Part 5 2008-2014
It occurred to me in the last instalment that I was falling into the trap of documenting far too many events and memories in the Rafa Benitez era. A massive, indulgent word count that probably failed as entertainment but perhaps helped me cathartically.
In September 2008 I returned to Ireland from Indonesia and much like Gillett and Hicks I hadn’t a pot to piss in nor a window to throw it out of. Alas, my credit ranking at the local banking institutions wasn’t as strong as theirs. Either that or I wasn’t as good a liar.
I spent a lot of my initial return period trying to find employment. It was a futile exercise for the most part. But it did give me a chance to enjoy, or endure my new hobby. Posting comments on football web pages.
Though it was a relatively new phenomenon, it also reminded me of the distance I had from the club. At that point they were still my favourite TV show. My knowledge of the game remained limited to what the hard camera would show. Truly it is a vastly different experience to being in the stadium.
What I could see though was Xabi Alonso was going into 2008-09 like a man possessed. With a World Cup on the horizon and his place in that starting eleven by no means guaranteed, he had bulked up on muscle to add to his mesmeric passing game. The occasional anonymous away day showings were all but gone. He was one who had a point to prove.
Little did fools like me know how serious the fall out had been with Benitez. Rafa is rightly adored by Liverpool people. He did more for the city than many elected officials. That said his bedside manner was pretty poxy to say the least. Rumours abound that he was willing to listen to offers for Alonso in the summer of 2008. This was on the proviso that Gareth Barry came in. Which in itself was a caveat to signing Robbie Keane. Rafa had figured out a way to make us more of an attacking threat and if Keane was to come it would only work if Barry came.
Barry of course never arrived. He is often held in little regard by us Reds but he did go onto win two league titles. A very different player to Alonso. Being so left footed Barry would have certainly changed the entire shape of the team.
My ignorance gave the Americans a little too much credit at this stage. To me they had invested a decent amount thus far (well they had signed players but not with their money) so I couldn’t fully understand Rafa’s position on things.
Of course the world went and had itself a huge recession in the middle of this season and the Hicks Gillett dream ticket was soon exposed by a media still educating themselves on the intricacies of mortgaging football teams with a bank loan.
A part of me still refuses to absolve Benitez fully however. Yes, it was probably done to free up some cash but Robbie Keane should’ve been given until the end of the season. Surely nobody can say he was an inferior option to David Ngog. Anyway that didn’t happen, and the rollercoaster ran on without the boy from Tallaght.
Fulham 0-1 Liverpool
It’s the hope that kills you. For about 22 hours, between April 4th and April 5th 2009, Liverpool looked like they were going to win the league. United had fallen apart in the previous three weeks, with defeats to us and Fulham. With about ten minutes to go against Aston Villa on April 5th they were staring at a third defeat until well…you know the rest.
This season which had been already operatic in its levels of drama, had just reached new heights. Remember it had been 21 years since these two teams had finished 1st and 2nd. There were a few close calls in the 90s but we generally fell away by March. This time we were still very much in it heading into April. The rabid away support believed.
This result did not come easy. Fulham were horribly stubborn all day, resolute with Hodgson shaped banks of four. We tried everything on this day. Babel, Gerrard, Torres. Nothing worked. But yet they kept at it. Grim determination, trying to find a gap somewhere, anywhere. In the 91st minute it arrived. A broken ball in the area and Yossi Benayoun’s nerveless finish.
You might notice the above clip is not from Youtube. Couldn’t find one. The foreign commentary though paints a thousand, indescribable words.
What a season this was. Again, similar to the 2000-02 era, drama seemed to be on every diary page between August and May. Sky Sports News did little to expose Tom Hicks but managed to find new and not very interesting ways of asking if we could win the league and deny United the chance to draw level with on titles. A specific camera was focused on the gods of the old main stand, as Dalglish, Rush and others willed us on to bridge the gap. While the long promised new stadium remained nothing more than a few pretty 3D images Anfield remained our home. An unofficial water feature on the roof above them, visible when a replay of a cross came in from the right hand side, showed a place short on funds, high on hope.
West Ham 2-3 Liverpool
What a difference 4 months makes. By the time of this showdown in early Autumn Liverpool had already lost twice in the league and looked a shadow of last season’s team. Torres, at this stage still trying to find form after a frustrating calendar year of fitness, looked like he was starting to hit his stride again.
This clip is actually a short highlight reel of his own contribution at the Boleyn Ground that day. Upon watching it again, it is pretty amazing to see the amount of work he got through in a game. And the expectation Benitez had on him. Every time he tumbled to the floor I can remember the groans in the ground and the nervousness of our fans. At this point, the American dream in the boardroom was falling apart and Rafa was already manning the barricades on all sides, spreading himself far too thin to ever consider a title run.
We were done for about a month later. First place was already out of the question and the rest of the season played out with a half hearted attempt to qualify for the Champions league which we had already so meekly gotten eliminated from. This was in essence the last time he was in a Liverpool team that looked capable of winning something. And even that’s a lie because we had surrendered a lead twice this day to an average Hammers team.
Our Spanish influence was dwindling rapidly. First Xabi went to Madrid that summer. Albert Riera soon disappeared after showing initial promise. Benitez of course would leave acrimoniously in May 2010, just over a year after bringing us ever so close to the promised land. Where had it all gone wrong?
Liverpool 3-1 United
Again this game goes to show just how non exhaustive this blog is. Between this match and the last one I wrote about, Rafa had gone, Hodgson had come in, Torres had gone, Joe Cole had come in. Mascherano had gone. Christian Poulsen had come in. Hicks and Gillett had gone. John W Henry had come in. Oh and then Hodgson had gone. Guess who came in!!!!
A few paragraphs couldn’t really sum Liverpool Football Club between June 2010 and January 2011. While I battled trolling rival fans below the lines of the Guardian football articles, the real battle was taking place in function rooms of hotels. A group of true supporters had assembled, determined to oust Gillett and Hicks from their post. I can’t exaggerate how little this was covered on Sky. To this day I find their output is only ever going to be a version of the truth, a whitewash of history determined not to upset friends in high places.
On the pitch Dalglish had been installed as a kingmaker by the new(temporary but what an impact) club chairman Martin Broughton. It was up to Kenny to find a new manager to succeed Rafa Benitez. Kenny looked around and saw nobody better than himself. They laughed politely. By January they laughed no more.
This was a momentous few months. Seeing Fowler return in 2006 was a treat but this was something else entirely. The return of the King. As the new year arrived he had taken over the side for a third round FA Cup encounter at Old Trafford. Despite losing, the team had battled bravely with ten men for most of the game. Gerrard again still shaking months and months of frustration out of him.
A few months later and United would come to Anfield. At this time we were still wondering how exactly Torres was going to be replaced. By the end of the game we were barely able to remember his name.
Luis Suarez had come to the club in the January window. For a couple of days it seemed possible that he might link up with Torres and we would go on to dominate the world. Unfortunately that didn’t come to pass. But Andy Carroll would come in. More of that anon.
There had already been a few glimpses of Suarez in earlier weeks but this was his first box office debut. United came to town looking like a slightly jaded version of years past. A Dirk Kuyt hat-trick scored with a maximum distance of 2.5 metres covered and Carragher almost decapitating Nani. The old ground was bedlam, stopping for a couple of moments to sing happy birthday to the King. Oh for days like this.
Liverpool 2-2 Man City
Confession time.The one I wanted to show you was the 3-1 win over Bolton in August. We had returned to the top of the league for the first time in 2 years. Everybody was happy that day. Watched it in Ringsend for some reason. It looked like we were going places.
Fast forward five months and we were nowhere in the league. Looking like an outside bet for 4th with only the cups to think about. Vitally however, new TV deals and the subsequent interest of billionaire owners had finally managed to make Manchester City competitive for the first time in 30 years. By the time this League Cup semi final came about there was no doubt who the better team was, who had a better squad and who had the better future prospects. We needed this, Kenny needed this. Not quite a famous old night in Anfield but it was a small mercy in another difficult campaign.
Dalglish had been getting a bit of stick in the media for the past few months after Suarez had a moment against Patrice Evra. He looked like a man who needed some help on the bench. For me it seemed bizarre that just he and Steve Clarke were basically running this massive club on their own. United had multiple coaches by then, City too. Without even comparing ourselves to them, Dalglish had Evans, Moran and well at least six captains on the pitch back in 1991.
But the cups offered some respite. Bellamy here was excellent. He seemed determined to pay back the faith Kenny had in him for giving him another chance at the club. Always a feisty character, I think the Welshman can look back on his time with some pride. A League Cup medal followed after this aggregate victory in the semi. A footnote here too for Dirk Kuyt who finally managed to get some silverware after 6 years of herculean effort.
In the FA Cup, we got to a final thanks in no small part to Andy Carroll. It certainly didn’t justify the £35m fee as Jamie Carragher suggested. That said, he had got us there and almost saved the day against Chelsea. He was a flop though, despite his best efforts. The wrong man at the wrong time.
Alongside Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson it seemed like Kenny was trying to recreate the hard working British style that had served him so well at Blackburn. Unfortunately a combination of what was there before and the new signings not having much luck in front of goal finally did for us. I remember watching the Swansea game in The Arkles (went to Liverpool with Robbie and couldn’t get a ticket, Dalglish remained box office) and if Carroll had scored with that bullet header, maybe just maybe that would have been the turning point. Alas no. And with that Sir Kenneth Dalglish was gently moved upstairs to an ambassadorial role. Our future would soon look bright. Pearly white bright. Almost unnaturally white…
Man City 2-2 Liverpool
Every season feels like it’s a new beginning. But this actually had a lot of firsts. Adidas deserted us again, blaming our lack of Champions League football. A lot of Liverpool fans are supremely loyal to the brand but I always like to remind them that we’ve never won any European trophies in Adidas. Anyway we’ve moved onto a new label ‘Warrior’. This was an offshoot of New Balance. It seemed like a nice idea though in truth John W might have been doing a favour for a business friend.
Of course the jerseys were secondary in terms of what was happening with the team. Brendan Rodgers arrived from Swansea. He divided opinion early and probably never truly won everyone over but amid the bluster the players were beginning to put occasional patches of brilliance together. Rodgers philosophy was death by football. Play it out from the back and kill teams with possession. Unfortunately the personnel weren’t quite at the required level for this; more of a mess than La Masia.
In the first game against City earlier in the season we had enjoyed a wonderful ding dong battle against the now Champions of England. Charlie Adam rose to the challenge in a rare enough good performance. Others including Skrtel mixed the sublime with the ridiculous. The big Slovakian was always a threat at set pieces but less so with his foot on the ball.
It was too an early indicator of what Luis Suarez could do for a Rodgers team.
In the return fixture Daniel Sturridge had been at the club for two months and was settling in very well. His partnership with Suarez was soon bearing fruit and with either Sterling or bargain buy Coutinho behind them Brendan looked to be onto something.
Sturridge’s first goal was a vicious drive into the bottom corner. There is nothing like seeing a new striker do something like this. Every fan starts letting their imaginations go wild. No more Jonjo Shelvey up front for a start.
The second from Gerrard was not quite venomous but equally well placed. It was good to see him back playing well and enjoying his football. His performances had suffered slightly due to recurring injuries and uncertainty at the club but he had warmed to Rodgers and this next part of his career would go on to provide some fine moments.
Less fine was the continuing downfall of our goalkeeper Pepe Reina. His role in City’s second equaliser that day was beyond laughable. He was not long for Liverpool after this.
Overall though, another draw against the Champions was greeted with positivity. We were buying into the Rodgers philosophy, though it certainly hadn’t developed into possession based dominance he had promised.
Tottenham 0-5 Liverpool
This is when I started to believe. I had been keeping an eye on the table since the opening day when we beat Stoke. I watched that in Carrick on Shannon and was convinced our goalkeeping problems were solved thanks to Simon Mignolet.
We had not been fully convincing since then with a couple of defeats to Southampton at home and an unlucky loss at Arsenal. But the little foals were going on about their business.
As always I was keeping one eye on the left back position. The previous few years had seen a number of potential successors to Riise but nobody ever quite stuck. Aurelio was injury prone and Enrique soon followed the same path. By the time this season rolled around Jon Flanagan was in situ. He would even step up and get a goal on this day against the Spuds. On the other side Glen Johnson remained, still dividing opinion four years on from joining the club.
This was a proper bullying performance. Tottenham had battered us 4-0 at the Lane the previous while Bale was still there. As the summer of 2013 rolled on it looked a lot like we might have to start making plans without our own star man, Suarez. In the end enough was said to secure him for another year. And in doing so, an unlikely pursuit of the title began.
He was captain on this day in place of the absent Gerrard. It was a captain’s performance in the sense that he was clearly the best player on the pitch but in truth Spurs just had one of their very Spurzy days.
An amazing season and one where I could have chosen at least 15 other games. But this is the one I remember. I think I was watching this in Dwyers, grinning to myself, dreaming of red ribbons in May. Sigh.