Wednesday 11 December 2019

Liverpool revival based on seething rage against decline and injustice

Liverpool and Manchester City players line up for a minutes silence in front of fans in the kop displaying cards to form a message in remembrance of the 96 Liverpool fans that lost their lives in the Hillsborough disaster
Liverpool and Manchester City players line up for a minutes silence in front of fans in the kop displaying cards to form a message in remembrance of the 96 Liverpool fans that lost their lives in the Hillsborough disaster

Paul Hayward

Not once during the compilation of his autobiography did Alex Ferguson consign Liverpool to the dustheap of history. Which is more than could be said for those of us who thought they had fallen too far behind, bought too many substandard players and stayed too long in the great museum of Anfield.

On any rational reading, the revolving door of bad buys, the Stanley Park stadium saga and the ownership struggles of the Tom Hicks and George Gillett years threatened to turn Liverpool into a relic.

As oligarchs, American speculators and sheikhs piled into the Premier League's poker game, time would not stand still to allow Liverpool to work out how they were going to increase Anfield's capacity or win the league with Nabil El Zhar, Bernard Diomede or Charlie Adam.

In those days of maximum doubt, with the team finishing seventh, sixth, eighth and seventh in the Premier League – after the brief flourish of a runners-up medal in 2008-09 – "tradition" seemed a poor defence against the reality that Chelsea, Manchester City and even Spurs had joined Ferguson's Manchester United in knocking the Liver bird off its perch.

Anfield now had its American speculators, too, but the Fenway Sports Group of John W Henry seemed too nice and cautious to really go to war with the Glazers, Roman Abramovich or Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan.

Ferguson, though, never swivelled the lights on his watch tower away from the red half of Merseyside. Fear of Liverpool's power was ingrained, from his days at Aberdeen and right through 26 years at Old Trafford.

He understood Liverpool's latent strength, their strong identity, and perhaps most forcibly their refusal to surrender. To slide into the past tense you have to be willing to accept that fate. Liverpool never have.

In the doldrums, they seethed and raged against decline. They were no more willing to see the club as a dead empire than they were to accept the verdict of the original Hillsborough inquest.

Though he would tease Scouse reds in the Aintree car park about how many new players Liverpool needed, Ferguson knew the mistakes of the past could be rectified. He knew the spiritual foundations were still there.

All this presupposes of course that the progress made this season can be sustained next year, when players will doubtless want pay rises, rivals will covet the team's stars and Brendan Rodgers may be courted by other superpower clubs.

But for Liverpool to advance from where they were even 12 months ago to where they are now is a triumph of coaching, talent spotting, culling and collective spirit.

If people wonder how the Hillsborough disaster has shaped Liverpool's story over the past 25 years, it may be that the outrage, the sense of injustice, has held the club together and rooted it in resilience and defiance.

Hillsborough was two things: a tragedy and a scandal. The tragedy is addressed through remembrance. The scandal, for which even the British Prime Minister has apologised in parliament, remains unresolved.

The subsequent cover-up and conspiracy by police, MPs and some journalists has left a sense not only of institutionalised corruption in public life but profound violation of the memories of the victims and the lives of their families.

What has this to do with Daniel Sturridge finally writing his name in lights after false starts at Chelsea and Manchester City, or Raheem Sterling adding dimensions to his game?

IMPROVEMENT

How did it convert Steven Gerrard to a deep-lying quarterback or inspire such a huge improvement in Jordan Henderson?

The credit here belongs to Rodgers and those players. But without the "tradition", the communal sense and the anger over Hillsborough there might not be that vital locomotive factor we could call heart, or emotion.

The list of dud purchases from the past 15 years or so is huge.

Anyone remember Jan Kromkamp, Miki Roque, Gabriel Paletta, Sebastian Leto, Daniel Pacheco, Charles Itandje, Doni, Anthony Le Tallec, Antonio Nunez or Antonio Barragan?

As well as choosing cleverly, Rodgers has purged with great skill, clearing out Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Adam, Joe Cole and even one or two who seemed to have a future at Anfield, such as Jay Spearing and Jonjo Shelvey.

There is no flux at Liverpool now and no mass sifting: just an elite fighting force, which will need reinforcing this summer.

"I could always feel their breath on my neck," Ferguson said of Liverpool.

He knew they would come again. But probably not like this. Not this fast, or so impressively. There is only one way to deal with decline, or injustice. You fight. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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