Worrying echoes of 1998 for Brendan Rodgers
Liverpool are keen to stick with their manager, but defeat at Norwich at the weekend will bring to mind comparisons with the end Roy Evans's reign
It is the unenviable task of every Liverpool manager to recreate the past.
Sixteen months ago, Brendan Rodgers was a couple of wins from doing so. He would have taken his place alongside the club’s greatest managers had he won the Premier League title in 2014.
Instead, there is an echo of a different season as tries to suppress the debate about his job prospects in Bordeaux on Thursday.
It feels like 1998 again at Anfield.
In the summer of that year the Liverpool board convened and decided they needed a change, but Roy Evans had too much credit in the bank to be discarded.
His side had played some marvellous, attacking football - especially two years earlier when the destructive attacking trio of Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman and Stan Collymore were in tandem – and there was a feeling with a little more steel and the help of another pair of eyes this could be recreated.
Rather than replace Evans, former chairman David Moores was seduced by a proposal that made changes while trying to keep things pretty much as they were.
He could not bring himself to sack his friend – a thoroughly decent man raised on The Kop - so embraced what would become one of the most illogical schemes the club would ever dream up. Liverpool opted for alterations in the managerial set-up rather than a change of manager. They would have joint-managers.
Thus, Gerard Houllier arrived at the club fresh from assisting France’s World Cup win and for a month everyone congratulated themselves on a visionary compromise.
Everyone at Anfield felt better about themselves in July and August. Supporters who instinctively felt Evans deserved another chance were appeased, as were those looking enviously at the continental modernisation Arsene Wenger had given Arsenal. It was long overdue at Liverpool.
Within a matter of weeks it became evident rather than cure underlying problems, the board’s actions had created a new set of them.
An executive decision based on honourable principles such as patience and loyalty quickly turned into an act of cruelty towards Evans, who was granted a slow, gradual and painful demise rather than a quick, sharp one.
Despite an encouraging start to the season – an away win at Southampton, draw with Arsenal and emphatic victory at Newcastle hinted all was well – a defeat to West Ham was the catalyst for decline. By the first week of November, Anfield fixtures were being played amid a hushed, funereal atmosphere.
Every club came to Merseyside expecting to win. Evans - the ‘last of the bootroom boys’ and one of the most respected and loyal Anfield servants – realised he would go and was mentally wrestling how to go about it in the weeks before falling on his sword. Only in retrospect did those who oversaw the joint-enterprise acknowledge its folly, but there was never any regret about its intentions.
There is no joint-manager farce scourging Anfield today, but the danger for Rodgers is similarities are all too clear. The parallels extend far beyond the fact it was West Ham ending this year’s encouraging start to the Premier League season.
Like Evans in 1998, Rodgers went into this season knowing this is his last chance after a chastening board meeting during the summer. Rather like Moores seventeen years ago, Fenway Sports Group recognised the need for change, but opted for the addition of coaching personnel to assist the manager at a time many were calling for a complete overhaul. Rodgers obliged with his new backroom appointments describing it as a ‘fresh, technical approach’ but – as he admitted on the eve of Thursday’s Europa League tie - the sense of renewal is not yet apparent.
Rodgers goes into every game for the foreseeable future knowing time is no longer his ally. The Liverpool board, just like the supporters, are staring anxiously at the fixture list fearing every game is a loaded pistol.
Providing there is not a complete capitulation in France, Thursday’s Europa League game will not be a shotgun moment. If anything, it feels like an unwanted distraction. Play well and win with what will be a back-up team and there will be a ho-hum rather than momentum switch.
Nothing that happens in Bordeaux can prevent Norwich City’s arrival at Anfield on Sunday being of greater significance, a fact underlined by how many senior players Rodgers has left to train on Merseyside.
Liverpool are adamant they do not want to lose Rodgers, but they can guarantee nothing about what is going to happen in the next few weeks. There is a will to give him every chance to make his team gel. Parting with him would be to acknowledge the failure of the ‘long-term strategy’ - on the pitch, at least. It would undermine the decisions made five games ago, lead to another expensive recruitment drive and ensure another incumbent arrived hoping for at least three transfer windows to build his own squad.
Since Evans' departure in 1998, Liverpool has appointed an architect of France’s golden era; a double La Liga and multiple European trophy winner; the current England manager; a club God and multiple title and cup collector; and finally the up-and-coming ex-Mourinho apprentice.
All arrived with energy and dynamism (with the exception of Hodgson) but left having lost touch with the ideals that made them attractive appointments.
Rodgers is now deep into a process of trying to succeed where his most eminent predecessors failed. Re-establishing the vision that earned him the job is the only chance he has. If he is still in charge a year from now, reminiscing how he survived and then thrived after such a hideous period, he will not have followed the path of Anfield history. He will have defied it.