It is appropriate in the week when the retirement of one Red around whom the cult of the personality is all pervasive – in case that reference is a bit obscure, I’m referring to Fidel Castro – to address the issue of the head of steam that is building up around the lionising, nay, worship, of another Red. When Robbie Fowler left Anfield for the first time, he took a little piece of me with him, specifically the piece that hero-worshipped men who played well for Liverpool. Admittedly it was a slightly shop-soiled piece of me. All of three picoseconds were spent pondering the hypocrisy of cheering for Paul Ince when he was signed by Liverpool, having previously expressed a fervent wish that the Kray twins would take offence at someone misusing the name of the Guv’nor – although they’d be sure to shake ‘im by the ‘and before they nailed ‘im to a pool table, only evah murdered their own Gawd bless ‘em. When Fowler, in whom I had invested so much time, effort and, most importantly, hope, decided that his future was better served at a different club, the notion that players could be more than simply very good servants went with him. When Steven Gerrard’s media boosters made a virtue of his loyalty despite his blatant flirtation with Chelsea, the overwhelming emotion was that I didn’t want that piece of my life back, a piece so treacherous that the Bee Gees could have written a song about it to be performed by Dionne Warwick.
But the viper is back in the form of Fernando Torres.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. When he first signed for Liverpool, the only true pleasure to be had was the wallet-busting nature of the transaction. Having faffed around in the low teens of millions on previous efforts at solving our goal-scoring difficulties with the likes of Diouf, Cisse and (gulp) Kuyt, it was satisfying to see the Americans unleashing the almighty dollar. Whether he was any good was secondary to their statement of intent. And the evidence as to whether he was any good was mixed. He was rated highly enough, but the patchiness of his goalscoring record with Atletico allied to Spain’s routinely inept performances in major championships meant the jury couldn’t be anything other than out.
(It is to Rafa’s credit that he plumped for Torres, and I say that as someone who thinks he should be preparing for an extra long siesta this autumn. People laying into him for his shambolic signing policy leave Torres out of the list of good signings, conveniently forgetting that he was seen as a risk at the time.)
Early indicators continued to bemuse. The manner in which he ripped past Ben Haim from a standing start for his first Liverpool goal against Chelsea stood in stark contrast to the string of club-footed misses away to Sunderland. There were fleeting suggestions that we were less of a force without him than with him, such as the puny effort against Birmingham, but nothing too concrete.
It was, typically for Benitez’s Liverpool, in Europe that the man became to resemble a deity. The explosion that tore through Anfield when his deft drop of the shoulder and razor sharp finish finally broke Porto’s resistance in the second of those three must-win games can be set alongside Gerrard’s goal against Olympiakos as a picture postcard moment for a player. Teams under Rafa have often buckled under the strain of holding back a rampaging midfield but rarely, if ever, have they been overcome by virtuosity.
Then came a moment that still sends a shiver down my spine, as he left multiple Marseilles defenders for dead to put us 2-0 up in the last must-win game. It wasn’t as good a goal as my hysterical bound around the living room suggested; the ineptness of the Marseilles attempt to prevent the goal was brought home at half-time by the sight of one of players in front of him raising his arm for offside. But you could conceivably say that the players were bamboozled by a player who performs actions that defenders only see in their worst nightmares: someone who can perfectly combine speed and ball control. The sheer audacity of the run and finish was a joy to behold, one that we didn’t even witness when Fowler and Owen were in their pomp.
The important thing about Torres is that in a year which promised little and delivered even less, we have hope for the future. Those games which used to have ‘goalless’ written all over them will have to carry the caveat ‘as long as Torres doesn’t do something outrageously precocious’. Does all of this amount to hero-worshipping in the Fowler mould? Probably not. I’m too old and grizzled to fall for that one again. It’s great to see one of our players as unequivocally one of the best around though, and after all the dross that has trotted through our gate in recent years, I’ll settle for that.