Saturday, 23 May 2015

He's Big and He's Fookin' Hard...

The great lie Sky sold the British public in the 1990s was that they love football just like us.  We got Sean Bean adverts and Soccer AM to prove that their love was just like ours. And in the world their love like ours created we now have a game dominated by financial behemoths and the glamour of the Premier and Champions League, the only silverware that matters. The FA Cup, League Cup and lower leagues are mere sideshows to the main events now, whatever nostalgic journalists of a certain age say. For those clubs with the resources to contest the league title the FA Cup is a mere bauble, something to aim for to give a league title an extra resonance. The preponderance of doubles in the 1990s (four) took some of the lustre from the competition, what became a predictable dominance by the top clubs (Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea) meant he competition lacked the surprise element for which it had been renowned. A series of finals either turgid, one-sided or both didn’t help.  And the rotten cherry on the stale, rancid cake was the ever growing quantity of top division matches Sky were showing from the top division -  no longer were FA Cup games the special occasions they once had been (it’s a similar case for international matches). Amidst all this only the biennial tournament routine retained status, and even then arguably only the World Cup was truly glamorous.

Yes, my wife's *always* had strange taste in men.

Such is the case when the forces of commerce drive the game’s development. Their love is, of course, nothing like a fan’s love.  Fan love is, by and large, an irrational thing unattached directly to a club’s wealth (though ease of transport and far wider media exposure of modern times means it can to some degree be related to success).  It can originate in many ways, from being a local club, through family connections or through chance events at an impressionable age – for instance, my wife’s support of Ipswich is entirely down to a strange crush on Paul Mariner, developed when finding a discarded Panini sticker in the street.  You can make a case that with wealth increasingly being a factor in picking up top players, trophies and therefore wider exposure that it is some factor in the tribal fan love of big clubs, but I’ve yet to hear of anyone whose head was turned directly due to their club’s bank balance or stock exchange value.  Sky’s love of football is almost entirely down to its ability to make money for them, be it from paying their monthly subscription fee or selling advertising space (that it makes money both ways renders their critiques of the funding of the BBC amusing).  For their purposes glamour sells, the glamour of the world’s best players and trophies rolling in.  It would be wrong to suggest that they’ve been entirely bad for the sport – their large and repeated injections of cash has created the conditions to bring top quality players to the Premier League in a way repeated deals with the BBC or ITV just couldn’t have – but it’s created a small, wealthy elite who carve up the glamorous trophies while reducing the rest to essentially a sporting cast, all while calling it the most unpredictable league in the world. In truth, within the parameters of wealth allowing large, top quality squads to be maintained it’s almost entirely predictable. All the Premier League champions come from clubs who’ve made a large and sustained investment in playing staff over time (not even Arsenal’s triumphs come close to disproving this – their initial success under Wenger was fuelled by a well-timed injection of funds from Danny Fiszman). There’s little variety in the clubs who get sent to the Champions League each year – one appearance each by Spurs and Everton aside the only variety to clubs appearing in the Champions League over the last decade was Liverpool dropping out for the newly rich Man City due to financial problems and Liverpool returning for United due to the latter’s post –Ferguson issues.  And even there Everton’s appearance is arguably largely due to Liverpool sustaining two long cup runs with a relatively small squad where Everton lost both cup games they played. It’s a club of wealth that’s tough to break into, and with the current structure the title looks beyond two, possibly three clubs for the foreseeable future.

The first obvious signs of this were the initial dominance of the Premier League by United.  For all the talk of Fergie’s Fledglings and the Class of ’92 the sides which won United their initial dominance of the league were expensively (though shrewdly) assembled for the time – Roy Keane, Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Gary Pallister didn’t come cheaply, though the subsequent rapid inflation of the value of footballers won’t tell you this at a glance (Paul Tomkins Pay As You Play and his Transfer Price Index are invaluable here).  Blackburn’s largesse was well documented at the time and the only new names engraved on the trophy this century are the teams that received sudden, massive foreign investment.  Chelsea were a club hanging around the top four at a cost which was within a few weeks of bankrupting them before Roman Abramovich’s billions pushed them upwards to a title within two seasons and City were a perennial sleeping giant before being banked by a sovereign wealth fund that granted them practically matchless resources. The long term effects of UEFA’s much touted Financial Fair Play (FFP) policy here remain to be seen, though immediate thoughts indicate that these regulations will merely prevent more of these takeovers at a later date rather than restricting clubs already there.  We’ve therefore reached a point where the title is harder than ever (near impossible in fact) to win for clubs not already having billionaire backers and long term sustained success.  Even previous windfalls which led to the rise of clubs now thought of as giants – United in the early 1900s, Liverpool and Everton with the Littlewoods pools money in the late 1950s and early 1960s – did not allow such dominance to happen. Clubs could rise from the second tier and challenge or even win titles (Ipswich in the 1960s and Forest in the late 1970s being the obvious examples).  In the Premier League era only Keegan’s Newcastle came close to that.  But with more money being in the game, the differences in club incomes, previously relatively minor in terms of prize money, has grown exponentially. Whereas in previous decades the relatively low incomes meant the differences were correspondingly less significant, now the incomes from league wins and Champions League participation made the difference between regular first and second place finishers and fourth or fifth place finishers huge (of course, fourth place now earns a Champions League spot).  

In such circumstances Liverpool find themselves in an awkward position.  When the Premier League began they, like United, were in an ideal position to secure their position in the top four.  But whereas United sensed the opportunities the new era offered, expanding their stadium, floating on the stock exchange and supplementing that extraordinary Class of 92 with judiciously chosen big purchases, Liverpool under chairman David Moores became stuck in a perceived ‘Liverpool Way’, an admirable commitment to remaining a local club. After Shankly had shaken up the club in 1959, modernising the training ground, training methods and ultimately Anfield itself the club had maintained a forward thinking ethos, particularly under chief executive Peter Robinson. They were, for instance, the first club to accept a shirt sponsorship deal.  In that light the jibes directed down the East Lancs Road look a touch ill-founded – Liverpool had done what they needed to do to consolidate success; in the 90s United had taken the baton and sprinted into the distance in terms of both financial potential and on-field success.  Liverpool could remain relatively competitive whilst their rivals were United, Arsenal and Ken Bates’ overdraft, but the turning point in the modern era for them remains Roman Abramovich’s arrival at Chelsea in 2003 coupled with a disastrous couple of summers in the transfer market.  Chelsea’s extravagant summers underlined that a club funded by the Moores family, gate receipts and TV money would ultimately struggle to compete for the biggest trophies in the new era of largesse. They now needed three clubs to slip, not two and regular European football meant they couldn’t take advantage of extra games tiring the other squads out.  The odds against a long awaited title lengthened further. 

All that was concealed by the appointment of Rafa Benitez and the subsequent extraordinary European Cup victory.  Football history records it as one of the most extraordinary major Cup finals of any era; given the state of the club behind the scenes, the events along the way and calibre of opposition mean it might well be the most extraordinary triumph in the competition’s history.
They clearly remain one of the nation’s richest and best supported clubs but the odds are against them winning trophies.  Even though they retain their place in the world’s ten clubs they struggle to win trophies as four of the other richest clubs also play in the same league. Against this backdrop Liverpool may well have struggled to attract the players that made them so great in previous decades. They would certainly have found it tough to maintain a dominance in the Premier League, a feat only really achieved briefly this century, once when Mourinho first combined with Abramovich’s billions and once when Cristiano Ronaldo reached his extraordinary prime. It’s the great misfortune of Steven George Gerrard to have his career coincide with the periods at which Liverpool have been least likely to win the league.  

Today he plays his final game in a Liverpool shirt, away from the home turf that seemed to add an extra few inches in stature, an extra few pounds in muscle and an extra few yards of speed. He’s already departed the sacred land of Anfield for the last time, unable to raise his beloved team from mediocrity while they lost 3-1 to an energetic Crystal Palace side who merited their win (whilst benefitting from arguable decisions on all three goals). With Liverpool having little to play for bar league positioning the occasion was all about him, welcomed to the pitch by an extra powerful rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone and eventually serenaded off with the chants sung by the Kop for so long. In a long career of odds defying feats he even managed not to shed a tear as he left. But then this perhaps sums up Gerrard’s career, a potent mix of emotion and noble battling against seemingly predetermined fate.  Of all the great players of the Premier League era – the likes of Lampard, Terry, Henry, Vieira, Cantona Scholes, Giggs, Keane even Shearer – Gerrard was the only one who revelled in underdog status.  Only Matt Le Tissier, Southampton’s indolent genius, came close in terms of loyalty and battling to maintain a club’s status and at The Dell he never had the intense focus that always seemed to be on Gerrard.  The rest of the greats, congregated at the biggest clubs, gathered trophies, accolades and titles as if they were fallen leaves. Gerrard preferred the struggle.  Gerrard, more than any of the others, wanted and needed to be the heart and soul of his club. 

From the start his story seemed too good to be true.  He broke into the Liverpool team in the wake of Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher; along with Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman the club had perhaps the finest collection of Scouse talent in its history. Gerrard making it had extra resonance; his cousin was one of the youngest victims of the Hillsborough tragedy.  Even if he’d made that one appearance, a stoppage time replacement for Vegard Heggem at the end of a comfortable 2-0 home win over Blackburn, that would have been a magnificent story. But there would be more.  There would be 17 seasons of more. 

The details and games are well documented, etched on to the memory.  A 35 yard piledriver against United.  A key role and a goal in England’s 5-1 win in Germany.  Driving Liverpool to Champions League qualification in 2003/04 with the club falling apart around him.  Olympiakos.  Istanbul.  West Ham vanquished in Cardiff.  Disappointment in a second European Cup Final.  Pushing a Ronaldo inspired United all the way in 2009, captaining the team that put four goals past Real Madrid and United inside five days.  The free kicks, the hat-trick against Everton, dropping deeper to help inspire a title challenge before that slip.  That last red card against United, seconds after coming on, a late winner against QPR… and then, in his final game at Anfield a party spoiled by an energetic Crystal Palace side. For all the acclaim and great moments those moments of fallibility, the slips, the careless backpasses and rushed of blood were also a hallmark of Gerrard’s career.  Gerrard was a footballer of world class ability; power, pace, a wide range of passing, a fierce tackle and a hammer of a right foot. His energy and unpredictability meant he could pull a team completely out of shape.  But all the mistakes reminded us he was human in the way Messi and Ronaldo never appear to be.  He could seize a game in an instant if given an opportunity but he could also lose it with a daft mistake.  Superman and Clark Kent rolled into one, but with no costume change it could be either one of them out there.  Mostly the former, obviously, but the latter could turn up without warning.

I had the privilege of being there for his most crucial goal, sat on The Kop for the first time.  Back row, just to the right of the posts with two good friends. We took our seats early, quietly confident given Olympiakos’ appalling record away to English sides.  Rivaldo soon shattered our confidence.  After a half where the crowd had castigated him for his tendency to fall over easily he stepped up to score one of the free kicks.  Halftime 0-1. Liverpool had managed three goals in five and a half games and now they needed to score three more in 45 minutes.

I have still never experienced a night like it in 28 years of matchgoing. From halftime the singing was relentless; choruses of You’ll Never Walk Alone mixed with the almost metallic harshness of the chant of ‘Attack! Attack! Attack Attack Attack!’.  No-one sat down on the Kop that entire second half.  The team needed lifting or they risked drifting out of Europe’s premier club competition, with financial issues it might even have ended up a long term absence. Florent Sinama Pongolle came on, his pace and energy resulting in an almost immediate equaliser. For 35 minutes or so afterwards Liverpool toiled manfully, as so often that season unable to penetrate a stubborn defence. Gerrard saw a goal ruled out, could easily have been sent off for a daft kick at an opponent.  But he wasn’t. And then, after 80 minutes another substitute, Neil Mellor, scrambled home after Nikopolidis had saved from Nunez.  Was it on? Did we have one more push left?  Penalty appeals came and went; the crowd remained as relentless as the team.  Five minutes left. A throw in, some scrappy play out on the left wing. The ball falls to Carragher. Carragher floats up a high cross, Mellor wins an unchallenged header, knocking it down diagonally for a player on the edge of the box.  I remember craning my neck, looking to see who it was dropping to, the contact of boot and ball and…

Bedlam. The crowd surging towards the huddle of players, everyone seeming to go six rows forward. Hugging the guys next to you you’ve never met before and never will again, whose names you don’t know. An eternally beautiful moment, a stadium exploding in joy and relief. This team may not be the finest it has known but it’s got fight and willpower.  And if there’s one thing Scousers can respect it’s cussedness. And at the heart of it, the man who’s just delivered another dream to the fans, the Scouser whose gone from good to great with one flick of his right leg.   Not only had he rescued the club, he’d rescued the club in incredible style.  He was very good before, but that night made him iconic. It was a moment that even caused staunch Evertonian Andy Gray to go wild in the commentary box, such was the purity of the strike and emotion.  At the time we thought no further ahead than perhaps another glamour tie or two, much needed cash swelling the club’s coffers… in all my time as a Liverpool fan I don’t think there’s ever been a more unlikely or wonderful run in a competition (though the 2014-15 season was close) and, unless that elusive Premier League title comes home, doubt there will be again.

What a hit son! What. A. Hit.

In the end all our times pass, and all we have are memories. Other players have more medals or scored more goals.  But few have contributed so much to one club, particularly a club that’s always been their club from childhood.  Steven Gerrard gave his all for Liverpool Football Club from the start to the end, gave us League Cups, FA Cups, a UEFA Cup and, of course, Istanbul.  He clearly cared so much for the club he was the focus of opposition songs even when they weren’t playing Liverpool.  Is the lack of a Premier League winners medal a blemish on his career? Perhaps, but given the circumstances it’s hardly one he can personally be held responsible for.  Is he Liverpool’s greatest ever player? It’s an unanswerable pub debate but that he’s even in contention tells you much about how good he’s been for so long. So, even in his footballing dotage, I’m going to relish the chance to see him in Liverpool’s colours one more time. We will find new heroes to give us new memories, but will always cherish the indelible ones provided by the old soldiers.  Gerrard, like Shankly, deserves to be remembered as a man who made the people happy.

Thanks Stevie.

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