WHICH is your favourite English team asks Aidan Smith?
WHICH is your favourite English team? Did it used to be Liverpool until Sir Alex Ferguson knocked them off their perch and was it then Man U for what seemed like forever – past Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s 93rd minute winner, past Steve Bruce’s 96th minute winner, beyond even the most audacious demands of Fergie-time – and then after the shabby treatment of David Moyes last week did you tap your watch on the touchline and say: “Enough.” Then did you go back to Liverpool – just in time for today’s game with Chelsea where a win will surely propel them to the title?
OK, maybe it wasn’t quite like that, but lots of us are making the journey along the M62 of the mind, and travelling towards Anfield from other allegiances, or appointing Liverpool our second team or our favourite other team, remembering what used to be great about them, forgetting what used to be bad.
When they were bad they were abominable. On the morning of 30 May, 1985 myself and a journalist from another paper were sharing a car ride for an early job, the subject of which I’ve forgotten. What was important, and what I’ve never forgotten, is what Derek said after the Heysel disaster: “Did you see that last night? These people are animals. That’s me and football finished.” Although what happened was shocking, I was still surprised that anyone could abruptly decide to wash their hands of football, knowing I probably couldn’t. Fast-forwarding from there is crass because it misses out Hillsborough. I don’t mean to do that and I won’t. But I’m trying to pinpoint the moment when Liverpool stopped mattering, when they fell behind in ambition, size and flair and we got dazzled by other teams who grew in every sense, stadia reaching heavenwards, while the once-mighty Reds stayed put, hemmed in by tight streets, playing dourly while their managers (Rafa Benitez and, bless him, Kenny Dalglish) spoke increasingly gnomically and bought ever-more malfunctioning or outmoded players, culminating in ye olde medieval battering-ram, Andy Carroll. Yes, that was probably the moment.
But baby just look at them now. Ninety-six league goals and counting. A near-unplayable front three fizzing with ideas, variation, thunderflashes and cool running. Luiz Suarez (also signed by Dalglish, it should be noted) is the polar opposite of Carroll, as modern as the latter is ancient, and the best player in the world. Behind them Steven Gerrard, who can’t save the world any more and so chooses his moment, picks the right pass, finds the right words.
At the start of the season, there didn’t seem much on for this lot. In the previous campaign – Brendan Rodgers’ first – they’d finished seventh. Suarez, banned for ten games for biting, declared his intention to leave, Rodgers accused him of “total disrespect” and Arsenal were, er, biting with a £40 million bid. Another transitional season seemed likely, with the distinct possibility of more kerfuffles. But Rodgers managed that situation, just like he got this lone wolf (fang reference unintentional) playing with another striker. Just like he helped that striker, Daniel Sturridge, fulfil his promise and prove he was as good as he thought. Just like he helped Raheem Sterling over the form dip that affects any young English footballer who is told he’s brilliant too soon.
Shortly before these three started fires, started reminding everyone of great Liverpool attacking verve of old, the Bill Shankly era had been evoked by the novelist David Peace in his book Red or Dead. At 720 pages, this was one for the committed, Peace striving to convey the great Scot’s grand obsession. But it was easy to summon up images of the Kop singing The Beatles’ She Loves You. Actually, this is always easy as the footage is so glorious. Look at the young men swaying, open-mouthed, and how they don’t seem that young. They look like it was a hard day’s night for all, eight days a week, just before the pop-culture explosion when football was still everything. And you must have seen this footage recently, it’s being shown all the time. A lot of things have fallen into place for this Liverpool, the chimes of history, no European distractions. You would never call the new Hillsborough inquest and the 25th anniversary memorial service “convenient”, but it’s true that the club have, with respect and taste, drawn inspiration for the campaign for justice and the emotions swirling around the city. Before last Sunday’s win over Norwich, Rodgers pinned the words of Hillsborough campaigner Margaret Aspinall to the dressing-room wall. Now, when this club emphasise their togetherness it’s in a good way. There is no more rallying round racists.
The rehabilitation of Suarez will be complete when he collects his Player of the Year awards, with even Patrice Evra voting for him. Now we await the rehabilitation of the club as champions.
Liverpool fans like this Liverpool because, in an era when teams are coats of many colours, they have Gerrard and they have his apprentice as “The Fan on the Park”, Jon Flanagan. English fans of other clubs like this Liverpool because it’s currently providing half their national side. Scots can only hark back to Shankly’s time and greet because Shanks mustered almost an entire Scottish XI – Ian St John, Ron Yeats, Peter Cormack, Willie Stevenson, Billy Liddell, Tommy Lawrence, Bobby Graham, not forgetting the splendidly named Tubby Ogston. Still, this Anfield drama does at least feature noises off from a well-known Scot, even if they amount to mis-calls by Fergie.
Pronouncing on various things in his autobiography shortly after retiring as Manchester United manager, he criticised Jordan Henderson’s gait, saying he ran from his knees rather than in the modern way, from the hips. Well, Henderson has ran over most opposition midfields this season and Gerrard has done the rest. The captain – “not a top, top player” according to Sir Alex – has been both revelation and inspiration in his deeper-lying role.
After the final whistle sounded on the victory over Manchester City, Gerrard gathered his players in a huddle and implored: “This is gone. We go Norwich, exactly the same, we go again. Come on!”
The following day when the players turning up at the training ground “We go again” had been spray-painted on a bedsheet draped over a wall. Who knows, maybe the day after that, the great Scouse verseman Roger McGough was at work on a new poem, title: “We go again”. It’s what you say when the football season reaches squeaky-bum time. The Liverpool players are supping from the great well of fervour in the city and the city is cramming on to the streets around Anfield on matchdays to urge their team over the line, turning the old problem of restricted space to positive advantage.
Today Liverpool go again. By the way, who first called it squeaky-bum time? Ach, I can’t remember…