It’s been the best of the seasons and the worst of seasons and back to the best again. Twice we embarked on runs where we looked invincible, the first showing a doughty never-say-die spirit in just about every game and the second saw us not even giving chances to teams as they were swept away by an avalanche of goals. In between, we had a run where you began to wonder would we ever win a game. Happy were the days when I thought schizophrenia was a condition of having a split personality as I could have described the Reds as being schizophrenic. As it is, we’ll have to settle for the much less pithy observation that it was like the Reds had a split personality.
The most remarkable thing about the Reds’ season was the grin smeared across Ray Houghton’s features on RTÉ mere moments after Benayoun’s last gasp winner against Fulham. Almost as remarkable is the way Robbie Keane has faded from the collective memory. Loath and all as I am to say ‘I told you so’, I did say we had “picked up a player past his peak, and paid top dollar for the privilege“. Keane hasn’t pulled up any trees since returning to White Hart Lane, where despite taking penalties he hasn’t managed many more goals per game than he did at Anfield. It’s nothing to be happy about, but it’s an immense relief. Having bragged about knowing he was a dud, now is the time to shamefacedly admit that I would have clung on to him, pathetically hoping that he would ‘come good’ in much the same manner I had hoped that Dean Saunders and Nigel Clough might come good (ask your grandparents). This would have been the easy way out for Rafa, so it is to his tremendous credit that he took the £3.5 million hit then rather than the £10-15 million one we’d be taking if we were trying to offload him now.
(Going off on a tangent, am I the only one irked by the self-conscious way in which players won’t celebrate when they score against their former club? I remember Gary Mac refused to do it when he scored the goal in 2001 that effectively relegated Coventry. You’re a professional, man. Either celebrate them all or celebrate none of them, these attempts at empathy with your former fans don’t wash. Okay, I’m the only one.)
Before choking on my own gloating, it should be noted that I got the other transfer saga of the summer of 2008 mostly wrong. Although you wouldn’t be able to tell from that link, any ruminations on the status of Gareth Barry were coloured by the notion that the time had come to move Xabi Alonso along. He’d gotten stale, and the £10 million figures being bandied around at a time when the football transfer market looked like it was about to tank with everything else in the global economy seemed like good business. With that, Alonso puts in what is probably his best season at Anfield and now figures of £20 million are being bandied around which looks like a terrible deal. Things could be worse: we might be linked with Barry again . . .
So it was the best / worst / best of seasons. Despite the lurking horror that was the Keane saga, and a flirtation with disaster in the Champions League that we will be mercifully spared in 2009/10, we really flew out of the blocks. Of all the cliches that people can point to about success, usually after the fact, two stand out: the notion that you can play badly and win, and putting together a championship winning run at a crucial stage of the season. We had both this year as the season started off with some tremendous comebacks in matches we probably should have lost – Middlesbrough, Wigan and most stirringly Man City, a game you never felt we were out of even when we were 2-0 down. Then there was the end to the season, which we finished like a train. Winning ten and drawing one of our last eleven games should have been enough to win the league. Certainly had you been told after the Middlesbrough defeat that we would only drop two points, including that astonishing win at Old Trafford, you’d have glanced at the league table and booked the title party in advance.
Galling as it is to admit, you have to congratulate the Mancs for matching us stride for stride. On several occasions we played ahead of them on the weekend and each time they held their nerve, most notably when finding themselves losing to Villa and Spurs. In the end, we gave ourselves too much of a mountain to climb and for that we must look to that shambolic mid-season funk when points were dropped like so much confetti. If you were looking for a single neat modernist reason for that bad run either side of Christmas, which included the depressing FA Cup exit at the Pit, it would be easy to look at Rafa’s rant at Demento. There’s no doubt it looked bad and got worse as time went on. But personally I prefer to look at the itch that we couldn’t scratch that was Robbie Keane.
I’m really labouring the point now, but when has that ever stopped me? It needs to be emphasised that this is nothing personal, that Keane conducted himself with tremendous dignity when his dream move – for that is what it was – went so spectacularly sour. It must have been utterly humiliating, and his refusal to bitch about his treatment was in stark contrast to the likes of Jermaine Pennant and only made you fret all the more as to whether we were doing the right thing in letting him go. But he was meant to be the final piece in the jigsaw, the 20-goal-a-season striker who was going to partner Torres and make us invincible. Instead his repeated failures to score heaped pressure not only on the player but on the club for failing to make that that swoop count. Man Utd could afford to pay big bucks for a relative mediocrity like Berbatov. Liverpool could not, and it hung around the club’s neck like an anchor.
Even now, it makes no sense that having sold a striker with a proven record Liverpool should start banging them in for fun. Yet Liverpool would soon be flattening teams with ruthless abandon. It helped that Kuyt started doing his share, and Benayoun – the most astonishingly improved player of the season – decided to make a habit of scoring goals at critical junctures. It was as if everyone felt liberated from having to justify the existence of Robbie Keane, not least the manager.
Rafa, Rafa, Rafa. On occasion in the past I have called for your head or given you less-than-fulsome support. I’m still not convinced it is all going to end in tears of joy, something that is really important should happen in 2010 now that Man Utd have drawn level with us in terms of titles won. Three years without a trophy and an unwanted record of being the only team to only lose two games and now in the Premier League. It’s not much of a CV. Yet once again, you’ve done just enough to earn a shot at redemption. Having masterminded the art of European football – failure to win the European Cup every year does not mean you don’t know what you are doing; it is, after all, a cup competition with all the vagaries inherent in that- there is tantalising evidence that you may have gotten English football licked at last. And most importantly, you’ve gotten under Alex Ferguson’s skin. Observe Demento’s recent best-of-friends act with Arsene Wenger and you’ll see a man who only likes you when he thinks he has you whipped. It may not be a sufficient condition for ultimate success but it’s a necessary one, and that represents progress from the season. Just no more Robbie Keanes – please.