West Brom v Liverpool – preview

WHEN Roy Hodgson left Liverpool in January the joy for Liverpool supporters was off the scale. The fact Kenny Dalglish was replacing him was of course a large part of what brought that joy but even without someone lined up the celebrations would have been big.

Today the Reds travel to face Hodgson’s current team, West Brom, and only those who need to be diplomatic – or perhaps those who are trying to hide their red faces – will let Hodgson off the hook for his part in one of the worst six months of football Liverpool fans have had to endure. The appointment was the wrong one, supported by few fans and perhaps only championed by those who even now consider Christian Purslow as some kind of saviour of Liverpool FC. Even after Purslow had been quietly moved out of the way by the new owners Roy continued to cause despair amongst supporters, not only for his actions but also for his words. No matter how much the supporters got themselves up for a game Roy had the knack of making it feel like it was already lost by the time the pre-match press conference was over.

Steven Gerrard is Liverpool’s captain and whatever he really thought of Roy he’s probably wise not to be fairly diplomatic about him. Instead of blaming Roy when speaking to ESPN earlier this week he blamed himself and his teammates along with the timing: “It was a tricky time for Roy, it was a tricky time for everyone at the club, with the owners changing. Maybe he became Liverpool manager at the wrong time. When the job became vacant, there were an awful lot of supporters that wanted Kenny to get the job, so from day one there was extra pressure on Roy to deliver.”

There were an awful lot of supporters who felt that Roy’s appointment was pre-determined, that stories about Liverpool making enquiries to other clubs about their (probably better) coaches were little more than an attempt to hide a recruitment process that had begun long before and was resolved before the previous incumbent had gone. The suspicion was that the temporary MD wanted his own man in the job, someone who wouldn’t mind being asked to join him in misleading supporters about spending and who wouldn’t mind being kept out of the loop when it came to transfers in and out, someone who wouldn’t ask too many questions. Quite clearly Kenny Dalglish wasn’t the right man for that kind of job – nor was anyone who actually cared about the club.

Gerrard refers to Roy’s reputation, a reputation that seems to be built more on legend than fact, facts that suggest he is best-suited to clubs with rather different ambitions to Liverpool’s and that he appeals most to those who make their livings talking about other people’s clubs. Gerrard did get to work with him for those few months and maybe saw a side of him that most fans still struggle to see: “He’s a football man, he’s experienced and he’s a great guy. He’s got the reputation in the game because he’s been a successful manager. Just because it didn’t work out here, doesn’t mean he becomes a bad manager. He knows that at Liverpool you get judged on results. The results weren’t good enough and unfortunately in football, managers get the blame.”

The captain did hit on something that has been part of Liverpool’s problems for years – too many players on too many occasions fail to put the effort in. “I was one of the players who came out after he left and made sure people knew it wasn’t just Roy Hodgson’s fault. It was the players under-performing and not delivering, that was the sad part.”

Another one of Liverpool’s problems is the definition of problem. For a manager like Hodgson, at a club like West Brom, the problems Liverpool have had on the field, outside of his tenure, wouldn’t be considered problems. Liverpool haven’t lost once in their last six games – in all competitions. Unfortunately those six games were preceded by 4-0 and 1-0 defeats at Spurs and Stoke and were broken up by a defeat in a friendly against Rangers. Two of the six games were draws (against Manchester United and Norwich) and one of the wins was against lower league opposition. Some fans might be complaining, as is always the case, but there isn’t the slightest hint of disharmony amongst the squad and still a feeling amongst the more optimistic supporters that Liverpool only need a few tweaks to be able to finish the season with the top four finish that was the realistic target to aim at.

West Brom are 12th and climbing at the moment, the Reds were 12th and dropping when Hodgson left. Hodgson spoke this week about the money the club have had to spend since then, saying: “Liverpool have spent quite wisely and brought some very good players into the club. Several of them have been enormous successes, especially Luis Suarez but also Stewart Downing, Charlie Adam and Jose Enrique. I’m sure Jordan Henderson will eventually be regarded as a success and to some extent Andy Carroll, who is to some extent awaiting his chance. The team is much stronger than it’s been in a long while.”

Under the previous regime Liverpool’s transfer budget dropped year by year as the banks took whatever they could get their hands on. With those owners gone the club can use more of what it already earns from its various sources of income to invest in the squad. As far as Hodgson is concerned this means Liverpool have to finish high up the league: “They need to be top four contenders because that’s what the investment is for. I don’t think the new owners are investing all this money for them to be a mid-table team, they are doing it because Liverpool in the past, alongside Manchester United, are one of the two flagships of English football. One has 19 league titles and one has 18 so they have all those league titles in modern times, not to mention the European Cups Liverpool have got.”

Just over a year ago Hodgson was talking about the derby day defeat at Goodison as a game that would have represented “Utopia” had he managed to actually get his team to win it, words that were frustrating yet unsurprising as he constantly tried to lower Liverpool supporters’ expectations to levels he’s been more accustomed to. Now he’s finally realised where Liverpool want to be: “The reason the owners have gone in there is because they believe they can get Liverpool up to that level again and there is no doubt that the pressure on Liverpool to finish in the top four is similar to the pressure many clubs in the Premier League have to survive.”

Throughout his short reign at Anfield Roy would speak like he was the manager of the underdogs – a tag that began to fit Liverpool increasingly well as the months went on. He even tried it when the opposition was Northampton of the old fourth division. That kind of approach will probably work well with his current squad, but it seems to be the only approach he knows: “They have had a good start to the season, so we have to be aware that this is one of those matches where you go onto the field far from being favourites. If you want to get something from the game you’ve got to perform at the highest level.”

Hodgson was rather dismissive of Dalglish during one of his interviews as Liverpool manager, but he was also dismissive of Liverpool supporters and some of the better players during his various foot in mouth moments. Liverpool fans try hard not to think about that whole period, and he says he does too: “I don’t think an awful lot about it. It was a time of transition, the situation now is vastly different.”

Hodgson’s team for today’s match won’t include forward Shane Long who is out with a long term knee injury. Dalglish rested Gerrard and Glen Johnson for the game with Stoke in midweek and both are expected to start today, but there are some doubts about the fitness of Luis Suarez and Jamie Carragher, both of whom sustained injuries in that match. Suarez scored both of Liverpool’s goals in the Carling Cup win, earning the Reds a Quarter Final trip to Stamford Bridge after the draw was made earlier today.

West Brom are now on an unbeaten run of four games in the league and whatever Roy says about not thinking too much about his spell at Anfield it’s almost certain that he’ll be out for revenge and his players will be a little more fired up.

Kick-off: 5:30pm

TV Coverage: UK: ESPN US: Fox Soccer