Liverpool Football Club: A Brief History of Doing Things the Hard Way
Here we go again. Four games to go. Four games to claim a Champions League spot. We’re third in the table, and if you had offered us this at the beginning of the season every single one of us would have bitten your hand off for it. And yet we are not at all secure. We have both Manchester clubs breathing down our necks, despite having poor seasons by their own standards. That’s not including Arsenal, who should never be discounted in any league season, especially when fourth place is up for grabs. We should be home and hosed. We should be out of sight of every team bar Spurs and Chelsea who are at another level to every other side in the country. We shouldn’t be wincing at the prospect of facing Troy Deeney at Watford with Dejan Lovren and Simon Mignolet in the ranks. But we are. And the most “Liverpool” thing about this whole saga is that we have done this to ourselves. As always. We ALWAYS make a hole for ourselves to scramble our way out of. Don’t believe me?
The “baby treble” year. Gary Mac bending in that free kick from about a thousand yards out at the Theatre of Beams and making Evertonians cry. Heskey playing like a prototype for Didier Drogba. Carragher playing like Roberto Carlos at left back. Gerrard smashing in goals from all angles. We all remember the good times. What is often overlooked is how we managed to almost throw away each of the three major cup finals that we played in. Take the League Cup final, when Fowler cracked in a beauty from range against Birmingham City and we still had to go to penalties. Just to put it into context, City were in the Championship (the old Division One) and are now staring at the oblivion of League One. We managed to throw away the game inside the 90 minutes and were bloody lucky not to gift a second penalty away (City’s equaliser in added time was from the spot also) in extra time. We managed to scrape through on penalties in the end.
Of course, this is not what people remember ultimately; all that matters is getting your name etched on the trophy at the final whistle. But when you start placing it into context, 2001 summed up what it’s like to be a Liverpool fan these days – when we win something we more often than not have to dig ourselves out of holes that we have made. Take the second cup final of that astounding year when we didn’t turn up for 87 minutes against a lukewarm Arsenal side in the FA Cup showpiece. It took brilliance from Michael Owen in two last throws of the dice to turn around a fixture that on the face of it was winnable from the first whistle. But being Liverpool, we contrived to put everyone through the wringer with a drab display before coming from a goal down to win in normal time. And finally, we have the UEFA Cup final of 2001, that absolutely bonkers game were we managed to make a second rate, second tier Spanish side look like Barcelona. Alaves had two players in the seasons of their lives – Contra, who made Carragher look like a pub player, and Moreno (not that one) who terrorised our back line until the latter was sent off. That’s right, we, Liverpool Football Club, needed a sending off and “Golden Goal” winner in extra time (to make it 5-4) that was actually an own goal. Once again we had created a complete pile of shite, rubbed our own faces in it and almost threw away a trophy in the process.
Of course, the “doing it the hard way” version of Liverpool didn’t stop in 2001. Before the wondrous year that was 2005 even, we managed to almost throw away a chance in the Champions League by needing the final game of the 2003/04 season to secure a place in the competition we would inexplicably go on to win. 2005 though took the hole-digging-and-clambering-out to an entirely new level. Firstly there was the group stage of the competition. On the face of it, Rafa Benitez’s squad (albeit a far from perfect one) shouldn’t have found Olympiakos, Deportivo La Caruna and Monaco too much of a challenge, although Monaco were the finalists in the previous season. However, being Liverpool, we ended up needing the final match of the group stage to secure progress. With the “Gerrard to Chelsea” saga in full swing, an unforgettable night was produced at Anfield when, needing to win to get to the knockout stage, the reds duly obliged. However, that we needed to win with three goals was our own doing, allowing Olympiakos to take an early lead. Once again, we did it the hard way. It produced that dramatic, frenetic end with that dramatic, frenetic Gerrard howitzer later on, a fine memory to be sure but by Christ, our club doesn’t half let us know that we had to go to hell to get there. And we weren’t done, not by a long shot. We faced down Juventus over two legs, taking an early two goal lead before a shoddy reply meant that the second leg, a 0-0 draw, was fraught with danger. And so on we went, to THAT final. You remember the one. The greatest comeback, the greatest European Cup final of all time – and the drama that came with it – was entirely our doing. A ramshackle display from our entire XI saw Milan wipe the floor with us for 45 minutes, led by the imperious Kaka, before we managed to haul ourselves up from the canvas to come back from 3-0 down to level the tie in “five mad minutes”, as bemused AC manager Carlo Ancelotti would go on to remark. And even then we somehow nearly contrived to throw it away and had it not been for Jerzy Dudek’s breathtaking point-blank stop from Shevchenko in the dying moments of extra time, we would have done. On to penalties we went, and we won. But what an arduous, agonising match it was. It’ll never be bettered, that night when Djimi Traore became a footballing immortal. The memories, the tales to tell, the folklore. Liverpool Football Club, on the 25th May 2005 was the ultimate in “doing it the hard way”
But we weren’t done yet, oh no. Istanbul was followed up by the FA Cup run of 2006, in which we contrived to struggle and toil against a well-drilled and efficient West Ham side in the final. Twice behind on the day, including an own goal from Jamie Carragher, meant that we once again needed to be dug out of a hole, and one again it was Gerrard, just like against Olympiakos and just like against Milan, that grabbed the shovel first to lead the way. He spanked in two wonderful goals to twice bring our Lazarus side back from the dead – his second goal has understandably gone down in legend but his first, taken on the half-volley just inside the edge of the area past onrushing defenders was equally as fantastic a hit. And then, just like Birmingham and Milan (there’s two names you don’t often see together), we were off to penalties. Reina, in his first season in the sticks, was the hero. The euphoria of the occasion has often made me forget just what a slog it was to get our hands on that FA Cup – our last one to date, in fact. What also shouldn’t be forgotten is that in the same cup run that year, we had to come from behind to beat Luton sodding Town.
After the turmoil of the protracted Benitez departure (Barry for Alonso, anyone?) came the absolute stinking dross that was the Hodgson “era”. Never before, or since, have I witnessed grown men fighting on the Kop like I did in the home game against Wolves when Sylvain Ebanks-Blake made Fernando Torres look like Sylvain Ebanks-Blake. Whenever I am reminded that the gormless waste of space Hodgson was our manager I shudder. Happily however, our new owners at that point didn’t let the silly bastard carry on, preferring instead to recruit club legend, and Chief Winder-Up of Alex Ferguson, Kenny Dalglish to firefight for the remainder of the 2010-11 campaign. Kenny was kept on for the following season when we reached the League Cup Final and the FA Cup final in the same year. We lost the FA Cup final (to Chelsea) but we managed to once again get our hands on the League Cup. And can you remember how we managed it? Of course, we were taken to penalties – by the mighty Cardiff City. Once again we almost made a pig’s ear of a final in which, given the nature of the opponent, we should have won at an absolute canter.
Excusing the Rodgers era, when we fell just short of winning the Premier League (again after being in the driving seat only to throw it away – albeit this time it was just too much for us), we arrive at the time of Jürgen Klopp. Taking Rodgers’ battered and bruised squad into his care, he guided them to two major finals – which we lost. City in the League Cup, and Sevilla, the Europa League masters, in the EL Final. But this isn’t about those two games. 2016 is most fondly remembered for the home tie against Dortmund in the EL quarter finals. It is remembered for yet another stirring fightback, yet another later, dramatic goal – this time from Lovren at the death, smashing home a header at the Kop End. It was a wonderful game, full of goals and drama, and yet once again we found ourselves needing a mountain to climb after going two goals down before half time. A second 45 of bravado and swagger and further defensive frailty saw us take the tie 4-3, leaving the Dortmund players on the deck and the fans dumbfounded. Another crucial tie in the hands of Liverpool, another crucial tie in which we almost threw it all away.
And of course that brings us here, to the final games of the 2016/17 season. A season that has seen us cut teams to ribbons with bewildering movement and a blitzkrieg of goals has also seen us perform sabotage on our own chances of playing at the highest level next season over and over again. If we don’t achieve a place in the top four, the six defeats to Hull, Leciester, Crystal Palace, Burnley, Swansea and Bournemouth, never mind the nine draws, will be the reason. Is it a hole we can once again dig ourselves out of? We can’t be certain. Recent history, as I’ve pointed out here, suggests that we can. We can still pull this off. We can still finish third or fourth and get into the Champions league next year and all of this will be a bad memory. All of the agonising and the cold sweats, the nightmarish visions of Benteke looming above our back four, or the impending figure of Troy Deeney, will be merely a footnote in the annals of our club. Well, until someone as pedantic and cynical as me writes about it in ten years or so.
Maybe it’s just destined to be our thing. United have referees in their pocket. Arsenal have Ty. The Ev have 1995. Chelsea have a Russian criminal. City have a half-empty stadium on matchdays. Maybe our thing is that we sabotage ourselves at every opportunity – that could be our thing. Contriving to snatch victory from defeats of our own making seems to be part of this club’s DNA, which makes you wonder: would be the same without that? I doubt it.
We are Liverpool. And we do it the hard way.