Red Revival: Introduction (Sample Chapter)

Posted by Paul Tomkins on June 5, 2006, 09:41:45 AM

How do you top that? Istanbul, AC Milan, Jerzy Dudek and all the unscriptable drama. Such an amazing game that simply no other could ever be fit to follow. Unfortunately, time could not be frozen at that precise moment, and we all had to return to reality sooner or later. You could move to a flat in Istanbul overlooking Taksim Square; change your name to John Xabi Luis Smith or Jimmy Jerzy Jamie Djimi Djibril Jones; have the Road To Istanbul DVD on constant repeat; but life was going to move on, whether you were ready or not.     

   The higher the high, the harder the subsequent comedown. When it came time to resume competitive football in July (yes, July), many Reds were still struggling to come to terms with the previous season’s mixture of baffling underachievement and mind-boggling overachievement. 

   Winning the Champions League did something really bizarre; it just made Kopites unhappy. Or rather, it made them ecstatically happy for a couple of months and then, once the football resumed, it became a memory –– a feeling that everyone wanted to recreate week after week. Men were waking from a one night stand with Angelina Jolie, and forced to head home to Hilda Ogden. The problem with a new season is that its arrival consigns the previous one to the history books; by mid-July, the Reds’ last game was no longer the most miraculous occasion against the mighty and glamourous AC Milan, but a low-key affair against Total Network Solutions of the Welsh league.

   There’s a very realistic chance that Istanbul will represent the high-water mark in the foreseeable future for Liverpool. Winning the league, while no longer an unthinkable proposition now Rafa Benítez is in charge, remains a tall order, and a sixth European Cup is always going to be a long shot considering the strength of the top dozen or so clubs on the continent. In the last ten years, it has eluded Chelsea, Arsenal and perennial French champions, Lyon, while other teams who have excelled in their domestic league for the best part of a decade ––Manchester United, AC Milan, Ajax, Juventus, Barcelona and Bayern Munich –– managed just one win each when in their recent pomp. As things currently stand, there are only four teams who can realistically win the Premiership in the next few years, but a lot more who can win the Champions League, where a team can always emerge from the pack, as did Porto in 2004 and Liverpool in 2005.

   Istanbul could very likely sit on its own in new-Millennium Liverpool FC, an isolated accomplishment in amongst a series of decent achievements. So what will its legacy be? Something for the club to cling to in a positive sense, like a guide rope at the pinnacle of a mountain, holding you near the top and telling you that the final steps to the summit can again be taken; or something to cling to in a negative sense, as with a long-lost dream and false hopes? It shows what can be achieved, but does it make other great accomplishments any more likely? Will it help the club on its way to becoming regular Premiership challengers? Or will it hamper efforts, as expectations rise again?

   Some clubs never return to the summit of football. Liverpool are one of those clubs that you sense will always, at the very least, hover around the top half of the top division table; after all, its lowest league position in the last 40 years, even after some dire seasons, is 8th. Like Juventus, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United, Liverpool should always feel like a ‘big’ club, even if not winning silverware. Its history and fanbase should guarantee as much. But it was still a quantum leap to get from recent results to European Champions. It was like the Wright Brothers fiddling around with their wooden flying machines one day, and building Concorde the next.

   In 1977, when Liverpool first scaled the heights of European Cup glory, fans had grown accustomed to the routine of success, with five league titles over the previous 13 years, after Bill Shankly took the Reds back to the top of the domestic tree in 1964 following a long wait. Of course, a team had to be champions to qualify in 1977; and as champions of a major league, fans had a right to expect at least a strong European challenge. But by 2005, if not exactly starved of success, the Kop had been consuming unfulfilling fast food every few years, with only the Happy Meal of 2001 proving anywhere near as substantial as the regular feasting between 1965 and 1990.

   Time doesn’t necessarily help to make any more sense of Istanbul. The trophy itself could not have been any more hard-earned and thoroughly deserved, but getting into the competition in the first place was so underwhelming, so last-ditch and desperate (ten defeats on the way to 60 points), it did not serve as a natural preparation for what followed. Nor did the Premiership form of 2004/05, or indeed, the group stage of the Champions League, even if the latter did contain a couple of sparkling performances.

   No-one expected the level of success that Liverpool experienced within ten months of Benítez’s arrival; not after teething problems and toothless displays. Halfway through his first season, there was talk of a crisis –– talk that would resurface in October 2005, just months after winning the Champions League, showing that even winning the biggest prize around does not make you immune. While most fans were optimistic about what he could do for the club in the long term, it initially appeared that Benítez had his work cut out in the short-term. The ill-feeling that cloaked Gérard Houllier’s final two years in the job meant that any manager was welcome, so disillusioned had the support become, but the reversal of the team’s domestic fortunes was taking longer than expected –– indeed, the Reds finished with a distinctly mediocre 58 points in 2005 –– and Benítez was bracketed with Houllier by some: too academic, too detached for the fire-and-brimstone English game. The difference between the two was the Spaniard’s remarkable recent record and the fact that, unlike Houllier, he was very much on the rise: an up-and-coming modern coach.


What Next?

So amazing was the Champions League success, so out of the blue (or Red), that the most interesting question became: what next?

   How ‘real’ had the success been? Was it part of a building process, or had this particular cathedral been constructed without foundations? Could success be sustained, and replicated on home soil, or was the Premiership form –– with its disconcerting 14 defeats, and only 17 wins –– the true indicator of this team’s merit? Or, possibly more accurately, was the truth directly between the two extremes?
   There were so many admirable attributes to Benítez’s Liverpool in the course of his first season, and it included some genuinely world-class footballers. But it was also, quite clearly, a work in progress.

   It was not, as some jealous rival fans inevitably suggested, the ‘worst ever team to win the trophy’. The quality of the opposition vanquished (Juventus, Chelsea, AC Milan, not to mention two recent finalists and the previous season’s semi-finalists); the remarkable and essential three-goal second halves against Olympiakos and Milan; and the core of a side that included players of the calibre of Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Jamie Carragher, Didi Hamann, Sami Hyypia, Luis Garcia and the criminally-underrated Steve Finnan –– all these points go toward making that clear. But of course this was still the victory of ‘outsiders’, and the team, if far from the worst-ever, was also clearly not the best. Subsequent events proved that the win was not based on luck, although like all teams in cup competitions, luck played its part, in both a positive and a negative sense.

   If the Reds were not a great Premiership side in 2004/05, the continuation of the European groove in the first half of the 2005/06 season –– topping a group that contained Chelsea, while Manchester United belly-flopped at the first hurdle –– proved that the glory of Istanbul was no fluke, even if the title of European Champions was conceded rather limply against United’s conquerors, Benfica, at the stage of the season when the Reds, looking fatigued, couldn’t seem to buy a goal.

   Despite the setback against the Portuguese, this was still a highly-polished outfit, with a brilliant tactician at the helm. In the whole of 2005 Liverpool were quite superb in European competition, even finding another three-goal post-half-time salvo when a goal behind to CSKA Moscow in the Super Cup, eventually winning 3-1. The Reds were unbeaten in the Champions League ‘proper’ the entire calendar year, encompassing 13 games, seven of which had been against the highest possible calibre of opposition. A further six games were undertaken in qualifying, the only blot the home reversal to CSKA Sofia with the tie already effectively won (with three away goals already in the bag), when fielding a fairly weakened line-up was a luxury Benítez could afford. Including the Super Cup, Liverpool played 20 European games in 2005, losing only one, and winning fifteen. That is the kind of form the Reds would need to find in the Premiership to be taken seriously.

   To put the calendar year’s European form into context, had all the European games come with three points for a win and one point for a draw, Liverpool would have averaged 2.5 points per game –– exactly the same ratio Chelsea achieved when setting their record Premiership-winning tally of 95.


Too Soon?

One question begging to be answered was: had the success been premature? Like a child born before term, would Benítez’s team suffer from exposure and find itself unable to breathe in the full glare of rampant expectation? The answer, in the autumn of 2005, was a resounding ‘yes’ from some sections of the press. Liverpool seemed no better prepared to deal with the Premiership –– a cursory glance at the early-autumn league table would suggest as much. The assumptions of Jekyll and Hyde tendencies were carried over from the previous season. It seemed that Chelsea could not get a goal, let alone a win against Liverpool in Europe, encompassing four Champions League games; and yet in a visit to Anfield on the 2nd of October the Londoners ran out shock 4-1 winners, even if the scoreline was a little flattering. Things would get worse in the coming weeks, with a 2-0 reverse at Fulham (this time a remarkable comeback at Craven Cottage was not forthcoming) and defeat to Crystal Palace in the Carling Cup.

   Despite only one win in the first six games, Liverpool had actually been improving on the corresponding fixtures from the previous season, and dominating games without finishing off the opposition. The 0-0 draw at Boro on the opening day of the season was one of the best away performances yet under Benítez, and that was backed up with a similar display and identical result at Spurs (who would subsequently prove the season’s surprise package), but the flying start everyone had been hoping for, especially after the added fitness of a competitive pre-season, never materialised. Less bang, more whimper.

   So would Benítez go the same way as Gérard Houllier, and find that winning trophies had made a rod for his own back? Houllier had claimed that his Treble came ‘too soon’, but that was at the end of his third season. Looking back, you have to say that it came at precisely the right time. The following season the Reds, despite winning nothing, finished with 80 Premiership points and a quarter-final position in the Champions League. An undeniably steady progression; so 2001 hardly raised expectations too high. Most Reds were happy with the team’s progress the following season, even if endeavour started to replace inspiration a little too frequently. So the problem was not the success and the raised expectations, but a failure to maintain momentum, and to continue adding elements to elevate the team. Benítez would need to make sure his signings during the summer of 2005 didn’t derail progress, instead ensuring that they added missing ingredients.

   In the summer of 2002, Houllier got it all wrong; mistakes saw him paint himself into a corner (bad transfers don’t easily go away), and left too little leeway to redeem himself. Maybe he had taken the side as far as his abilities would allow, lacking the tactical flexibility to push on; or maybe he just screwed up that summer’s rebuilding programme and, despite better subsequent efforts, was unable to rectify the damage. (Steve Finnan and Harry Kewell, Houllier’s signings the following summer, both went on to become key players for Rafa Benítez, at a total cost of just £8m).


Revival

So, to the key issue: what, exactly, constitutes a revival? And what can Liverpool fans realistically expect in the coming years?

   It’s fairly clear that under Benítez’s shrewd stewardship and under normal circumstances, Liverpool would already be challenging for the Premiership title. But these are not normal circumstances. This is the era of the billionaire oil tycoon owning a football club, and running it at a massive loss. In such circumstances there is not a lot a competing team can do, beyond trying its level-best to get close; and, if still unable to beat them, joining them. But wishing for an ultra-generous benefactor is a dangerous game; look at Hearts, and the soap opera that unfolded this season. Finding the right investor, and getting him to take a fairly-valued stake of a club –– the stumbling block with Steve Morgan’s offers in 2004 –– without disrupting the apple cart, or removing the heart and soul of the club in the process, is difficult. There are plenty of fans –– at all clubs –– who would be grateful to see a new investor turn up with huge wads of cash, so that their wildest transfer wishes may be granted. The difficulties tend to arise later down the line, when the full implications of any deal become apparent. In an ideal world, a club would find a local investor, with a long-held passion for the club, with so much spare money that it becomes no object; the money could then be invested cleverly, and consistently, with no strings attached. But would it be ‘sport’?

   While Chelsea have every right to spend their money as they see fit, there can also be no denying that it is now a hugely uneven playing field. So Liverpool’s revival might amount to nothing more than 2nd-placed rosettes. Even the great Bob Paisley never had to face a team who could outspend Liverpool four times over.

   What Liverpool need, in order to be fully revived, is to be firmly established in the Champions League qualification positions, and to make substantial progress in as many cups as possible. In other words, to become an undisputed player, rather than loitering at the fringes. So far, that is precisely what Benítez has brought to the club. Dominating English football is no longer a realistic option, but the Reds have to be in a position to take advantage of any slips by the perennial big spenders, and to take whatever chances come their way. Unlike in too many seasons since last winning the league title in 1990, Liverpool have to be capable of at least challenging for the Premiership crown.

   And once firmly established within the top four on an annual basis, not be another false dawn. For two years under Gérard Houllier, at the turn of the Millennium, Liverpool were clearly an emerging force –– if, ultimately, a force that fell short of capturing the most important trophies. Just when it appeared the club was set for years of top-level performance, the cracks began to appear, and then quickly spread.

   This time, the revival needs to be for more than a couple of seasons. No-one can guarantee that –– especially if there’s an enforced managerial change, for an unforeseen reason, that affects the stability of the club. But Rafael Benítez is attempting to build a side that can compete both in the here-and-now, and yet keep a firm eye on the future and the legacy he will bequeath the club.

© Paul Tomkins 2006

“Red Revival” is available from www.paultomkins.com from this week for the RRP of £11.99. Orders from my site will be signed. The book will be in shops and online stores on June 20th.


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