A FEW short weeks ago Liverpool won the Carling Cup, not the most prestigious trophy in the world but a trophy nonetheless and the first bit of silverware of this decade. Something to build on, something to look back on, something to please all those who said the club only exists to win trophies when they were complaining at the club being runners up in the two biggest competitions it can win in 2007 and 2009.
The game itself, the Carling Cup Final, wasn’t the best Liverpool performance in history, it was against a team from a division below and it went to penalties – but it was enough to win the cup. And in getting to that final Liverpool had defeated three Premier League sides, including both Chelsea and Manchester City.
As fans celebrated and spent a couple of days recovering and getting their voices back the players had no such luxuries, in some cases not even getting enough time to fully recover from the exertions of playing for over two hours at Wembley. Some of them went off to join up with international squads the next day and in some cases were injured when they got back to their club later that week. Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson were two of Liverpool’s casualties and with Daniel Agger breaking a rib in the final itself they were watching from the sidelines with Lucas Leiva for the club’s next league match, six days after the final.
That match was against Arsenal and by the end of it Liverpool felt like they’d been ambushed. Despite missing so many key players they’d made Arsenal struggle, but as seems to have been the case so often this season the words “missed a penalty” and “hit the post” were being written into the day’s match reports. Liverpool didn’t take their chances, Arsenal did – both of them taken by Robin van Persie.
By the end of the match Liverpool’s slim hopes of a top-four finish were gone but the damage to those hopes had been already been done, bit by bit, over the course of the season.
A week later Liverpool travelled to Sunderland for what was probably the most boring game of football the Premier League will see this season. Neither side deserved a point; Sunderland got three because of a goal that was as much of a fluke as that beachball goal from a couple of years back, although at least the referee was right to award this one.
This wasn’t a performance from a side who thought the game meant much. It was played like it was an end-of-season affair with both sides’ league fates long since decided and from Liverpool’s perspective it was – that Carling Cup win meant they already had one of the Europa League places and the defeat to Arsenal meant they were unlikely to get anything more. If Bolton, Everton or Sunderland make it to the FA Cup final there’ll only be one Europa League place up for grabs based on league position and the only advantage to Liverpool for getting it would be a later start in next season’s competition.
Of course if Liverpool had beaten Sunderland and QPR they’d be in sixth place now, one point behind fifth-placed Chelsea and only six points from fourth. Getting fourth wouldn’t have been impossible but it also wouldn’t have been very likely. Spurs’ recent form isn’t much better than Liverpool’s but for the Reds to get fourth Spurs would need to carry on with that poor form, with Arsenal and Chelsea joining them in doing the same. In reality Liverpool would still just be playing for pride.
A few days later and Liverpool showed against Everton what they can do when the motivation is there, Steven Gerrard’s return to the starting line-up bringing him a hat-trick against the old rivals in their cup-final. That 3-0 win wasn’t enough for Liverpool to emulate their opponents by bringing it out on DVD but it was enjoyable for the Reds all the same and made sure the blues stayed below them in the league.
Then it was back to the FA Cup and Liverpool knocked Stoke out of a cup for the second time this season. That win gives Liverpool another date at Wembley, for a semi-final this time, with Sunderland or Everton the opposition. It’s far too early to say if that will be followed up by a third trip to the FA’s stadium but even being there is something that it’s far too easy to take for granted.
There are those who take it for granted though. 18 months ago Liverpool were staring administration in the face with a manager in charge who thought fourth division Northampton were formidable opponents and derby wins were Utopia. Some of those fans had booed not long before this when Liverpool went top of the league (albeit with a goalless draw) or when Lucas Leiva came on the pitch. They wanted a manager sacked for only finishing second in the league and applauded the man who forced him out and opened the door for the arrival of a replacement who’d been quite successful in part-time football decades before. There are many echoes of that attitude this season.
Expectations for this season weren’t exactly helped by quotes in pre-season from the new owners about the importance of finishing fourth. They don’t seem so keen on talking about the importance of building a new stadium to increase match-day revenue, a new stadium that was already long overdue when Hicks and Gillett said it would be ready for summer 2010. The earliest a new stadium would be ready now would be for the start of the 2015-16 season.
Since 2009 when Liverpool finished second and were part of a “big four” other clubs have moved forward in terms of improving their squads. Liverpool moved backwards – and that means there has been far more ground to make up than perhaps is acknowledged. It’s a “big five” now – and Liverpool aren’t one of the five at this moment in time.
In terms of net transfer spend the figure is somewhere in the region of £35m since the new owners came in. That will reduce if fees come in for players currently on loan. Wages have been reduced substantially too, which is also significant. Offering a player an extra £40k a week for five years means a club is committing to an extra £10m in wages. Claiming Kenny’s had £150m to spend on players is helpful to nobody but the club’s rivals.
Realistic expectations at the start of the season should have been to qualify for Europe and to have a good crack at the top four. Five clubs were already fighting for four places and Liverpool, as a sixth, could only be expected to try to break into that group.
After the Carling Cup final the first target – European qualification – had been achieved. The second target was an on-going one and was still on up until that defeat to Arsenal. After that it was never going to be about fighting for fourth place, no matter how well Liverpool did. After that it could only ever be about keeping the gap between Liverpool and fourth place as low as possible, about a league position that had no real relevance to The Reds than looking better in history books. In effect the expectation had been reached, but reached with a feeling that it could have gone on a lot longer than it did.
When Liverpool lost to Sunderland it was frustrating and the performance an insult to those who spent good money and a lot of time travelling up there to see it. But the result wasn’t all that important any more.
Against Everton and Stoke, two games where there was something to play for, it was more than a little enjoyable. But when Liverpool went to London to play QPR it was back to being as important as that Sunderland game had been. It’s nice to win, especially for those who spent that time and money on being there, but a long way from the end of the world to lose, even if it is disappointing.
It was embarrassing to be 2-0 up with a quarter of an hour left and then to lose but the response from some on Twitter was far more embarrassing. Kenny isn’t immune to criticism, nor are his players, and lessons have to be learned from the way certain victory became a shock defeat. Perhaps the first lesson to be learned is that Liverpool have, at times, played with the same kind of attitude when the score did matter. Perhaps the lesson to be learned is that, at times, Liverpool haven’t wanted the victory as much as their opponents. That was certainly the case on Wednesday, understandable now but not so acceptable in November or December.
If supporters can accept the league season is done with then maybe it’s time to give some of those youngsters a chance in the first team. But only if Rodolfo Borrell and Kenny Dalglish think they’re ready for it. And only if it’s accepted that they are taking a big step to move up from reserve team football to first team football. It’s a huge step, taking it too lightly could backfire in style.
Maybe it’s more important to see if Andy Carroll or Charlie Adam have futures at the club. Perhaps that was why Charlie got back into the starting line-up on Wednesday. Perhaps Andy was on the bench because Kenny wanted to try Charlie Adam out in a certain formation. Maybe those who were calling for Kenny’s head 13 days after winning the club’s first silverware for five years will be proven to have been right – although they’ll never be right about the way they’ve gone about calling for his head.
I was fortunate to be at Wembley, but unfortunate to be in front of that type of fan. Before kick-off the line-up was ‘a disgrace’. Within seconds of kick-off a young midfielder was ‘dogsh*t’ and this fan was doing all he can to try and let this player, from the team he was there to see, know about it. Few players avoided being called a ‘lazy c***’ by this ‘supporter’, or ‘dogsh*t’ for that matter. Even the captain and the manager were subjects of his apparent hatred. I like to think that this ‘supporter’ slipped in a big pile of ‘dogsh*t’ on his way back home and still hasn’t managed to rid his memory of the smell. Before that though he was singing and cheering and celebrating the winning of a cup.
He’d probably argue that he’d paid his money so he had every right to be so critical, scathing and insulting. Is this what people mean when they talk about the “Sky generation” supporter? If you pay top prices to watch an opera you expect the singing to be spot-on. If you splash out on an expensive meal at a highly-recommended restaurant you expect it to be far better than the local fast-food place. Football isn’t like that. It never has been. And it shouldn’t ever be.
It’s the same kind of attitude, perhaps, that the owner of one London side has towards his team. He always knows better than his manager and he goes mad when his money doesn’t getting him exactly what he wants. Except the owner of the club actually gets to change the manager or even pick the players he brings in. It’s not worked very well so far, but it’s not stopped him from doing it time after time.
It would be a surprise if Liverpool’s owners were remotely that way inclined, meaning that Kenny will still be here next season regardless of the final league position. He’s brought one trophy this season; he’s still in with a chance of making that two. Exactly how calling for his head, calling him ‘a clown’ or ‘clueless’, is supposed to help him – or his players – to do that is difficult to work out.
Changes are needed to the squad. Something needs to be done about the conversion of chances whether that’s getting players better at taking them or getting players capable of making better chances. With more matches to play next season (should the Reds not slip up during qualifying rounds of the Europa League) there’s a need for more depth to the squad too.
Liverpool can definitely make more progress next season, but how much they make also depends on what the other “big five” teams do over the summer. Damien Comolli also has to ensure that he brings players in because they fit in with whatever Kenny’s plans might be, not because they seem to be good buys individually. The owners need to get closer to bringing us those extra seats too.
It’s highly doubtful that Kenny is completely happy with how things have gone or that he thinks he’s got everything right. He’ll have identified areas that need improvement. It’s unlikely that the players got away without criticism from him after giving that two-goal lead away on Wednesday. But turning, unreasonably, on the manager is a big part of what set Liverpool on its way out of the “big four” and kept it out of the “big five”. The last thing the club needs now is for that poison to return.
There’s a cup semi-final to win in a few weeks’ time and if that doesn’t excite you then maybe football isn’t for you. Liverpool FC certainly isn’t.