It is a very secure man / woman who never stops to ask what it’s all about. Why are we here? Where are we going? How do Jacobs get the figs into the Fig Rolls? And occasionally – very, VERY occasionally – an event takes place that makes you stop and think why it we bother with this slice of life that is Liverpool FC.
Actually, that’s not strictly true. When a razor-elbowed Scot is wreaking havoc in the Liverpool defence or people don’t return home from a football match, everyone stops and thinks, even the most fanatical of fans. You wonder whether you can switch it off, bring your rational self to bear on the situation, realise the impotency of your life and walk away from it all. People do it all the time in times of adversity and turmoil.
What doesn’t happen very often though is these questions in times of triumph. But that happened to me last season.
More on that anon. Let’s begin on a cheery note though (you mean you haven’t started? – James). Normally I don’t want the football season to start because I enjoy the bliss of not having the elevated heart rate, hot flushes and splitting headaches you get with following the Reds – if ever a woman tells you that you don’t know what it’s like to be pregnant, let them watch you watch a football match (in fact, I was temporarily banned from watching football this year, but more on that anon). The feeling was even stronger in 2005/6, but not for the usual reasons. This time last year, I was basking in the glory of being Champions of Europe and didn’t want the feeling to subside.
And what a feeling it has been. Banter, both online and in real life, was so easy. Like dangling a piece of ribbon over a hyperactive kitten, you’d let the poor creature think they’d won before yanking the whole thing away from them. No amount of well-reasoned argument on the part of Toffees, Mancs or whoever could live with nuclear option of being Champions of Europe. Whether it be typing * * * * * or coughing five times, it could not be beat. Some might say that it was too easy, that such behaviour was a cop-out. To which I refer you to that most pithy of philosophers, Conan the Barbarian, who said “the best feeling of all is to crush your enemies, to see them flee before you and to hear the lamentations of their womenfolk”. He might well have added (probably felt it went without saying) the sweet sound of grinding teeth and barely-suppressed whimpers of frustration as your (football) enemies fled before the relentless glory that was that night in May 2005. Truly we will never see its like again, and to have lived through it was an honour and a privilege.
What was even more remarkable was that, after an early season wobble when we needed Stevie Me to bail us out of utter European humiliation and goals were harder to come by than a magnanimous Evertonian, things got even better. There was the comedic solid gold of Everton’s European capers, then Peter Crouch contrived to score a goal, then the Reds went on a run of success that threatened to turn us into – whisper it – the Champions of England. History has a habit of downplaying runs of success which don’t end in, well, success, but for eleven games on the bounce before New Year’s we were in the blissful position of knowing that if we scored, even if it was in the first minute, we’d win the game. Benitez’s Valencia were known in Spain as ‘the crushing machine’ and the evidence that he was turning Liverpool into something similar was hard to dismiss. The strikers were still misfiring, but the midfield was doing such a stunning job of keeping the opposition penned into their own penalty area that it was almost impossible for a goal not to leak through their massed defence now and again. This run reached its apotheosis, spiritually if not statistically, with a pulverising of Everton at the Pit that took your breath away. Anyone who says now that they knew we’d stumble and drift infuriatingly away from the league title is either forgetful or a liar, because we really were that good.
Can any top manager – which Benitez most certainly is – ever have suffered such a wild oscillation of his fortunes in so short a time? In 2004/5 we had the European highs and the domestic lows (the latter usually being associated with Birmingham City, but more on that anon), last season we had a wobbly start where people felt he could / should be fired, then a barnstorming run where we threatened to conquer the world – even if Sao Paolo ensured we didn’t, but that really doesn’t feel like we missed out on much now. Then we had the post-New Year funk that cost us the Treble – all right, it was never very realistic, but retaining the European Cup looked almost a certainty at one point, which made the implosion against Benfica very hard to take indeed.
What went wrong? It seems we became just a wee bit too predictable. While it’s marvellous that any time we took the lead we knew we’d win, the nasty inverse of that law is that any time we went behind we knew we’d lose. Watching the quasi-hysterical manner in which the Reds chased the Benfica tie – my last match during my sojourn in Liverpool; knew I should have quit after the Man U game in the FA Cup – was chastening. Was this what Leverkusen looked like when we cut them to ribbons? It was no different in the league, where players like Thomas Myhre were made look like heroes by our powder-puff attack – it’s easy to look brilliant as a goalie when players shoot straight at you. It was after that fiasco against Charlton that Mrs deiseach banned yours truly from watching the match on the telly, so explosive was my heart rate for at least two hours after the final whistle. The signing of one Robert Fowler, while a PR coup that would have impressed Max Clifford, was a tacit admission that Rafa hadn’t a clue how to solve the problems up front. The crowing of the Evertonians was hard to take, and the nuclear option was being used plenty at this stage.
Thank God for the FA Cup, eh? The one game in that awful period when we got ahead and made it stick was against Man United, and with them and Arsenal out of the way, only Chelsea looked really threatening. Oh, and Birmingham, a team from whom Rafa has taken two points out of twelve in his time in England. So, returning to the third ‘more on that anon’ moment, walloping them on their patch felt like an exorcism. No danger of palpitations watching that game. Progress in the cup seemed to transmit confidence back to the league and with mid-table teams looking towards the summer holidays and the World Cup, points were soon being picked up with ease once again.
Last season saw a curious phenomenon emerge, that of the finishing line rushing up to us rather than stumbling over it. With seven or eight games remaining, I was still nervously looking at Arsenal and Spurs and dreading the prospect of finishing fifth. They were four, maybe five points behind and there was a marked absence of poultry addition taking place. Suddenly though, that race for third place was all over. We won a couple of games thanks to Fowler – mostly from tap-ins, but as his biggest fan, Mrs deiseach, sagely observed, the other strikers were struggling to put away the sitters – and the sweating of a few weeks earlier seemed absurd. Each victory had the double-whammy of moving us three points closer to our goal and stripping three away from the amount of points available for the others to catch up with us. It’s like the way pulling on one end of a tie makes the other end seem twice as short when you finally complete the knot – guess who has abandoned clip-ons after all these years, way-hay! It is, of course, an illusory double-whammy, but it certainly felt good to have a three-horse race turn into a leisurely canter in the space of a couple of furlongs.
And so on to the FA Cup and that first anon way back at the start. Beating Chelsea was sweet, and the embittered reaction of Mourinho only added to the delight. It was slightly irritating that it was West Ham we landed in the final. All the nonsense about Ron Greenwood and John Lyall made it difficult to enjoy the build-up. Much as with Emlyn Hughes the season before, fans should be disdainful of the notion that players should “do it for Ron / John / Crazy Horse” – they shouldn’t need any incentive to win a cup; if they did, ex-players would be nervously looking both ways as they crossed the street any time their old team got close to a cup final. And Middlesbrough showed against Sevilla that they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Still, I was confident of victory and the phrase “hiding to nothing” never entered my head. Who cares how they win as long as they win, eh?
Oh dear. Those associated with West Ham – who, it should be noted, took their defeat with more grace than anyone should be expected to muster – will be a tad miffed that anyone could complain after a victory, but the manner of Liverpool’s success gave plenty of food for thought. This was a victory, and a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, which are supposedly always the best ones (see: 2004/5 Champions League final). This time though, there was little joy, only relief that we were not about to become the only big team to lose to a bona fide minnow since Coventry nobbled Spurs in the last really great one-day cup final (Man U – Crystal Palace having gone to a replay). We’d even been ambushed by Wimbledon in the meantime.
It’s hard to put the post-match feeling into words. The game was one long horror show. As the game ticked into injury time, we’d scored two really good goals and had the only sustained periods of pressure in the game yet found ourselves behind. Anyone who says we were lucky should be locked in a room with a swarm of plague rats and Konchesky’s outrageously fluky goal on an endless loop. And we all know which of those two would be the worse.
I’ll get utterly stuffed for saying this, and deservedly so, but Gerrard’s outrageously brilliant goal left a slightly sour taste in the aftermath. It was, given the context, one of the best goals I’ve ever seen and could be added to his splendid pass for Cisse and an emphatic strike for his first goal which, on any other day, would have seen us gallop away to a 4-2 win, much like against Luton in the third round. But he was hardly the pick of Liverpool’s midfield on the day – Sissoko took that honour over the whole game – and the usual prattling about Liverpool being a one-man team was enough to put some more grey on my hair en route to falling out.
That’s all very churlish. I was stupendously grateful, Stevie, and it distracts from the real problem, which I’m still struggling to put into words. It was just horrible. I couldn’t recover a sense of equilibrium for days after the game, newspaper reports that are normally gorged upon were given a cursory glance, the Internet was avoided for fear of bringing back memories of the febrile atmosphere in my front room as the game wore on. And it all comes back to the idea that if I can’t really enjoy the victories – and we, as Liverpool fans, are among the top few percent of fortunate football fans – then why the hell should we bother?
The answer to that question is that the value of following a football team isn’t measured by the experiences of the last game. The FA Cup was very kind to us last season, whether it was that comeback against Luton, the first win in the cup over the Mancs since woolly mammoths roamed the earth, repeatedly slapping Steve Bruce upside his big fat head or sticking it to Chelsea once again. It was our best season in the league since 1988, which is pretty darn good by anyone’s standards. And there’s more than a faint sense of hope that it’s coming together, so much so that certain media whores are bigging up our chances in print. Sure, we’ve been here before on several occasions in the last decade-and-a-half, but just because we fell short then doesn’t mean we’ll fall short this time, and we are (just thought I’d mention it) in the post-Champions of Europe era, so we need fear no one or anything. All other things being equal, two defeats to Chelsea rather than two victories was the difference between finishing third and winning the damn thing. I like those odds, so bring it on. We’ve got leagues and cups to win!
Just don’t put us through an experience like the FA Cup final again. Please?