BY JIM KEOGHAN
I came of age, in football terms at least, during the early-1980s. At the time, I lived in Liverpool, a city saturated in football culture. Although an Evertonian, our neighbours inevitably loomed large in my consciousness. At the time, Liverpool FC, for those with short memories or a limited footballing hinterland, represented something of a colossus; an invulnerable juggernaut rolling over almost everything in its path.
Two decades of unprecedented and sustained success had created an aura of invincibility around the club. You expected them to top the table, to win silverware and to beat Everton in derbies. They became a seemingly unstoppable force, like a footballing Westlife.
Throughout the 1970s and for much of the 1980s, there appeared an inevitability about Liverpool’s success too, borne I think from an innate belief in their own capacity to win. It was an inevitability that manifested itself in a capacity to nab last minute winners (which they did with depressing regularity), to normally keep their nerve during title run-ins and rise to the occasion when it mattered in Europe.
For Evertonians, this sense of manifest destiny was no more apparent than at those times when the two clubs met at Wembley during the 1980s. With the exception of the Charity Shield (which doesn’t really count) there were three occasions when Everton could have bested Liverpool in a final and brought home silverware. But on each occasion, inevitably, it was our neighbours who came home victorious. Not even the greatest Everton sides in the history of the club could outwit Liverpool when it mattered in the cup.
Of course, despite their appearance of impregnability, they didn’t win everything. No club can. And there were also times, like the FA Cup final defeat to Wimbledon in 1988 and the last minute title loss to Arsenal in 1989 when their sense of manifest destiny seemed to desert them. But, like Manchester United during much of the Ferguson-era, for most of the 1970s and 1980s Liverpool carried with them an intangible quality that seemed to ensure that victory and success, whatever the odds, was always likely. It was a quality that gave rise to the phrase “Typical Liverpool” entering the lexicon of expressions regularly uttered by Evertonians.
But the footballing gods are nothing if not capricious, and today, Liverpool no longer possess this quality. At some point over the past twenty years it began to leave the club. It wasn’t an overnight desertion. You can look back over the past decade or so and still see plenty of occasions when Liverpool have scored last minute goals, held their nerve when it mattered or snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. But they are much less common than they once were.
No longer do Evertonians mutter ‘Typical Liverpool’ with the same regularity. In fact, not since that night in Istanbul back in 2005 have Liverpool behaved like the Liverpool I came to recognise as a boy. That invulnerability, that sense of relentless momentum, the belief that success is inevitable is no longer evident at Anfield.
And this has become acutely apparent in the way in which Steven Gerrard has ended his career with the club.
If it were possible to transport Gerrard back in time and to play out his career during Liverpool’s Golden Age, then I believe that his swansong would have been very different. The Liverpool of the 1970s and 1980s would not have let the title slip last year. The Liverpool of that era would certainly have provided Gerrard with a win in his last Merseyside Derby. And the footballing juggernaut of the past would also have given their captain the gift of an FA Cup Final victory on a date that would have marked not just his last game for the club but also his fucking birthday!
The Liverpool of Bob Paisley would have ensured that such a figure as Steven Gerrard, a one-club man, a local boy, one of Liverpool’s greatest servants would not have ended his illustrious career with such a whimper. The fact that Gerrard will have to take part in a guard of honour at Stamford Bridge to celebrate Chelsea winning the league is a measure of how un-Liverpool the club has become. It’s a dismal way for a player like Gerrard to end his career but also largely indicative of how much Liverpool have changed over the past twenty years.
Regardless of my bias as an Evertonian and the inevitable calls of ‘bitterness‘ that any article written by a Blue about Liverpool tend to generate, what’s happened to the club should be of interest to anyone who follows the game. Success in football is not just about big budgets, expensive players and mercurial managerial geniuses (although obviously such factors do matter a lot). Clubs also need a belief in their own ability to win, regardless of the odds they face.
The Liverpool of the past never faltered in their belief that a win was always possible. This is why they could grab ‘last minute winners’, hold their nerve in successive penalty shoot-outs, and normally best their rivals in any title run-in (even if they started in the weaker position).
By comparison, the Liverpool of today look frail. Every test in recent years has shown their mental belief wanting. In the past year alone, they have blown a title race, lost a penalty shoot-out in Europe and twice failed to rise to the occasion when it mattered in domestic cup competitions.
Without that magic ingredient, the intangible quality of self-belief that defines any great club, it’s difficult to say whether Liverpool can ever return to the pre-eminent position they once enjoyed. Today’s incarnation of the club is a very different animal to the one that once rampaged across Europe and which dominated domestic football so comprehensively.
Gerrard could have played pretty much anywhere he wanted but chose to stay true to the club he supported as a boy. As admirable as this decision was, it’s hard to shake the conclusion that in doing so he has forgone the opportunity to enjoy the success his talent deserved and inadvertently instead become the physical embodiment of the travails that now beset the club that he loves so much.
YOU CAN FOLLOW JIM ON TWITTER @jimmykeo and find his book Punk Football here http://www.pitchpublishing.co.uk/shop/punk-football