The problem isn’t Jürgen, it’s us.

It’s not often that I pay attention to the mutterings of mainstream media pundits, but a phrase used by Slaven Bilic on Monday Night Football this week resonated with me. It wasn’t the most eye opening of insights by any stretch of the imagination, but I found the connotations of it interesting in the context of Liverpool Football Club’s recent past, and my own concerns over it’s immediate future.

“Football is a reflection of society”.

He’s right, of course, and it’s a pretty obvious thing to say, but the obvious things are often overlooked. You can’t see the wood for the trees, as the saying goes. The context of the conversation was centred on the eight managerial changes already witnessed in this seasons Premier League – an all-time high at this stage since the competitions inception in ’92, and the increasingly normalised impatience, from boardrooms to terraces, that has driven it. Look at the wider football league ladder, for instance, and you’ll find just 14 of 92 managers have been in situ for three years or more. In other words, 85% of managers have been in post for less than three years across England’s top four divisions. As things stand, the average time-in-post for a football league manager is 690.42 days (1.89 years). Remove the remarkable tenure of Arsene Wenger from the equation and that drops to an average of just 605.86 days (1.67 years). Take a look at the Premier League specifically – again, without the Wenger outlier, and that becomes 551.05 days (1.5 years). To contrast this, on the opening day of the Premier League season (or The Premiership, as it was back then) in 1992, the average time-in-post of the 22 managers was 1,184 days (3.24 years). So, the average time-in-post for a Premier League manager was 2.16 times higher on the opening day of the inaugural season, than it is across 19 of the 20 managers today.

But Liverpool are different, right? We give our managers time…

Well, what if I told you that 36% of the managers of Liverpool Football Club have been in situ since the inception of the Premier League. That’s 8 managers in the last 26 years, compared to 14 in the 100 years prior. Of those 8 managers from the Premier League era, half of them have been appointed since 2010. The average time-in-post for those? 687 days (1.88 years), including Klopp’s tenure to-date.

Of course, there is context behind these numbers, but the simple underlying truth is thus: You don’t get long in the 21st century football world. With media scrutiny at fever pitch and narratives formed in knee-jerk fashion, the previously stereotypical ‘five year plan’ has become a two year plan – the patience for the former, increasingly rare. All of this is then further multiplied by the explosion of social media and the instant reaction to absolutely everything. Is all of this in any way helpful? Does it lend itself to stability, or even to the pursuit of success? Well, clearly not, but it is a reality. I would personally argue the virtues of patience, of a long term vision and plan, and particularly, one that extends beyond the current incumbent of the managers office. That, to me at least, is a sensible approach. Foundations need to be laid throughout the club if your vision is to be sustainable, and that, generally, isn’t achieved short term and amidst managerial instability. Certainly not without an eye on the bigger picture pulling it all together. Some might agree with me on that. The numbers, and noise, suggest that many do not. What I would add though, is that a long term plan cannot be at the expense of the here and now. There has to be a balance, and even more so in the world that we find ourselves. To underestimate the importance of the short term is to walk a tight-rope from which most will fall, with neither grace nor pity.

And so to Jürgen Klopp. Appointed as the manager of Liverpool Football Club 840 days ago, on the 8th of October, 2015. Already beyond the average time-in-post for the Premier League and the top four divisions overall, impatience dressed as frustration has, predictably perhaps, begun to surface in certain quarters. Upon arrival he could do no wrong, the unique and affable German immediately securing the buy-in of every single Liverpool supporter the world over. Each headline grabbing comment devoured and every smile, hug or fist-pump met with a roar of approval. This was the man we all wanted, the perfect fit. There wasn’t an alternative anywhere who we would have taken in his place. Stop and think about it now though, when did you first start to notice conversations prefaced with: “I love Klopp, but…”. It’s probably in rough alignment with the average time-in-post for his managerial peers across the top four divisions, of 1.67 years. Or, in chronological terms, the summer just passed. It’s no coincidence. As Slaven pointed out, we as a society are driving this. The problem here isn’t Klopp, it’s us. Listen to the conversations around the manager and slowly the narrative has begun to shift, with phrases like ‘he’s had three seasons now’, starting to enter conversations in the pubs, forums and on social media, despite that quite literally being untrue (for the record, Klopp took over in October, eight league games into the 15/16 season and on the back of Brendan Rodgers’ preseason preparations, not his own).

Twitter 2Twitter

In addition comes the assertion that ‘he still hasn’t won anything’ at the club, and whilst obviously accurate, there is no mention of the context. Of the two cup final appearances in his first part season. The exhilarating run in that seasons Europa League, and the strong showing in the Champions League that has since followed, of course permitted by securing qualification for only the second time in seven seasons. Not to mention the clear and obvious progress in the form of an increasing points-per-game (from 1.6 in his first part season, to an average of 1.98 across the two full seasons that have followed thus far), the honing of a breathtaking style of play, the clear successes in the transfer market and apparent ability to attract the kind of talent that we simply haven’t entered the conversation for across the last decade. The list goes on. And this is without any mention of the kind of competition that he faces, unparalleled anywhere else in Europe, or throughout the clubs history.

Now, let me be absolutely clear with this. I love Jürgen Klopp, as both a football manager and a person. I have two feet very much in the Jürgen Klopp camp. I love his passion, his character and his undeniable idealism and these words are not intended to be a defence of his performance. That isn’t needed as far as i’m concerned. And yet, in direct, unabashed conflict, it’s the same idealism that I very much admire that underpins the grumblings that have begun to emerge, and as a result, my own concerns.

This idealism, that we all knew of and bought into 840 days ago, was evident in the summer past, as he compiled a list of first choice targets and refused to consider any and all alternatives, even if that meant denting the positive mood around the club, or even the good-will towards himself. His ideals come first. The plan comes first. Always. From a footballing perspective it was a decision that saw us enter the season without the central defensive signing universally identified as the key to the summer. Jürgen, publicly at least, was unfazed and chose to focus on the players that he had available to him, reaffirming his belief in them and their ability to do the job. And to a large extent they went on to do just that. In the end he got his man, of course, in the shape of Virgil van Dijk, only, six months later than he, and undoubtedly the wider Liverpool public, would have preferred. This same idealism has come to the fore once more this month in the shape of the second highest transfer fee received in the history of the game, in exchange for the departure to Barcelona of Phillipe Coutinho. Jürgen Klopp has since been as transparent as he could be, within diplomatic bounds, around the reasons why he felt he had no choice but to comply with the Brazilians wishes. Ultimately, if there is any doubt that you are committed to the cause – to his cause, then you become surplus to requirements. Jürgen clearly had severe doubts on that and logically, it’s difficult to argue with his subsequent stance if that is the case.

And so, with at least £142 million at his disposal and a key member of the squad sold off, calls for reinforcements, often coupled with the kinds of thinly veiled criticisms mentioned above, grow louder by the day. As we saw in the summer, however, there is unlikely to be an acceptance of alternate lists of targets and Jürgen, quite rightly, is not a man who will concern himself with the opinions of those beyond the corridors of Melwood. It’s the players he wants or none at all, appears to be the approach, preferring to place trust in those that he has rather than compromise on his ideals. And so the question then becomes; what are those within the aforementioned Melwood corridors offering to any discussions around these decisions? Are there any firm, senior, alternate voices, or does the manager have carte blanche? To consciously weaken the squad and limit your options at such a key point not only in the current season, but in your reign at the club as a whole, seems to extend beyond risk and approach the realms of recklessness. The fact of the matter is, managerial longevity nowadays comes hand-in-hand with progress, and that progress has to be consistent, and increasingly as your tenure extends, quantifiable. For Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool, progress at this stage is measured by repeated qualification for the Champions League, and trophies. Two things that provide the pathway to the next step in the evolution of this team and the club overall, and importantly, that remain achievable this season. On the other hand, a perceived regression from the upward trajectory witnessed so far under the German, at this stage of his tenure, has the potential to turn what are currently sporadic complaints into something more problematic. Not many backwards steps will be tolerated and the manager, ultimately, will carry the can. That is the risk that Jürgen Klopp was prepared to take in the summer, and looks increasingly likely to take again as the winter transfer window enters its final week. The instinctive reaction is to join the throng in demanding signings – any signings, and yet the contradiction that quickly surfaces as the objecting voice within your head reminds you that this is the man we wanted, and have. This, fundamentally, is Jürgen Klopp being Jürgen Klopp, and the moment he stops being so is the moment that he becomes lost and his time is up. The spectre of Brendan Rodgers’ latter months should loom large as a stark warning on how that scenario plays out.

That is not what we should want. That is not what I want. But should the transfer window close on the 1st of February without the Liverpool squad being bolstered then the pressure heaped upon Klopp is likely to escalate beyond anything seen thus far, and with the Champions League and FA Cup set to recommence in the coming weeks, the concerns around the depth of quality at his disposal, particularly in the attacking positions, will be scrutinised repeatedly and any stumble ceased upon as an example of why decisions made were wrong and why additions should have been forthcoming. I guess in the longest winded way possible, what I am really getting at here is that I don’t want to see Jürgen Klopp fall on an entirely avoidable sword. The potential of the team – his team – is there for all to see, but as has been proven time and again, when doubts materialise and opinions change and become entrenched, it is extremely difficult to reverse. My hope is that Jürgen Klopp remains acutely Jürgen Klopp, but that those senior figures around him step up and offer the pragmatism required to counteract his unyielding ideals. That there is a senior voice advocating the case for twisting, and simultaneously underlining the clear and obvious risks in sticking. Opting for the latter in the summer was a risk that paid dividends. To double down again now seems foolhardy given the nature of the competition. Do that and take a backwards step and the volume of dissenting voices will only increase. Not only that, but take that chance and finish outside of the Champions League positions and the ability to attract those same first choice targets that we are apparently waiting for decreases significantly. These surely are not risks that you take lightly. Liverpool need to strengthen, and they need to find a way of doing so that sees the manager remain true to himself. Whether that is reviewing the internal stance on player valuations, making the case for alternative options (as was reportedly the case with Mohammed Salah and Andrew Robertson), or simply outlining the stark nature of the impending risk.

Jürgen occasionally gives the impression that he thinks we’re all a bit mad, and he would be absolutely right, we are. Through no fault of his own he has inherited a set of stakeholders in the stands and beyond who have waited 28 years and counting for a league title, resulting in a growing desperation that knows no bounds. Couple that with the emergence of an unprecedented level of competition and a constant realisation that six into four simply do not go, all feeding a fear that another missed opportunity could lead to a descent towards semi-permanent irrelevance. Now package all of this up within the constitution and temperament of society at large and the impatience that permeates through it. Jürgen Klopp is almost certainly correct in refusing to compromise his vision and ideals, but there must be an awareness within the corridors of power at the club of the potential ramifications of decisions made over the coming days. Of the need to give themselves the best possible chance of realising Klopp’s vision. Of giving him the best chance. The volatile nature of opinions and narratives and the destructive power that they can wreak mean that a perceived wrong move, which leads to a perceived regression, can be decisive in the managerial reign of a modern football manager, however admirable, or even correct, their approach may be. Particularly with public platforms now more readily accessible than ever.

I don’t believe that any of us want to see Jürgen Klopp fall foul of such a situation, it’s one of which we all bore painful witness to in recent memory with Rafa Benitez in particular, but it can very quickly become the reality that you didn’t see coming.

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Liverpool v Manchester City: Match Preview

Saturday November 21st, 2015 | Kick-off: 17:30 GMT | Coverage: Live on Sky Sports 1.

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There are no nice defeats, but one directly prior to an international break is undoubtedly among the worst. Not only is Roy Hodgson blow dried and set to be wheeled out on his sedan chair, but we now have to endure his continued presence on Earth whilst simultaneously stewing on everything that went wrong against Crystal Palace. It feels like an entirely unjust double punishment, and one that has seen the narrative and perception on where Liverpool Football Club finds itself at this point in time revisited once again. Less than three weeks ago Juergen Klopp found himself deflecting opportunistic talk of a title challenge after a wonderfully satisfying victory at Stamford Bridge made it five unbeaten and two wins on the bounce for the charismatic German, and yet eight days later and following yet more dropped points in what can only be described as Groundhog Day at Anfield that narrative was turned upside down, as taglines such as unbeaten in eleven, quickly became two league wins since mid-August, and subsequently the nature of the upcoming fixture at The Etihad has evolved from somewhat of a bonus game for the Reds, into something far more significant. Whilst it remains too early to be labeling games as anything akin to ‘must win’, or even ‘must not lose’, the prospect of the gap to fourth increasing to ten points is worrisome in relation to the seasons prospects. Equally though, it’s worth noting that the run of fixtures following this game reads; Swansea (h), Southampton (a), Newcastle (a), West Brom (h), Watford (a), Leicester (h) and West Ham (a), and with all of the major away trips out of the way there will be an opportunity to close any gap. 

In contrast to the fluid nature of the short-term, popular narrative though, the wider picture remains bright. The growing doubts around the longer term ambitions of the club have been dampened, as the hope of a unified vision finally being implemented in how to achieve them is re-instilled. Furthermore, visible signs of progress are evident on the field already, and that despite the club topping the Premier League injury table, with ten players currently exchanging war stories in the Melwood treatment rooms. That list includes the star striker, club captain and first choice centre-back; The spine of the team. Remove the equivalent players from most teams the world over and you’ll witness an impact. It certainly hasn’t aided the new manager during the early weeks of his reign, and yet his message has been refreshing in its unwavering positivity. Belief is something that the German has referenced several times since his arrival at the club, and it’s evidently something that he possesses both in himself, but also in the potential of the squad of players he has inherited. That belief will take a while longer to transmit to the players and the club he now leads though, still fleeting somewhere between sporadic and entirely elusive following eighteen months of under-performance. The hope however, has undoubtedly returned, and that’s equally important in representing the foundation upon which belief and ultimately progression can be constructed. Hope is what defines the underlying mood of a football club and by extension that of its supporters, without which there is nothing but darkness and despair. The fabled escape from reality becomes a Sunday afternoon trudge around an overcrowded Asda with the kids in tow, with nothing to show for it when you arrive home but a headache and an unwelcome dent in your bank account. Depressing, frustrating and generally unsatisfactory. There will undoubtedly be more storms to traverse before we see the clichéd golden sky, but the very fact that talk of an emerging horizon exists once again is the single biggest progression made under Klopp thus far. For the supporters, and no doubt those within the club as well, that’s a significant step forward.

And so to Manchester City; A club quite literally afforded the ability to step out of the shadows following the Abu Dhabi takeover in September 2008. I always quite liked City. Well, as much as you can possibly like a club from the other end of the M62. They’re not United, for one (the enemy of my enemy…), plus I always thought of them as something approaching the romantic notion of a proper club. Given their historical tendency for spontaneous implosion there was an element of quiet admiration for the loyalty of their long suffering support as well. Oh, and Kinkladze. Did I mention him yet? A lovely player to watch when he was in form. The word ‘mercurial’ was made for him. And then there’s Maine Road. Memorable to me as being the venue of my first ever away trip, as well as to this date the only away ground i’ve found myself seated in the wrong end. From memory I was about twelve at the time and I went with my dad, who spent most of the journey preaching the importance of subtlety on such occasions. Of not drawing any undue attention to ourselves and of blending in. No colours, keep quiet – that kind of thing. The pre-teen me of course nodded furious and consistent agreement. It all made perfect sense and felt like my early initiation into football away trips. I was determined to prove myself and in turn ensure that I was included in the next planned outing. It was all going perfectly well – right until David Thompson thundered in a twenty-five yarder mid-way through the first half and the next thing I know i’m in the air, fist pumping, as the Mancunian faces that surround us look menacingly towards the spotty intruder who just landed amid a sea of groaning blue shirts, and my dad, sat to my left, shakes his head in disbelief. A shrug of the shoulders and; “I couldn’t help it” as I retreated to my seat was met with the kind of look that said; “I’m not angry, just disappointed”. We lost that game in the end, and my dad, unsurprisingly, didn’t take me away from home again for a while. By God did I enjoy that first away goal though. It’s moments and emotion like that that continues to make this beautiful game of ours what it is.

All of this was old City, of course. Pre-Abu Dhabi City. Now it’s different, and not so much because they’ve since gone on to consolidate themselves as a perennial top four club and title challenger, but more so the unshakable feeling within me that we laid out the red carpet, popped ‘Blue Moon’ on the record player and simply offered them our seat at the top table the moment we agreed to sell the club to Messrs Hicks and Gillet. The City support regularly pay homage to Sheikh Mansour and his ownership group for the positive impact they’ve had on the club, and rightly so, but perhaps they should tip a cap in the direction of the Lone Star State as well. Without the intervention of the Texan and his one-time friend the challenge might’ve been a little less straight forward. Now, I’m fully aware that this is in fact a frustration with the underlying competence (or otherwise) of Liverpool Football Club and the men in suits who decide its direction, which I’m consciously projecting onto an entirely separate entity in Manchester City Football Club, who simply became relevant, and through our own failings were permitted to overtake us. Regardless, that feeling of regret each time I reflect on our respective current positions remains and the ghost of the previous regime at Liverpool Football Club, seated before a roaring fire with a club branded mug in hand and Snoogy Doogy playing softly in the background, lingers on.

Personal frustrations with the current landscape aside, they’re not a bad team, are they? There’s certainly no debating that particular point. Delightful to watch at times, the manner and seeming ease with which they go about utilising any and all space afforded in unlocking well organised and often crowded opposition defences is an aspect of their play that I can’t help but admire, particularly so given our own troubles in that regard. The patience and intricacy, allied with intelligence and underpinned by belief is something to first aspire to, and then to better.  Boasting some of the finest talents in the game, a visit to the blue half of Manchester isn’t one that many clubs have enjoyed in recent years and we’ve been no exception. The last time the Reds emerged with three points – on the 5th of October 2008 – the ink on Sheikh Monsour’s purchase agreement was still damp. On that occasion a Fernando Torres brace and a Zabaleta red card helped Rafa’s men overturn a two goal half time deficit. Since then it’s been just two points from the previous five meetings as the alternate trajectories of the two clubs during that period has played out in the results. The two week break should see the return from injury of pivotal members of both squads. Jordan Henderson and (whisper it) Daniel Sturridge are expected to come back into the fold for Liverpool, whilst David Silva and Sergio Aguero are also poised to provide the Sky Blues with a similarly welcome boost.

Prediction:

In his short time at the club Klopp has already experienced trips to White Hart Lane and Stamford Bridge, taking four points from six and faring well. From solid to expansive with gradually increasing and more organised periods of collective intensity, as players become accustomed to the demands of the new boss. You certainly wouldn’t put it past the man from The Black Forest to gegenpress his way to something here as well, and for the sake of the clubs league targets for this season they probably need to. Head back down the M62 with a point or more and the oft-lacking belief will continue to develop as we move towards the busy festive period. Regardless of the outcome though, the hope surrounding the longer term prospects of the club will remain unaltered as the clouds continue to part.

Manchester City 1-1 Liverpool

Why the Europa League shouldn’t be overlooked

It’s that time of year again. Stop and listen for a moment and you’ll hear it beneath the hum of life’s organised chaos; The narrative. As the light is finally extinguished on the Champions League dream for the cluster of clubs who ultimately fall short, it emerges once more. The Europa League is more trouble than it’s worth, we’re told. There’s just too many games and even more air miles. And the schedule! Dear God don’t get them started on the schedule. Thursday-to-Sunday, you say? Monstrous, utterly monstrous. Who in their right mind would wish to encounter such horrors, I ask you, let alone actively and consciously court them. Well, no-one, it would seem. As the media clamour to re-hash last years annual dismemberment of Europe’s secondary competition, the respective clubs supporters squable over who hates it more and the race for fourth quickly becomes a race for eighth simply to avoid it all. The narrative. It’s depressingly predictable and painfully boring, but is it based on fact?

Let’s take a look at some of the arguments against the Europa League.

1) There’s too many games.

In an interview with The Liverpool Echo last week, Glen Johnson was asked whether qualifying for next seasons competition was in Liverpool’s best interests. Overlooking the fact that the loaded question was a perfect example of the narrative in itself, his initial response was both blunt and perfectly atuned to the viewpoint of the majority; “You do get a lot more games”.

So, is Glen right? Are there really a lot more games?

To begin to answer this question the first thing to state is that both European competitions follow the same format. Three two legged qualifying rounds, which clubs may be required to partake in depending upon their respective route of entry, followed by a group stage made up of six fixtures, and then – and this is where it differs – either three two-legged knock-out rounds for the Champions League, or four for the Europa League, leading ultimately to the final.

So fundamentally then, there’s one two-legged knock-out round between the two competitions. Two games. One at home. One away. Narrative aside, that’s it. To progress from the group stage to the final of the Champions League you’ll play thirteen games in total. For the Europa League it’s fifteen. There’s an assumption here that you qualify for the group stages automatically, of course, which as previously referenced will depend entirely on your route of entry. The fourth placed team in England will enter the Champions League at the third qualifying round and be required to play an additional two-legged knock-out prior to the groups. The fifth placed team will qualify for the Europa League group stage directly. Both teams will therefore face exactly the same number of fixtures (15), should they progress to the respective finals, yet how often do you hear the too many games argument when discussing the merits of finishing fourth?

There’s negligible difference between the two competitions, and should the two north-west rivals from either end of the M62 finish fourth and fifth this season there will be no difference whatsoever in relation to their respective upcoming European schedules. There is most certainly not a lot more games, as Glen put it.

2) There’s more travel.

“I have been involved in the Europa League. You never felt like there was any respite from the travelling and trips to hotels.” ~ Phil Neville.

This is another of the core arguments leveled against the Europa League. That you’re more likely to face long-haul trips to the furthest reaches of Europe, and therefore more time consumed by travel leads directly to less preparation time for subsequent fixtures and an increased likelihood of physical and/or mental fatigue in the players.

So again, is it true? Are you more likely to face longer trips in the Europa League?

In order to investigate this I have chosen to define long haul in the context of European travel as greater than or equal to three hours in flight time. So, Liverpool to Milan, at 2 hours and 2 minutes would be short haul. Liverpool to Bucharest, at 3 hours and 23 minutes, would be long haul. I’m aware that this is a rather basic definition, but it’s also reasonable and simple to evaluate. So, using this definition of long haul and looking at the current seasons European competitions, which of the participants would qualify as such and what are your odds of drawing them?

Making up the group stage of the Champions League you’ll find eight clubs that fit the bill:-

Olympiakos (Greece), APOEL FC (Cyprus), Galatasaray (Turkey), PFC Ludogoretz Razgrad (Bulgaria), FC BATE Borisov (Belarus), FC Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine), PFC CSKA Moscow (Russia) and FC Zenit (Russia).

Thirty-two teams make up the initial group stages of the competition, and eight of those would ensure a change of pants and a toothbrush were required for the away trip. Again, to keep things simple i’m going to ignore the various policies associated with the draw and focus on the overall numbers. Eight from thirty-two, which equates to a 25% overall chance of facing what could reasonably be considered to be a lengthy trip.

For the Europa League there were thirteen such clubs:-

Asteras Tripois FC (Greece), Panathinaikos FC (Greece), PAOK FC (Greece), Apollon Limassol FC (Cyprus), Besiktas JK (Turkey), Trabzonspor AS (Turkey), FC Astra Giurgiu (Romania), Qarabag FK (Azerbaijan), FC Metalist Kharkiv (Ukraine), FC Dynamo Kiev (Ukraine), FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk (Ukraine), FC Dinamo Moscow (Russia), FC Krasnodar (Russia).

Forty-eight teams enter the group stages of the competition this time, and thirteen will ensure a minimum six hour round-trip. So, thirteen from forty-eight, which equates to a 27% chance. So, at a basic level, there’s an additional 2% chance of facing a lengthy trip in the Europa League in comparison to the Champions League. Minimal difference, to say the least.

To take this a step further and look at a working example we can compare the respective European campaigns of the two Merseyside clubs for this season. Liverpool were of course eliminated following the group stage so for that reason I have only compared the two for that period. For Everton, they faced trips to Lille (1 hour and 8 minutes), Wolfsburg (1 hour and 39 minutes) and Krasnodar (4 hours and 23 minutes), bringing a total of 7 hours and 30 minutes in flight time to the respective destinations, or 15 hours in total, factoring in return journeys. Liverpool on the other hand, headed to Basel (1 hour and 45 minutes), Madrid (2 hours and 17 minutes) and Razgrad (3 hours and 30 minutes), bringing a total of 7 hours and 32 minutes, or 15 hours and 4 minutes overall. Four minutes difference, and ironically, four minutes more for the Champions League participant.

So were Everton dealt a significant blow by qualifying for Europe’s second competition? Did their European campaign bring with it a lot more travel in comparison to their neighbors from across Stanley Park, as Phil Neville intimated? No, it was almost identical, in fact, in line with the underlying odds of facing a long haul return journey within each competition.

3) You get a reduced turn-around.

“Playing on a Thursday and then on a Sunday is a totally different feeling to playing on a Wednesday and a Saturday. The fact you get home on a Friday in the early hours, then you’re in the hotel on the Saturday night for the Sunday games, plays a part psychologically.” ~ Phil Neville.

Also known as the Thursday-to-Sunday argument. This is a popular one, and it argues that the Europa League brings with it a schedule that reduces your turn-around pre and post fixture and in turn adversely impacts your chances in those fixtures that immediately follow a Europa League game. It’s an argument that is not leveled at the Champions League, strangely, with the general perception being that the schedule there is preferable.

Lets start here by once again comparing the schedules of the two Merseyside clubs for this season. What were the schedules faced within each competition, and how many full days did they afford either side of the European fixture?

Starting with Everton, they faced the often quoted and apparently dreaded Thursday-to-Sunday schedule on five occasions during the group phase, with the other being Thursday-to-Monday. For all six European fixtures the league game that preceded it was played on the previous Saturday. That in turn ensured 4 full recovery days prior to every European group stage fixture, and 2 full days following on five occasions, with the sixth offering 3 full days post European match. That’s a total of 24 days prior (an average of 4 per game) and 13 days post (an average of 2.16). Factoring in days on both sides of the fixture, Everton enjoyed an average of 6.16 full recovery days for each game played.

For Liverpool it wasn’t quite so consistent, with The Reds schedule including Sunday-Wednesday-Saturday and Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday both on two occasions, and Saturday-Wednesday-Saturday and Saturday-Tuesday-Sunday both the once. What this meant overall then, was that Liverpool enjoyed a total of 13 full recovery days prior to European group stage fixtures (an average of 2.16 per game) and 16 days following a European fixture (an average of 2.66). Factoring in all of the full days either side of the European fixture, The Reds enjoyed an average of 4.83 full recovery days for each game played.

So, what we’re seeing here – in spite of the narrative – is the Champions League affording less in the way of overall, cumulative recovery time in comparison to its second tier counterpart. The bulk of that additional time offered by the Europa League is however found in the build up to the fixture, with marginally (0.5 days) less recovery time post-match overall, on average. So the turnaround post-match, slight or not, is potentially less. Would that additional half day make a significant difference though? Well, lets next take a look at how the two clubs fared in the immediate aftermath of European commitments.

Looking at their respective results what we find is in fact an identical record that reads:-

P6 | W2 | D1 | L3

Not great for either club at first glance, but to add a little context here; two of the defeats suffered by Everton were away to Manchester United and Spurs, whilst two of Liverpool’s defeats were at home to Chelsea and away to Manchester United. All of them, arguably, fixtures in which the respective teams could reasonably be expected to drop points regardless of European commitments. Once again though, we find absolutely no difference between the Europa League and the Champions League in terms of knock-on effect. Totally different, as Phil Neville claims, is a stretch at best.

I think we need to acknowledge here that much of this is fluid depending on the particular scenario (how you qualified, who you draw etc), but overall, there really is negligible difference between the two competitions in any of the arguments put forward against the Europa League, despite what the narrative regurgitated by the majority would lead you to believe. If anything, traditionally smaller and weaker squads, coupled with a lack of consistent experience on the European stage for the majority of Europa League participants would offer a more legitimate explanation for a team struggling with the increased schedule, rather than placing blame at the door of the competition itself. That’s the real difference, not the competition. And in reality, the potential benefits on offer within the Europa League outweigh the negatives.

Positives, you say? What are they?

1) Champions League qualification.

This is the big one, really. Ultimately, the aim of every club is to be involved in The Champions League. In the modern footballing landscape it’s no exaggeration to describe it as a necessity for any club with genuine ambition due to the revenue and prestige that it offers. The Europa League provides a legitimate, realistic avenue directly into the group phase of the coming seasons Champions League for the winner. No qualification rounds. No stalling your summer transfer activity whilst you wait for the outcome. Guaranteed entry to the competition proper and the revenue that comes with it – unlike the club qualifying via fourth place in the league. For any of the English clubs outside of the Premier League’s current top four, the Europa League arguably offers the most realistic route into the Champions League. All of Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United harbour greater resources than The Reds, making a top four finish, statistically, an outside bet. The Europa League offers a opportunity to circumnavigate that uncomfortable financial reality.

So, not only is there a major European trophy on offer in the short term (along with the roughly £17 million in prize money), but it brings with it the prospect of longer term progression.

2) UEFA co-efficient.

For a club looking to make an impact in European competition moving forward, this is an important consideration that cannot be overlooked. A good co-efficient rating ensures a higher seeding ahead of the draw and therefore an ability to avoid the strongest teams in the early stages. In short, a better co-efficient rating exponentially increases a clubs chances of success in European competition overall and the Europa League offers exactly that. Last season Benfica lost in the final of the Europa League. They achieved 30.983 co-efficient points, which was more than any club involved in European competition that season, with the exception of the two Champions League finalists, Atletico Madrid (37.600) and Real Madrid (39.600).

As things stand, Liverpool’s co-efficient rating of 47.078 sees them directly below RSC Anderlecht and FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, and just above AZ Alkmaar and FC Metalist Kharkiv. It’s a rating that saw them placed into pot three ahead of the Champions League draw for the current season, resulting in a group containing Real Madrid and the extensively experienced Basel – and of course, an early exit. Can Liverpool afford to consciously discard The Europa League next season, should they qualify? Only if they wish to increase the likelihood of an early exit from any subsequent Champions League campaigns. On top of that there looms a scenario whereby the English Premier League could lose its fourth Champions League qualification spot should poor performance by English clubs on the continent continue. In other words, throwing the towel in now could result in the door closing considerably further in the longer term. That’s a factor that every English club competing in Europe should be conscious of. I suspect the Italians very much are.

3) Experience.

For a club with genuine ambition and foresight, the Europa League should be seen as a route of progression towards future success. It offers an opportunity to gain experience of everything that European football entails, from the increased schedule, travel, atmosphere and of course, the different styles involved – but without the intense glare of Europe’s main stage and the pressure that it brings. To harvest that experience can prove invaluable for a club and its playing staff and Atletico Madrid offer the perfect example of this in recent years. Having won the Europa League in both 2010 and 2012, they of course went on to reach the final of last seasons Champions League and in doing so have established themselves as one of the current powers of European football. Go a little further back and you find Porto doing the same thing under Mourinho. Winning the UEFA Cup (as it was then known) in 2003 before progressing on to lifting the Champions League the following season. Much of the core of the Liverpool squad which won the Champions League so dramatically in Istanbul in 2005 also won the UEFA Cup in 2001 as well. To consciously overlook the potential benefits of the experience on offer is to miss an opportunity.

4) Reputation.

Raheem Sterling was 10 years old and in primary school when Liverpool last won a European trophy, in 2005. Many of the emerging generation of European talent – of whom the club are actively targeting, lets not forget – will be in a similar situation. The glittering history of Liverpool Football Club will mean very little to them. It’s about the here and now, and in recent years the club have failed to make an impression in European competition. In direct contrast to the opinion held within the British Isles, The Europa League retains a prestige and reputation on the continent and winning it would undoubtedly improve the reputation of the club and in turn the appeal for potential transfer targets. As previously referenced, there are various examples of clubs building towards greater success via the Europa League. It wasn’t just the winning of the competition that engendered that progression, but also the reputation that it developed, which in turn allowed those clubs to retain their best talent, add to it, and to continue to build. Success breeds success, as the cliche goes.

Real Madrid, Ajax, Inter Milan, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Liverpool. Each of those clubs are engraved upon the Europa League trophy. Each of them built on that experience. Each of them enjoy an elite reputation in European competition as a result, and that reputation wasn’t earned through willful elimination or even non-participation. Clubs currently assessing whether to take the Europa League seriously may wish to consider that fact. For some of them it could even prove the difference in the ultimate success or failure of their longer term targets. Liverpool included.

So with all of this in mind, should clubs take the Europa League seriously? If their ultimate aim is to gatecrash the top table, then yes, I believe so.

Should Liverpool? Absolutely.

Why the philosophy must endure

“We must have more than the right manager for the long‐term – we must have the best football operation in the world.  That cannot be based on any one person because if that person leaves, you must rebuild.  LFC needs stability.  LFC must have a philosophy that endures and is in the hands a group of people devoted to the Club who work together for something much larger than themselves.”

This is an extract from an open letter penned by John W Henry on the 27th of January, 2011. It provides an insight into the approach being outlined within the inner confines of the club hierarchy, and therefore not only what we as a fan-base should be anticipating, but also potentially using as a guideline upon which to critically assess the performance of FSG in this particular area.

Various keywords are used here but one in particular is at the root of it all; Stability. What this speaks of is an overarching philosophy that underpins everything that goes on within the football operations of the club. A philosophy not dictated by any one person, but by the club as a whole. A vision bigger than the manager, who himself is simply a cog in a wider, unified machine. A cog that must fit within the framework in place and can also be replaced with minimal impact to the overall mechanics. Get this right and it in turn promotes stability and creates an environment that engenders continuous progression. Look at Swansea’s rise through the divisions for a perfect example. It’s an approach that makes perfect sense if you think about it. Why would an organisation within any industry allow an employee to dictate the core values that encompass it? And yet many people miss this point. Liverpool Football Club have missed this point for my entire football supporting life. Instead of this inherently sensible approach the club has afforded unequivocal control of the football vision of the club to their preferred managerial candidate. And then the next one. And so on. There was no clearly defined philosophy at the club which determined precisely who those candidates were either, of course. There was no real vision leading to fundamentally one of the most important decisions a football club can make, other than to obtain a good manager, however that is being defined at that particular time and whatever his ideals may be.

Evans. Houllier. Benitez. Hodgson. Dalglish. Rodgers.

Those are the Liverpool managers that i’ve witnessed over the last twenty something years. With one notable exception they’re all good managers who enjoyed varying levels of success too, I don’t intend to debate that – but none of them, not one, share core footballing principles with their predecessor in that list. That ensured just one thing when each of the respective changes were made; transition. For a new ‘five year plan’ each time. An overhaul of playing staff, coaching staff, scouting and academy set-ups. Millions of pounds in transfers and redundancy packages, and months upon seasons of groundwork dug up and progress forfeited. The club have effectively spent the previous two decades with one hand hovering precariously above the ‘reset’ button, and yet we question why we’re constantly two players away from where we need to be. Why next season is always the one. Well, when the route you’re taking is constantly diverting back on itself it should be no great surprise that the destination never quite arrives.

And so to the present. A week in which the current occupant of the Melwood managers office has himself come under scrutiny. His position is being evaluated on mass, as it undoubtedly will be by the clubs ownership as well. Rightly so. First things first, that evaluation process should be ongoing with a view to constant progression. It should not come as a shock to anyone that this is happening, and it certainly shouldn’t be restricted to the aftermath of disappointment. Targets will be set and performance reviewed in line with those marker points and that review process may or may not lead to a decision being made on the managers position.  But at that point we again return to the letter, and to the idea of an overarching philosophy driving that very decision making process. If you’re considering changing a cog within your machine, the new one needs to fit within the framework in place. That should always be point number one. That framework is not restricted to the footballing principles alone either, but also the underlying approach of the business side of the club and by extension, the financial reality in which they will be expected to operate. I’d argue that there are three key questions that should be asked when assessing the viability of a candidate for any position within any organisation – and in particular the manager of a football club:-

  • Is the candidate willing to work within the environment in place?
  • How likely are they to excel within that environment?
  • Have they proven successful under similar conditions previously?

And of course;

  • Are the footballing principles of the candidate in sync with those of the club?

If the answer to any of them is ‘no’ then they are not the right candidate. I’ve heard various quarters raising the names of various managers this week. The vast majority, despite being household names with stellar reputations and CV’s to match, would not tick these boxes. Good managers, all of them – very good in some cases, but were any of them to come in they’d instantly become another name to add to the previous list. Another reset. Another year zero. And far more concerning, it would bring into sharp focus the guidelines outlined by John W Henry within his open letter. If any of those names were to be the next move then John Henry and FSG will have effectively tossed those very guidelines and their own vision aside and in turn raised a number of pertinent questions regarding the long term direction of the club under their stewardship. They have relaxed their own plan once before of course, in order to appoint Brendan Rodgers. What certain quarters are advocating right now would be a significant step further though, and not in a positive sense.

Has Rodgers done enough over the duration of his tenure to warrant another season? In my opinion yes, he has.

Is there also a valid argument that the club should be constantly seeking progression, and be ruthless in that pursuit. That a potential upgrade of any position within the club – including the manager – should be carefully considered should it become available? Yes, there is.

Whatever the ultimate outcome though; LFC must have a philosophy that endures. It cannot be based on any one person because if that person leaves, you must rebuild. LFC need stability.

A philosophy that endures, as John Henry put it. And the philosophy must endure. Well, unless you’re ready for another five year plan. And then another. And then another.

On the march wi’ Kenny’s army; The Carling Cup Final 2012

Matt Phillips. As names go it shouts respectable, familiar, yet reassuringly unremarkable. The quintessential Englishness of it immediately places you at ease. Close your eyes for a second and you see a well groomed man with a side parting who eats ploughman’s lunches and owns corduroy trousers and jackets with the leather patched elbows. He owns at least one Airwick air freshener, or perhaps even a spiced apple scented candle. The abbreviation of the first name is also sufficiently informal to subtly suggest that you and he are friends. But you would be wrong. What he is however, is the latest in a lengthy line of chancers and downright parasites praying on the desperation of thousands of Reds either unlucky in the ballot or unable to amass the required credits in order to purchase from legitimate sources, in advertising phantom Carling Cup final tickets at extravagant prices on the internet. Over the last two weeks I’ve slowly exhausted every possible avenue in my increasingly frantic search for what I’m slowly becoming resigned to being the impossible, which has seen me arrive here, on Friday 24th February 2012, just two days before Liverpool walk out at Wembley for the first time in sixteen years. It’s ten-thirty in the evening and ‘Matt’ answers after the first ring. The strong African accent is as predictable as it is disappointing and he sounds like he’s whispering into a very small phone at the bottom of a very deep well, rather than his alleged Middlesex home, almost as if he feels a great shame in what has already begun spewing out of his mouth. Apparently he has “as many tickets as you like” and all he needs is a “fifty percent deposit in advance” and he “can post them out, special delivery”. At ten thirty on a Friday night. To get to me before Sunday. Of course. No doubt he’ll be flying to my house atop a unicorn that shits Skittles too.

Needless to say I politely declined this interesting offer and ‘Mr. Phillips’ hung up as quickly as he had answered initially, no doubt keen to begin packaging his vast collection of undoubtedly genuine tickets ready for prompt dispatch. I, meanwhile, slumped into bed with my laptop and logged on to RAWK. I needed to vent my frustration somewhere and at least try and regain some excitement ahead of the final, on the back of a week of disappointment. As I did so however, I noticed a personal message highlighted in bold at the top of the screen. Having exchanged a few messages over the course of the week, discussing plans for the trip to London as well as on-going ticket searches I opened it up fully expecting a response along those lines. I most certainly did not expect what I saw next:

Spare Face Value

That was the message subject staring back at me in the dim glow of the screen in my darkened bedroom. It was also, quite honestly, a message subject that you just don’t receive less than forty-eight hours prior to a Wembley cup final. It just doesn’t happen. I sat in bed utterly motionless, despite being that happy I could have quite literally shit where I lay. I didn’t of course, and for that my mother will have been thankful. As I read and re-read the message several times I found myself visibly shaking through what I could only speculate was a combination of nerves and unbridled joy. At the same time however I was desperately trying to contain my excitement. I’d been let down a few times over the last week already so until I physically had a ticket in hand I fully intended to continue with the plans that were already in place. Hope, rather than expect. That way you won’t be disappointed. Our ‘spare tickets wanted’ sign had been prepared and we were armed with close up screen shots of genuine tickets and the whereabouts of an ultra-violet light that would hopefully insure us against the forgeries that were reported to be in circulation. One thing that was certain was that, ticket or no ticket, the five of us that were heading down would have a great time amongst the sea of red that had already begun descending upon the English capital. I was also certain that I wouldn’t sleep more than a handful of hours over the next two nights. I was right.

On the morning of Sunday 26th February I was awake long before my alarm was due to explode at what I would ordinarily complain was an immoral and un-Godly hour. Today was different, though. Today was cup final day. I was also fully packed (pants, Lynx and phone charger) and had been since Thursday. Everything that I needed to take was laid out neatly on the kitchen table ready to swipe on my way out of the door and off into the fresh morning horizon, in the vague direction of the famous Wembley arch.

Spare ticket sign – check.

Small brown envelope containing the face value cost of a cup final ticket for who I hoped was set to become my new best friend – check.

Sat-nav – check.

Road beer – check.

Showered, dressed and with a few Weetabix safely tucked away to keep the inevitable hunger pains at bay, at least until we were safely seated in The Navigation on Baker Street, with a pint in hand and a large breakfast on the way, I sat waiting impatiently for my mate, Dave, to pull up outside. I also dropped the other two, Tony and Stewart, a quick text to make sure they were up and ready, aware that they’d been on the ale the night before. I on the other hand, opted for the sensible option of a quiet night in. Nothing was ruining cup final day, least of all a hangover.

Shortly after seven we were loaded up and on the road. By seven-thirty whistles were being wet, with the froth of the first beers touching expectant lips. For young Anthony especially, boasting both the appearance – and drinking capacity – of a twelve year old boy, this was to later prove an error in judgement.

Tony Wembley 2012

We arrived at the Wembley Travelodge shortly after nine-fifteen to be greeted by an even mix of Liverpool red and Cardiff City blue seated in the open plan restaurant, lining collective stomach’s ahead of what was set to be a long day. Following persuading the helpful receptionist to check us in later that afternoon (in order to avoid paying the early check-in charge) we left our bags in the car and stepped out beneath the clear blue sky and glorious golden late-February sunshine – and boy was it glorious. It was almost as if Shanks and Bob were smiling down upon the King and his men in preparation for their march up Wembley Way, towards what we all hoped would be our first silverware in six long years. Pick up some brasso and prepare the cabinet – we’re back!

Now, for those of you fortunate enough to have avoided the Wembley area all of these years, don’t for a second think you’re missing out because quite frankly, you’re not, it’s nothing more than a soul crushing collection of concrete nothingness, slumped broken and depressed at the end of a long expanse of concrete nothingness, otherwise known as the M40. On our way to the tube station a short ten minute walk away, we passed an expensive looking, black BMW with a broken driver’s side window, which blended effortlessly amongst the desolate surroundings and prompted Dave to comment, half seriously:

“Thank fuck no one in their right mind would wanna break into my piece of shit!”

To be quite honest we could’ve been car-jacked at gun point the moment we arrived, with the gunman taking the time to fart in my pocket before speeding off into the distance for all I cared (sorry Dave). I wasn’t bothered in the slightest about getting home. Getting here was all that mattered. Perhaps the gunmen could’ve paid Mr. Phillips a visit in Middlesex on their travels.

The short tube journey was un-eventful and largely deserted, albeit carrying with it a smell similar to how I imagine an old persons living room. Like a strange fusion of slippers and porridge. As we rattled along the eleven stops to Baker Street I text “Swedish Carl” (as he now appeared in my phone) to let him know that we were on the way. Carl had been the sender behind the eleventh hour ticket offer and had flown in from Sweden the previous day, with us tentatively arranging to meet on Baker Street this morning.

The Navigation is on your immediate right as you depart the Baker Street tube station and we were greeted at the currently locked doors by around a dozen reds beneath a back-drop of red, open-top sight-seeing buses, filled with passengers sporting designer sunglasses and armed with expensive camera’s, taking turns – somewhat hesitantly – to picture a small group of reds posing with their scarves held aloft below. Once the heavy-set bouncers decided to open the doors a scrum quickly – and inevitably – ensued as the throng of people dropped their shoulders and gave it toes to the bar to get their breakfast orders in ahead of the coming rush. Following ordering and just before reaching our table my phone rang. The screen simply displayed Swedish Carl, who proceeded to tell me that they were on the way over and to look out for his mate coming through the door, who I was reliably informed, was “wearing a hat”.

Well wouldn’t you know, every single person that came through the door in the few minutes following that phone call was wearing a hat. Every one of them.

Do they look Swedish?” was the thought going through my head as I scanned every new entrant from foot to brow, quickly followed by “wait, what does Swedish look like?”.

Arrive he duly did though, and after exchanging brown envelopes in a scene that wouldn’t have been out of place in an episode of Spooks, I headed to the bar and ordered their group a round of drinks. It was the very least I could do. In fact, I actually surprised myself by resisting the incredible urge to physically mount him whilst declaring my willingness to bare his children if he so wished, upon catching the first glimpse of the oversized black and white, hologram embossed card that was to be my passport to the Carling Cup final 2012.

Carl, if you’re reading this mate – like I said, I owe you one. Big time. And I meant it about baring your children. Just say the word.

Over the course of the previous two weeks, along with the frantic search for tickets, we had kept an eye on the suggested meeting points for London and one place attracting the most mentions was one of the regular away day watering holes, The Globe, which just happened to be directly over the road. The atmosphere was already building as we adjusted our eye sight and held our sign hopefully aloft upon entering the dimly lit surroundings of the main bar – of which was already three deep by this point and alive with the excited hum of cup final chatter. The outdoor seating was spilling out onto the main road with reds occupying one side and a large Cardiff contingent dwarfing them on the other. As we joined the throng in front of the already overworked bar staff the singing contests flared up, with the red contingent faring admirably in the face of a fairly large scale numerical Welsh advantage. We always up our game when we’re expected to falter, don’t we? And anyway, it was the only perceived advantage they were likely to boast today, or at least so went the thinking of the majority.

Following a couple of pints and the arrival of friend of mine native to these parts, Ash, who I’d met in Vietnam on a trip a couple of years ago, we decided to make a move over to Wembley Park. There seemed to be a steady stream of blue shirts passing through the door in front of us and the renditions of “Luis Suarez, you know what you are” were growing louder. I love the banter, but our main target for the day, at the very least, was to find a red pub vibrating beneath the traditional verses of the Kop choir to enjoy the match in an atmosphere befitting a cup final.

Passing out of the door and back into the sunshine we narrowly dodged the traffic and onto the central reservation opposite, on which, it was quickly noted (and not only by ourselves) stood a lonely distributor for The Sunday Sun, which was launching either by sheer ignorance or downright arrogance on the same day that 100,000 Merseysiders and Welshmen were set to stand shoulder to shoulder in their condemnation of its very existence. The distributor himself was evidently of foreign descent and judging purely by his decision to take up a position directly outside the entrance of a pub overflowing at the seams with those most vehemently against it, I can only assume he had little clue of the outrage that was likely to be directed towards him.

Exiting Wembley Park station we climbed the steps up onto the famous Wembley Way, with our sign still held keenly aloft as if we were on some sort of protest march. The sheer number of people with the same idea only added to that impression. Some had signs hung around their neck, or even pinned to their shirts in an effort to avoid arm ache. It took around ten minutes for us to stroll along the wide expanse that leads directly towards the southern end of Wembley Stadium. Pausing for a second in the shadow of this vast arena, to take in the view of the first trickle of what would become a tide of red clad pilgrims completing the final steps of their own individual journeys, here, at a cup final, was a great feeling. The fact that it was also the first in six years and the first since the disastrous American occupation only added to the feelings of both pride and relief. Breathing in the warm February air it felt like the end of a particularly dark journey for the club itself. Finally we were back doing what we do best; contesting trophies.

With Stewart now claiming to be coughing feathers our own journey saw us negotiate our way around to the northern face of the stadium and up a steep adjoining road towards The Green Man, which was another of the local pubs allocated to Liverpool by the authorities. It was at this point that we also passed the first (and only, as it turned out) tout of the day, who noticed our sign and waddled over to ask what we were looking for. Waddled was the correct term as well. He was a short, overweight man, with a shiny, bulbous face and greasy brown hair clinging to his sweaty forehead. He also sounded like an extra from Eastenders. Quickly discovering that he was asking for £250 each we dismissed him with a wave and quickened our ascent up the hill to the gathered red masses.

Now this was more like it. A large open beer garden, sporting a smoking barbecue to the left and an outside bar to the right, was heaving with red shirts making the most of the weather as a football passed from side to side overhead. Moving through the crowd and in the main entrance to the bar we were met with a rendition of the Luis Garcia song. Amid a chorus outlining little Luis’ favoured beverage and exact height Tony returned from the bar with both an arm full of drinks and a face like a slapped arse. Apparently after double checking that they would be showing the game on the many flat screens that adorned the walls the barman had informed him that in fact, all pubs in the Wembley area would be closing at three on the orders of the Metropolitan Police. It was currently just gone one, which therefore posed a serious problem. Do you wait here as long as possible to soak up the pre-match atmosphere and give it toes into town at the last minute, or head off early and accept a much quieter venue in order to ensure that you get in position ahead of time? Unfortunately for all concerned they opted for the former, so after that first round the four of them headed dejectedly back down the hill towards the tube station and eventually, Bond Street, where another friend of ours had already said we could find him. As for me, well, I got another few rounds in and added a voice to the travelling Kop. One thing’s for sure, you’re never alone as a Red at a cup final.

Passing amongst what seemed to be a sea of ‘spare ticket’ signs held aloft by Reds, amidst the constant calls of the same vein, I arrived at the turnstiles for block 106 shortly after three. Sweat had begun forming on my palms and my arsehole had assumed the clenched fist impression that is customary with the arrival of nerves, as the doubts slowly grew in my mind as to the legitimacy of the ticket that I’d retained a tight grip on for the majority of the day. If the small light on that barcode scanner flashed red I would be absolutely devastated. I genuinely didn’t have a clue how I’d react if that transpired, but thankfully for me I didn’t have to think about it for too long as I entered the cool, dimly lit booth and slid my ticket into the scanner. The green light instantly appeared before me and the turnstile clicked open, beckoning me in to my first major final since that historical comeback on the desolate landscape that plays host to the Ataturk Stadium almost seven years ago. As I passed through the turnstile I glanced over my shoulder to see two police officers forcefully removing a group of Reds looking for tickets and it made me fully appreciate just how lucky I’d been to find a way in when so many had missed out.

In the build-up to the game the pubs and various forums were littered with over confidence bordering on arrogance at times as people predicted convincing victories with us up against a Cardiff City side a division below and only two points better off than Brighton, of whom we’d despatched with ease at Anfield a week or so earlier. I wasn’t so sure. In my own living memory I couldn’t recall seeing us walk out in a cup final and swaggering to victory. The phrase ‘The Liverpool Way’ is often used to explain the traditions and culture of the club, but I’d go as far as to add that making things difficult for ourselves on exactly this kind of occasion is also ‘The Liverpool Way’. Look back at the famous treble of 2001 and you find us being taken to penalties by a Birmingham City team a division below us at the time. Ahead of the FA Cup final in 2006 I remember being interviewed by Radio City and nonchalantly predicting a rout. We all know how that one played out. And then there are the famous comebacks against Arsenal and AC Milan, as well as the almost surreal slugging match with Alaves in Dortmund. Our recent history is positively littered with precedent warning against complacency, and so with all of that in mind I headed to the bookies to place a bet ahead of kick-off.

Liverpool 3-0 Cardiff City. Suarez first goal scorer. 16/1.

We never learn, do we?

Out on the pitch the ‘Wembley Experience’ and tedious Americanisation of the occasion were well underway, with various chart hits and theme tunes reverberating around the stadium at deafening levels as oversized inflatable club crests were carried around the field amongst streams of ribbons and flames. A small part of my soul curled up and died at the realisation that there were also Reds proudly waving foam hands in the stands around me. What’s next, corn dogs sellers in the aisles and teams of cheer leaders orchestrating down below? The atmosphere was strangely muted as kick-off approached with the confidence that was evident previously quickly giving way to the inevitable cup final nerves. The game itself proved to justify those nerves as we witnessed what in many ways was the embodiment of our entire season. Flying out of the blocks with Johnson smashing the bar inside the first few minutes we found ourselves dominating in almost every aspect of the game, including both possession and territory, before contriving to allow Mason in to coolly slot past Reina and leave us trailing at the break. Half time passed by in somewhat of a haze as the repercussions of defeat forced their way into my mind (with the predictable assistance of a few text messages from Mancunian acquaintances). It was unthinkable. As if to break my building personal pessimism a rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone began reverberating through the red masses, with the middle aged, bespectacled man a few rows behind me leaving everyone in no doubt as to their collective responsibilities;

“Fuckin’ sing will yer!!”

After the break the flow of the game continued unabated, with us enjoying the bulk of the possession without offering too much in the way of a serious goal threat. That was, until our undoubted player of the season, Martin Skrtel, showed the required composure in a crowded penalty area to smash the ball into the Cardiff net and send the east end of the stadium into delirium as I found myself bouncing up the aisle steps and gleefully hugging anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves within arms reach. Suddenly the decibel levels were increased as the travelling Kop sensed the inevitable. Once again though, as has been the case far, far too often this season, we found ourselves unable to break down a well organised and extremely motivated opposition defence, with the final whistle blowing with the game tied at one-one – but only after Kenny Miller had left 31,000 Kopites gasping in horror as he fired over the bar when seemingly clean through in the final seconds, in what I could only describe as an ‘Eidur Gudjohnson moment’.

The first period of extra time saw the arrival of a man who has divided the opinion of many during his time at the club. What cannot be argued though, is that he has also consistently proved to be the man for the big occasion and so it proved once again. In the one hundred and eighteenth minute Dirk Kuyt saw his speculative initial effort fortunately rebounding back to him, making no mistake the second time as he flashed the ball in at the near post. With a little over ten minutes remaining I was certain it was all over. Surely we would impose our quality and take the sting out of the game. But well, that just wouldn’t be ‘the Liverpool Way’ now would it? And so it proved as we inexplicably invited Cardiff onto us, apparently determined to maximise the drama of the occasion by conceding a thoroughly avoidable equaliser to take it down to the lottery of a penalty shootout. A ten million pound set piece had the upper tier ducking for cover, the allegedly mentally weak proved otherwise and Gerrard, inevitably, settled proceedings. Anthony Gerrard that is, in missing the final and decisive spot kick to send Evertonian conspiracy theorists into meltdown and the red half of Wembley into an equal mixture of relief and delirium.

Wembley 2012

What followed from that point was a blur, to be honest. It felt a bit like being on pause as the world around me was on fast-forward. Celebrations ensued and one of the most fantastic, spine-tingling renditions of Fields of Anfield Road echoed around Wembley as the triumphant Liverpool squad made their way slowly across the front of our end, down below. A Liverpool squad led of course, by Kenny Dalglish. The one true living legend of the club, in an age where the term is far too often afforded without merit. That was the thing that really struck home with me. That was the point that made me so unbelievably proud, and grateful – to have been fortunate enough to witness this great man as the Liverpool manager, leading us once more to glory, as he had twenty-two years prior. In a sight that encapsulated the emotion felt by everyone associated with the club, for several reasons, Kenny shed a tear in the aftermath of this victory, and many reds the world over shared one with him. It was a sight that I never expected to see, but one that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.

Liverpool's Scottish manager Kenny Dalgl

After departing Wembley it was back up to Bond Street to find the lads. Now, you know those times when you’re late to the pub and your mates have been out half the day already, and you find yourself faced with a collection of sagged cheeks, slurring voices, terrible dancing and endless hugs with whichever human just happens to be within the general vicinity? Yeah, that. It was carnage. I had some catching up to do, and by God did I give it my best. I’d love to go on here to recount amusing tales of what occurred over the remainder of the evening, but the truth is, I can’t remember it to tell you. Other than eventually making my way back to the hotel to find Tony neatly folded up in the recovery position in front of the lift. There was also an iced cream vending machine to his right. I bought one and raised a Cornetto to Kenny, and to life – and to the random man who was stepping over my comatose friend at that particular moment in order to access the lift. It was a glorious time to be alive. Oh to be a Red at a cup final.

“We’re on the march wi’ Kenny’s army!”

What a day.

Thanks again, Carl.

Liverpool v West Ham United: Match Preview

Liverpool v West Ham United

Saturday January 31st, 2015 | Kick-Off: 15:00 GMT | Coverage: Highlights on BBC MOTD.

Rodgers Allardyce 3After a brief sabbatical league football returns to Anfield on Saturday afternoon, with the visit of one of the seasons surprise packages, West Ham United. The East Londoners arrive on Merseyside one place (and point) above the Reds, in 7th. It’s been some turnaround for a club who occupied 18th spot at this stage last season, and in particular for a manager who at that time found himself at the centre of a growing tide of discontent from the Upton Park terraces, due primarily to the agricultural style he typically favours and subsequently deployed. For a club historically renowned for attractive football, the unrest was no surprise. The fact that Allardyce has since managed to halt that tide, even following a public attack on his own supporter base, perhaps more so. The style has evolved into a more progressive approach following a frank discussion with the clubs owners back in May however, and whilst the Hammers retain the ability to revert to that direct, physical approach, they now present a slightly more diverse challenge. Former Red Stuart Downing, never as bad as portrayed during his time at the club, has been outstanding at times, and Sakho has proven to be an inspired signing. Andy Carroll remains the Reds record signing and he’ll undoubtedly have a point to prove to the manager who made an almost instant decision to discard him.

History is against Allardyce’s men though. The Great Train Robbery was in the news and The Beatles had just released their first album (Please Please Me) the last time the Hammers won at Anfield, back in September 1963.

Last 5 meetings WHUFor Liverpool, those green shoots of recovery continue to sprout from amongst the desolation of the September to November period. It’s just two defeats in twelve since Rodgers rediscovered Rodgers and returned his focus to both his and the teams strengths, and though some would argue that the alterations that have proven to be the catalyst were more stumbled upon via injury than proactively identified, if a destination is the right one, it really matters little how you arrive there. Ultimately, the 3-4-2-1 formation appears to be extracting the best from the majority of the team, and coupled with the reintroductions of Sakho and Lucas, has offered a balance between attacking verve and defensive organisation that was previously lacking. Whilst a failure to turn draws into wins has become an increasing frustration in recent weeks, and performance levels remain sporadic, the improvement has been unquestionable. Suddenly the Reds look the sum of their parts once more. The big problem remains the same though, and we all know what it is; The lack of goals. Rodgers’ team are set up to create chances, but all too often unable to take them. A very evident threat hamstrung by an inability to follow it through. Like a wolf without teeth.

Run your finger down the first team squad list and ask yourself this question; “If we created one single chance in a given game, how many would you back to take it?”. Not nearly enough, and that remains an indictment of a summer transfer window that saw an extensive recruitment drive. The failure to secure the top level striker that was so clearly needed has proven to be a costly one. Disappointing recent results against the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea saw the Reds outplay their opponents for large spells, yet dominance was not driven home and the price was paid, in points and elimination. Having spent four months recovering from a Roy Hodgson training session, Daniel Sturridge’s expected return to the match day squad should help to fill that void and provide a welcome boost for Rodgers and every Red the world over. Patience will be needed as he looks to regain his form and fitness after such a lengthy absence, but should he do so and performance levels remain, then from the storm we may yet see a golden sky.

Last 10 games WHU

Team News:

Liverpool

Daniel Sturridge is expected to return to the squad for the first time since August. Mamadou Sakho will face a late fitness test, after sustaining a back injury during the warm-up ahead of the midweek Capital One Cup tie with Chelsea. Jon Flanagan remains unavailable.

Out: Flanagan (Knee).

Doubtful: Sakho (Back), Jones (Thigh), Sturridge (Thigh).

West Ham United

Diafra Sakho could be unavailable after the Senegal FA lodged a formal complaint with FIFA following the strikers FA Cup appearance at the weekend, having previously withdrawn from the African Cup of Nations through injury. FIFA have the power to suspend the player for the duration of the tournament. Having returned to full training on Thursday, James Collins is once again available for selection. Alex Song, James Tomkins and Carl Jenkinson are all confirmed as doubts with minor knocks.

Out: Demel (Muscular).

Doubtful: Jenkinson (Knock), Song (Knock), Tomkins (Knock), Sakho (Potential Ban).

Likely Lineups:

Liverpool West Ham 2Prediction:

For Brendan Rodgers it surely must be a case of; ‘same again’. The performance levels in the Capital One Cup clash with Chelsea, particularly at Anfield, produced a level of intensity and belief not witnessed since last seasons title run-in, and that has to be the benchmark for the remainder of this season, starting here. For their part the Hammers will rarely arrive with such confidence, and in their ranks they possess two former Reds with a point to prove, in Andy Carroll and Stewart Downing. The big Geordie in particular possesses the stature and ability to cause problems, and with that in mind whether or not Mamadou Sakho is passed fit could be key. The Frenchman having proved to be a steadying influence in the Reds defence, it was no coincidence to see his departure in midweek precede an evident erosion of defensive stability.

Both teams will enter the field with top four aspirations and for whoever leaves with the three points, that door will remain ajar. The Reds have the tools to win this game, and should concentration be retained – particularly on set pieces – and intensity levels reproduced, they should do just that. Mentality will be key. The main worry following 120 minutes of football at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday evening will be fatigue.

Liverpool 2-0 West Ham

Burnley v Liverpool: Match Preview

Burnley v Liverpool

Friday December 26th, 2014 | Kick-Off: 15:00 GMT | Coverage: Highlights on MOTD.

CoutinhoIt’s been an interesting couple of weeks for Liverpool. Two results at either end of the spectrum that look comprehensive at first glance, but on closer inspection could have ended very differently, followed by a home draw that should have been so much more and yet was very nearly nothing at all. What all three of the Reds most recent fixtures have in common though, is promise. Finally the intensity, aggression and attacking intent that defined the success of last season has begun to re-emerge, and with it has come just a glimmer of the verve and swagger that made Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool such a joy to behold. Quite why it has taken until mid-December for it’s reintroduction is a question of it’s own, but regardless, it’s been a welcome sight and one that has provided renewed optimism that perhaps, just perhaps, this league campaign can still be salvaged. And not only that, but that Brendan Rodgers remains capable of turning things around in the longer term, because make no mistake, there was a growing fear that the Ulsterman had lost his way.

Even at this stage, if the level of performance displayed in the draw with Arsenal can be replicated and sustained then you would be foolish to rule this Liverpool team out, especially with their leading marksman set to return to action in the new year and an upcoming run of fixtures that reads; Burnley (a), Swansea (h), Leicester (h), Sunderland (a), Aston Villa (a), West Ham (h). The impact of a winning streak for the occupants of the other end of the M62 will not have been lost on those inside Melwood, and if the current gap to the red half of Manchester and the other occupants of the Champions League places is to be reduced then this surely has to be the period to target. I’ve said it before but i’ll say it again, this is it for Brendan Rodgers and his team as far as the 2014/15 league season is concerned. Now begins the defining period that will determine whether or not they head into the new year with a realistic chance of achieving the target set in the corridors of Anfield back in August.

There are some who believe that that chance has already expired, of course, and there’s undoubtedly weight to that argument. No side to have occupied 10th position on Christmas Day – as Liverpool currently do – has ever finished higher than 6th in the Premier League, so let us be perfectly clear on the extent of the task that the Reds have left themselves facing at this point – but equally, very few seasons have been quite so unpredictable and lacking genuine quality at times as this one. The fact that Liverpool remain in the conversation for the top four, despite running at a pitiful 1.29 points-per-game and sitting closer to the relegation zone (7 points) than the top four (9 points), is a ridiculous testament to that. If it ultimately leaves the door ajar for the Reds though, even through nothing other than the failure of others, nobody on the red half of Merseyside will be complaining.

Last 10 games BurnleyFor their part, the hosts for this one, Burnley, have managed to steady themselves following a rocky opening to only their second ever Premier League campaign and their first since 2010. After failing to register a victory in their opening ten matches – and suffering six defeats in the process – Sean Dyche appears to have produced a formula for relative success and simultaneously quietened suggestions that relegation is inevitable. Given the severely limited resources available at the club he deserves credit for that and with just two defeats in the last seven now and with the Clarets unbeaten in four at Turf Moor, they’ll approach this game with a belief perhaps lacking at the start of the season. Ultimately though, it won’t be these kinds of fixtures that determine the fate of the Lancashire club, but it could well go some way towards exactly that for Liverpool.

Last 5 Meetings BurnleyTeam News:

Burnley

Striker Sam Vokes continued his comeback from a cruciate knee ligament injury sustained in March with a brace for Burnley Under 21’s on Monday evening. He’ll be hoping to follow that up with a place among the squad on Boxing Day.

Out: Ward (Ankle), Taylor (Calf), Duff (Calf).

Doubtful: Vokes (Knee).

Liverpool

Mario Balotelli will return to the squad after serving a one match ban. Daniel Sturridge meanwhile, has returned to England to continue his rehabilitation ahead of an expected – and welcome – return to action in the new year. Simon Mignolet, dropped for the previous three games, will be hoping for a recall.

Out: Flanagan (Knee), Johnson (Groin), Sturridge (Thigh),  Suso (Groin), Lovren (Groin).

Doubtful: N/A.

Likely Lineups:

Burnley Liverpool
Prediction:

Despite Liverpool putting four past Burnley without reply both home and away in their previous season in the top flight, if you think of this away trip you inevitably conjure images of that most wonderful of own goals by Djimi Traore. How could you not? It’s not every day you see a back-heeled goal at all, let alone one put into your own net by someone doing a passable impression of a disorientated gazelle. That FA Cup tie in early 2005 was pivotal in the Benitez era for a number of reasons, but one thing that it clarified beyond any doubt is that you cannot underestimate anyone. Perceived lesser team or otherwise, it makes no difference in that regard. If you fail to match the commitment and focus of your opponents you will be found wanting – and that will be the biggest barrier to overcome for the Reds here once again. If the approach is similar to the previous three games, and the Reds emerge with the same level of intensity, then the smart money will be on them winning the game. The undoubted gulf in quality between the two sides should dictate that.

There will be questions surrounding the selection over the coming period, of course. With four games in eleven days rotation becomes a necessity and the question over whether those currently on the fringes are capable of coming in and maintaining the improvements shown recently is a just one. Furthermore, The Brad Jones Experiment remains in operation, but for how long is anyone’s guess. Brendan Rodgers’ comments in Wednesdays press conference appeared to be edging closer towards a return for Mignolet than the previous weeks “indefinite [absence]” reference, and despite the Belgians questionable form and loss of confidence he remains the best option at the club. Being better in both boxes needs to be the immediate aim for Liverpool because that is what ultimately turned a potential 6 points into 1 against United and Arsenal, and the Belgian represents an immediate upgrade on Brad Jones in one of those boxes, simply through being able to keep the ball out of the net. There will be no shortage of Reds hoping that Christmas brings a recall for Mignolet, for that reason alone. There will be even more hoping that January provides a more permanent solution.

Provided that Brendan Rodgers doesn’t forget what Brendan Rodgers’ teams do well again in the next few hours, Liverpool will leave Turf Moor with three vital points. That said, i’m yet to get a prediction right on here, so perhaps I should be going for a home win…

Burnley 0-3 Liverpool