Part 7 2017-2020
Parts One, Two, Three, Four, Five and Six are here.
I guess a lot of the subtext here is about my being a spoilt brat with commitment issues. I can’t say for sure if Liverpool were any way the cause of my life’s disappointment heretofore. Some of the most depressed people I’ve ever met in my life were United fans, even after their 20 odd years of success. Is the journey better than the destination? Maybe, but I certainly don’t want to drive that road again.
Despite my moody episodes and temper tantrums, I’ve always thought of myself as someone who is in or around the Europa league places of life, better than most though a bit off Champion material. Besides, it would seem a bit lame to blame your failures on strangers who kick a ball for a living.
Going into Klopp’s second full season the odds of a league title were hard to place. Other teams were still in transition and it just seemed like there might be a possibility, but only if others made mistakes. But there was always that hope. Hope that maybe they could put something strong enough together. A decent title challenge.
Outside of Anfield’s bubble, the map of English league football had been notably redrawn . The top 4 of the 2000s was now a fully fledged top 6, not even counting Leicester. Despite their 2017 league win, Chelsea were quickly descending into chaos. An ageing dressing room and the rapid turnover of coaches was finally beginning to wear thin. A lot of people hate Chelsea. For me they were a necessary evil in the 2000s. Who else was going to put it up to United? Arsenal? Oh please!
The aforementioned Man United were in the midst of a bizarre decline since Ferguson’s retirement. Despite some cup success, Mourinho arriving and millions spent they never looked like the swashbuckling team of old. Elsewhere in Manchester however Pep Guardiola was in his second full season, building on the respectable work done by Pellegrini before him. Sky Sports and other media friends ran out of superlatives by Christmas while more cynical viewpoints of how the operation was being financed were put to one side for now.
Who knew what would happen as the ball game started up again in August?
Our 2017/18 season had begun moderately. A 3-3 draw at Watford was positive in that we saw the league debut of Mo Salah, who scored. Less comforting was the ongoing goalkeeper issue. Mignolet had endured a mixed four years and the previous year’s signing Karius had not convinced either. Centre halves still looked terrified under the high ball. Liverpool fans feared another Roy Evan’s style era. Klopp himself must have lost some sleep over a solution.
In the September match at the Ethiad, Liverpool fell behind early but worked their way back into the game before mane was sent off for a high foot. It was 50-50. Not a complete disgrace of a decision. What worried me was Klopp remonstrating with the fourth official for five minutes instead of working out a plan B. We lost 5-0 and that old familiar feeling was setting in again.
It is said it’s more important to be a lucky general rather than a good one. Ideally if you can be both, so much the better. Watching a 3-3 draw against Arsenal showed the good and bad of his team. The Fab Four of Mane, Salah, Firmino and Coutinho was enough to launch an industry of bootleg t-shirts but the logic of playing all four was fatally flawed. Shankly style piano carriers were all too few.
The summer itself had been something of a merry go round. Neymar’s move to PSG set off a chain reaction which seemed irrelevant to Liverpool initially. We were bullying Southampton again for players and maybe deserved a bit of the hardball we got for the ensuing months. Virgil Van Dijk wanted to come but the Saints wanted more money. We didn’t have it..yet.
Come Christmas and with the World Cup coming on the horizon Philipe Coutinho’s agent started to weave his spell. Coutinho began to imagine visions of a victory for Brazil in Russia, with him taking centre stage in a team that may not have had the injured Neymar. For all this to happen however, it was apparently vital that he make the move to Barcelona early. Many felt a Suarez situation might come to pass. That he would stick it out ’til the summer and then move. But no. He wanted to go. Claimed a fake injury to avoid playing. It was a decision that has not been forgotten or forgiven.
Personally I was relieved so long as the money was used more wisely than in 2014. Let him be sold I said. Let’s reinvest, but with quality.
Come January. They spent some of the Coutinho money wisely. Oh boy did they.
And a few months later, despite the league being out of reach for another year, the Champions League was looking like a maybe. A definite maybe.
Liverpool 3-0 City
It always seemed like the two great cities of the North West will be competing against each other for eternity. But at the start of the 2010s who would have thought it would be a non United battle? Yes the league table shows that Mourinho had guided his team to second while we finished two places back but even the staunchest Red Devil couldn’t claim bragging rights. For one thing City had finished in triple figures. A feat never achieved by United.
As I mentioned, everything changed for us during the winter transfer window. The team started to look a bit more realistic after the Ossie Ardiles style Autumn formation. Andrew Robertson was beginning to find his feet, and not a moment too soon (Somehow Alberto Moreno was still first choice left back at the start of the season) and on the other side Trent Alexander Arnold had nailed down the right back slot, dethroning the very decent Nathaniel Clyne. The team had a shape that wasn’t a million miles away from the heady days of 2014. By this time the midfield guile of Gerrard had been updated with brute strength and energy. Interchangeable elements with the likes Fabinho and recent signing Alex Oxade Chamberlain with Wijnaldum, Milner and Henderson still in situ.
Heading into the new year Liverpool couldn’t keep up with the phenomenal Man City. Nobody could. Much like ourselves two years later they broke the spirit of the competition well before Christmas. Domestically they were dominant but what about Europe? Well…
This game was foreshadowed by the league result in January. A 4-3 win ensured Arsenal’s ‘invincible’ record remained (though with the points totals in recent seasons, that record looks more and more ordinary in my view) but in reality Liverpool were devastating and should have won by more.
Come March and Liverpool’s chips were all on Europe again. Most felt this game would be cagey, with the Red’s main mission to keep De Bruyne and Silva quiet and maybe grab a sneaky 1-0 win.
The result that did come shook the foundations of European football. Another result that ground away at Guardiola’s reputation. It was a remarkable display of physical superiority, with the likes of Kyle Walker been made to look not only ordinary but downright amateurish.
In the semi finals Liverpool blitzed Roma in a spectacular 35 burst of that now famous heavy metal football. Our defensive frailties were still visible however with the Romans almost catching us in the second leg. Henderson’s remonstrating with Karius in the aftermath didn’t go unnoticed. Some felt he was giving it the big one. Others felt the young German keeper was a bit of a fancy dan who lacked focus if not the ability to make big decisions in a game.
As we know this season ended in disappointment in Kiev. Though try telling that to the legions of fans who had made the pilgrimage. Liverpool were rocking again. It was an unstoppable momentum of positivity on match days, with the manager being at the forefront of it. Did Jurgen Norbert Klopp have blind spots? Was he ruthless enough to get rid of players who weren’t up to it? As he sang songs with the fans after the Real Madrid defeat those questions would have to wait. All that was known was we that we had the fucking soundest fella in the world as our manager. He deserved a birra luck. Que sera sera. Or maybe Allez Allez Allez.
Heading into this season there was a little bit more belief. The undeniable truth however was impossible to hide. Maybe Karius had a concussion in the final. But was he really a keeper who you could depend on? Klopp was at a crossroads in his own career. He didn’t want to be known as the nice guy who never won trophies anymore. There was still a bit of money left from the Coutinho sale. Yes, it was now or never. A once in a generation chance to buy a top 5 goalkeeper. I thought it might be Oblak from Atletico. And it could have been very fine with him. But again we went Brazilian. Step forward Alisson Becker.
He had last been seen in Anfield picking the ball from the net five times though nobody in attendance suggested it was any of his doing. In the World Cup in Russia he had shown signs of his quality too. It was decided that he was his our man. A few days later Chelsea gave it the Billy Big Balls by signing a keeper that was even more expensive than our £69m man. All it did was relieve that 1% of pressure Alisson might have had upon arriving in England. The man was and is, ice cool.
Of course that Roma game at Anfield cannot be mentioned without acknowledging my hometown of Dunboyne. An attack on Sean Cox that night has left him with life changing injuries that will affect him and his family for the rest of his life. Having heard the news that evening before the game I couldn’t get my head around it. Despite the love, respect and affection that the club showed to him since then it is a horrible and unfortunate connection of two places very close to me.
Heading into the new season the team looked like the business. But the spectre of Manchester City winning the previous league by 19 points( 23 ahead of us) was hard to ignore. As ever I was working out the maths. It wouldn’t need 100 points to win it again I felt. Nah, 96 would be grand.
Southampton 1-3 Liverpool
This season was relentless. 30 times the league places 1 and 2 changed hands between us and City. Who would blink first?
By the time this rolled around Liverpool were far more of a study in caution and control than in previous years. There was quality all over the pitch now. Fabinho, yet another member of the Brazilian community within the club, was a standout purchase. So much so that he was still keeping Henderson out of the team for long spells. Injury prone Naby Keita gave the number 14 a pathway back into the side later in the campaign, but this night they both shun briefly. It was however another one of those Mo Salah games.
If the time comes that I write about these season’s in more excruciating detail, King Mohammed’s 2017-18 will have to be documented extensively. His 44 goal salvo was nothing short of phenomenal. And all from a right wing position, cutting in on his vicious left peg. Watching him sometimes it felt like that total should be at least double. Liverpool were perpetually working that wing. And if they weren’t Mane was getting his fair share on the other side. And if that didn’t work we had the magic of Firmino unlocking teams at closer quarters.
In this game however, doubts were been raised about the Egyptian. He had gone six games without scoring a league goal. This included two nil all draws against United and Everton that ultimately proved very costly. The match at St. Mary’s he needed to reach his own lofty standards once more. And he certainly did.
I watched this game at the Lotts with the brothers Hoey and a shit stirring Gooner in Paul Halpin who was absolutely loving the Dante like hell that his Liverpool friends were putting themselves through every week. Maybe the trip down to the South coast had done the team a favour. A nice sea air coming in from the Channel? Or maybe it was those marvellous purple shirts.
Either way it was a night of near euphoria which signposted yet more ultimate despair.
The league would again be unattainable and after a disaster in Camp Nou it looked like nothing would be gained this year despite standards of results having never really been much higher. Life just wasn’t fair.
At 0-3 in Barcelona I howled in frustration as Salah hit the woodwork. I insulted my friends to high heaven for having the temerity to acknowledge Messi’s genius. I shook in incredulity when I saw Klopp beckon the keeper up for a last minute corner. Klopp had finally given up logic but Alisson thought better of it. Thirty seconds later and yet another one of Barcelona’s background artists had let their lead actor down. Dembele. God bless him. Liverpool lived to fight another day. And the rest as they say…
Liverpool 2-0 Man United
Don’t mind him Sean, it’s the league we want.
These words I had shouted across the Brady’s car park after the 2018 Kiev final. My piss had been well boiled that night. And it wasn’t just the United fans who decided to turn up and shout for Real. Neither was it the egg chasing Leinster fans who insisted the Challenge Cup stay on the TV until the presentation was over. No, It was seeing that man, walking back to his car disconsolately. Sean Neilon, the manager of Dunboyne’s best boozer, was a long term Red just like me, having to take another slagging off a non red. I had parked myself in the middle bar of his fine establishment for most of the decade, a decision made by my local pals and ultimately endorsed by myself.
When possible we had watched just about everything there since Euro 2012. I shudder to think how many pint glasses of Lucozade I downed when I wasn’t skulling far more appealing Smithwicks.
The reason of course I mentioned it is that this was a season like no other. And not just because I jumped on the plane to Vietnam in October 2019. When the C word finally caught up with the rest of the world in February 2020 it seemed like the most unlikely of causes was going to halt our near perfect procession to the throne.
I thought about home a lot during these dark days. There were many reasons to, as is normal for faraway travellers. But few things hurt more than the knowledge that thousands of pubs around Ireland and the UK were closed during Liverpool’s ultimate coronation. It seemed so unfair that after a generation of waiting to finally do it, fans had to be satisfied with celebrating at home. I did so myself at roughly 4.30am in my apartment on July 23rd 2020, with nothing stronger than a bottle of cold water. It was hardly the party I had dreamed for all those years.
And if it bothered me, can you imagine the feeling of the players? Celebrating in an empty stadium is never going to be as good, despite all the fireworks.
But those are a young man’s dreams. The kind of hopes that shouldn’t alter a life’s plans heading into your 40th year. My long threatened promise of not getting married until we win the bloody league may now be questioned. Oh dear.
So in this season of purgatory I often doubted what I was seeing. City had virtually surrendered by Halloween. Unable to cope with the retirement of Vincent Kompany they had endured a miserable run while Liverpool just kept winning and winning. It was more like an Arsenal ’91 style grind than a Liverpool ’88 style festival. But 1-0s and 2-1s kept coming with alarming regularity. Stand out performers had been the ever willing Mane and Jordan Henderson, enjoying a career best period of form. Even a trip to Qatar to win the World Club Cup for the first time did little to hinder us. We enjoyed Christmas by battering Leicester away after many had said they’d be keen on revenge after an earlier Anfield robbery.
Heading into January 2020 I still strongly believed but doubts remained. Paranoia borne out of years of near misses and despair. The United match glowed brightly from the fixture list. January 19th. For me it was not on too late either. 11pm Saigon time.
Solksjaer has had his critics but one thing can be said of his teams is that most of the time they try very hard. Motivation for a Liverpool game you felt would not be hard to find.
And indeed they fought tooth and nail that day, despite often coming off second best in challenges. Liverpool were imperious however. Van Dijk’s first half header putting us on the front foot and closer again to Valhalla. As the dying moments of the game ticked away, there was still more doubt. United however couldn’t do anything with the set piece and Alisson launched a ball into the left channel. Soon it became apparent why.
Salah was all alone. United had fully committed to the free kick and when it fell apart so beautifully they had nobody home except the keeper. Young Welshman Daniel James put on the after burners but Salah would not be denied his first goal against the old enemy. Seconds later as the ball passed under De Gea and into the net the Kop embraced it all. This was the moment. This was when it felt safe to say it.
We’re going to win the league.
I don’t know if there was a point to writing this. If many people will enjoy it or agree with the matches I chose. I am quite sure there will be many who remember things better and had the benefit of being in the stadium while I poured over instant replays.
I have regrets of not seeing the team play more often in the flesh. The pub and the house certainly have their merits but nothing replaces the real thing and the possibility of making new friends. In this age of the internet I hope it can help refresh the memories of fellow fans and we can reminisce about graveyard shifts on the right wing, Steve Staunton playing in goal and other assorted horrors.You can’t have the good without the bad after all.
But the 2019/20 season is in the books now and we’ll start afresh soon enough. Week after week Irish Reds pile onto coaches and planes destined for Merseyside and that intoxicating atmosphere. I love the hush of the city centre and the citizens going about their daily chores, as fans from far and wide gradually make their way across town to L4, hoping for more unforgettable moments on the pitch.
It has been a thrilling three years at Liverpool. Breathless, unbelievable stuff. A standard reached that has never been sustained for so long. A treble of leagues was won in the early 80s but the points totals never got close to today’s requirements. This team, built on the blueprints of Jurgen Klopp but only functional because of the never ending graft of his tireless players. It is a team that’s easy to love.
But what of those less loveable sides? 1992/93? 2003/04? 2009/10? Well even in the darkest hours there was always light. We’re not City and god knows we’re not Everton. It has been an easier ride than most. If fans like me entered into it on the pretence of guaranteed success then maybe we got what we deserved but most of us put the time and love in after that. It feels bleedin’ good now.
All I can hope is that the wait for the next one is not so long and that the wonder that is Anfield is soon filled again with the best fans in the world.
2 thoughts on “An Armchair Odyssey”
You have a book of some sort here I tell you!! Enjoyed reading it immensely.. I’ll be checking the middle bar for a game when ever your back !
Ps the linking of Sean and Dunboyne and Liverpool has been unique and while the event very sad it had been emotional to watch our club and our town become tangled together permanently. The day the Dunboyne flag flew in the kop and the jersey in the dressing room was pretty heavy !
MORE WRITING PLEASE
Thanks very much for your kind words Fiachra! Yes hopefully we’ll bump into each other in the coming seasons. I’ll keep scribbling away for posterity anyway!
It really is amazing that a Dunboyne jersey ended up in the Anfield dressing room. Terrible circumstances but a very special thing. RH