There have been many false dawns in the eighteen seasons since the Reds last laid claim to the League title. Would we have won the League in 1992 but for the injuries that plagued an ageing team? Twenty games without defeat in 1996 conspired to raise hopes that were dashed against the rock of the White Suits final, a match that should not be noted in infamy for any sartorial folly but for the bloated waistlines brought on by a leisurely stroll though the last few games of the league campaign as the title receded and players avoided injuries. In 1997 the Reds were top at the New Year and led 1-0 against Coventry with six games to go. Had they held on that day, they would have gone top. Instead, they were beaten by the Gary McAllister-inspired Sky Blues and suffered the ignominy of finishing fourth on goal difference behind Newcastle and Arsenal. In 2002 we won thirteen and drew one of our last fifteen matches. Unfortunately Arsenal won fourteen and drew one of their last fifteen. Some might have been sufficiently jaundiced not to extract too much optimism from any / all of the above positions, but it’s impossible for the rest of us not to get carried away by even the merest hint of winning the League – and there was more than a hint in any / all of the above.
Perhaps the cruellest taunts of that period were those that raised the possibility that the Evil Empire that is Manchester United was about to fall and be buried in so much Ozymanidian sand. When Alex ‘Demento‘ Ferguson, the greatest manager of this generation – yeah, I said it – announced his intention to resign back in 2002, it was a source of much rejoicing. It didn’t happen, but in the five seasons between 2001 and 2006 they won one League title, hardly the stuff upon which legends are built. When the Glazers came along like an impersonation of Mom, Walt, Larry and Ignar from Futurama it seemed like they were vanish up the collective backside of the clowns who flounced off to form FC United of Manchester. Yet here we are, suffering under the yoke of them being the first club to successfully defend the League having won a hat-trick of titles sometime in the past – it’s a crummy trivia question, but somehow still manages to hurt.
It can get worse though, much worse come Wednesday night. My wife, good Red that she is, is torn as to whether to root for the Mancs or the Chavs. On the one hand, the Mancs are, well, the Mancs. On the other hand, as a veteran of our two European Cup wins over Chelsea and an enthusiastic singer of “F*** off Chelsea FC / You’ve got no history . . .”, she finds it hard to see someone new muscle in on Liverpool’s territory. Man Utd have won leagues and even European Cups in the recent past and we’ve coped. Chelsea joining us at the summit might lower the tone to the point of no return.
It’s not an opinion I share though. With Man U’s 17th League title under their belt, the gap between them and us domestically is tight. While in terms of numbers we are still ahead, not all trophies are equal. Their eleven FA Cups and two League Cups is probably worth more than our seven FA Cups and seven League Cups. Let’s assume for the sake of argument – not that we want to ‘argue’, fellow Red – that a League Cup is worth one point, an FA Cup worth two and a League title four points, i.e. an FA Cup is worth twice a League Cup and a League worth twice an FA Cup. That would leave them with 92 points and us with 93 points. Yep, perilously tight.
Even if some Manc hack was to come up with a metric that weighted success in such a way that they came out ahead, a decisive tiebreaker would be Europe. Our five European Cups and three Uefa Cups easily trump their two European Cups and one European Cup Winners Cup. Factor in that the ECWC was never very impressive despite being technically superior to the Uefa Cup – continental teams don’t take their cup competitions seriously leading to some God-awful representatives, and Uefa eventually put the competition out of the misery of having been won by the likes of West Ham and Man City – and we stomp all over Man Utd’s European record.
Every which way you turn it, Liverpool’s European performances make other teams Blue with envy. Even during the disappointments of the last two decades, Europe has been the supreme consolation. With the ECWC no longer available to provide English teams with soft European gongs, they’ve had to wade through the more robust fields of the European Cup and the Uefa Cup, and come up short. Since the oh-so-convenient cut-off point of the beginning of the 21st century, only one British team has won any European trophies, and Liverpool have won four. Think about it. One of our wins in the Super Cup, a souped-up Community Shield, is one more European win than every other team in Britain put together has managed in the Noughties. Watching Rangers stink the place up against Zenit St Petersburg, it was easy to preen ourselves at how much we have offered to European football compared to the rest of the island.
Alas, that proud record will end Wednesday. In the absence of hoping the English team loses to keep our bragging rights intact, it has to be issues closer to home that dominate. And no issue can be more piquant than our status viz. Man Utd. So come on Chelsea, put the lessons you learned in finally being able to overcome the mightiest British club to ever stride the playing fields of Europe and win the thing. You’ll be ever so glad you did.