Anyone for seconds?Embed from Getty Images
During the Premier League era, our perplexing, exhilarating, frustrating club have been no strangers to finishing second in the league. It’s happened on no less than four occasions, as well as a few third place spots thrown in. Rafa Benítez, Brendan Rodgers and Jürgen Klopp have all seen their sides fall just short – as did Gérard Houllier, back in 2002 in a season where he was diagnosed with a serious heart condition and spent five months in hospital. While their boss recovered, our boys in Red clambered to the summit of the league table, only to be overhauled by a frankly incredible Arsenal side. However, second place was seen as a superb season overall, building on the impressive treble campaign the season before.
It was reasonable to assume, therefore, that Houllier’s charges were in prime position to go on and launch an all-out assault on the league table during the 2002-03 campaign. History will show how that dream flared, and then died and how the fifth season of Houllier’s “Five Year Plan” left a bitter, El-Hadji Diouf taste in the mouth – in spite of winning a trophy, the League Cup. It would, in the end, be a portent of things to come for the Frenchman, as even in 2002, his project – that would end in 2004 – began to unravel.
2002 was my first year at University. I met a lovely girl from Wavertree in the VR Bar in town, and as is common in fitful bursts of youthful exuberance and romance, some of the 2002-03 season flew past me rather quickly. The first few months of the campaign especially whistled by quicker than a Senegalese striker’s spit heading towards a Celtic fan’s head.
Luckily, however, the Reds were paying attention to their jobs, unlike me. Liverpool roared to the top of the table in an unbeaten twelve game blitz that saw huge wins at Elland Road, and at home to Chelsea and Spurs. We scored 24 goals and conceded only nine, showing Houllier’s well-drilled training methods and a squad largely the same as it was the previous season.
Nobody Loves You When You’re Diao-n and OutEmbed from Getty Images
Hopes had been high, in the summer of 2002, that Liverpool would sign mercurial striker Nicolas Anelka, who had been with the club on loan from PSG since the previous winter. He had been drafted in as the replacement for the departed Robbie Fowler, a transfer that still rankled with many of us – and in this writer’s opinion, was the beginning of the end for Houllier.
However, the club did not sign the Frenchman, despite his impressive scoring campaign in 01-02, opting instead for a transfer swoop that wouldn’t be topped in terms of how bollocks it was until Roy “Torres isn’t world class” Hodgson in 2011.
In came Bruno Cheyrou (whom Houllier hilariously dubbed “the new Zidane” – not since calling Titanic “unsinkable” had there been a worse jinx), and two World Cup 2002 stars, Salif Diao and “Serial Killer” El-Hadji Diouf. At the time, there was little to initially complain about – both had played very well for their native Senegal and both had burgeoning reputations in the game.
Diouf especially came with a huge deal of promise, and he scored twice in the first home game of the season, a 3-0 win over Southampton. Diao was drafted in to central midfield, while Diouf could operate on the flank or through the middle. He would also prove adept at gobbing his saliva at fans – in fact, he was better at that than finding the net for the Reds, although we wouldn’t realise that for some time.
These three signings would come to epitomise the collapse of the Houllier project at Anfield – and yet by November of 2002, not one Liverpool fan, or indeed Houllier, would have expected this to come to pass, since we were top and flying.Embed from Getty Images
Seriously, what is the point of Middlesbrough? They can’t even muster themselves to be the second city of the north east, preferring to remain third behind perennial failures Sunderland. This fact alone proves that Smog Town is a dour place to play football. And so it goes with Liverpool.
Back in 2000, Sander Westerveld had complained that frost on the ball had led to him making a blunder that led to Middlesbrough snatching a 1-0 win at Teeside – a statement made even more hilarious when he came to collect a deep cross in the 82nd minute of the 2002 fixture, flapped at it and watched as King of the Waistcoat Gareth Southgate poked the ball home for yet another dismal defeat away to this frankly annoying club.
However, this apparent blip that ended a 12 match unbeaten run would prove to be the first defeat in a run of 11 games without a win in the league, running concurrently with a woeful exit from the European Cup at the group stage where Liverpool couldn’t even beat Basel. I wouldn’t be this annoyed with Switzerland again until they made Toblerones smaller.
This run of defeats and wounding draws, even though we would not know it yet, was the death knell for any hope we had of winning the league. Our new signings had failed to settle properly, with Cheyrou in particular struggling to cope with the Zidane comparisons. Only a dynamic Steven Gerrard, and an always ruthless Michael Owen, managed to keep Houllier’s side in with a chance of finishing in the European Cup spots.
Only the League Cup would bring some relief for fans – and even then it was fraught with near misses and near-upsets. Sheffield United and Ipswich Town took Liverpool all the way – Town in particular, who took the Reds to penalties in the fourth round, did themselves incredibly proud.
However, it was the final and a win over Manchester United, that the campaign would be properly remembered for. Gerrard scored a belter, further cementing his growing reputation as the best central midfielder in the country, and Owen finished off the Mancs, and in a small way gain some revenge for the FA Cup final defeat back in 1996.
But everywhere else it was chaos and carnage for Liverpool, especially on the road – we only won two games away from Anfield all season, and as anyone who has won the league will testify, you need as many points on your travels as possible to be a serious contender. Liverpool lacked urgency moving the ball forward, and often found that when Plan A didn’t work, they would simply try Plan A again, hoping for a different outcome. What was it that Einstein said about repeating the same errors expecting change? Oh, and we crashed out of the UEFA Cup (the forerunner to the Europa League) to Celtic. Which was nice.
Throughout December, teams like Sunderland and Charlton Athletic used Liverpool as a punch bag, and before the end of February, in a dismal defeat away to Birmingham, the dream of the title was effectively over. Liverpool had become far too reliant on Owen and Gerrard to get them out of trouble, and when one, or neither of them, was available, the new lads just couldn’t fill the chasm-like void that they left behind.
Houllier cut an increasingly disillusioned figure on the sidelines, and became much more hostile towards the press. In short, things were going wrong, fast.
The League Cup triumph, many felt, would not be enough to justify the Frenchman’s long term future but seven wins in their final eleven games was evidently enough proof for the board that Houllier was still the man for the job, regardless of the fact that the players looked clueless after Christmas, and the style of football was turgid at best. A heavy defeat to Manchester United on the 5th of April solidified Liverpool’s fall from grace, and they managed to lose their two final games of the season, one to Chelsea, the other to Manchester City. Already there were murmurings that Steven Gerrard was unhappy – a rumour that would dog the player and the club for some seasons yet.
Liverpool, Liverpool, fifth in the league
The world was changing in 2003. The Allied forces, led by the US and UK, launched a disastrous, soon-to-be-proven illegal war in Iraq, a conflict that would cost millions of lives and the repercussions of which are felt today. Nations such as Poland and the Czech Republic formally joined the European Union. The term “binge-watch” was officially coined. And in Antwerp, Belgium, £100 million worth of jewellery was robbed from a vault, an theft that would be one of the biggest of all time – but nowhere near as big as the robbery that was paying for a ticket at Anfield to watch El-Hadj fucking Diouf wear the red shirt of Liverpool Football Club.