Reds and Blues mingle in their thousands at Wembley - No hint of trouble

Reds and Blues mingle in their thousands at Wembley – No hint of trouble

This article by me was first published on http://www.thisisanfield.com

It was 14th April 2012 and I was travelling back from Wembley with my Son. Andy Carrol had broken Blue hearts in the 87th minute and we were looking forward to another trip to the nations capital, this time for the Final. Our coach pulled into a service station, right next to a bus full of Everton fans.

As we filed off  to stretch our legs, one of our own shouted “Blue and White Shite Hello”. This is the now traditional greeting used whenever the two halves the city meet in a footballing context. There was no tension, no snarling and no fists flying.

“Sorry mate I don’t speak Norwegian” came the reply, as dry as the pubs around Wembley at full time. There was laughter on both sides. Then a Red noticed the ‘Everton FC, Official Southport Supporters Association’ sign on the front of blue bus. “You’re not even from Liverpool” he shouted. We parted without a punch being exchanged, only chants of “We pay for your flower show.”

It had been like this all day. Earlier Joe and I had forced our way through throngs of supporters, decked in Red and Blue and mingling freely without a hint of trouble. We were heading for the Bobby Moore statue, where we would meet my sister and her husband who were both Everton fans (don’t ask, my family don’t like to talk about it). We would also be joined by my brother and father and law, also Blues.

This meeting had been planned for days. We wanted a photo outside Wembley with us all in our colours; two clubs; one family. We took our pictures, uploaded them to approving mates on Facebook and parted having shook hands and wished each other a good game. Neither of us wanted the other to have anything other than a terrible game but, after all, until kick off came around we were still family.

Of course there are those on both sides of the divide who don’t see it this way. Over the years, especially throughout the 90’s an unpleasant atmosphere has emerged. A minority of fans have gone too far at times. We did witness some of this on our way to the Semi-Final that day. I’m talking about idiots behaving the way they always do in their day-to-day lives, only this time they were on their way to a match.

One bluenose, enjoying a ‘ciggie’ next to his coach with a group of his mates, chanted “murderers!” at some reds sipping from beer cans in the car park. One of them responded by throwing his can at the Everton fan. His mates stepped in and restrained him. Others who were gathered round shook their heads. The incident was over save for a few salvo’s of abuse from both parties. “Nob heads” said the guy behind me. I turned and nodded in agreement. I couldn’t tell you now who he supported. Its not relevant anyway.

It was a day totally representative of the Derby down the years, at least in my experience. It’s never been a Woodstock on the Mersey. We’ve never worn flowers in our hair. There has always been the odd drunken skirmish amisst the friendly banter. The Merseyside Derby though is not about rival factions. It’s more like a sibling rivalry.

Think about how you feel about your brother or sister. At times you are fiercely competitive, it is joyous to get one over them and then there are times when you can’t stand them. However, if anyone outside the family dares to have a go at them, you close ranks faster than the establishment in a cover up.

Red and Blue Solidarity

Red and Blue Solidarity

Yesterday saw a poignant example of this as Everton unveiled a plaque in honour of the 96. As a club the blues have stood shoulder to shoulder with Liverpool for 25 years. Before the game reds captain Gerrard spoke of his love of the banter between fans  “Everton are a great club but come kick-off I only want to beat them”, he said.

The peace collective statue was brought to the game yesterday. It depicted two world war one soldiers shaking hands over a football placed in the mud. One was German, the other British. One wore a red scarf the other blue. It was a great metaphor for the historic rivalry unfolding on the day. Away from the battle on the field we are all just football fans who love are club. Brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, work and schoolmates when the game is over; but Reds and Blues for 90 minutes.

All together now

All together now

It is for all these reasons that I regard the actions of Merseyside Police to be shameful and unjustifiable. What the two clubs have sought to bring together over decades, the Police have torn asunder. David Prentice, of the Liverpool Echo, penned a fantastic piece on the poison of segregation this week. I couldn’t hope to better it so I’ll just recommend you read it yourself. Suffice to say the policy of preventing reds and blues from sitting next to each other is an appallingly backward step, and will only increase the sense of separateness we  see at other derbies, and which we have resisted for decades.

The ‘friendly derby is a sporting institution this country should be proud of. It is being dismantled before our eyes. Not by fans, but by the authorities. This is our game not theirs. There is no history of problems at the derby, apart from the odd idiot on both sides making a show of themselves. Therefore there can be no justification for the trebling of police numbers yesterday. Areas around the ground were more reminiscent of Marshall Law than a football match.

Only Merseyside Police can explain why they would want to paint a picture of Merseyside football fans as a drunken violent mob. I have my own suspicions. They recently had a deeply flawed case thrown out of court, in which they had argued there would be something akin to an orgy of violence if the game wasn’t moved to midday. The implication was that if we were allowed to drink all day we would all descend into barbarism by kick-off. This is deeply insulting and without any basis in fact.

We are witnessing the demise of one of the greatest rivalries in football. One based on fierce competitiveness, brotherhood and humour. If we continue to sleepwalk, we will lose the spirit of the Merseyside derby forever. Is this what we want?

For me there could be no greater answer to the actions of the authorities yesterday, than for both sets of supporters to hold a public display of unity at the next derby. How great would it be if ‘Spirit of Shankly’ and ‘Blue Union’ organised a joint march across Stanley Park to the game. We are not what they portray us to be. We are Two Clubs – One City.

A Friendly Derby

A Friendly Derby

 

Do we want to put a stop to this?

Do we want to put a stop to this?

 

 

Stevie relishing his attacking role

Stevie relishing his attacking role

This article by me was also published on http://www.thisisanfield.com

The script had already been written. From the moment Steven Gerrard announced his decision to venture across the pond, you just knew he was going to deliver a weekly reminder of everything we are going to miss. Against AFC Wimbledon he didn’t disappoint. Gerrard has put in so many of these displays over the years, we expect it. Some of us, to our shame take it for granted.

Our number eight is now top scorer on nine goals this season, but tonight’s performance was about much more than that. His running belied his 34 years and he was everywhere, scoring two goals and heading one off the line as Mignolet stood stranded.

This was the Steven Gerrard we fell in love with, marauding forward, battling back and ultimately deciding the game. Stripped of his holding duties in front of the back four the captain rolled back the years, ghosting into the box and bravely heading Javier Manquillo’s cross passed the sprawling Shea on 12 minutes. The stage seemed set for a comfortable win, with Wimbledon seemingly paying the reds a little too much respect in the early exchanges.

Sadly the reds failed to put the tie out of reach in that opening period, and inevitably Wimbledon’s confidence grew. Liverpool’s defence has been writing game plans for our opposition all season now, and Neal Ardley showed he had been paying full attention. Wimbledon wasted no time in getting the ball into the box, and time after time we looked vulnerable.

Skrtel, Sakho and Can all had impressive games but young Manquillo, unsurprisingly,  seemed to struggle with the physicality of the game. On 33 minutes he failed to deal with a punt up the field from Shea and allowed the ball to bounce in the box. Matt Tubbs latched onto his mistake, but fortunately for Liverpool, failed to convert.

Wimbledon were beginning to build up a head of steam. An equalizer was starting to feel depressingly predictable. In goal Mignolet was busy reprising his role as Jekyll and Hyde. As a shot stopper he is clearly up there with best, but on set pieces and crosses into the box he is terribly suspect.

On 36 minutes the Belgian came out flapping at a corner, missed the ball completely, and was then beaten to it by Adebayo Akinfenwa, who gleefully slotted the ball home from two yards out. The BBC commentary team had been churning out the predicable one liners about his physique all through the half, but he beat the entire Liverpool defence to that loose ball. What a great moment for him, and richly deserved.

At this point the stadium was rocking and all the noise was coming from the Wimbledon fans. Liverpool meanwhile returned to the nervousness that has characterised our season. Half time brought a sense of relief, and and a chance to regain our earlier composure.

We were granted a rare glimpse into the Wimbledon dressing room to see a half time team talk, minus the sound. Great that Aunty Beeb, cheers. Meanwhile back in the studio the pundits were doing their best to ramp up the stakes for Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers in particular.

The media love the FA cup, and especially ties that pitch the minnows against the big fish. This is completely understandable. As long as it’s not your team, the sight of a David slaying a Goliath is always good value, However, Shearer and Linakar decided there was much more than this at stake for the reds boss.

“What with everything that’s been going on at Liverpool lately they can’t afford to lose this one” said Shearer agreeing with the shows host that this was a ‘seminal moment’ for Liverpool. The Kop once chanted “you should have stayed on the telly” to a hapless shearer, who was watching his Newcastle team being annihilated at Anfield, during his ill-fated caretaker spell. I’m not sure we gave him good advice there.

Stevie does his talking on the pitch

Stevie does his talking on the pitch

Wimbledon started the second half as they as they finished the first and the reds struggled early on to keep the ball. Inevitably though the League Two began to wane, and the Reds regained their grip on possession. In the 61st minute a clever turn by Coutinho drew a tired and reckless challenge from Barry Fuller.

With the ball at his feet Steven Gerrard once again found himself with Liverpool’s cup destiny in his hands. How many of you sensed he was going to put it away? I did. I am not psychic and neither are you. We have just seen him do that sort of thing over and over again. Always with aplomb and always when it matters most. It was a stunning free kick and ultimately there proved to be no way back for Wimbledon.

Of course the home side fashioned the almost obligatory last minute chance to rescue a deserved replay, or we allowed them to depending on whether you cup is half full or empty. This time our keeper proved more decisive and the danger passed. To be fair Mignolet had an improved second half. At the very least he showed he had the character to shake off his earlier mistake. Whether he is still out first choice keeper at the end of the window is another matter. You wouldn’t bet on it though.

So at full time it was back to the studio and more breathtaking analysis. “Why couldn’t Brendan persuade Stevie to stay, just like Ferguson did with Scholes and Giggs?” It seems the dye is cast now, the editorial choices have been made, and every time Gerrard turns in a performance like that the same lazy and predictable questions will be trotted out.

For me that’s a question for later. The decision has been made by player and club. History will judge if it was right or wrong. There may be factors that we know nothing about, we’ll just have to wait for the autobiographies to clear it up. What we can say with complete confidence is that we always knew this painful day would come, and constantly churning out the same old questions, only fills studios with hot air. What’s more important to me is the here and now.

Rodgers deserves credit for pushing Stevie further forward tonight. He is far more dangerous in an attacking role, and against Wimbledon we got a glimpse of what we have missed this season. With the team so bereft of a cutting edge, perhaps Shearer and Linekar would have been better served asking why he hasn’t been deployed in an advanced role more often this term?

Of course it is always easy to be wise in hindsight. Last season we didn’t miss his attacking powers because of the performances of Suarez, Sterling and Sturridge. Moving him into a deeper role seemed to make sense. This season the landscape has shifted, and we are no longer a potent attacking force. However, at least on the evidence of tonight’s performance we may have had a solution to our goal scoring problems sitting in front of the back four all .  Could it be that in that role we have only been getting ‘Gerrard Light’. If so let’s hope we see the full strength captain more often in the remainder of the season.

Goal scoring master-class from Gerrard

Goal scoring master-class from Gerrard

2013-14 a tough act to follow for Brendan

2013-14 a tough act to follow for Brendan

This article by me was also published on http://www.thisisanfield.com

As we transition into a new year it is normal to find yourself in reflective mode. There is a lot to say about the last 12 months from a red perspective. We have journeyed through the full map of emotions; excitement, anticipation and expectancy followed by soul crushing despair and disappointment. That was just the first five months, but at least there was some joy to compensate for the pain. Sadly the next seven have offered little to balance the negative.

Despite all of this, the clubs owners found themselves in philosophical mode as the year drew to a close. They pointed to the loss of one of the best strikers in the world and his sidekick, coupled with a prolonged bedding in period for the new signings as mitigation for our woes. All was not lost though as there were, as they saw it, comforting signs that all would be well. The demolition of Swansea seemed to have heralded yet another turning of the corner.

The reality is that, while we do seem to have rediscovered our attacking verve, we still haven’t stopped the rear-guard behaving like a punch drunk Lee Evans facing the Klitschko brothers. Two mad minutes against Leicester saw us surrender a comfortable lead to the bottom club. More depressing was the fact that Leicester could easily have scored more and taken all three points.

The frustration on the Kop throughout this season has been palpable. It’s entirely understandable. The wait for a first league title in a quarter of a century is made more unbearable by how agonisingly close we came last season. To their eternal credit the hardcore, toward the back of the famous old stand, have continued to support and believe. Alas their voices have been but whispers compared the uneasy silence that grips the ground at league games these days.

By way of contrast, the travelling Kop are a beacon of hope, and have chanted the managers name defiantly all season. I see these supporters as the vanguard, the true barometer. Amongst them there is still hope as we move into 2015. However, in the wider fan-base you sense despair and rage. There are those who go beyond merely questioning the manager’s decisions, and would actually like to see yet another changing of the guard.

There is much wrong with the modern game. A lot of it, actually most of it, is brought upon us by the games authorities. However, if we are honest with ourselves, some of it is of our own making. In large numbers football supporters have succumbed to a seductive lie, and this has created a cycle that threatens to destroy the game. It’s time we stood up to it and refused to be taken in.

I am talking about the doctrine of instant success, and the epidemic of impatience it has bred. Yes the media, in particular Sky have cooked this up, but we don’t have to eat it. Brendan Rodgers was manager of the year last season, voted ‘man of the year’ by the club at the annual honours bash. He led Liverpool to an unlikely title tilt, playing some of the best football I have witness in 40 years of watching the team.

When he took the reigns the club was a shadow of its former glorious self. Kenny had managed to stabilise things, but in the league we were light years from where we expected to be. He was a young unproven manager taking over a global institution, and following a club icon and living legend. Far from shrinking from the task, he took us agonisingly close to the promised land in a very short time. He didn’t blow it, as some have said. The fact is we should never have been there in the first place. The fact we almost won the title is down to him, and he was rightly praised for it in May.

This is why I find the stick he is taking this season astonishing. Now I admit, I am a born optimist. When it comes to Liverpool F.C. I often find it hard to be overly critical. But when it comes to my Red faith I am not blind. I concede there are times when a manager and a club just don’t fit. This was the case with Roy Hodgson. It most definitely isn’t with Brendan Rodgers. Then there are times when a manager runs out of ideas and energy. He loses the dressing room and the mistakes and bad decisions start to outnumber the strokes of genius. In such times a parting of the ways (hopefully mutual) can be the right thing to do for both parties. I believe this may have been the case with Houllier. We are no where near this with Brendan in my opinion.

I believe Rodgers has made mistakes. I can see that some of the tactical decisions, formations and signings are questionable. It is an undeniable fact that we have suffered our worst start in fifty years. Although it is interesting to note that in that 64/65 season we were managed by some guy named Shankly. Thankfully there were no twitter or post match ‘phone in’ shows back then.

Fast forward to the career of the most successful English manager of all time, Bob Paisley. In 1981, despite winning the European Cup, Liverpool finished a disappointing 5th in the league. If something like that happened now fans would be clambering onto to message boards to tell us “he’s had his day” or the old standby “he’s took us as far as he can”. Thankfully such short-sightedness was in short supply back then. Liverpool won the League Title and the League Cup the following year.

The fact that Alex Ferguson was once on the brink, before ultimately going on to dominate the premier league, should tell you that even in the modern game patience is a virtue. Actually, it isn’t just virtuous, it’s a recipe for unparalleled success.

Can Rodgers learn from mistakes

Can Rodgers learn from mistakes

Brendan Rodgers may not become a club icon, but in my opinion he deserves the same chance to prove that he can be. Modern football wisdom tells us there’s no time to build, no time for mistakes and setbacks, and no time to learn. Success has to come instantly or its on to the next poor sap. If we buy into this, then we become just like every other club, and every other fan-base. Is that what we want?

As Liverpool supporters we have always celebrated our contrariness. We are defiantly different and revel in marching to our own drum. ‘We climbed the hill our own way’ as that fantastic banner on the Kop declares. We don’t have to subscribe to someone else’s mantra. We are Liverpool. The manager deserves our support and our patience. He is part of the ‘Holy Trinity’ of supporters, players and manager. This was once an unbreakable bond, and an unstoppable force. It can and should be revived.

Against Burnley and Swansea the Reds took a massive two steps forward. Leicester represented a step back. It was not fatal in my opinion. Managers, like players suffer dips in form, self doubt and poor decision making. The very best come through these spells stronger, wiser and better for the experience. It’s a school of hard knocks, and in my view Rodgers has what it takes to graduate. Will we give him time? I hope we do.

Happy New Year

The greatest

The greatest

This article by me was first published on http://www.thisisanfield.com

The Anfield Road end has a lot in common with the Wirral. They both have great views. One gazes at the finest waterfront in the world, the other at the greatest football terrace in all of football. It was from a seat in the Anfield Road end that I was privileged to witness the goal Steven Gerrard regarded as his best ever. What a hit son!

It was of course his 84th minute strike against Olympiakos that set us on our way to Istanbul. Another big goal on a big night, and just when Liverpool needed it. He lifted us time and time again. So if there was going to be any player to spark that comeback in the Ataturk Stadium it was absolutely going to be Steven Gerrard.

In years to come it will be a source of disappointment to Gerrard that he never lifted the Premier League title. All of us wanted to see him do it last year. Indeed it seemed all of football wanted him to, such is the regard he is held in. He is simply the greatest player to have not won that medal, and for a spell of 5 years he would have walked into any team in world football. Even now there will be a queue of clubs vying for his signature.

Gerrard could have left in 2005 and many times since. He undoubtedly would have won titles wherever he played, but he chose to stay. Winning medals for Liverpool meant more than winning them anywhere else. It was Chelsea and Mourinho who came closest to taking him away.

Who can forget that morning when Rick Parry, confronted by a Sky reporter, broke the news “Steven’s decided to stay”. Jamie Carragher later said he spat his cornflakes out as he watched the story unfold at breakfast. Most of us greeted the news like we’d just won a cup. It was actually far more important than that.

Steven Gerrard was Liverpool Football Club. He was a Liddell or a Dalglish, because he embodied the spirit and ethos of the institution. They named the team Liddellpool after Billy Liddell, and for Steven Gerrard they renamed an FA cup final. As a childhood Kenny Dalglish disciple, I have no qualms in declaring now that Stevie is the greatest player to pull on the red shirt.

Our legendary number seven never had to suffer being surrounded by mediocrity. Gerrard did for many a season, yet he still managed to elevate the club beyond its station. He won every cup it was possible for him to win, and scored in every cup final. In all he amassed ten major honours, including 2 FA cups, 3 League Cups, the Champions League and the UEFA Cup. He was also a three times runner up in the Premier League. He may yet add more medals to that haul. I hope he does.

To us he will always be our captain, a Scouser and a red. He has achieved what we all dream of, and done it with distinction. His name will echo through history. He is a true legend of Liverpool Football Club. This may be the end of an era, but I am priveledged that I was alive when Steven Gerrard played for Liverpool.

Good Luck Stevie You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Out there on his own: Mario Balotelli

Out there on his own: Mario Balotelli

This article by me was first published on http://www.thisisanfield.com

Some decisions in life are easy, like when you wake up with a slight hangover and contemplate whether you actually want to go the match, given the gloom hanging over the club right now. You open the blinds and see that the whether matches your mood, but the pre-match butterflies dancing in your gut tell you to grow a pair and you realise there’s really no decision to make. Before you know your wrestling with the next big decision Fanzine or beer before the game. That’s easy too – you do both.

Then we come to the really big decisions. Those, that when you get it wrong, you find it really difficult to understand what was going through your mind in the first place. I am sure that the management team in the Flat Iron thought it was an excellent idea to hire a rock band to serenade supporters as they traipsed in after another less than satisfactory result. It really wasn’t. To be honest I felt more sorry for them than us.

Even harder to fathom, in hindsight, was the decision to persist with Mario Balotelli as a loan striker. The appearance of Ricky Lambert in the closing stages demonstrated that, if you are going to play him at all,  Mario needs a strike partner. To continue to ask him to lead the line is placing unnecessary burden on the lad and giving his critics even more ammunition.

All of the chat before the game had been about Balotelli. I had convinced myself that he should be taken out of the team, and had gone for a front three of Lallana, Coutinho and Sterling in the false nine role. I was surprised that Rodgers decided to start with the enigmatic Italian, but I wasn’t too bothered. Many have questioned the managers decision making around the striker. Some suggest he was unfair to be critical of the player in the aftermath of the Madrid game, others are critical of the fact he signed him in the first place. Such is the polarising effect of Balotelli.

I can understand both sides of the argument, but on this one I am prepared to bow to the boss’ judgement. Rodgers has always struck me as an excellent man manager. He sees the players on the training field everyday, talks to them, listens to them, and therefore he is ideally placed to decide whether a star needs a comforting arm or kick up the arse. On Wednesday he opted for the latter, at full time yesterday he chose to champion the strikers work ethic. This is the managers prerogative.

On whether we should have signed him in the first place, I argued it was far too early to judge. I wanted to see a bit more of the Mario that partnered Sturridge against Tottenham before I rush to any conclusions. Mario dominated the conversation and as we downed our glasses and left the pub,the debate continued into the ground, halted only by a discussion on the relevance of the excellent Black Flag protest against ticket prices. It was only a brief respite though, and as the game got underway the debate continued.

Rodgers man management

Rodgers man management

The first half went by in a bit of blur for me, and it wasn’t the beer. Liverpool were rarely threatened, but then we did little to set the pulse racing ourselves. For us this was frustrating. For Hull they must have thought Christmas had come early. With a squad devastated by injuries their game plan was understandably to leave with a point. The reds offered nothing in the first half to suggest they would leave disappointed.

It was far too easy for them. Steve Bruce felt sufficiently relaxed to exchange a bit of banter with the Kop. As one the old terrace belted out an ode to the Hull Boss’ unusually large noggin, and he responded by hiding it under his suit jacket. The Kop responded with laughter and applause. It was all too nice and sportsmanlike. Others have bemoaned the fact that we lack a nasty streak, or to quote an overheard snippet on the way home, “Liverpool need an ‘arl arse’ in the team”. I am proud of our reputation for recognising the qualities of the opposition. That’s how it should be. I was happy the Kop applauded off Madrid’s substitutes on Wednesday, but there are limits. I wasn’t happy that Glen Johnson was laughing and joking with Ronaldo during the game. The fact that we didn’t have a single player booked in that night says it all.

Bruce banter with the Kop

Bruce banter with the Kop

What happened to us making a visit to Anfield the toughest 90 minutes of an opponents lives? On Saturday, just like on Wednesday, for a good seventy minutes Liverpool rarely made their opponents sweat. We just didn’t get under their skin, and I doubt they ever thought that anything other than a draw was on the cards. All that did change with a flurry of late substitutions. Lambert and Coutinho replaced Lallana and Allen just on the hour mark, and Henderson entered the fray on 75 minutes for the impressive Emre Can.

The arrival of a foil for Balotelli, the inventiveness of Coutinho and the energy and drive of Henderson finally gave the visitors something to think about. Frustration and fear gave way to hope, as wave after wave of attacks crashed against the Kop goal mouth. The noise level ratcheted up at last, gone were the sporting niceties the Kop were now baying for blood. It was all too little too late though. The toiling Balotelli looked a frustrated and dejected figure as each chance went begging. It seemed easier to score some of them than miss. However, when you want something so bad, when the eyes of the world are on you, and you feel the pressure of  the chattering classes willing you to fail, sometimes the easy becomes the impossible.

There can be no doubt that Mario Balotelli wants to do well for the Reds. To see him crest-fallen and crumpled on the turf at full time was as heartbreaking as the result. There is also no doubt in my opinion that he is a quality player. He will have been glad of his managers words of encouragement after the game. He will have also taken comfort from the Kop’s continued chants of Mario Magnifico! Just like with Peter Crouch before him, who failed to net until December in his debut season, the roof is going to come off Anfield when Balotelli eventually, inevitably breaks his duck. Until then he shouldn’t walk alone.

Dejection and despair filled the air on the way back to Flat Iron, Unsurprisingly our moods hadn’t been lifted by George Sephton’s news that Bournemouth had beaten Birmingham 8-0 in the Championship. Passing conversations were a mix of the philosophical and the apoplectic, I was silent. Could things get any more miserable? Over to that poor Rock Band.

A dejected Mario Balotelli

A dejected Mario Balotelli

Dreams of Golden Skies

Dreams of Golden Skies

This article by me was first published prior to the Real Madrid game at Anfield on http://www.thisisanfield.com

If you’re scraping around for a pre Real Madrid match metaphor on which to hang your article, an impending storm, with a Spanish sounding name, isn’t a bad one. So I have to thank the weather demons for delivering Hurricane Gonazalo just before Real Madrid blow into town. Let’s hope our back four can cope better with the ‘Galacticos’ than my fence panels have with the wind currently battering Liverpool.

It’s fair to say that on current form the omens are not good. We are hardly going into this game in confident mood. Things just haven’t clicked for us yet. There are some mitigating factors of course. Any team would struggle to replace Luis Suarez goals and creativity, let alone deal with losing his strike partner to injury too.

With Champions League qualification delivered, the recruitment team were always going to buy in bulk. The squad was desperately thin last season and couldn’t have coped without significant additions. This has meant a relatively large number of recruits having to adapt to Brendan’s way of working and each other.

However, we don’t seem to have learned the lessons of last season in terms of our defence. It is fair to point to the fact that this is virtually a brand new back four. There is bound to be a period of adjustment, but for me these are all quality players, and they all cost a premium. If they’re not the most expensive back four assembled, then they are certainly up there.

The problem seems obvious to me. Many will disagree with me, but we don’t lack quality in our back four. What is badly needed is leadership and organisation. You don’t need Alan Shearer and ‘Match of the Day’ to tell you that, you can see it every time we concede a set piece near our goal. That strong vocal leader was what we lacked last year, and we haven’t found him yet on current evidence.

It was suggested that Dejan Lovren would be the answer, but so far he has struggled to deliver. The keeper also has to carry some of the responsibility. On Sunday his shot stopping was exemplary, but his decision making is poor at times, and he appears passive at times when he should be organising the players in front of him. This is particularly apparent at corners and free kicks.

In addition our decision making in terms of striker recruitment seems suspect with hindsight. I’m not knocking Mario Balotelli here; I would still like to see him paired with someone else. We are not getting the best out of him as a lone striker. That’s never been his game as far as I can see.

For me it’s just surprising that we haven’t added another quality forward, and the loss of Sturridge to injury highlights that. I know the club tried to get Sanchez, but it all seemed too little too late. If it was true that they knew Luis was going as far back as last Christmas, then why didn’t we have a plan B and a Plan C in place. You wonder how much of an impact the collapse of the Borini to Sunderland deal actually had on our striker recruitment.

So it is against this back drop that we go into arguably the biggest game of the season. Failure to get a result against Madrid will leave are hopes of qualification hanging in the balance. In reality we could end up scrapping it out with Ludogorets for a Europa League spot. Wednesday’s game is that big, in my opinion.

For Liverpool to prevail we will need to see a complete turnaround. As Brendan himself said post QPR, “Everything needs to improve.” In total contrast to the Reds, Real Madrid looks a team at the peak of their powers. After a shaky start, which saw them fall to two defeats in three, they appear to have got their acts together.

They currently sit third in La Liga, having won their last five games, which include three five-nil results and an 8-2. Their goal difference stands at plus 21 after 8 games. Given the way our back line struggled against Zamora I feel like going the toilet every time I think about Ronaldo and Rodriguez up against Skrtel and Lovren.

Fortunately for us, Football doesn’t always pan out the way the form book tells us it should. Paul Tomkins hit the nail on the head recently when he pointed to the peculiar football law, that  teams often play ten times better against teams that are ten times better than them (if that makes sense). There can certainly be no complacency against Madrid, and I feel there won’t be.

If we are to upset the form book we are going to have to battle for our lives. We just didn’t seem to give a damn against Basel, we were similarly lacklustre against Ludogeorets and against QPR on Sunday we were out-muscled and bullied by a team that looked like they wanted to get off the bottom of the table.

That will need to change, and we will instead need to see the same team that harried and pressed so well last season. The key will then be what we do with the limited possession we have. Against QPR there were few positives, aside from the pace and sharpness of Coutinho and Sterling. Liverpool will need to break quickly and in these two we have speed in abundance. Both have also shown they can finish off opportunities.

I have been concerned about the pair lately. They have each suffered dips in form and consistency, but on Sunday both looked like they were getting back to their best. I can only imagine how they are both feeling today. They must be buzzing with anticipation. Wednesday’s game is exactly the type of world stage these two will relish. I can’t imagine there will be any fear, both have shown they can be big game players already. They are young; they have the world at their feet. They just need to go out and steal the show.

There is a storm coming, but we all know what usually follows. We have been there so many times before. The crowd will rise to the occasion; we just need every man in Red to do their bit and maybe, just maybe we will see in that golden sky together.

The Kop of Liverpool FC

The Kop of Liverpool FC

This article by me was first published on the eve of the Real Madrid game at Anfield on http://www.thebibtheorists.com

On the eve of battle it is normal for the troops to be a little nervous, even fearful. This is especially true when they are facing a superior foe. In such times armies often look to their leaders for words of inspiration. Picture Mel Gibson’s famous, albeit wildly inaccurate, scene in Braveheart and you get my point.

In the world of sport it is no different. The New Zealand All Blacks have the ‘Haka’, which is designed to strike fear into the hearts of opponents. Of course we have the Kop and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. As anthems go you could say it’s a multi-purpose song. We use it to inspire and lift our boys, and to strike fear into opponents. It is used in triumph and also in defeat. It’s served us pretty well down the years.

Think of Olympiakos, Chelsea and Milan. These are all games where the power of our battle cry saw us triumph where we had no right to. There have been those who doubt, or even mock its power. Who can forget Marca’s famous “This is Anfield – So What” headline in 2009. I’m sure Rafa didn’t. He probably pinned it to the dressing room wall. In such games you can feel each note in your bones as every Kopite, Main Stander, Anny Roader and even those in the posh Centenary seats belts out the song with gusto.

We’ll need that same power and passion on Wednesday night if we are going to get anything from the game. This is a different Real Madrid, and we are a different Liverpool to the sides that contested the 2009 battle. Yes Madrid will be without Bale, but when it comes to superstars, they have talent in abundance.

In complete contrast we are a team struggling in all departments. In defence we have been a shambles, and up front we lack any sort of cutting edge. It took two own goals and a chaotic last nine minutes to see off bottom of the table QPR on Saturday. In talking to fellow Reds since that game I can really sense their fear and trepidation. On current form it is hard to see anything other than a Madrid win.

I know what you are thinking, these are not inspiring words. I can’t help it; it’s just how I feel. In such moments it is us, the supporters who look to our heroes for words of comfort and, well inspiration. Cue Stevie in his post-match interview at Loftus Road. As the interviewer finished asking him about our chances in the forthcoming titanic encounter, I sat stomach in knots and eagerly awaiting his battle cry.

“They are the best team in the world right now. If we play like that today there’s no chance of beating them.”

Well Stevie that wasn’t exactly the blood curdling ‘they may take our lives, but they will never take our freedom’ cry I was looking for mate. Having said that I don’t he was aiming his comments at the supporters at home. After all, our performance on Wednesday night is not in doubt, is it?

 

 

Regardless of how poorly we have defended, or how blunt in attack we have been, and irrespective of the fact that too often this season the players just haven’t turned up, Anfield will. In our tens of thousands we will bellow out that famous old song, and all of the others. We will boo every time a Madrid player touches the ball, and shout our appreciation of every red tackle. I expect, no Anfield expects that everyone in that ground goes home hoarse and speechless.

Stevie knows this all too well. He is after all a veteran of such battles. I suspect his words were instead aimed at the dressing room not the terrace. His tone may have been matter of fact, his words merely statements of fact, but you can bet he will be more forthright off camera, and so he should.

This squad needs to understand that if they are lucky enough to be granted the awesome privilege of playing on the hallowed turf this week, they will do so not as passive tourists admiring the view. The natives will not be putting on a display for the cameras. It’s not about enjoying the spectacle, it’s frankly far more important than that.

Every song we sing will be a battle cry, a call to arms and nothing short of total commitment will do. Aston Villa is gone, West Ham is but a fading memory and QPR belongs to the history books.  All sins are forgiven. On Wednesday night every man in a red shirt and golden bird on his chest will be carrying the hopes and dreams of a city, and of a fan base that spans the globe. They will be given nothing short our total devotion from the first whistle to the last. This is our historic duty.

Theirs is only to rise to the challenge. To be bigger, faster, stronger and sharper than they have at any time this season.