distractions from the everyday routine of following the Reds. I can understand why there was such venom when Steven Gerrard seemed like he was on his way to the sahf London Kremlin, but I can’t understand why there was near-universal rejoicing when he decided to stay. Hopefully no one would be so dense as to believe that he never planned to take the Moscow gold.

About the only gratifying thing to come out of the whole sorry affair was the rumour that Roman Abramovich completely lost the head when he heard of Steven Gerrard’s treachery. For that was the real treachery, not his flirting with Chelsea in the first place. It is perfectly acceptable to tap up players and management in this day and age – if you think Rafael Benitez and Liverpool stayed in glorious isolation from each other until two weeks after he left Valencia, then I have some fine three pound notes to sell to you (“Hello Rafe, it’s Rick Parry, I’m the Chief Executive of Liverpool FC”. “Hello Rick, thank goodness you phoned because I’m at a bit of a loose end having handed in my resignation to the Valencia president”. “Well, what a coincidence, I was only phoning to ask you how you were, but it just so happens that we have a vacancy that might be right up your street…”). With that in mind, Chelsea were entitled to pursue Gerrard and he, as a professional footballer who wants to maximise his earnings and career potential, was entitled to entertain their overtures. Whatever his motivation, he promised them he’d go, we’d get our ~£30 million and that should have been that.

Except it wasn’t, because he changed his mind. Again, he’s entitled to do that. But the spectacle of him appearing with Rick Parry looking like a naughty schoolboy apologising to Mr Chips for setting fire to his mortar board brought the hypocrisy embedded in football to new heights – or lows, if you prefer. Jaded hacks, looking for a new angle to fill all those empty column acres, seized upon any story that didn’t involve making up transfer rumours. Local boy stays loyal! Someone in football not motivated by money! Cocking a snook at Roman’s legion! It had everything, from an international flavour to the human-interest side which could be filed on the news beside stories of otter’s rescuing babies from the raging river.

Pity it was crap. Think about it – if he really was all the things that have been said about him, would he have considered moving to Chelsea? Even if we put a charitable interpretation on his actions, that he had a rush of blood to the head and regretted it almost instantly, the person described in all the stories would never leave Liverpool even if our decline continues or, worse still, accelerates. Does anyone believe that? I certainly don’t. Worst of all, any dip in the incredible standards he set for himself last year will inevitably lead to mutterings from the Kop that his heart is in London and that we should have taken the Chelsea lucre while it still had value.

When will people finally acknowledge that we don’t want passion or pride in the jersey or loyalty or expressions of love for the city/fans or any of that bunkum? We love the club, much as we love our wives (some people by a hell of a lot more than their wives) while the players get paid for services rendered, services which do not require them to provide any of the above. We want them to play brilliantly on the field and win us stacks of trophies. It wouldn’t matter if they were the moodiest gets who ever laced up a pair of boots. Ask the Bluenoses about their attitude to Neville Southall and you’ll see that having a total charm bypass won’t prevent you being considered a legend at the club. Meanwhile, we all guffawed at Mad Erik Meier’s exploits in red, but every one of us would recoil in horror if it were announced that he were coming back to play – although he’d be worth having to play in the half-time penalty shoot-out. Just do your job – prevent goals, create goals, score goals – and you’ll be a star. Expressions of devotion from footballers are simply unbelievable these days, if they were ever believable in the first place.

As stated earlier, there is one solution to the Gerrard issue – win the title, although we’d probably settle for the European Cup. But since the euphoria of bagging Benitez, frustration has set in. It’s not so much the lack of movement in – it doesn’t look like we’ve been rebuffed by anyone of importance – as the lack of the movement out. The wage bill, the second highest in the Premiership after Chelsea (is there any conversation you can have in football nowadays without some reference to them?) needs trimming, even if we have to write off a half-dozen multi-million pound signings as bad debts. But none of them want to leave! This is not that surprising. Phil Babb began the custom of playing in the reserves for a fat wage then moving on for a lucrative free transfer at the end of his contract, Bernard Diomede carried it on and now there are several at it who shall remain nameless for fear of breaking libel laws – no doubt they want to “stay and fight for their place” but how many of them would get the message if Benitez told them that no amount of punches thrown would make him pick them?

The momentum accumulated by the appointment of Senor Benitez has dissipated like goodwill to Tony Blair. It was a truly splendid capture, bagging Spain’s most prized manager. The notion that we were suitably heavyweight to secure his services was as gratifying as it was unexpected. Yet less than four weeks to the start of the season, less than that to the deadline for eligibility for the Champions League, yet we already plucking at the straws like “hopefully Harry Kewell will come good” or “hopefully Cisse will be hotter than Hades”. Hope – we’ve all got it at the start of the season because we all start at zero. Forgive me if I wallow in the certitude of my domestic bliss.

It doesn’t stop me hoping though. When I started this, I was certain of my contempt for the whole process, the levels of anger too overwhelming to be anything other than resentful that the season was coming. Then you begin to think that one of our two goalies, both outstanding at some point of their careers, one of them will come good under Benitez. The defence will return to the iron solidity of a few years ago under Benitez. Gerrard WILL carry on the form of last season, even going so far as to improve on it, dispelling the concerns of the doubters (bastards) under Benitez. Owen will return to form under Benitez, Baros will carry over his Golden Boot winner form to Anfield under Benitez, Cisse will be as gigantic on the field as off it under Benitez. Under Benitez, it will all come good, and those of us who thought otherwise will be ridiculed. Yeah, maybe hope isn’t so bad after all.

All has changed, changed utterly. Let’s hope this applies as well to my football life as it has done to my personal life.