Commentary Box: It will be painful, but Liverpool should be champions
Posted on January 2, 2019
BE prepared, 2019 will probably be a year of Kop revivalism, Shankly philosophy, Klopp’s teeth and Mo Salah being proclaimed the greatest Egyptian ever to walk down Lime Street. Liverpool could be back at the top to end an incredible 29-year gap between league title wins. What’s more, it’s the 30thanniversary of Hillsborough, so the emotional connection will be even more intense.
For some of us, the thought of Liverpool as Premier League champions is too much to bear, and we are not just talking about Everton and Manchester United supporters. Liverpool’s reign at the top, from 1975-76 to 1989-90, was a drag for football’s broader audience. There’s no denying that respect was due to a club that invented the word consistency and created the only genuine dynasty English football has ever seen, but it was a monotonous period for the history of the game, regardless of how good some of those Liverpool teams were. It was something of a relief when Everton came along in 1985 to break the monopoly and then Arsenal won the title at Anfield to really punch a hole in the mythology. Little did we know that we would soon be looking at another period of tedium when Manchester United took the baton and ran with it.
But credit is due where credit is due and Liverpool’s firm grip on English football was deserved and, in some cases, provided us with some real excitement. The team of 1987-88 had that certain something that past Liverpool teams never had, but it also, for arguably the first time, showed that the club could adopt a strategy of chequebook team-building. It possibly spelled the end for the Liverpool we had known since the mid-1960s.
Liverpool’s domination ended with Heysel and Hillsborough. As well as ripping the heart out of a club that was admired by so many, it also – in the case of Heysel – cast the club into the shadows and reminded people that football hooliganism also prowled the streets of Merseyside. Liverpool’s image was built around the working class hero Bill Shankly, the legend of the Spion Kop and Gerry Marsden. After Brussels, the club’s image was battered and then along came the tragedy of Hillsborough to knock them back to the floor. Not many clubs could have got off the canvas like Liverpool, but these events only served to strengthen an “us and them” mentality. Hillsborough, more than any other incident, effectively provided the catalyst for the 21stcentury game.
Liverpool were blamed with depriving half a generation of players the chance of appearing in European competition and, in the case of Everton’s 1985 and 1987 title winners, the opportunity to test their strengths against the continent’s finest. It possibly cost Everton their most successful modern manager, Howard Kendall, who decided to move abroad to Bilbao in 1987.
In the aftermath of Hillsborough, Liverpool lost one valuable ingredient, the sense of continuity that had characterised the club since the days of Bill Shankly. Paisley made way for stop-gap Joe Fagan and then Dalglish took over as player-manager. The Scot eventually buckled under the weight of Heysel and Hillsborough and resigned in 1991. By this time, Liverpool were losing their control of the Football League and the pressure was telling. This was where the cult of the “boot room” was dismantled. Graeme Souness was hired from Glasgow Rangers, but it was not until 1998 that the club really “got brave” and brought in an outsider in the form of Gérard Houllier. He was succeeded by Rafa Benítez, who rekindled Liverpool’s European heritage and won the UEFA Champions League in dramatic fashion in Istanbul.
During this period, however, Liverpool transitioned to become a modern corporate club with the Moores family selling to US businessmen George Gillett and Tom Hicks. This was not a popular move and the fans never took to the duo who soon looked to offload their investment. By 2010, the club was £ 350 million in debt and had losses of £ 55 million to absorb. In October 2010, Liverpool was sold to Fenway Sports for £ 300 million.This meant that all the qualities that appeared to define the club to the outside world – continuity in the dugout, hooligan-free fans and, essentially, the idea of a family-run club, had [inevitably] disappeared in 25 years. Furthermore, with a strong US influence, Liverpool was now more Billy Beane than Billy Liddell.
Under Fenway, Liverpool have had four managers – Roy Hodgson, Dalglish (again), Brendan Rodgers and now Jürgen Klopp. None have yet been as successful as Benítez, who had a win rate of 55.43%. Nobody has been as prolific as Dalglish was in his first stint in charge (60.91%). The overwhelming dominance of the club from the mid-1970s to the late-1980s has proved to be an anvil of expectation that few can carry. Liverpool have had some exceptional players in the period since they last won the title – Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling to name but three – but they have rarely had a fully functional team, a quality that epitomised the club in its pomp. Although at the time, it felt as though the Liverpool reign would go on forever, nothing was ever going to last forever and their fans hated it, and resented “new money” clubs like Chelsea, who suddenly acquired success and trophies by the open-top bus load. Chelsea, they said, “had no history”, yet before Shankly, Liverpool had lost their way.
Liverpool, under Klopp, are on the threshold of creating some new history. They’re an exciting proposition –shored-up at the back with the excellent Virgil van Dijk and armed to the teeth with firepower and they’ve got a manager everyone seems to like. What’s more, Klopp showed in 2017-18 that he had Manchester City’s number and in the second half of the season, starting with the January 3 clash at the Etihad, that know-how will be very useful. Liverpool turned the corner in the Premier unbeaten and that bodes well for the Reds. The title is never won in January, but a Liverpool triumph at the Etihad will certainly create the impression that 29 years will not become 30.