No more excuses - the time has come for Liverpool to stop being the 'nearly' men
Brendan Rodgers has assembled a side with 'Spice Boy' flair - but he must now prove he can find the big-game mentality which wins trophies
“They had great ability. Did we fulfil our promise? Probably not. On our day we were as good as anybody but our day did not come quite often enough.”
These are the words of former Liverpool manager Roy Evans in Simon Hughes’ excellent new book ‘Men in White Suits’ chronicling Anfield in the 1990s.
As Liverpool prepare for their first trip to Wembley under Brendan Rodgers, the task in hand is to ensure future assessments of the current era do not conclude with the same lament.
Evans’ reign is summed up in those opening two sentences. For all the paraphernalia about Armani contracts and pop star girlfriends, his Liverpool side lived up the Anfield standards of entertainment but lacked the winning mentality to regularly lift major trophies. They were always a player or two short – a robust central midfielder here and centre-half there - and found wanting when the must-win clash came along.
Last season, Rodgers baulked at comparisons with what is often perceived as the ‘kamikaze’ football of the mid-90s, but the reference point was not always meant to be critical. Evans’ side played bloody good football.
The Liverpool of Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman and a redefined John Barnes was often destructive and marvellous to watch, winning the League Cup in 1995 and twice challenging for the Premier League title.
Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez would bring the organisation and professionalism needed to end a European trophy drought, but you would never describe their reigns as a festival of flair. For Rodgers it has always been a question of how he can marry the qualities of all three managers – to win without compromising attacking ideals.
Currently, he is unable to escape the contention that it is the symmetry with Evans’ team that lingers. At their best, Liverpool play an attractive, winning brand of football with players given freedom to express themselves.
If there is any encouragement from this most haphazard of seasons, there have been far more grinding victories but that has been as much through necessity as choice. You tend not to score so many goals when the only strikers available are hopeless, past their best or on constant sick leave (or in some cases all three). If that is corrected in the summer there could be a healthier balance.
Nevertheless, for the third time in 12 months Rodgers is two victories from locating the trophy-winning ingredient, anxious to use those previous disappointments to inspire rather than smother.
Liverpool’s shortcomings could be down to lack of experience – at times this season the average age of their starting line-up has been under 24.
It could be due to the depth of quality available to Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal. Compare the squads and Liverpool’s is inferior. Fenway Sports Group’s contention you can win by buying smart for the long-term rather than spending big for the here and now will be constantly re-evaluated until Liverpool does win.
It may even be simpler than this. Maybe what’s really been missing is the slices of good fortune Liverpool undoubtedly had along the way in 2001, 2005 and 2006, during which time they won three penalty shoot-outs, edging to victory as is the habit of serial winners.
“You make your own luck,” is the qualification. There was more character and leadership in those sides.
Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea will be forever seen as the turning point of last season’s title challenge. The recent League Cup semi-final against the same opponents saw Liverpool lack the necessary quality again but had Diego Costa's sending-off been instant rather than retrospective it would have been different.
Liverpool have won plenty of big games and admiration aplenty under Rodgers but even if they beat Aston Villa on Sunday, the same questions will be asked before the final. Does this Liverpool team have enough to go the extra yard?
The last time Liverpool met Aston Villa in the FA Cup semi-final was in 1996.
Fowler was in his prime, his second goal at Old Trafford a work of art, volleying from outside the penalty area. It was widely assumed if they performed to their potential in the final they would outplay Manchester United as they had in both Premier League games against that season’s champions.
Instead, they went to Wembley, wore ridiculous suits, were completely nullified in one of the worst cup finals in history and lost in the last minute. Harsh or not, their reputation as the 'Spice Boys' was secured.
You can guarantee Liverpool will not be dressed in white on Sunday, but it is a different image they need to shed under Rodgers - that of 'nearly men'. The suit does not fit.