Many a Slip Twixt the Cup and the Lip

In hindsight, it was too good to be true.

The English Premier League is a competition based on ruthless, unfettered capitalism. Those with the deepest pockets invariably win.

If you exclude the early exception of Blackburn Rovers’ win in the mid-1990s, the EPL has been won by just four clubs – the ubiquitous Manchester United, Arsenal and, more recently, after their acquisition by mega-wealthy owners, Chelsea and Manchester City.

So it was that as the second half of the 2013-14 season unfolded, the football world has been agog at the tantalising prospect of Liverpool, 25 years without a League title, pinching the 2014 trophy from under the noses of their cashed-up rivals.

It speaks volumes that the Reds were the sentimental favourite to win this year’s EPL title. For decades a giant in global football, and prior to the advent of the EPL, the most successful English club bar none, it’s not like LFC are on “struggle street”. It’s just that the alternative title aspirants, Manchester City and Chelsea, boast such massive wealth from their Middle Eastern and Russian backers as to dwarf even the traditional power clubs with their hugely expensive and talented playing lists.

But here we were, not only threatening to pinch it, but doing it in improbably brilliant fashion. An eclectic strike force of Uruguayan Luis Suarez and Chelsea discard Daniel Sturridge, had been superbly supported by Raheem Sterling, a precociously sparkling local “wunderkind”. Together this trio were ripping defences apart in a manner not seen at Anfield since the days of Ian Rush. Liverpool doesn’t attract much love from rival fans, but even neutrals were admitting to being dragged along for the thrilling ride.

As the late season winning streak mounted up, the tone of the clichés reflected the Reds’ improving position: “in the hunt for Top 4” gave way to “in title contention” and then to “in control of their own destiny”.

Following a gloriously gripping, nerve-wrackingly fluctuating 3-2 triumph against Manchester City in mid-April, the final and most portentous phrase rang out: “it’s Liverpool’s to lose”.

********

In August last year, I fulfilled a long-cherished ambition to visit Anfield stadium and experience the unique atmosphere of the Kop on match day. In truth, I was underwhelmed by the dilapidated facilities and the passive acceptance of the fans that the club’s glory days of the 1970s and 1980s are unlikely to return.

One thing that the stadium tour did teach me was about the quality of the Anfield playing surface. On that quiet Sunday morning, the stadium had a cathedral-like hush about it. No-one spoke too loudly for fear of somehow appearing disrespectful. The calm was broken only by the distant hum of a series of hand-held lawn mowers that were lovingly tending to the manicured grass in preparation for the match the following Tuesday evening.

As we left the playing arena, our tour guide pointed out the bin containing grass clippings, urging us to souvenir a few precious pieces of Anfield greenery.

The message was clear – whatever the decaying state of the stands and the cramped seating, the Liverpool players could always rely on a top quality playing surface.

What irony then, that eight months later, it was a freak slip on that same beautiful grass that, in a second, robbed Liverpool of their dream of upstaging the billionaires.

The pivotal late season clash against Chelsea was heading towards half-time, with the visitors’ ultra-defensive tactics seemingly assuring a scoreless half. As Liverpool captain, Steven Gerrard, latched onto a routine pass from Mamadou Sakho and in turned prepared to pass to another unattended defender, the unthinkable happened.

He slipped.

Steven Gerrard slipped.

If Diego Maradona gave soccer the “Hand of God”, surely this was the “Foot of Satan”.

The instant of time and couple of metres of space opened up perfectly for Chelsea’s Demba Ba who serenely latched onto the gift and despatched the ball past Simon Mignolet, the Liverpool goalkeeper.

The Reds launched a barrage of attacking moves in the second half but Chelsea’s defence stood resolute. The game was already won when in the last flailing seconds, Liverpool pushed everyone forward, lost possession and allowed two unopposed Chelsea men to waltz into another effortless, cruelly meaningless goal.

Did this one freak incident really cost Liverpool the title? Of course not. Over the season, plenty of other moments had cost us precious points.

The slipshod antics that gifted Southampton the solitary goal in Liverpool’s only other home loss. It was way back in September then and notions of a title challenge were not even on the horizon but in 30 bumbling seconds, a mucked up throw and an unnecessary corner, three points were flushed down the toilet.

At Manchester City on Boxing Day, an “offside” howler by the linesman denied Raheem Sterling a beautifully crafted goal that could have given us a precious point against the mighty Sky Blues.

Kolo Toure’s extraordinarily horrible sliced own goal at West Bromwich cost us a probable win.

But Gerrard’s slip – at this time, in this game, amidst this feverish expectation, accompanied by the collective intake of breath by hundreds of millions around the globe – was interpreted as the moment.

Even with games still to play, the immediate sense was that Gerrard had dropped the prize. Like Orpheus accompanying Eurydice back from Hades, looking back at her when he knew he mustn’t, thereby losing her for ever.

That it was Gerrard turned a simple blunder into sporting tragedy.

In so many ways, Gerrard is Liverpool. Local boy, made good. A cousin of his was one of the youngest victims of the Hillsborough disaster. A star player who has loyally remained at Liverpool despite huge offers to move elsewhere, most notably, the very Chelsea that inflicted this horrid defeat. How many times has he dragged us out of the mire, most memorably on that famous night in Istanbul when no-one else in the stadium believed we could overturn a 3-0 deficit against AC Milan? Even this season, with a side of unquestionable quality around him, Gerrard has been crucial – nervelessly despatching penalties, hustling back in support of our defence, still drilling those 50 yard passes that have been his trademark for nigh on 15 years.

Now approaching 34 years old, Gerrard has achieved everything at Liverpool bar the biggest prize of all: a League title. And here he was, in the match that could have virtually assured it, single-handedly (footedly?) letting the golden opportunity slip away – literally.

********

“Leadership” is one of the most overused terms in sport. It’s probably overused in all walks of life for that matter, but that’s another story.

In sport, true leadership is too often confused with great sporting prowess on the field or high profile attitude off it.

From my admittedly far-off observations, Brendan Rogers is a genuine leader. The Liverpool manager is a calm, softly spoken Northern Irishman who exudes an aura of unflappability that stands in profound contrast with the raving antics of most football managers.

From all accounts, Rogers has had a galvanising effect on a team that is moderately high on talent but hadn’t yet gelled together and lacked the depth of the richest clubs. Liverpool players are constantly subjected to the demands of a huge, passionate and success-hungry supporter base that draws on the club’s proud, bloodied history as a source of expectation that LFC should be constantly great, even when the quality of their playing list suggests otherwise.

It must be an unenviable task to manage these conflicting pressures, but it’s one Rogers has performed superbly in his short time at Anfield. No less an authority than Gerrard is quoted as saying Rogers is the best people manager he’s ever encountered and that LFC must move immediately to re-sign him. (Fortunately it appears that moves are afoot to do this).

Of course, tall poppies are always at risk at being scythed by a ghoulish media, and Rogers has been quickly targeted following Liverpool’s late season stumbles.

Football (soccer) is a code that constantly encourages and often rewards negativity. In the aftermath of the Chelsea loss, the normally implacable Rogers pointedly remarked that it is not hard to manage a team when they all play behind the ball. Yet his thinly veiled criticism of Jose Mourinho’s tactics was roundly criticised as churlish, given the success they delivered.

Rogers’ was on even more shaky ground the following week when with a 3-0 lead against Crystal Palace, Liverpool surrendered their advantage in 9 insane minutes in a reckless attempt to build an even greater lead. The resultant 3-3 draw was the final nail in the coffin for their title challenge, and arguably a damning indictment on Rogers’ attacking game-plan.

Pleasingly, he has indicated that he won’t be changing his tactics next year although he has also been clear about his ambitions to recruit some more decent defenders. In a relentlessly “professional” sport, the blunt pragmatism of Mourinho’s “two bus” strategy is too often employed, in the most significant of games, even by teams with boundless offensive capabilities. We should be thankful for managers like Rogers who appreciate the need for his team to entertain as well as win. For most of this fabulous season, Liverpool has done both.

Whatever the criticisms, Rogers has shaped and cajoled a diverse bunch of nationalities and temperaments from a team that struggled into 7th place last year to 2nd and a European Champions League spot.  Even amidst the disappointment of missing the title, it’s a fabulous achievement.

Perhaps the performances he’s coaxed out of Suarez best illustrate this.

For those who don’t know about this impish genius, Luis Suarez evokes among opposition fans the same sort of bile-spitting loathing as Stevie Milne – only tenfold. His record of cynical, self-serving misdemeanours is as spectacular as his football skills.

At the start of the season, Suarez clearly didn’t want to be at Liverpool, didn’t rate Liverpool and had ambitions well beyond Liverpool. Oh, and he was serving a lengthy suspension for a biting incident in the previous season. The odds of the Reds retaining let alone getting any value out of him were long.

Somehow, over the course of seven months, Suarez has transformed himself from a surly temperamental hot-head to PFA Player of the Year, scoring over 30 goals, many of them absolutely sublime. More importantly, Suarez has discovered his place in the team, linking superbly with Sturridge and his supporting midfield. In doing so, he has evidently developed a fondness for Liverpool reflected in a new contract and statements about his happiness to be at Anfield. There were even tears (crocodile, perhaps) when, after the horrendous finish to the Crystal Palace game, Suarez finally realised that the Premiership dream had vanished.

I don’t think Rogers’ influence in this transformation can be over-stated. That he’s been able to achieve this individual and team improvement, whilst also allowing his tutelages to play with verve and freedom, is something that all football fans should appreciate, irrespective of allegiance.

********

The final round of the season, sadly, played out to a tame, predictable finish. Despite a last win over Newcastle, Liverpool remained two points adrift of Manchester City – a brave, but empty second place. I felt for Gerrard. He looked gutted even before the game commenced. Despite setting up his team’s two goals from superbly taken free kicks, he seemed to derive no pleasure from them, walking disconsolately away from his teammates’ celebrations. Clearly his role in losing the prize weighs heavily on him.

But as the post-season analysis focuses on “moneybags” Manchester City’s triumph and Liverpool’s “choke”, I would rather remember the many joyful moments that Rogers and his motley crew have provided.

I will remember four goals in 20 riveting minutes in which the Reds eviscerated Arsenal (and their title challenge) en route to a 5-1 thumping.

I will remember two wins against the hated Manchester United in what we hope is the first of many tormented seasons for our arch rivalsin their post-Ferguson era.

I will remember the extraordinary 5-0 rout of Tottenham – away – one game confirming that the millions Spurs had spent from the proceeds of the Gareth Bale transfer had been, officially, pissed up against the walls of White Hart Lane.

And I will remember the many moments of tension and pressure during our 11 game winning streak where we did not falter and crack. The last 20 minutes of careful, controlled protection of our lead at West Ham should be mandatory viewing for Damien Hardwick as an illustration of how to mount a calm, professional defence.

Finally, although much is made of the passionate antics of the Liverpool supporters – the banners, the Kop and the endless renditions of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” – it was the minute’s silence in memory of the Hillsborough victims before the Manchester City game that I will never forget. Absolute, utter silence. Followed by a roar of pure gut-busting defiance.

That was the moment that cut through my curmudgeonly cynicism about professional sport and re-awakened me to the possibility that even giant, global brands can also be humble sporting clubs with connections to communities, families and lives.

 

About Sam Steele

50 years a Richmond supporter. Enjoying a bounteous time after 37 years of drought. Should've been a farmer!

Comments

  1. Wonderful report Stainless. As a casual EPL follower and listener to Saturday night BBC sport, you put all the pieces of the season together clearly and vividly.
    My heart bleeds for Gerrard, but the fates are not always kind.

  2. Great stuff, Stainless.

    I watched the Liverpool v Chelsea macth with fascination. And even as an Arsenal fan I felt disappointment for both S Gerrard and Liverpool when he had his Herschelle Gibbs moment. Only 15 years ago, who would have thought that Liverpool winning the EPL would be classed a “fairytale story”?
    I must also say that Mark Schwarzer was brilliant that night.

  3. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Great write up , Stainless any 1 who bags the salary cap doesn’t follow the , EPL .
    I follow QPR who are thru to the play off final v Derby for the last spot in the , Premier league to realistically fight to avoid relegation the next season . I totally disagree re your thoughts on leadership and think it is vital . A great summary of the , EPL tho
    Thanks Stainless

  4. Steve Fahey says

    Well written Stainless

    Liverpool were magnificent and enlivened the season no end with their attacking style so all power to Rogers. A disappointing end but results they would have been delighted with when they visited our shores in July. Stevie G is a superstar and I agree is Liverpool of this era (Kenny Dalgliesh may have something to say about an earlier era), so very sad that the slip has drawn so much focus when his great deeds far outweigh that moment.

    Man City were also great to watch, albeit my reservations about their Financial Fair Play (see my article of several weeks ago if you are interested), so it was great to see attacking teams top the table, albeit I would have loved my Tottenham to be there.

  5. Cowshedend says

    Brilliant piece Stainless, encapsulated the Scousers season, the last paragraph was very thought provoking.
    That raw unbridled emotion unleashed by the Anfield faithful at the Hillsborough memorial against City, is something which cannot be replicated or manufactured. (like the AFL tend to do with Anzac day).
    Is the catalyst tragedy? is the same emotion as tangible when Man U evoke memories of Busby and the Munich plane crash, or has time dulled it?

  6. Stainless says

    Thanks all for the comments.

    Malcolm – not sure what we’re disagreeing about re. leadership. My point is that Rogers is a brilliant leader – just understated in his style.

    Steve – just read your piece on Spurs. I hate the way clubs that nurture superstar players inevitably lose them to the giants. Wouldn’t it have been great if Spurs had been able to build a great team around Bale and perhaps compete with some of the giants?

    Cowshedend – I think the difference between Hillsborough and the Busby Babes disaster is that Hillsborough is overlaid with the years of cover-up and wrongful blame of the supporters, which is only now being addressed. The sense of injustice drives the emotional response as much as the tragedy itself. I would hasten to add that I always feel rather uncomfortable about the very public displays about Hillsborough when the same club (and supporter base) is incredibly quiet about the events at Heysel in 1985, which from my understanding were initiated by Liverpool supporters.

  7. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Stainless I may have misinterpreted a comment I interpreted that you thought leadership was over rated where I think it is vital https://www.footyalmanac.com.au/leadership-matters/ as I wrote a while back TA

  8. Derrick Phillips says

    As good friend of yours, Sam (“Stainless”!), let me congratulate you on this article. I was delighted last year when you were in England to advise you on your trip over to Ansfield for the tour and to watch Liverpool play Notts County (I think it was them) in the League Cup. As an Arsenal fan of 67 years I cringed at the thrashing Liverpool handed out to us in the Premiership but can console myself that Arsenal beat Liverpool on the way to winning the FA Cup this last weekend. Like many thousands of Arsenal fans, I was bitterly disappointed that the Liverpool didn’t manage to win the Premiership (even if Liverpool are the auld enemy!0 as they deserved to win rather than Man City. Let’s hope next season Arsenal and Liverpool can be contesting for the title.

Leave a Comment

*