Part 3 1999-2004
Note: I have updated Part 2 to include Jack Charlton’s last stand at Anfield in 1995. RIP to the great man.
And so into the new millennium. I will try to keep the catharsis to a minimum but these days were tough in many respects. Let’s get to it.
These were the rock and roll years, for me at least. Even U2 provided the theme for ITVs coverage as they took over the Saturday night highlights show for the following season. Bono and Co. had capitalised on their inoffensiveness to become the soundtrack to the new millennium. This music was everywhere. But at least it wasn’t owned by Louis Walsh.
Not that Irish based Premiership fans had to worry about all that. We had our own show, a full two hours before English TV. Coupled with a recent return to deferred coverage of Saturday 3pm games on RTE and the early part of the new millennium was looking good overall.
Full disclosure on my part however, I recall very little of 1999/2000. I started August as a trainee manager in my local Spar and ended May in Randolph, Massachusetts, working on occasional demolition jobs for cash in hand. While many of Ireland’s sons can lay claim to building America, I can take pride in pulling a bit of it down for roughly 60 dollars a day.
Liverpool 3-1 Leeds
Liverpool FC themselves were once again attempting another rebuild, as Gerard Houllier set about improving a club he had fallen in love with during a short time as a French teacher in the UK back in the 60s. In his first full season he set about his task with relish. In what was to become an almost cliched picture of new recruits sporting the new season’s kits GH looked as if he’d bought half a new team.
Eric Meijir! Westerveld, Henchoz, Hyypia, Camara, Smicer (Heskey had arrived in March) all came in. They were to replace a host of others. Among them were Rob Jones, Steve McManaman, Paul Ince and (YES YES YES you fuckin beauty!!!)David James to Villa. My relief was vindicated in that season’s FA Cup final, your problem now Villains!
Also, I haven’t probably paid due credit to Vegard Heggem who was an accomplished right back during the previous seasons. Like so many others around then his Anfield career was also blighted by injury . He remained in the squad until 2003.)
The biggest thing in club football to happen this summer was the restructuring of the Champions League. England, Spain, Germany and Italy were to be awarded an additional place in the competition. This didn’t sit well with United fans who felt it should be a competition for domestic league winners only. Ironic when you think that they finished second in the 1997/98 season.
But either way Liverpool had a very tangible, very attainable target in this season. And our biggest rivals for it were going to be Chelsea and a Leeds side coming along very nicely under David O’Leary.
Some eye catching goals in this one. Not least the last one by a young Danny Murphy. What might catch your eye even more is a cherubic Steven Gerrard sitting down with cramp in the dying moments. His growing pains were to be a hindrance in the first few years of his senior career but this season was to be a very fruitful one for him. A splendid solo goal against Sheffield Wednesday as well as two goal line clearances against Everton in the derby gave Keegan enough justification to put him in the England squad for the summer’s European Championship. Mr Gerrard was putting himself about all right.
It looked very good for the Reds after this, Europe wise. Alas Bradford City had a little something to say about that on the final day. I wasn’t as gutted as I should have been because I’d missed so much of the season for various reasons.
It was a crazy year. It took a few months to realise I had blown it in school big time, spending most of my time writing stories instead of getting to grips with Pass Level Maths. Hindsight is a hell of a drug though and I’ve OD’d on it far too often by now. In between the two jobs mentioned I worked in Roches Stores in Blanch, an 8pm to 8am night shift in 3-Com in Ballycoolin and a few months in Elvery’s Sports. I also joined a drama group in the YMCA in Aungier Street for a while. My old English teacher Mick Stanley even arranged work experience for me in The Gate Theatre but I didn’t know what I was at. Or maybe nobody explained it. Anyway, c’est lá vie.
I applied for a filmmaking course in Ballyfermot at the start of 2000 but despite having my first movie ‘Balaclavas in the Sky’ as part of my application the interview did not go well. I guess I had some far flung ideas in mind. Maybe I could work in America for a year or two, get some money together and buy some more camera equipment. Nothing worked out. I had no patience and no determination. Just a face full of acne and low self esteem.
Why is this important you might ask? Why indeed. While I struggled to find my place in the world and came to terms with the fact I had made the single biggest academic fuck up of my life, the only constant was football. And when I got to the States even that wasn’t available without much of a struggle. I was still only 19 and legally too young to be hanging out in the bars all the time. We watched a couple of the EURO 2000 games but that was about it. Even if it had worked out I don’t think I would have stayed much longer there. Work was increasingly rare without a social security number and I figured I might be back in a few years to take over the place anyway! Better to come home and try again with better preparation.
(note audio is out of sync here. Duplicate it, mute the first one and start the second with audio two seconds after it, go back to the first and watch it!)
Liverpool 4- Arsenal 0
I came back to Dublin with the tail slightly between my legs. The good folk at Elvery’s took me back in. I got to liking the place. I was in charge of the jerseys and took pride in having my section look spick and span.
We occasionally had some celebs in. Ronan Keating, Keith Duffy and erm, Meath’s Tommy Dowd. He asked for a discount on a golf bag one evening but I was still bitter about the Leinster final in ’96 and charged him full whack!
Liverpool had changed their kits again and I invested in the gold and navy away jersey a few weeks after my first pay packet. There was a nice mix of football fans working there and the chat was always good. Ireland’s new found success in rugby did our overall sales no harm either.
I don’t think I was cut out for retail long term mind you. The days dragged on like billio and I craved the idea of having more free time to do something meaningful. Notions Ray, notions.
On to matters LFC and Houllier was in his second full season. He had enjoyed another spree in the summer. Barmby, McAllister, Babbel, Ziege and future cult hero Igor Biscan among others. Nobody expected a title challenge. It was United’s to lose, with the Gunners expected to offer some resistance.
Arsenal were quite depleted on this day, while we were spoilt for choice. At this point Fowler was no longer undroppable, far from it in fact. Transfer rumours had dogged him during this time, with a muted move to Chelsea even mentioned by Alan Parry in the above clip. Other whisperings of training ground arguments with Phil Thompson could also be heard.
For me Fowler deserves so much praise. And yet when something comes so naturally to someone you can’t help but feel a bit annoyed that he might have wasted his chance. On one hand he was ultra reliable for us for four years, often winning games single handedly scoring a range of goals that only he could. In a team where so many often lost their heads he was coolness personified from all angles and both feet. He had always maintained a strong bond with the fans too, particularly when he supported the local dockers strike in 1997 with a T-Shirt reveal.
The injuries when they did come took away some of his confidence however. And in turn some of his aura. The twenty five goal seasons were never to be seen again after ’97. For a natural goalscorer who also supplied many assists, Robbie’s game was all about being in the final third when it mattered. Unlike Rush before him he was not our first line of defence and so to get the best out of him he needed willing assistants. Houllier’s philosophy we would come to learn, did not entertain such innocent notions of attacking football. And in the end, no matter what all the other stuff was, whatever was said to whoever, Robbie Fowler was destined to leave. His legacy remains untainted by the red hordes however. Rightly so in my view. For a few seasons, GOD was a wee lad from Toxeth.
I had a great day watching this in any case. I arrived at the lounge of O’Dwyers at 11.30am and left some 13 hours later. I had a nice sirloin around 6 o’ clock and kept her lit all day, even managing to turn up at James Connolly’s house for a few cans.
In all honesty I could have chosen at least fifteen other games this year. The imagination had been truly recaptured. You could sense that there was a buzz about us in the media. There was still inconsistency but from about February onwards we were battering teams with ease. Derby away sticks out, United at home and away, plus of course Everton away. Gary McAllister was salvaged from a Coventry scrapheap and became the best free transfer in our history( only Milner would later rival him)
In Europe the archetypal performance in Rome was exquisite. 0-2 with an Owen brace. The kind of grown up game plan Bob Paisley probably whispered to Souness and Neal twenty years previously. I was back in O’Dwyers for the Alaves Final; a display that was slightly less tactical to say the least. And then of course the two Cardiff finals. A great three months. Other fans working so hard to diminish that Cup Treble spoke volumes.
This new, less pretty Liverpool were extremely effective.
Liverpool 1-0 Chelsea
This season was going to be the one right? Ooh man just thinking about it, we were looking really bloody good in the spring of 2002. United were falling away and overcoming Arsenal appeared eminently more possible, psychologically if nothing else.
As it came to pass Wenger had actually built very well the previous summer. After seeing Owen outrunning Adams and Dixon in Cardiff he had to think about breaking up the famed back four. Tony Adams made it easier for him by announcing his retirement at the end of the season. A few key signings in Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure saw them looking far more mobile. Plus their midfield was pure class; Vieira especially( this was far more his season than the ‘Invincibles’ year). In times to come we would realise that Gerard and Arsene only had passports in common. They couldn’t have been further apart in tactics.
Houllier’s strength was the squad game. Rotation and vital substitutions. Similar to Fergie in 1998/99 the penny had dropped that making in-game switches in key moments was not just to rest players but to knock out weary opponents after seventy odd minutes of battle. We were experts in late goals during this time.
The squad itself had been tweaked since the previous year and would be tweaked during the season too. John Arne Riise came in at left back and would eventually be the most successful Norwegian we had. Milan Baros was signed but work permit issues delayed his debut considerably. In addition Houllier took the decision to sign two goalkeepers (Dudek and Kirkland) to compete with each other after Westerweld was unceremoniously( and unfairly imo) dumped after a couple of errors. It still keeps me up at night wondering how many chances his predecessors had been given.
Jamie Redknapp finally succumbed to his injuries and found a club more accommodating to his body’s needs; joining Spurs on a free later in the season. Younger fans might only know him as an eager to please pundit. Certainly his stint on Sky Sports has left them wondering how many teams one man can support. Nevertheless he was a beautiful player to watch and not only for Liverpool. His cameo for the Three Lions against the Scots in ’96 ensured that the bandwagon could actually start moving. Twenty odd minutes of metronomic, soothing passing had calmed the nerves of his teammates and got them to start playing again. It was so disappointing that afternoon ended for him like so many others; in the treatment room.
Also, ‘God’ officially left in the Autumn for rivals Leeds. It was seen by many as a power move in the dressing room and Houllier had won it. One of Robbie’s last acts was to score a hat trick at Filbert Street. It looked all the way like he was getting back to very good form. But GH saw it differently. As some kind of consolation Nikola Anelka arrived a few months later and looked very tasty indeed. Jari Litmanen too had come in January 2001 but it became apparent that similar to Riedle before him we were getting a class act slightly past it.
Our team was very strong but the Gunners were stronger still. Perhaps the experience of 97/98 told in the end but we made very few errors. It didn’t feel like our tilt in 1997 when we were just letting ourselves down every few weeks. To my eyes the effort going into each game was hugely admirable. Of course, the players were no doubt taking inspiration from Houllier himself. After being taken ill in a match against Leeds in early October, it was reported GH had suffered a heart attack. Thommo took over and went on a seamless transitional run. When Houllier returned for a key European game against Roma, Anfield erupted again. It was a misplaced gesture in a way. Houllier needed a little bit more time off according to many at the club. He had lost weight and was still poorly.
Still though I fondly remember this Chelsea game. I genuinely felt the Premier League Trophy was in touching distance. Within weeks I was leaving Elvery’s for a new job. But I’ll always remember Kenny Cragie singing in the shoe section the morning after this.
‘He’s Czech, he’s great, he’s Paddy Berger’s mate, Vladi Smic( pronounced Smeeetz) Vladi Smic!’
Liverpool 2-0 United
And with that, it was gone!
Out of the Champions League a few weeks earlier after another almost famous night in Switzerland, the Reds couldn’t buy a league win either. Our fall was dramatic and took everyone by surprise.
After a year and half of virtually relentless good form, the hope in our collective hearts dropped to the floor. Jerzy Dudek, a man who I learned to love, had to suffer the pain of a clanger against the old enemy. It was December 2002. United had won 2-1 in Anfield, their first victory there in three years. Houllier’s team never recovered.
This was a hard hard season. I watched the Charity Shield in Belfast with my pals Johnny and Pat Mc. Arsenal had comprehensively beat us 1-0. Again it looked like we were after missing a trick.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time but looking back on it, the reasons were simple. Just look at these transfers in: Cheyrou, Diouf, Diarra, Luzi and Diao. The training must have been so pedestrian, so average. Diao was arguably the best of the bunch here and the biggest faint praise I’ve ever damned on anyone.
The decision to not meet Anelka’s wage demands ( they were high but not Alexis Sanchez levels) proved to be the beginning of the end for GH. It’s important not to overstate the player’s ability but he was perfect for a Houllier team. Strong, fast and happy to play on his own or in a front two. The decision still baffles me.
So the bad transfers, strikers who simply couldn’t score and a defence who looked jaded at times. We went on a horrible run of form before Christmas and by the time February came around there was very little to cheer.
Once again, like so often in the fabled history of the club, a League Cup victory provided hope and consolation at the right time. The 2-0 over United was a great one-off type of day. The type the Red Devils themselves used to specialise in during our pomp. Dudek redeemed himself after the horror show earlier in the season and once again Cardiff proved to be a Xanadu for Stefan Henchoz. I watched in O’Dwyers and enjoyed it for what it was but remained unconvinced about GH’s future. We wasted another bite of the European cherry against Celtic in the UEFA cup a few weeks later.
In the end it came down to a billion dollar game against Chelsea. Winner take all on the last day of the season. Stamford Bridge hadn’t been a happy hunting ground for us for many years my scepticism proved correct. A few months later, Abramovich got his cheque book out and Chelsea never looked back. Meanwhile heading into a new season Liverpool looked to have missed the boat again.
Personally I was enjoying life a bit more. I moved into Dublin City about two weeks before the World Cup in Korea/Japan. Naturally I was caught up in the Roy Keane madness just like everyone else. I got a job in the City Council and my morning commute took in Kevin Street with his huge 7up banner hanging over the flats.
We all knew how it turned out but I always felt that while David Beckham had built a personal industry on selling underpants Roy would have to be more creative. After many famed stories of his furious temper had surfaced over the years he eventually decided that monetizing his bad moods rather than seeking professional help would be a better option. In this era of endless football punditry one can hardly blame him but while it’s often still entertaining I can’t help feeling he’s long fallen into caricature.
I also got back playing 11 a side myself and was enjoying a season with Fairview Celtic when my landlord in Harrington Street inconveniently decided to die. I had to move back to Funboyne for a few weeks before another short lived sublet came up in Rathmines. The commute proved too tricky without my own wheels and I retired with a David Speedie-esque record of five appearances and one goal with one assist. Myself and Paddy O’Reilly finally found a place in Phibsboro’ but by then the season was over in a real sense. It seemed like a good time to roll some spliffs, watch the box set of Friends and look forward to next season.
Arsenal 4-2 Liverpool
By the time this match took place Liverpool were traipsing along well after the Lord Mayor’s show. It was Easter weekend and we were grimly trying to stay in the hunt for 4th. It had been a season of ego damaging reality. One positive sign was Gerrard’s range of passing was becoming laser like. He put Owen in for a beauty here and would do so again later in the season against Newcastle.
It was sad to see that others around him seemed unable to rouse themselves at times in this season though nobody could really be faulted against this Arsenal team. It was one of those days where Henry was on it. He had a few against us.
Overall though, the writing had been on the wall early doors. Chelsea had to come to Anfield on the opening Sunday and won 2-1. They might as well have done it wearing diamond encrusted Umbro Specialis and Nike Tiempos dipped in gold leaf. It was an obnoxious display of wealth. Their new galaxy of stars versus us and new signing Harry Kewell.
Liverpool eventually qualified for the Champions League in what appeared to be the most anticlimactic goodbye ever seen for a manager of our side. The Anfield crowd generously applauded Gerard Houllier for his efforts and in time history was good to him.
The last game against Newcastle at home also proved to be Michael Owen’s last as he moved on to Madrid. I don’t know if I’m inclined to write as much about him as I did Fowler or McManaman. Yes he was a European player of the year but ultimately for me he was a phenomenon who turned out to be completely reliant on his pace. Thanks for the Cup Final memories all the same and credit where it’s due. Very hard to respect a man who doesn’t like films though, never mind his later career choices.
Also the much maligned Emile Heskey would leave the club. He had a very respectable first couple of years and was a key part of the treble team but the final two seasons were a real struggle. He was linked with moves away as early as the summer of 2002 and would fail to get 10 league goals in one season after 2000/01. Every time he drew a blank you could sense the weight of the world bearing down on his powerful shoulders. But it doesn’t paint the whole picture.
He made the game very easy for Michael Owen both at club and international level, occupying defenders and making a general nuisance of himself while the Boy Wonder thrived. It is amazing to think that any player who reaches his level in the game constantly has to prove himself to ‘experts’ both at the stadium and watching at home. It is a results business of course but I can’t help thinking he was singled out for particular criticism, mainly because his original signing paved the way for Fowler’s departure.
I cannot remember much else of this season. Danny Murphy got his third winning goal in four seasons at Old Trafford. I was still living in Phibsboro’ and I was busying myself with projects outside of football. I wrote the first draft of a novel that I might actually follow up this year and I also managed to talk my friends into helping me make a movie in the Wicklow mountains. The Unpaid Spies! Little did I know how much time and money that opus was going to set me back.
I also started driving. I bought a 1992 grey Mk3 VW Golf sans power steering and used it to commute to work every day. If only I could segway that into some kind of metaphor for Liverpool’s prospects for the following season.