Tuesday 22 August 2017

Vincent Hogan: Another Anfield season where hope springs eternal

When Vincent Hogan watched Manchester United win the inaugural Premier League, it didn't feel like there had been a power shift. Over 22 years later, he says, Liverpool are still struggling to catch up

Brendan Rodgers: 'By and large, he seems to understand the importance of a club figurehead communicating with dignity on both good days and bad'
Brendan Rodgers: 'By and large, he seems to understand the importance of a club figurehead communicating with dignity on both good days and bad'
Raheem Sterling, Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge almost fired Liverpool to the title in 2014, now only Sturridge remains and he has been plagued by injury
Gerrard's pain after title death blow in 2014
Stan Collymore epitomised the 'Men in White Suits' era of decline at Liverpool which began under Graeme Souness
The 'Men in White Suits' at Liverpool began under Graeme Souness
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

I've been reading Simon Hughes's 'Men in White Suits', a kind of player-cam exploration of Liverpool's slide from habitual top-dogs of English football towards the settled neurosis of life around Anfield today.

And there's a quote from Ronny Rosenthal that absolutely jars. It references the evening of Liverpool's last title win in 1990, their 10th crown from the previous 15 seasons secured by a 2-1 home defeat of Queens Park Rangers. Rosenthal describes the atmosphere thus: "We had some champagne and there was a bit of singing. But there was not a night of massive celebration. We had a meal with our families. Hey, we were expected to win!"

Now the bright spots of Ronny's life as a Liverpool player ultimately became hopelessly obscured by the luridness of an infamous miss at Aston Villa that, to this day, gets lampooned as one of those moments of scarcely credible ineptitude from a professional footballer.

But he had a bird's eye view of the tactical and philosophical confusion that began to swamp business at Anfield under the management of Graeme Souness, a period still remembered as catastrophic to the values that had sustained Liverpool's extended dominance of the English game.

I was working at Old Trafford in '93, the night victory over Blackburn Rovers secured the inaugural Premier League crown (and a first title in 26 years) for Manchester United. Liverpool? They'd finished a distant sixth, suffering early exits from all cup competitions. Alex Ferguson had succeeded in, as he put it, knocking us off our "f*****g perch!"

But it didn't feel, at the time, as if anything especially profound had shifted in the balance of power in England's North-West. Liverpool still had 18 titles to United's eight. Life under Souness was just a clumsy aberration of poor purchases and docile, over-paid playing staff. That day Wimbledon's Vinnie Jones scrawled "BOTHERED" across the famous 'This is Anfield' sign, the dressing-room response was, apparently, laughter.

Liverpool simply needed to get proud again. I felt sure it would be just a matter of time.

The bad days never felt quite as personal back then. Why? Because the two of my four children who have, since, inherited their father's affection for Liverpool hadn't even been born. I didn't know the ache of guilt a man can feel at seeing his offspring left crestfallen by the disappointments of a team he has, essentially, deposited into their world.

My youngest son once jokingly told me that he had decided to switch allegiance to United. My response was the weary shrug of a parent who could not be held responsible for the poor choices of a child. He smiled. Without me knowing, his devotion to the red side of Merseyside was already reaching even deeper than my own.

So Liverpool's dramatic run so close to an unexpected Premier League title two seasons ago both electrified and shattered our household.

I've never especially liked Jose Mourinho, but his goading triumphalism at Anfield the day Chelsea's victory effectively won the title for Manchester City radiated a truly staggering deficit of grace. I suspect it was that very chest-thumping spectacle that triggered Brendan Rodgers's uncharacteristically caustic post-match assessment of Chelsea's 'park-the-bus' tactics.

Rodgers divides opinion wildly and, no question, some of his mannerisms can irritate. But, by and large, he seems to understand the importance of a club figurehead communicating with dignity on both good days and bad.

That said, there seems a rising appetite to parody him just now and, no question, Liverpool's regression last season in the absence of Luis Suarez (and effectively Daniel Sturridge) that culminated with a final-day humiliation at Stoke provided abundant ammunition for his critics to depict the Rodgers era as some kind of unravelling pantomime.

The consensus view seemed to hold that Liverpool were as far away from glory as they've ever been since the keys of the house were handed to Souness. In other words, a major project of re-invention was yet again required.

No question, Liverpool's failure to invest the Suarez money in a blue-chip international replacement bit them badly. They scored 49 fewer goals last season than in the 2013/14 campaign and this proved calamitous. Yet, bizarrely, Liverpool's top four aspirations survived almost to the foothills of May as Manchester United wobbled badly with three consecutive defeats on the run-in.

This despite the underwhelming nature of Liverpool's signings from which only the £10m recruit from Bayer Leverkusen, Emre Can, could have been deemed even a qualified success.

Much was subsequently made of the controversial Transfer Committee's investment of a combined £93 million in Adam Lallana, Lazar Markovic, Dejan Lovren, Alberto Moreno and Mario Balotelli. Pick a likely preferred starting 11 this season and how many of those would you expect to feature? Moreno maybe. Possibly Lallana at a stretch.

They've had to re-open the Anfield chequebook again this summer, but Raheem Sterling's sale to Manchester City and Rickie Lambert's sale to West Brom, plus likely income from other departures like Fabio Borini, Markovic, Balotelli (we pray) and, potentially, Lucas mean that Liverpool's net spend this summer is likely to have been nowhere as extravagant as some would have us believe.

But there is also a sense that the men arriving into Anfield this time have been chosen specifically by Rodgers, not by group-think.

Christian Benteke was always, apparently, his number one striker target and the expenditure on Nathaniel Clyne (£12m), James Milner (free), Joe Gomez (£3m), Adam Bogdan (free) and Danny Ings (probably in the region of £6m) is relatively modest by current Premier League standards.

The £29m purchase of Roberto Firmino from Hoffenheim looks the one real gamble. Just what role Rodgers envisages for the Brazilian is, as yet, open to conjecture. So it's fair to say that if Firmino proves an instant success at Anfield, Rodgers will be well down the road to re-establishing Liverpool as a Champions League club.

Damien Comolli's suggestion that Liverpool have made too many changes doesn't really stand up to serious scrutiny given that, for a refreshing change, they have gotten their business done early. This means that Milner, Clyne, Ings, Gomez, Bogdan and last season's recruit, Divock Origi, have all done a full pre-season with Rodgers now.

Benteke will surely start at Stoke on opening day as should Clyne and Milner. But after that? The Britannia Stadium is not a place Rodgers will be drawn towards needless exploration.

Finally he looks to have got the players of his choosing in this transfer window and, frankly, the replacement of a 34-year-old Steven Gerrard by a 29-year-old James Milner may be looked back upon as the shrewdest business done of all. Milner has joined Liverpool for all the right reasons and will transmit precisely the kind of competitive integrity in the dressing-room that they need to make an impact this season.

But there is another factor, I believe, working in Liverpool's favour now.

Nothing makes Rodgers bristle quite like the notion that home-grown coaches lack the technical nous to make their teams difficult to subdue at the highest level. Yet it was his tactical intelligence that made the Suarez/Sturridge partnership so unstoppable and, when Liverpool were in apparent crisis last season, his shift to a three-man defence gave them fresh momentum.

True, by season's end, Liverpool were struggling again, but momentum was lost with successive defeats to United and Arsenal at a time when the behaviour of Sterling and his wretched agent was little short of shameful. The view at the club is, I understand, that Jordan Ibe may - long-term - become a better player than Sterling now and his decision to cut short summer holidays to work on his finishing suggests he may be cut from different stone too.

So this time Liverpool seem to be approaching the season with a much better understanding of who they are and what they must, repeatedly, achieve to be a serious force in English football again. I happen to believe that Rodgers is every bit as shrewd a coach as Mourinho, Pellegrini, Wenger or Van Gaal. I also happen to believe that Liverpool have recruited more convincingly this time than in maybe the last half dozen transfer windows.

Meanwhile, development of the main stand has already changed the skyline around Anfield, Liverpool's owners making good on their commitment to re-develop the ground into - ultimately - a virtual 60,000 capacity stadium.

Rodgers, it seems clear, must achieve the minimum of a top four finish to keep his job and that's not going to be easy given the strengthening done elsewhere. "That said, I believe that Liverpool have had a better transfer window than any of the top four teams they are trying to overtake and, if they come through a difficult opening two months within five points of a Champions League spot, they will be in more than decent shape.

In 'Men in White Suits' Jamie Carragher concludes that Liverpool's topple from the summit of English football was largely self-inflicted. Complacency and bad choices began to eat into the fabric of the club. Whilst all around them opponents were modernising and broadening their horizons, Liverpool became stuck in the past.

Maybe their dress sense the weekend of that '96 FA Cup final against United radiated a general loss of humility too. It seemed to capture a broad absence of self-awareness that was dealt with sporadically in subsequent years under the managements of Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez. I believe Rodgers understands the need for that humility to be restored.

Liverpool won't win the league this season. But the hunch here is that they'll make the top four.

Irish Independent

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