Friday 17 August 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Liverpool have become more than a club and Manchester United are now the unlovable ones

Mo Salah scores his second goal against Roma last Tuesday night. Salah seems a perfect hero for an underdog city. He is a man who has also known failure. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA
Mo Salah scores his second goal against Roma last Tuesday night. Salah seems a perfect hero for an underdog city. He is a man who has also known failure. Photo: Peter Byrne/PA

Eamonn Sweeney

When I was young Liverpool had the power but Manchester United had the magic. The former ruled the game - there were 10 league titles in 15 seasons and four European Cups - but it was the latter who occupied a bigger space in the public imagination.

Back then United were often a sorry spectacle. There were seasons when they'd have been hard pressed to win a game of blow football in an oxygen tent. But they were surrounded by a mythological aura, connected perhaps with the memory of the Busby Babes, of Munich, of Wembley in 1968, of the rise and fall of Best.

Liverpool were wonderful but there was a remorseless quality to their victories which made them difficult to love. Next to Tommy Docherty or Ron Atkinson, Bob Paisley cut a faintly technocratic figure. We all love an underdog and there was something poignant about the unavailing quest for a league title which occupied United for two and a half decades.

These days things are the other way around. United's 13 titles in 21 seasons and two European Cups saw them dominate the '90s and noughties as Liverpool had the '70s and '80s. These days it is their old rivals who are the romantic's choice. There is a sense that a Premier or Champions League title for Liverpool would somehow matter more than one for Chelsea or the Manchester clubs.

It is Liverpool who have become, as that Barcelona motto says, more than a club. United, the epitome of club as corporate juggernaut, are the unlovable ones. That's the price you pay for success I suppose.

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Why do Liverpool seem to matter more as a club? Hillsborough has a lot to do with it. What the tragic tales of Munich - the fateful decision to make one last effort to take off, Liam Whelan praying as the plane headed towards disaster, Harry Gregg pulling people from the wreck, Duncan Edwards fighting on in hospital before finally succumbing - were to a former generation, the images of April 15, 1989 are to this one.

The spectators being despatched to certain death by the police, the crush at the Leppings Lane end, the people trying to clamber over the fence on to the pitch, the staggering nature of the death toll. . . all these are seared into football's collective memory. The callousness of the authorities, the attempted cover-up and the tenacity of those who pursued justice for decades probably resonate with us even more.

When you saw Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush celebrating the goals against Roma on Tuesday night it was impossible not to think of the nightmarish weeks 29 years ago when the Liverpool players attended funeral after funeral. There is a bond between those players and their old club which does not exist anywhere else. It cannot. That is what we think about when we think about Liverpool.

The passage of time has also lent romance to the achievements of Shankly and Paisley's teams. At the time it seemed as if Liverpool would win forever as the winning secrets of the Anfield Boot Room were passed down the generations. Victory, as it does for all really great teams, came to seem inevitable as much as praiseworthy. Now that the empire has fallen we can appreciate the achievements of those bygone Reds.

Above all we can appreciate their achievement in bagging four European Cups, something which appeared inevitable at a time when English clubs ruled the continent to such an extent that two victories for Nottingham Forest and one for Aston Villa in the premier club competition just seemed like business as usual. Yet only Real Madrid with their six in a row at the very start of the competition's history have surpassed Liverpool's achievement of completing a quartet within a decade.

They did this at a time when, even before Hillsborough, their city was bearing the brunt of Thatcherism's excesses. I'm surely not the only one for whom the team's glory years are jumbled with memories of Boys From The Blackstuff, Graeme Souness's famous encounter with Yosser Hughes seeming to perfectly encapsulate the link between what was happening on and off the pitch. Football, it's clear now, meant so much to Liverpool because they had nothing else.

It is one of life's little oddities that Liverpool's current hero bears a certain similarity to the most famous character from Boys From The Blackstuff after Yosser, Chrissie. But that's not the only reason Mo Salah seems a perfect hero for an underdog city. He is a man who has known failure, making just 13 appearances in two seasons with Chelsea before they offloaded him to Roma.

Whereas most modern-day footballers are athletic marvels, men with bodies like kinetic sculptures demonstrating what may be achieved in the field of musculature, Salah's shape conjures up memories of those stubby wingers who scorched the touchlines of my youth. While you could imagine several of his peers excelling in other sports, Salah's skill-set seems uniquely and wonderfully attuned to football. Like Lionel Messi, his style is the apotheosis of the kid in the schoolyard who just wants to beat people and score goals.

There is something reassuringly old school about Salah, as there is about Liverpool. His underdog status is cemented by the fact that he's a Muslim in a time when his co-religionists are battered by bigotry. Afro-Caribbean sportsmen have done a lot to lessen prejudice in England; Salah is surely capturing a few hearts and minds too.

That Liverpool's current European campaign has a fairytale quality lacking in their runs to the final in 2005 and 2007 owes a lot to Salah but even more to Jurgen Klopp. For all the doubts initially expressed elsewhere, Liverpool seemed to take to Klopp immediately. It is a romantic city and he is a romantic manager, the all-out energetic style he espouses perfectly suited to whipping up the emotional crescendo peculiar to big European nights at Anfield.

There is something of the underdog about Klopp too. At Borussia Dortmund he was able to overcome the huge gap in resources between that club and Bayern Munich. While Mourinho complains about not having as much money as Guardiola, Klopp cracks on with much less than either. The sale of Philippe Coutinho, like that of Luis Suarez, seemed almost an admission of defeat at the time. Yet Klopp has proved a master of getting the best out of what he has. The plunge for Virgil van Dijk was a rare example of extravagance. By and large he has worked with the kind of material Guardiola might be too fastidious to handle.

Alex Ferguson's mockery of Jordan Henderson as the kind of player United would be too clever to sign rings hollow. As, in the week that James Milner broke the record for Champions League assists, does that 'viral' clip from a couple of years back of some Irish clown complaining about him. The emergence of Trent Alexander-Arnold, teenage, homegrown and altogether magnificent, also seems symptomatic of Klopp's ability to make a virtue out of necessity.

So does his patience and persistence with the oft-maligned Loris Karius. Karius was previously at Mainz and his arrival from unglamorous destinations is something of a common theme with Liverpool. Roberto Firmino was signed from Hoffenheim, Sadio Mane and Dejan Lovren from Southampton, Andrew Robertson from Hull City. This too echoes an earlier era.

We can over-romanticise Liverpool. Had the attack on the Manchester City bus happened in Turkey or Russia, the headline would have been all 'Sinister Gauntlet Of Hate'. At Anfield it was pretty much excused on the grounds of 'passion' and 'fervour'. And the insistence that said passion and fervour is driving Liverpool on to European victory overlooks the fact that the same qualities don't seem to do Celtic much good. It is managers and players who win games. Still, it's hard not to have a soft spot for The Kop. The slurs aimed by Tory England at Liverpudlians, that they're violent and work-shy and like feeling sorry for themselves, are strikingly similar to those directed at Irish people from the same quarters.

That's hardly a coincidence. One reason Liverpool has always been regarded with a certain suspicion by the powers that be is that it is the most Irish of English cities. In 1977 Liverpool players arriving in Rome for the European Cup final wondered why they didn't see many of their fans around the city, only to discover a lot of them had gone to the Vatican to see the Pope. That mightn't happen to the same extent on Wednesday but the qualities the Scouser prizes most about himself - verbal dexterity, openness, sociability and a hatred of snobbery - are also the best Irish ones.

A lot has changed since the days when Liverpool were the best football team in the world. These days the major clubs increasingly resemble major US sporting franchises. Yet there is still something different about Liverpool, a club for which tragedy and triumph will be intermingled for as long as the game is played. Liverpool remind us of the time when the football produced by a club seemed like a reflection of the character of the community it represented.

They do though, don't they though.

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