Part 4 2004-2008
Thrilling highs, terrifying lows. The story continues…
Parts one , two and three also available.
The one great law of life is that it usually ends up going to form. Occasional glitches in the matrix are eye catching but rare enough to ignore. FC Porto winning the Champions League felt like a little glitch. Greece winning Euro 2004 felt seismic. Surely nothing like that would happen again any time soon.
The ‘Euros’ had been a shop window for the continent’s best. Rooney joined United for 32m. Chelsea were busy again with Carvalho, Robben and Cech coming in. Exciting signings added to proven quality. Arsenal were much like ourselves in trying to repel interest from others.
Liverpool’s involvement in said tournament had been moderately successful. Baros was excellent for the Czechs. Hamann figured in a disappointing German team. Gerrard played well for England, his mistake against France notwithstanding. Owen did okay too, despite not scoring until the fourth game. Meanwhile back in Liverpool Rafael Benitez signed a contract to replace Houllier.
‘Rafa’ came with a very well respected reputation. He helped to break the Classico monopoly in Spain, with his side Valencia becoming La Liga champions in 2002 and 2004. In addition he had also won the UEFA Cup. This had been done on a modest budget, with a chairman unable to tell the difference between a lampshade and a sofa, or something.
His first weeks in office were spent dismissing speculation on Steven Gerrard. It seemed that despite our qualification for the Champions League( preliminary round anyway) Gerrard was eager to leave, most likely for Stamford Bridge( less likely for Man United, though he did admit to wearing a United jersey as a kid; I did too, and an England one!)
Benitez insisted that Gerrard remained a Liverpool player and he looked forward to working with him in the new season. For Gerrard’s part it seemed that he was trying his best to focus on England at that moment. The story ran for weeks on the red tops, probably because the Rebecca Loos & Beckham scandal had run out of steam(or the tabloids realised they couldn’t keep pushing against the golden-balled goose) Either way, it ended typically for the three lions. A quarter final exit on penalties. The players came home to little fanfare, but the Gerrard rumours went on.
Owen gossip was much less audible. The Boy Wonder was undoubtedly a worthy talent, though the electric pace had diminished and injuries were becoming more common. Vitally for many people, his goals column for Liverpool had never creeped above 20 league goals in a season. To put it succinctly, he had dropped a level or two since 2001.
In the last game of 2003/04 Gerrard put him in for a great goal against Newcastle in front of the Kop. It was a tidy finish but the pass was truly special. As I remember the common consensus regarding Owen was ‘if he goes, he goes, but please God don’t sell Stevie’.
Gerrard had come off a so-so 2003/04. As mentioned previously it was a non entity of a season. We looked shorn of ideas and the team was scarcely functioning as a whole. Gerrard was occasionally in midfield with Hamann and had begun to hone his long passing game. He had also finished off the season with a nice variety of strikes. It was the final stages of his boyish adventure, before he evolved into a man with almost the whole team in his backpack. In my mind I wasn’t at all confident of him staying.
The Preliminary round of the Champions league 04-05 was not expected to be a formality at all. A trip to Graz in Austria and the whole conversation was about who Benitez had available to him.
The positives were the signings that were coming in. Steve Finnan, our first genuine Irish senior player in a few years. Djibril Cisse, a flamboyant striker from France replaced El Hadji Diouf (it’s no mistake that I haven’t talked about him) Luis Garcia, an attacking midfielder who came in to replace Danny Murphy. And one chap from Sociedad called Alonso who’d apparently played GAA in Navan in his youth.
The negatives were the current players and rumours surrounding them. If Gerrard or Owen played they would be Cup tied in Europe, thereby lessening their value. If they wanted to leave then there was no way they would play this game. And if they didn’t play there was no guarantee we could win without them.
In the end Gerrard played and Gerrard stayed. A legend began an unlikely quest and unlike so many before him his zenith probably came sooner than he liked, but we’ll get to that. Owen left and with it his career gradually declined to the point of retirement and virtual anonymity aged 31. Sliding doors indeed.
For me this has a strong case to be the most important, noteworthy match of the season. Just the second week in August and not yet had a Premier League ball been kicked. It was just the start of something incredible though, something that will probably never happen to us again.
Liverpool 2-1 Arsenal
So yes I went for this. One of just a handful of respectable performances from us League wise. It was late November and Arsenal were just recently shorn of their Invincibles tag. Chelsea had had a blistering start to the campaign and looked unlikely to be caught but the Gunners were still a very worthy yardstick to measure ourselves by.
Xabi Alonso had been showing signs of quality up to this point, particularly at home. He was still adapting to the rough and tumble of the league and given the quality around him it was little wonder that there was so much drop off once we left the comfort of Anfield. Home matches were no banker at this stage mind you. Certainly not against Arsenal. I remember beforehand just hoping that we could perform well.
I watched this in my folks’. It was one of those great Sky Sports occasions. The much maligned Martin Tyler had just the right amount of pathos in his voice, perfectly encapsulating the struggles of Liverpool and their stoic determination to get back to the top. Gerrard was relentless all day, thundering around like a man possessed. Comparisons with Scholes and Lampard were completely irrelevant from this point on. Brilliant players both but neither had ever to shoulder so much responsibility at such a young age. And now as captain too, aged only 24. Had he been given the armband as part of his new contract? Was there any animosity with Hyypia because of it? Yes and almost certainly no. Sami was a gentleman and knew it was part of a greater good.
But the key thing I remember was the link up play with Alonso and Gerrard. It seemed like for the first time since McAllister had been there, SG had a dance partner. Someone who finally understood him. This was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
After we took the lead with a brilliantly crafted goal, Arsenal hit back with their own touch of class. It looked all the world like a creditable draw until someone who looked a little bit like Gerrard’s slightly chubby brother decided to have one last lash at goal. Neil Mellor. Cue bedlam.
The season as we all know would pan out into something of a fairytale. Myriad books have been written on 2004/05 and I’ve no doubt season DVDs have been played to death too.
It came along at a point in my own existence where I needed a win. I was still working in the Corpo and had moved on to making music videos in my spare time. Local bands with ideas far beyond their financial means and my creative ability. Todd Haynes I was not. Overall though it felt like that side of things felt like a work in progress. That if I kept doing stuff I’d naturally improve.
Our lives do often seem to be running parallel to our favourite football teams. For some the bad results will mean not leaving the house or cutting themselves off from the sledging of friends ’til the next game. I didn’t really feel like that at the time. I saw something in this team that I liked. On their good days they could really play.
It did seem like we were struggling for a source of goals however. The January signing of Fernando Morientes (Cup tied in Europe) did not quite lead to a glut of goals and Cisse’s horrific injury had put heavy pressure on Baros upfront. He was often miles from goal, furrowing a lonely plough. Occasionally Sinama Pongolle or Mellor would come on late to save his weary legs from complete burnout. Garcia looked light early on. Well he always looked light but again he didn’t have the engine to survive in the English game yet. With him still adapting Gerrard had been put in the free role. Benitez moved him out to the left wing and let him at it. There wasn’t much else he could do.
It didn’t work out. Stevie G became frustrated. We got knocked out of Europe before Christmas, Alonso was sold to Arsenal the following summer for 12m and the rest of the motley crew of Traore, Biscan and Carson led us to relegation two seasons later. No wonder Sliding Doors never got a sequel.
Liverpool 2-1 Chelsea
From about 1998 onwards I had harboured thoughts that Liverpool FC were not a very well run organisation. This was not just comparing them to the PLC in Salford. The situation with Roy Evans’ leaving had been messy. Previous to that was the Collymore signing that although broke our transfer record couldn’t be considered a success. But I think it went further than that.
There were a couple of issues that were dominating matters off the pitch. It was clear that Chairman David Moores was keen to find new investors to help take the club to the next level. He had done what he felt best for so long, coming up with funds for players for the previous 15 odd years.
We had often been the league’s highest spenders but others had caught up and left us for dust. It was difficult to separate finances off the pitch with the effect it had on it. The teams that were spending were, more or less, getting quality. The next shelf where we now shopped was less of a guarantee.
The previous season had ended in heaven as we all know. A trip to Valhalla that had begun with a swing of a Norwegian’s boot onto the noggin of a Whiston boy’s head. So much has been said, better than I. It had also been a seismic shock to the system for the boardroom. Pleasant as it was, winning the European Cup with that team was not on anyone’s agenda.
The days that followed were a gradual climb down from cloud nine. I later read that the club shop was closed the day after Istanbul. Potential revenues of tens of thousands. And then worse. Apparently Gerrard was going to leave! Another summer long saga began. Many of us innocently believed the incredible victory would be a catalyst to go out and spend 50 or 60m on players. We all waited for the cliched picture of 4 to 5 players holding scarves and wearing the smart new away kit.
The second issue was Anfield itself. It seems like an appropriate time to bring it up because this was the first season I was there. Far too long to wait but better late than never. I visited for the Everton league game in March 2006. On the Kop for a Merseyside Derby. Finally I would get to see my hero Steven Gerrard. Yes, yes! Ye…..wait he’s been sent off. What???
It was a nice 8 minutes.
Not to worry though. Everton had one of their usual off days and Harry Kewell put the finishing touches on a 3-1 win after another Philip Neville masterclass.
What I noticed when I got there was the modesty of the place. I am no judge of architecture but my frame of reference at that point was Croke Park which looked twice as big. Football dimensions aside it seemed like the main stand needed work. Walking past the abandoned terraced housing I felt a lot of emotions. I had seen houses like this in Dublin but the sheer volume of boarded up windows compared to home was enormous.
Liverpool began to fascinate me in far more ways than just what was happening on the pitch. I began to read up more on it. What had happened over the past twenty years to create these empty shells. The majority of it made for bad reading for both Tories and neo-liberals but when I heard the club itself had been complicit and even guilty of buying up properties at cut price, it didn’t impress me at all.
Conversely the old school atmosphere around the stadium was really good. Hot dogs, The Albert, the old Hillsborough memorial store. I had gone with my pal from work Robbie. I felt like a big kid! I have since been to Liverpool about eight times. Mostly for football but a couple of times just for the craic. In the past 15 years I’ve seen the main city centre’s gradual regeneration improve upon what were already some classic landmarks. The friendliness of the people working there is also notable. Plus, the police I have met and chatted to are very approachable. If the stars align someday I’d love to do a Houllier and teach there for a while.
On the pitch things improved league wise after a slow start. The 1-4 Chelsea loss at Anfield showed many how far we had to go. But again, once Benitez had a full hand to play from things began to click. New signing Peter Crouch had come in to replace the workmanlike Baros. Milan will always remain a favourite of mine. He had an excellent international career to dispel any doubts of goalscoring prowess. Crouch himself had a long wait to break his Liverpool cherry. But in time he proved his worth.
This team was immensely likeable in my view. The first eleven were making the absolute most of what they had. I have always been a fan of endeavor over flair, but we weren’t completely ugly with the ball. Far from it. We just needed a real goalscorer.
And then news came in February 2006. Rumours like wildfire. Robbie Fowler was coming back. It was a fairytale come to life. In this welcomed second chapter he looked determined to give it his best shot. That overhead kick and the heartbreaking linesman’s flag! Fowler did end the season with a few goals.
The league was essentially over for us by then with Chelsea again looking worthy winners. We had become very familiar with them both in Europe and the league. And as fate would have it the FA Cup would throw us together again.
The game at Old Trafford was classic Rafa Benitez. High intensity, effort. Creating two on one situations on both the left and right. Anything that could give the ever lively Gerrard a sliver of opportunity. Luis Garcia had grown massively in confidence since Istanbul. So many of them did in fact. Carragher had turned into a formidable centre half alongside Sami. Both had looked like they weren’t at all up to it in the dark days of the 03/04 season. Riise too was getting back to the respectable goal scoring numbers he had in his first year. Ah jaysus, I loved this bunch.
We would go on to lift the FA Cup in Cardiff. Pepe Reina almost signed off his debut season in disaster. I was overly harsh on him throughout the years but he certainly wasn’t in the same class as Clemence, despite many people’s insistence.
On the plus side his distribution was generally excellent, plus he had solid reflexes and was quick off his line. My trouble with him was that much like De Gea nowadays his judgement on high balls into the box wasn’t always great. Nonetheless he redeemed himself brilliantly in the penalty shoot out.
It was the last great Cup Final. The change of venue had been very good to us. But it was time to look forward. Optimism abounded at Anfield now. The bird was beginning to stretch her wings.
I was living in Kilmainham at this stage after a brief stay in my folks’. It was nice to get back nearer to the city, even if it meant living with an Arsenal fanatic, Keith.
I was seemingly surrounded by Gunners fans. I met another lad Paul during a TV show that I’d gotten ‘extras’ work in. It was a right rogues galley if ever I saw one. We found that we shared a mutual love of Escape to Victory re-runs and lovely creamy pints, often ending our nights with fiery quarrels on how shite everything was or wasn’t. Again my cynicism did me few favours, but my debating skills arguably did improve.
Liverpool 0-1 Barcelona
Two years on from the appointment of Benitez and he had delivered four trophies. He was making it look easy. God knows what he could do with some real investment. Nobody wondered louder than Rafa himself. By the end of this season, his point was maybe proven.
Our title pretensions didn’t make it past Christmas in all honesty. Such was the standard of the Premier League if you weren’t hitting 45 points by Christmas you had no chance. We were mid thirties by December 25th. Still though, it was nice to be back in Adidas
The season had started slowly. Robbie Fowler was getting the odd goal but it felt to me like Benitez wasn’t convinced of his ability to lead the line. Granted Fowler was never the most athletic but he retained a gift for clever movement which a more positive manager could have exploited. Crouch became slightly more prolific than the previous season but I guess the main hope we had going into that year was new signing Dirk Kuyt.
After a couple of games it became apparent that he would never be found wanting for effort. He was the type of workhorse that any team could find a place for. Perhaps it was his all round toiling that caused him to lose that ice cold poise you need to put the ball in the net, even if he still got a fair share. Rafa eventually converted him to a very effective right winger where he became the epitome of a cult hero.
Bellamy was never more than a 15 goal a season man either and so Rafa still a piece of his puzzle missing. He wouldn’t find it til the next summer.
After getting past a sticky Autumn and securing a place in the Champions League round of 16 it was obvious that we had but one chance to save our season. All we had to do was beat Barcelona over two legs.
In early 2007 more rumours spread that Liverpool were being sold. These kinds of stories had popped up a few times before but this one actually had some substance. The Moores family had been advised to sell to two American owners; Tom Hicks and George Gillet.
At first it seemed promising. They had a background in working with large U.S sports franchises and understood the need for modernisation. They said a lot of the right things and most of us were satisfied with their m.o. The general feeling was great. Let’s see how much they spend in the summer but we’ve still got a Champions League campaign to finish.
The first leg was in the Nou Camp. As everyone knows, the weather there is quite mild in February, ideal for a game of golf. Appropo of nothing Craig Bellamy got the first goal and John Arne Riise got the winner. The softly spoken Scandanavian wasn’t one to make a song and dance about these things though. And nothing else happened on that trip.
The return leg was a different kettle of fish. White hot. Anfield. The songs. The flags. The pride. Goosebumps. Fans were beginning to sense a possible path to the final was again emerging. Notably in the ITV commentary above, Tyldesley states that Liverpool would be moving to a new stadium in Stanley Park. More of that anon.
I watched this in Inchicore with Keith. His Arsenal loving self was happy to cheer us on against the team that broke his heart the previous May. Around this time both myself and him were staples of the ‘Whelans’ scene. I liked nothing more than wearing my retro red and white scarf while failing miserably with the ladies out in the smoking area. Our co conspirator Gav, was a United fan who humoured our defiant promises of future success for our respective teams. I was drinking three nights a week and when the bars closed I went to the casino for bets and bizarrely enough, toasted sambos. I felt like Henry in Goodfellas.
The first half was pretty even with Riise and Sissoko both hitting the bar. Then it seemed Barcelona had suddenly woken up and realised their title was in jeopardy. Messi, who had been so well marshalled by Alvaro Arbeloa moved into a more central position as the game wore on. The Catalans seemed to have about 90% of possession. This was the night where Jamie Carragher went from the warrior-like last ditch man in the trenches Carra, to a general marshalling his troops, urging them to push Barca out of the penalty area again and again. He was at his absolute peak in these few months. Another similar performance came against United a few weeks later though with a less fortunate result.
Carragher had a very decent career at Liverpool. There’s no doubt that the good far outweighed the bad and that you don’t play 730 games and win 10 trophies by being average. He was though perhaps in some bad teams that exposed him at times.
This however was a very good team. A team in every sense of the word. Eamon Dunphy was in pen pointing, accusatory mood on RTE. Gerrard was a nothing player. Rafa had a serious negative streak. We were terrible! And yet, and yet.
The aggregate victory secured a quarter final against PSV where we played like royalty; seemingly insulted at the suggestion Eindhoven were in our class. Recently signed Mascherano had dislodged the promising Momo Sissoko in the previous weeks and never looked back. Chelsea were beaten on pens in the Semi, with thanks to a buddha wearing lucky socks.
At the start of this season it was expected that new signing Daniel Agger would gently move Hyypia aside but it didn’t pan out that way for another few years. He had undoubted quality and his tidy finish in the semi got us to said penalty shoot out. Unfortunately he was another blighted by injuries over the years but remained a strong fan favourite throughout his time nonetheless.
And so then another final against Milan in Athens. Despite a defeat we actually played well. Fringe player Zenden was selected and did okay but it was not a popular decision amongst the rest of the team. Crouch was more than unlucky not to start, having scored 6 goals to help get us there. Pennant had also justified his inclusion and played well for about an hour before a namesake from Nottingham was called out over the P.A. He barely got a kick after that.
Rafa had ended the season with what would become a familiar refrain, an interview criticising someone not directly involved in the game. The owners. One couldn’t help but keep an eye on that ongoing situation.
Aston Villa 1-2 Liverpool
Liverpool had seen their hope rekindled in the previous three years. Rafa was pretty much a deity now as he was not only leading the team to success but also was helping the Hillsborough protest groups maintain their momentum. The man had fallen in love with the city just like Houllier before him. They loved him right back.
All it needed was a striker. Just get a good one. Jermaine Defoe? Yeah maybe. What about David Villa? Hmm, don’t think he fancies cold wet England. Darren Bent? Ah heor! What about that blonde lad at Atletico?
It was the summer of sun-in love, alice bands and Nike total 90s. The ownership team of Hicks and Gillett had passed their first big test and come up with the funds. Roughly twenty one million pounds. El Torro was on his way to Anfield.
But to take the next step we needed those goals. Would he deliver in the Premier League. I tuned into the opening day game at Villa Park to find out. I am pretty sure I watched this in Quinns in Drumcondra after a Dubs game.
Liverpool had been notoriously slow starters for the past few years and as mentioned earlier you really had to shoot out of the blocks if you wanted to be considered title contenders. Torres was signed as the final piece of the puzzle. Almost instantly he had an impact, terrifying defenders with his close control, pace, marvellous swivelly hips. Oh Fernando.
Alas this one almost got away from us. Our new hero wasn’t quite able to get a winning goal. So we turned to the old hero instead.
A few months later I moved to Jakarta. It was a decision based on logic but made on emotion. The job in the Corpo had ran its course. I made some good friends but the job didn’t make me happy. It was tough to work in a place where you spent most of the day apologising.
I decided to give English teaching a try instead. It was tough. I actually forgot how tough until last year when I got back into it. The time difference in Asia didn’t really affect my LFC viewing pleasure back then. I usually started work at 2pm local time and this was manageable. It’s tougher nowadays.
I had been very late to the internet party and didn’t even have an email address of consequence until 2006. But when I got started I never looked back. Like so many things now, football is intrinsically linked with the world wide web. I opened an account on The Guardian where I was free to vent my spleen after every result. For a few years it was really good. The sledging with rival fans was great as I continued to dream of a world without Alex Ferguson.
A lot of the club’s fortunes were increasingly being decided by matters away from the pitch. The Wall Street crash had a huge effect on the world, not least on our owners. Before you could say leveraged buyout more stories came to light.
It seemed that Liverpool FC was basically just an asset on a spreadsheet. No different to a block of apartments in downtown Miami. And it would have gone unnoticed if not for numerous local journalists like David Conn and James Pearce. Not to mention a real backbone of the club’s support ‘The Spirit of Shankly.’
In this era of 24 hour sports news it is remarkable that these stories never came to light beforehand. It showed me how important traditional print media still remains. And how vital it is to have fans who constantly ask the big questions.
It would be worth an article on its own but I will recommend the book ‘An Epic Swindle’ by Bryan Reade as well seeking out archived material on the Liverpool Echo and The Guardian.
Anyway I have burst through any socially acceptable word count here. More next week.