In a season replete with shocks, one stands out like a woolly mammoth sitting on a Van de Graaff generator. No, not Portsmouth meeting Cardiff in the ‘English’ FA Cup final. It’s the horrible truth that letting your hair grow to, well, woolly mammoth proportions has no material impact on Liverpool’s progress through the European Cup. As the follicles hit the floor in the days after losing to Chelsea, they came to resemble a pile of ashes, thus making a very appropriate metaphor for Liverpool’s season.
Not that we could have had high ambitions for the season.
While lying in my hospital bed back in early August, a fellow Liverpool fan who was given the ward booby prize of being stranded beside someone who hadn’t the energy to talk to anyone or do anything – although at least he didn’t have to worry about them being flatulent or stealing his Fig Rolls. Anyway, said Liverpool fan was convinced that a) Fernando Torres was going to be top scorer, and b) Liverpool were going to win the League.
The worst thing about looking back over those predictions is that his belief in b) flowed from his belief in a). Had someone assured him that a) was going to come true, or close enough that if Torres had been taken the penalties it would still be a live issue going into the final day of the season, then it would have been no great leap to assume that b) was going to come true, or close enough that it would be still be a live issue going into the final day of the season. And yet, b) is not the case, and rarely looked like it.
How could this be? We’ve been told for years that Liverpool were going nowhere until they secured the famed 20 goal a season striker. Along he comes, blowing us – and, more importantly, opposition defences – away with a string of spectacular goals. He even scored on the big occasions against Porto, Arsenal and Chelsea, thus negating any suggestions that he’s only any good at filling his boots against the likes of Derby. Factor in the now famous armband he wore for Athletico, an incident that spawned a chant so good that it had Anfield hopping for the visit of Reading – Reading! – and you surely have the recipe for success.
Yet here we are, one game to go and able to write a season review. For the first time under Rafa, we have nothing to play for going into the final game of the season. Defeat to Chelsea in the European Cup semi-final was not a source of bitterness. The players fought the good fight, battling back from a position of self-inflicted adversity and went down with all guns blazing, a stark contrast to Barcelona’s spineless capitulation to Man Utd the night before. To go toe-to-toe with a stronger team three times and come out ahead twice is a decent return, so there was no disgrace. What the result left was . . . nothing. A case of going from sixty to nought in the length of time it took for the referee to blow the final whistle at Stamford Bridge.
Economists can see trends of boom and bust in the post-Second World War developed world, and it is the Holy Grail of the dismal science to be able to discern a pattern from these cycles, the so-called Kondratieff cycle. Liverpool have had several booms and several busts under Rafael Benitez. The team can go eleven wins on the bounce, conceding one goal along the way, yet can go five league games without a win like they did at one point this season and looking nothing like a team going to win any more games outside of against nobodies in the FA Cup. A long term trend may be emerging, and it’s not a pretty one. Fifth, third, third, fourth. This season, depending on results at the weekend, we are 8-14 points ahead of fifth place but 7-13 points adrift of Arsenal.
Ah, Arsenal. Back in August when in my sick bed, about the only thing that could have stirred me from my torpor would have been the idea that Arsenal could finish ahead of us. Even if Torres only proved to be a ten goal a season striker, i.e. a failure, that would still represent an improvement on what we had before. There was no way Arsenal, having sunk all their cash into their stadium, were going to be able to compete with a team able to land the likes of Torres and Babel. If you stand still in football you end up going backwards, and Arsenal had lost Henry so there was no chance they could even stand still. Arsene Wenger’s season plan came apart at the end as injuries and tiredness took their toll – twenty minutes into their match against the Reds at Anfield in the European Cup as they tore us apart, I consoled myself with the thought that there was no way they could sustain that level of intensity for ninety minutes; for once, I was right – but they are a good 15-20 points up on their performance last season. When you look at the amounts they spent relative to the likes of Portsmouth, Man City, West Ham and even Everton, this was miraculous. It also put Liverpool’s efforts into context.
Looking back through that rant, it’s been a bleak season. It hasn’t been all bad though. We’ve had to some wonderful wins to set off against the dismal defeats. Winning the European Cup in 2005 means that a run through Europe doesn’t have the Sisyphean trauma that it did for, say, Valencia back at the start of the decade whose each step closer to the ultimate prize was marked by a sense of hysteria at the possibility of failure. For us, those wins over Besiktas, Porto, Marseilles and Inter could be enjoyed on their own merits because you could be confident at the time that they were going to be part of something special. The fact that it didn’t work out that way doesn’t invalidate the contemporaneous joy. Then there was Arsenal.
Ah, Arsenal. A Spurs fan who posts on another Internet forum went to the match at Anfield. This particular character may hate Arsenal, much as Evertonians hate Liverpool, but he has a peculiar hatred of Liverpool too, making a comment several years ago that Liverpool fans killed their own at Hillsborough, looted the bodies, urinated on policemen etc. When many irate people pointed out the error of his ways, he simply retreated behind the notion that the Taylor report was a cover-up, making it the first report in the history of the universe to take the side of the masses over the classes. This character then was not predisposed to say nice things about Liverpool, which gives his comments that the atmosphere that night at Anfield was “arguably the most fanatical I have ever experienced” the unmistakeable ring of truth. Watching it on the telly and reading about it afterwards, the best that could be said is that it made the top ten of Great European Nights at Anfield, at best. The atmosphere at the start wasn’t amazing, especially when Arsenal were running rings around the Reds. That would still make it the best atmosphere anywhere in football since, well, last season’s semi-final against Chelsea. Unusually, it was the team that ignited the crowd, Hyypia’s intervention completely against the run of play and Torres’ goal of preposterous precociousness leaving everyone gasping. And it was just one of those games that delight even the most hardened cynic about football, whether they be tired of the modern game or not like football in the first place. Being able to enjoy the last couple of minutes was a rare pleasure as well, one for which my heart was profoundly grateful.
The league wasn’t all bad either. The team finished the season superbly, putting together a great run of form just when everything looked like it was going completely to pot after the astonishing implosion against Barnsley, a game they not only lost but deserved to lose. We may have dropped a place in the league but that can be traded off against an 11/12/14 point improvement on last season, which suggest there might be something to build on next season (whether Rafa can do it or will even be allowed do it, we’ll get back to). They broke even against Chelsea and Arsenal, and might have done better but for the worst refereeing decision of the season – and yes, we got a few dodgy decisions ourselves, but all of them could be justified by the ref seeing it wrong in the heat of the moment; how Rob Styles saw that as a penalty at the time is anyone’s guess. While our performances against Man Utd continue to frustrate, these can be partly offset by wins home and away in the derbies, the former enjoyable for as wimpy a performance as the Toffees have managed in living memory and the latter for just about everything going our way and inducing collective apoplexy in the streets of Kirkby. Don’t you just love it? Finally on the credit side of the ledger, there is Torres. There are not enough bytes in cyberspace to emphasis how superlative he has been, so here is one I prepared earlier.
Looked at in isolation, it’s been a mixed season. Except no team is an island, and it’s impossible to look at Liverpool’s season without reference to the shenanigans at board level. Before the Anfield match against Everton, Mark O’Brien of WSAG wrote the ifithadinabinfor article that habitually accompanies these events – if that sounds a bit scornful, let us genuflect at the altar of the best metaphor of the year, where Mr O’Brien refers to “the Kopite capacity to deify a dog turd if its been trampled through the bootroom”. It’s funny because it’s true. He refers to the boardroom battles at Anfield and how they had reduced LFC to a pitiable laughing stock. At the time, I felt well able to snort derisively at such a comment. Sure, we had our problems, and the spectacle of Anfield engaging in the kind of Sack The Board stuff once the reserve of joke clubs was more than a little irritating. But it was rather rich for the fan of a club who once had Agent Johnson as their owner and now had Luvvie Kenwright bringing all the glamour of Blood Brothers at the Playhouse Theatre to the Pit to be scoffing at our boardroom foibles. Then Tom Hicks demanded that Rick Parry resign and any illusion that Liverpool’s troubles were akin to teething problems came apart like follicles under an electric clippers. The absurdity of the owner publicly demanding an employee resign was a humiliation too far. Who knows what indignities will be visited on our grand old club before the folly of the Gillett / Hicks junta is brought to an end. For end it must, something even they would acknowledge. But the form of the post-American club and the path to take to get there is a complete unknown. Any scenario can be entertained ranging from the al Maktoum’s buying Mutt and Jeff out and lavishing riches upon us beyond the dreams of avarice to Gillett and Hicks plundering the club and leaving a Wimbledon-like shell behind, and all points in between.
It is the uncertainty that hurts. Winning the European Cup would have given us something to hold on to, so when the curtain came down on the European run and with it the season, all we had left to look forward to was a club bobbing around on the tide of history like a piece of cork. We’ll wash up on some shore eventually. But where we’ll go in the meantime . . .