Liverpool and fans seemingly left to contemplate a certain doomed romance
Steven Gerrard of Liverpool on his knees during the Premier League match between Liverpool and Chelsea at Anfield on April 27th that looks to have effectively ended their hopes of a first Premier League title. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Halfway through Shane Meadows’ celebratory film following the reunion of The Stones Roses, a euphoric Noel Gallagher almost loses his deadpan Manchunian hauteur as the heroes take the stage in the Parr Hall, Warrington, wide-eyed with excitement behind his shades: “City winning the league . . . the Stone Roses getting back together . . . it’s all too much, man.”
It was 2012, a dream year for Manchester’s sky blue fanatics and by tomorrow evening, City – for decades the proletariat club in Manchester – should have secured their second Premier League title in three years. If the day’s football follows form and logic, nobody can deny the most deserving side has won the title (the best team always does). But despite the one hundred plus goals scored and the striking grace of manager Manuel Pellegrini, City’s latest title underscores the sombre truth that it is the owners of football clubs who are the real players now.
Down the M62, Liverpool fans and old boys have been clutching at straws, pinning their season to the fanciful hope that Andy Carroll can display the scoring form which eluded him in his days at Anfield and help West Ham secure a highly improbable victory in front of an expectant Manchester crowd.
Terry McDermott, the moustachioed hero of Liverpool’s 1970s/early 1980s vintage, was moved to tweet a photograph in which he raises a glass with Carroll: he promises to buy the pony-tailed striker a pint if big Andy can do Liverpool the favour of favours. Ian Rush, meanwhile, invoked the dark magic of 1989, when Liverpool – in much the same position as Manchester City are now – managed to blow the title by losing 2-0 to Arsenal and Michael Thomas’s injury-time goal.
Impossible to imagine
But it is all but impossible to imagine that happening tomorrow. After all, Liverpool were playing the best team in the league that year. Liverpool had scored 65 goals going into that match, Arsenal 71.
Given the morale-shattering events of the last 10 days, beating Newcastle at home might be a tricky one for Liverpool. But they must do that and then hope for a miracle in the City-West Ham game. Then, when the whistle goes and Anfield goes silent for the summer, the Anfield crowd may have to face the coldest truth: another quarter of a century might pass before Liverpool have as good a chance to win the league again.
What made Liverpool’s tilt at the league so captivating to watch was they almost won it despite having none of the prosaic, temperamentally-sound, grind-em-down qualities associated with league winning teams. They just caught fire in early spring and kept winning and played with joyous abandon and after they beat Manchester City 3-2, it seemed as if all of the old stuff – the Anfield way, the lofty league record, the Kop end noise, Kenny Dalglish and the other idols in the stands–- would become a critical factor over the last four games: that the Liverpool public and tradition could almost will the team to victory in the final weeks.
The winning and losing of this league will boil down to that home match against Chelsea, which had an all-or-nothing, European Cup feel about it. In losing the game, Liverpool wavered and felt mortal again, so much so that Crystal Palace were able to sting them for three goals in under 15 minutes on Monday night.
After their nervous 3-2 away win at Norwich, a banner in the crowd read: “Liverpool FC. A Certain Romance”. That hit the nail on the head. There was a fabulous streak to Liverpool’s season. Much of it revolved around the transformation of Luis Suarez from petulant mercenary who wanted out of his contract last summer to utterly committed genius who thrilled fans and neutrals alike when he returned (after a 10-game suspension).
It didn’t matter that the Liverpool squad cost tens of millions less than City’s or that the back four always seemed on the verge of some calamity: Liverpool were scoring with such frequency and beauty it appeared as though they wouldn’t stop. Then Chelsea showed up looking a dead ringer for George Graham’s Arsenal: unromantic, flinty and awkward.
Steven Gerrard’s slip ,which gifted Chelsea their first goal, had a cosmic cruelty about it and his misfortune has been gleefully celebrated and parodied in England’s provincial grounds since.
It was a queasy, unforgettable moment and deeply unfair. But that’s sport. The joy in Gerrard’s misery is the most explicit reminder of the schizophrenia at the heart of English football: in just over a month, all of England’s football fans will pledge undying love for Gerrard if he can work some magic in an England shirt but in red, he is a figure to be hated and mocked.
Liverpool can console themselves with the gigantic strides made this season but the words sound like they are trying to convince themselves. Too many questions abide. Can Sturridge and Suarez ever again produce such an intoxicating season? Can the club attract the right players in the off-season? And even if they do, can they match Manchester City’s spending: already, they have vowed to shell out millions to deepen their defence.
And if the other Manchester side gets its act together and if Chelsea have a better season and if Arsenal have a season where they don’t just flatter but produce, then can Liverpool really hope to eclipse them all in any given year?
One of the quirks of Liverpool fans is that they have managed to treat the 24 years their club has failed to win the league as an aberration. That is why so much joy has been rung from Gerrard’s infamous stumble and the tears of Suarez: memories of Liverpool dominance are sufficiently recent to make any comeuppance worth witnessing for rival fans.
This season,Liverpool, just the sixth-highest Premier league club in spending, made a beautiful stab at pretending that the game is not just about the money. It didn’t quite work and now they have the same problem as their traditional rivals at Old Trafford: how much can they spend and can they attract the right talent?
And what happens if and when some other billionaire from the East decides to buy a venerable, modest English football club as his plaything, his ego trip? What happens then? Tomorrow at Anfield, they will sing their anthem and probably win the match and there will be nothing fake or forced about the emotion because the banner got it right.
But across in Manchester – unless the gods are planning something freakish – the richest club will win the league and their fans will feel great and dismiss all of that stuff about tradition and romance as so much fool’s gold.