17 December 2013

The Silence of the Liverpool Fans

Perhaps more deafening than the silence of Manchester United fans, whose team lies in an unaccustomed eighth in the Premiership table as of this writing, is the silence of the Liverpool fans, whose team lies second and a mere two points behind league leaders Arsenal going into the hectic holiday fixtures.

You will not hear anyone crowing, even after a string of fine results following the ignominy of losing 1-3 away to Hull City on the first of December. That defeat was followed by three scintillating high-scoring victories: 5-1 and 4-1 at home to Norwich and West Ham United; and, astoundingly, 5-nil away to Tottenham Hotspur.

It has been more than 23 years since Liverpool last won the league; and the club has never won the title in the Premiership era. Despite the current lofty position in the table, however, Liverpool fans will be the first to shrug off talk about the title.

There have just been way too many false dawns in the last 23 years; and Liverpool fans have learned over the years not to allow themselves to get carried away lest the season end in disappointment – yet again – come May.

Of the team that played at the Lane, Henderson and Mamadou Sakho are 23; Philippe Coutinho is 21; fullback Jon Flanagan is 20; and winger Raheem Sterling is 20. The oldest man on the field was central defender Martin Skrtl, who is only 29 and at the peak of his career. Title or no title, there is so much to look forward to.
Under French manager Gerard Houllier in 2002 and then again under Spaniard Rafa Benitez in 2009, Liverpool challenged bravely for the title only to run out of steam in the homestretch and finish second to Arsenal and United, respectively.

Even in those two bridesmaid seasons, Liverpool fans were more hopeful than confident as, indeed, the football on the pitch lacked the swagger of Liverpool teams of yore. In both occasions, finishing second, while disappointing was regarded as an achievement.

Liverpool fans my age, of course, know that during the Golden Era, finishing second was actually regarded as a disappointment. And Liverpool fans my age also know that the teams that finished bridesmaid on both occasions were but pale shadows of the great Liverpool teams of yore.

But there was something in that 5-nil demolition of Tottenham at White Hart Lane last Sunday that all Liverpool fans my age around the world would also have recognised. It was no so much the result but the ethic, which in the past invariably brought the result.

I do not mind admitting that the fixture worried me because Liverpool’s performances at the Lane had not been exactly a source of inspiration in the last few seasons. In the end, all my worries were quashed by an emphatic performance that brought Liverpool its biggest victory at White Hart Lane ever.

There was concern that captain Steven Gerrard was unavailable for up to 8 weeks due to a hamstring condition. Personally, I was not overly concerned because Gerrard, a Liverpool icon created by the modern media, has never really won me over.

Don’t anyone get on my back because I know all about his passing range and his shooting ability. My problem with Gerrard has always been that he has always tended to play in bursts.

These bursts can come in between periods when he can be totally pedestrian, even lazy. I especially hate it when he often takes a fraction of a second to track back when he himself loses possession. In contrast, Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson – supposed ‘lesser’ stars – immediately rush back to regain possession as should always be the case.

Moreover, because Gerrard is such a global icon, the youngsters around him rather tend to defer to him. He had been out for stretches before and the other players had always tended to play better without him.

This was exactly what happened at the Lane. In Gerrard’s absence, everyone else stepped up. The home victories over Norwich and West Ham were all about Luis Suarez. The win over Tottenham was all about the team.

Liverpool fans my age would have instantly recognised that the team hunted in packs to get the ball back, something Liverpool teams of yore did with devastating effect week in and week out. The chasing and harrying to win the ball back was persistent and purposeful; and when the ball was won back, the attacks were incisive.

Almost – but not yet – like the Liverpool of old.

It will take a string of similar victories over the top sides to bring the swagger back; and, indeed, matches away to Manchester City and Chelsea will probably define the rest of the season.

That is why Liverpool fans will continue to remain silent about any discussions about the title. It still remains to be seen whether the team can not only face up to the top sides but also avoid being vulnerable to sides like Hull City.

The key, of course, is to play with the same level of intensity as against Tottenham at the Lane in what pundits are already calling a ‘statement’ game. I am also not a fan of Brendan Rodgers’ tinkering, as this will not allow the team to settle.

Dropping players always has to be on the basis of form or injury. While it sometimes makes sense to rotate players for tactical reasons, it was not the Liverpool way to worry about other teams but, instead, to leave the worrying to them.

While like most Liverpool fans I will also avoid talking about the title, I will not deny that I am feeling a sense of optimism that I have not felt in the last two decades. It is not so much the current league position, but more that it has been done with a well-balanced team in terms of age and experience.

Of the team that played at the Lane, Henderson and Mamadou Sakho are 23; Philippe Coutinho is 21; fullback Jon Flanagan is 20; and winger Raheem Sterling is 19. The oldest man on the field was central defender Martin Skrtl, who is only 29 and at the peak of his career. Title or no title, there is so much to look forward to.

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