BY WILL MAGEE
Liverpool is a romantic club. There’s no two ways about it. Its history needs no introduction. The club’s honours are almost beyond counting. Some of the greatest managers, players and teams to have graced the English game have done so sporting the Liver bird crest. To this day, there is not a set of fans beyond Merseyside who do not feel a little pang of inadequacy as they hear the choruses of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ rise up at Anfield, or as they watch the Kop stand in fiery red as one. The club is a beautiful bastion of football folklore, a fierce and loyal community too. True romantic seeks football club, must pride itself on multiple European titles? Liverpool’s the one for you.
The things is, romance comes with its own problems. Liverpool seem to be having some romantic problems right now. No, I don’t mean that John W. Henry hasn’t been on a Tinder date for months. Nor do I mean that the players are having to smash Cialis at an inhuman rate – even if many of them are suffering from performance issues. Rather, the problem for Liverpool is that romance alone does not win football matches. A team cannot rely on the force of romantic narrative for success.
Take Steven Gerrard’s final match at Anfield. Gerrard’s career – from Liverpool lad to local hero, one-club man and team talisman for nearly two decades – might well be the ultimate in dreamy, starry-eyed tales from the Kop. He fully deserved a rich send off on his final appearance for the Reds and, in a ceremonial sense, he got one. Mass mosaics were raised, flags and banners were flown, while he stepped out onto the Anfield turf fringed by a guard of honour, high-fiving magnanimous Crystal Palace players as he went. After that, his teammates put in a slow and complacent performance against the notoriously energetic Eagles. Accordingly, the side were stuffed three-one at home.
The complacent play didn’t smack of nervousness on the big occasion. It felt more like the players, surrounded by all the dreamy fanfare of Gerrard’s farewell, thought that they were owed a win – a fitting end to their captain’s fairytale. With their opponents showing such a sense of entitlement, it was little wonder Palace played entirely without pressure. The result was that Gerrard’s tale trailed off rather sadly.
Unfortunately for those Liverpool supporters who wanted to see a club hero given an appropriate send off on the pitch, the players – Gerrard perhaps included – were stargazing wistfully at the very time when they were meant to be playing some decent football. There was a sense of déjà vu in all this, of course. The whole thing felt like a re-enactment of their FA Cup semi-final loss to Aston Villa, a game in which the narrative laziness of Steven Gerrard’s ideal birthday was met with some actual on-field endeavour from their opponents.
The same romantic problem could be identified in the narrow miss that was last season’s title tilt. Though it has become fashionable – and indeed facile – to attribute their late ceding of top spot to Gerrard’s infamous slip against Chelsea, there is a far bigger picture behind that individual mistake. With Liverpool going sixteen matches unbeaten from January onward, pundits, ex-professionals and journalists everywhere heralded the sentimental value of what would surely be the club’s first league title for over two decades; this was to be Gerrard’s long-awaited Premier League crown, Brendan Rodgers’ initiation into the pantheon of managerial deities and Liverpool’s return to the halcyon days of 70s and 80s supremacy. Players and manager alike seemed to take it as written. Their set up for that third-last game against Chelsea was naïve – romantic, even. They lost, too open from the start. A prosaic draw would have kept things in their hands.
What happened in their subsequent game against Palace was the most unforgiving of reminders that the Premier League does not oblige romance for its own sake. This season’s brief foray into the Champions League fell similarly flat. As it turns out, it doesn’t matter how much commentators talk up the club’s great European nights, or how much the club “belongs”. If you can’t do it on a cold night against Ludogorets, get ready for a terrifying Europa League away day in Istanbul. They’re throwing red-hot fireworks at you? Sorry, but that’s what you get for believing your own historical hype.
If a fresh season without Champions League football – and without Gerrard himself – seems a dispiriting prospect for the support, it’s the fault of those in the dressing room who’ve relied wholly on the right of romance to get the club by. Ironically enough, were they really paying attention, the example of the club’s melt-your-heart greats might show them the way forward. Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish, Alan Hansen and the rest were the pin-up boys of their day, and all of them knew how romantic it was to play for Liverpool. They were also all elbows, thumps and gritty commitment, and all of them knew how to bring the club true success – not by depending on its inherent romance, but by harnessing their own ferocious determination to win.
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