What were you doing in 2006? Before the financial crash, before Brexit, before Trump, before Derry Girls? I was having a go at playing golf.
The Open (that’s the “British Open” to my friends across the pond) had just been at the Royal Liverpool in Hoylake.
An old mate of mine, Paul Waring, had not long turned pro and was at the tournament in the year that Tiger Woods won it, despite being held up by someone from Fathers For Justice dressed as Batman.
Being a Red back in 2006 was boss. We’d just won the FA Cup after the Gerrard (and Sissoko) Final, Rafa was establishing us a force to be reckoned with and just like me, his players were taking an active interest in golf.
Specifically one player – Craig Bellamy. Although he approached it in a far more unorthodox manner back in 2006.Embed from Getty Images
Back In The Swing Of Things
It would be the season we would reach another European Cup Final, once again against AC Milan. This time, it was they who came out on top despite having the lesser of the two sides on paper – not too dissimilar to the circumstances in 2005 when we didn’t really have any right to beat them.
We would get there by playing some terrific stuff, beating Chelsea (again) along the way as well as beating Barcelona at the Nou Camp; something which no other side in England has done – and we’ve done it twice.
At boardroom level, we weren’t to know it at the time, a seismic and entirely negative takeover would happen in the new year. David Moores and Rick Parry handed over the reins to the Americans Tom Hicks and George Gillett.
It would be a toxic relationship that involved broken promises, a chronic lack of understanding of the club at a local and worldwide level, and a confrontation in the Sandon pub, where the son of one of the owners definitely came off worse.
But of course, in 2006 we did not know that all of this would come to pass. I did not know that it would come to pass, as I happily pretended to enjoy hauling around a bag of metal sticks around a large patch of wooded land, constantly hiding from the Community Patrol because I’d bunked on to the local municipal course without paying.
The Reds were the FA Cup holders, Rafa was leading us to glory and Craig Bellamy attacked our left-back with a nine iron. Life was good.Embed from Getty Images
Pennant-ce For Our Sins
A busy summer saw us sign Bellamy, Dirk Kuyt and the woefully disappointing Jermaine Pennant, for more than £20 million.
Additionally, there were a handful of free transfers (including Fabio Aurelio) mixed in, to add to a largely settled squad that knew each other’s business and functioned very well.
Players from the Houllier era, such as Chris Kirkland, Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Salif Diao were offloaded, trimming the squad down as Benitez looked to find a side that would be capable of mounting a title challenge.
In Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard, he had one of the most formidable midfields in world football but the elusive magic ingredient that could spark a serious run at the league wouldn’t quite happen.Embed from Getty Images
Having started well by claiming the Community Shield by seeing off Chelsea, the Reds drew at Brammall Lane (our last game there until this weekend just gone).
Then we beat West Ham thanks to an absolute thunderbastard from Daniel Agger, who absolutely rammed one in at the Kop End.
The visiting ‘keeper apparently had to watch Match of the Day to see where the ball ended up. The fairly average start was turned into a dismal one when we lost 3-0 to Everton at the Theatre of Beams in one of the worst derby performances this writer has ever witnessed.
It further compounded the nagging feeling that while Rafa had made us formidable in cups and at home in the league, we just couldn’t quite get our away performances to match.
September became a mixed bag for the Reds, losing to Bolton Wanderers and Chelsea, drawing against Eindhoven in the European Cup and then turning over Galatasaray, Spurs and Newcastle – where Xabi Alonso scored from around 3,000 miles out.
October was marginally better although we got turned over by Man United at “Castle Greyskull”, and even at this early stage, it was evident that we wouldn’t have the required minerals to win the league.
Away The Lads
Our first away win wouldn’t arrive until December against Wigan. That was how disappointing our away form had become in those days.
Defeats to Blackburn and then Arsenal soon followed. Once again, there was an accusation that either we couldn’t compete in terms of squad depth on multiple fronts, or that the players’ heads were turned by the European Cup.
A win at home to Chelsea, courtesy of Dirk Kuyt and a wonder strike by Pennant (the only useful thing he ever did at Anfield, besides leave), lessened the disquiet that had begun to swirl around the club.Embed from Getty Images
By the time March rolled around, the title was, without doubt, a far-off pipe dream. Beating Barcelona however put a real gloss on things, dumping the Catalans out with relative ease; an impressive Alvaro Arbeloa keeping a young lad with great promise very quiet. His name? Leo Messi.
The match became famous for the “golf swing” celebration by Bellamy after he scored; it was a reference to a news story that had broken stating that the Welshman had barged into the hotel room of John Arne Riise and threatened him with a golf club. He was shy and retiring like that, Bellamy.
The league lurched on, ultimately a third-placed finish was what awaited Benitez’s team, along with a pitiful defence of our FA Cup – going out in the third round to Arsenal.
Eindhoven were dumped out of the European Cup which was then followed by Chelsea getting their wings clipped at Anfield again, Kuyt and Pepe Reina the penalty shootout heroes.
A final in Athens was the prize, but despite Liverpool having the better side we badly fluffed our lines on the main stage; Peter Crouch bafflingly held back from the starting lineup when his unique talents could have certainly unlocked a Milan defence that was nowhere near what it used to be.
You Can’t Polish A Third
In hindsight, we can clearly see the seeds of what would eventually consume Benitez, the fanbase and almost the entire club were sown in the 2006/07 campaign.
The 10 league defeats showed that not enough was being done to properly challenge for the Holy Grail.
The £9 million for Dirk Kuyt as the “marquee” signing showed that the club were still nowhere near their rivals (United, Arsenal, Chelsea) in terms of revenue and transfer budgets.
Benitez’s failure to seek a Plan B when Plan A was not working. Average signings, like Pennant, showed that we could not challenge at the very highest level.Embed from Getty Images
Although in coming seasons we would sign the explosive Fernando Torres, and finish a Rafa-high second (08/09) as well as dismantle Real Madrid home and away in coming years.
Things started to come apart back in 2007, when instead of investing heavily in the playing squad after a second European Cup final in two years, money and time (as well as promises) would be wasted.
We wouldn’t see another trophy for six years. There were some great moments, to be sure – Fowler scoring in a Liverpool shirt (albeit sporadically) across 2006 and 2007 after being unceremoniously sold in 2002) was a joy, as was the unpredictable brilliance of Bellamy.
Knocking out Chelsea will never not be funny. Incredible goals from Pennant, Alonso and Steven Gerrard. Great team showings in Europe. But being so timid when we could have achieved greatness will always rankle with me when it comes to 2006/07.
But it was okay though, because I could always have a go at golf to take my mind off things.