The worst part of it was losing a penalty shoot-out. That’s our thing, innit? We have won two European Cups, one FA Cup, one League Cup and qualified for a European Cup final and an FA Cup final via the ‘lottery’ of the penalty shoot-out. We’ve won various other shoot-outs at a lower level and our solitary loss – until last night, that is – was against Wimbledon in the League Cup, and they used beat us all the time in those days anyway. As lotteries go, it was about as random as playing the three-card-trick against someone with Parkinsons. So that was bad.
It was all bad. Ed Chamberlain said early on in the evening on Sky Sports News that the only time we had lost to League Two / Division Four opposition at Anfield in the League Cup was to Grimsby Town in 2001/2 (update: see comments). I was there that night and it was grim stuff, taking the lead via a penalty midway through the first half of extra-time, only for Grimbsy to scramble an equaliser then win it in the last minute thanks to a Phil Jevons thunderbolt. As a colleague said at the moment he teed it up, “here come the Bluenose bastard”. And the rest was fish heads.
But it’s important to remember the context of that defeat. We had just won the treble of cups, adding the Charity Shield (as the Community Shield was known then, kids) and the Super Cup in the preceding weeks. We were also enjoying the experience of playing in the European Cup for the first time since Heysel. They were, in other words, optimistic times. So the first thing you’ve got to do is look at the current context and ask this: how we can treat the League Cup with such contempt? Even through the years when we had serious aspirations to winning the League and the European Cup, it irked me that we felt we could afford to be so casual towards a trophy, any trophy. Still, we did have bigger fish to fry, so the disappointment upon each inevitable loss was brief, and the only lingering annoyance would be the ease with which Man Utd, Chelsea and Arsenal could cruise through to the business end of the competition with their B teams. These days though, we live in the context of going a fifth year without winning anything and little possibility of getting to the jamboree that is the Champions League. The League Cup is teed up for a club like Liverpool to win. For crying out loud, had we won last night we’d have been in the last 16. A paltry five wins (you could even afford to lose one of those games as long as you won the semi-final on aggregate) and we’d have been running around Wembley with the cup, something we haven’t been able to say since – and it’s only as I type this that I realise how bad a stat it is – 1995. Everton have won there more recently. Scary.
Not as scary as the financial maelstrom which is threatening to engulf us. And it is in that context that, last night’s debacle notwithstanding, Roy Hodgson probably deserves a break. Listening to the palsied effort the Reds put in against Man Utd last Sunday, you saw the limited resources that were bequeathed to him by Rafa. The Mancs are, if it’s possible, in even worse financial shape than we are, but their not-very-different-from-last-season team rolled us over with depressing ease. And looking at that, you realise that we have to lower our expectations accordingly. Five games in and the league table looks appalling, what with us only taking one point from three.
Dig a little deeper though and things aren’t so bad. On a like-for-like comparison with last season (e.g. we drew with Man City away last season and lost this season so we’re a point down there) we have exactly the same amount of points we had last season. And given his inability to radically alter the shape of the squad, standing still would represent success of a sort for Roy Hodgson. We need to realise that not only is the League completely beyond us but so in all probability is the top four – the top three have already zoomed into the distance, and even if Spurs fall back and Man City don’t make the progress that you might expect, it’s going to be an almighty scrum in the rest of the top ten, so it’s certainly nothing we can bank on.
But ‘we’ doesn’t just mean the fans. It also means the club in general and the manager in particular. Give the other cups some welly and we can have some exciting times this season. So if Nathan Eccleston and Jonjo Shelvey are not good enough for the League then they’re not good enough for the FA Cup. Even if we’re playing Northampton Town.