Saturday, January 8, 2011

Liverpool - Where do they go from here?

** This blog was written Singapore time this morning 8th Jan several hours before the Hodgson news broke, some additional text has since been added at the end of the piece, this blog has it's finger on the pulse **

One incredible night in Istanbul aside, it's been a tough twenty years to have been a Liverpool fan which means for the younger generation, your entire life. It is important for anyone below the age of twenty five to explain just what a phenomenal side Liverpool once were. When I was growing up Liverpool were the team, not just in English football but across Europe. Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa who also achieved such incredible feats were merely seen as the supporting cast to Shanklys' and then Paisleys' domination of the footballing map. This was also in a day when only one team qualified for the premier competition and one bad game could see you knocked out of Europe by September.

I remember being privileged enough to see the great Liverpool team at Pittodrie in 1980. The team of Souness, Dalglish, Hansen (three Scots playing central roles in the finest team in Europe, doesn't that sound odd now.....), Thompson, Clemence, McDermott. They played the rising Alex Fergusons' Aberdeen side in the European Cup that season and handed them a footballing lesson over both legs that possibly served to stoke the fire in Ferguson toward the Anfield club.

Some great players came and went at Liverpool, Keegan and Souness both left but the club hardly blinked, Dalglish moved into management and a new generation of Barnes, Beardsley and Rush came to the fore. It was always a club that interwove its' silk with no shortage of steel with the likes of Smith, Whelan, Souness and McMahon all prime examples. So where did it all go wrong?

It is hard to pinpoint but the decline in Liverpool probably started in the mid eighties with the dreadful events at Heysel. The tragedy of the actual event and the profound effect it had on the club is without question. What cannot be measured properly however is the footballing effect of the banning of English clubs from European competition. Whilst hurting all English teams, the effect on Liverpool - at that point the dominant force in Europe - was the most far reaching, they simply never recovered.

Only four years later in 1989, a second tragedy struck, this time the horrific events at the Leppings Lane end of Hillsborough football stadium. Without dwelling on the details, the effect on the community this time was much more keenly felt and the emotional toil on Kenny Dalglish was enormous and like the football team after the ban, he was never the same again.

Again, tragedy off the field not surprisingly hurt the performances on the field. Fixture congestion and exhaustion saw a Liverpool team in their final game of the season at home to Arsenal simply needing not to lose by two goals. Michael Thomas ensured a quite dramatic footballing end to my sixteenth birthday and I remember being utterly shocked at Liverpools' failure, and despite their winning the title the next season the red machine was broken.

Since then, Liverpool's decline has been undeniable. They have won a few cups, challenged for the title on a handful of occasions and had that fantastic night in Istanbul but the last twenty years has basically seen them have to look down the M62 to Manchester where the final factor in Liverpool's decline - Sir Alex - has well and truly knocked them off their perch.

The irony is that Liverpool are right now (I am going to get sick of writing 'Istanbul aside') where ManYoo were when Ferguson came along and this is where young Roy Hodgson has got it so utterly wrong. Ferguson inherited a shambolic and poorly run Manchester United, a true sleeping giant (take note Newcastle, Sheffield United, Middlesborough and anyone else who thinks they are a big club, you are not). This did not deter Ferguson from taking direct aim at Anfield and striving with every sinew in his body to supplant them at the pinnacle of English football.

It is less well known maybe and took place over fewer years but when Ferguson took over at Aberdeen, he did to the Glasgow clubs exactly what he has since done to Liverpool. He looked toward the city where he was born and had played his football. He understood how the West of Scotland worked and the perceived (probably correctly so) bias towards Rangers and Celtic. He took great swipes at the Glasgow dominated media, he put players in referees' faces, he beat Rangers and Celtic on the pitch and he shook Scottish football to its' core, no one had seen anything like it. Manchester United took careful note.

All clubs go through phases of mediocrity  - just ask Spurs fans about the last forty years - but the important thing is to keep trying. What Hodgson has got so horribly wrong at Liverpool is an almost complicit acceptance of the mediocrity of the team and the hopelessness of the situation. Even as a mere observer I could not believe his comments on having just been stuffed by Everton that it was 'Liverpools' best performance of the season'.

I am no Benitez fan but what he gave Liverpool fans was self respect, he stood toe to toe with Ferguson, Mourinho, whomever he came up against. Had Ferguson called Torres a cheat in his time you could be sure he wouldn't have been scared to fire back for fear of upsetting the man with the deadly hairdryer. When Mourinho arrived at Chelsea he told both the fans and more importantly the players that if they listened to him and did as he said they would win the league, you may call it arrogant but it worked. After one Liverpool defeat Hodgson said he understood the fans were upset but that they were going to lose many more games this season. Did he really expect the Kop to stomach that kind of comment or admittance? Remember the sign - 'This is Anfield'.

Regardless of the reality of a club that has not won the league for twenty years, Liverpool fans expect their club to be challenging for the title and as a minimum beating Manchester United and the two unfortunately go hand in hand right now. The landscape has changed and Chelsea and now Manchester City are capable of pumping huge resources into their clubs that simply serves to increase the challenge to the likes of Liverpool.

The most important thing and unless I'm wrong the key element for Liverpool fans in selecting the right manager is to find someone who has the same vision for the club, i.e. of winning the league and putting the club back to where the fans believe - rightly or wrongly - the club should be. What they need is exactly what Manchester United found all those years ago, a fierce, ambitious and hugely talented manager who will not rest until that job is done. What they do not need is a nice bloke from Croydon who thinks it's ok for Liverpool to finish mid table.

It's very hard to predict what will happen to Liverpool from here. It may well be that Houllier and Benitez were better managers than people thought, they were maybe just unlucky to come up against the Ferguson era, after all coming second to Michael Schumacher didn't make you a bad driver and finishing second to Tiger Woods doesn't make you a bad golfer but again, for the Kop it is not enough, never will be and nor should it.

No one really knows what the new owners will do yet at Liverpool and whether the investment that is so badly needed will materialise. A new stadium is also an absolute priority as forty odd thousand every week will not cut the mustard if they wish to catch up. The most important thing however is to find the correct manager. What they need now is a Wenger or a Ferguson who will rebuild the club from the ground up, not a Benitez or a Mourinho who are mere hired guns. Hodgson was nothing more than a stop gap and my understanding is his contract makes provisions for being replaced which merely reinforces that view. He is a nice guy and you cannot blame him for wishing to manage one of the greatest names in club football but he is not of the required stature, that much is clear. Liverpool need a five to ten year plan with a long term appointment put in place and a new stadium to be built. The Kop may need to be patient for a while longer. No Nonsense.

************

In the few hours that have passed since this blog was published, we have heard that Hodgson and Liverpool have parted company 'by mutual consent'. Kenny Dalglish will take over until the end of the season. There was little option for either Hodgson or Liverpool as it seemed he had lost both the dressing room and the stands. Dalglish however we hope is nothing more than a stop gap as his permanent hiring would be a huge backward step of the same ilk as Newcastle's disastrous re-hiring of Kevin Keegan. Whilst wishing Dalglish no ill, he is not the man to rebuild Liverpool and is a manager from a bygone era. We shall all be watching the press for further developments.