The Treble – Cloud Eight
From Issue 52, Summer 2001
Isn’t it funny how tiny quirks of fate can change your life on a massive scale? Imagine, if you will, when Big Ed was scouring through YNWA all those years ago looking for a suitable title for his new fanzine. What if he had settled for “Tossed and Blown”? Once the vice squad had finished with him, would he still have had the enthusiasm for continuing with this enterprise?
During the late forties and early fifties, my dad used to watch both Liverpool and Everton on alternate Saturdays. When I came along, economies had to be made and a choice made between Liverpool or Everton. At the time, Everton were surviving in the First Division and Liverpool were newly relegated to the Second. Strangely, he opted for Liverpool. His decision has been rewarded a thousand times over down the years. Yet, on one single inexplicable whim turned my own destiny. I was eventually introduced to Liverpool Football Club in 1963 and immediately developed a taste for silverware when it could so easily have been Bitter Blueberry Pie instead.
Tiny decisions change our lives on a massive scale. Even during the last ten arid years, I never lost sight of the rewards that my support has brought me. There were times when I doubted whether those days would ever return as successive managers strayed ever further from the path. Roy Evans assembled a great attacking side for us but they couldn’t defend and he couldn’t control them. Then along came Monsieur Houllier at a time when our hopes were at an all time low. Our patience has eventually been rewarded. Our historic treble was made all the sweeter when I stopped to consider that I could so easily have been sat across Stanley Park, fuming and oozing jealousy.
The success that the side achieved last season was satisfying on a number of levels. Most of all, I was thrilled for that new generation of our supporters who have never known success. Their commitment in following the club, home and away, was richly rewarded. More than that, they now have precious memories of their own to match those which us old farts have from Rome or Paris.
Success was no less delicious for those of us well used to seeing multiple trophy wins. There were those of us who were beginning to wonder if we would ever see success on this scale again. Even up to the last issue of TTW&R I was still expressing doubts about Monsieur Houllier and whether he could instil in our players that mental toughness that all winners have. I was finally won over after our second performances against Barcelona.
The first leg was a heroic defensive performance in which the whole side conspired to contain a team packed with world class players. We did the job, but it seemed like the whole team was consumed with defensive duties, leaving no possibility of scoring ourselves. If we were to triumph in this tie, we had to do the same job again at Anfield AND fashion an attacking strategy from somewhere. I went along more in hope than in expectation. The atmosphere was a bit special (although I hope you will forgive us old farts if we still insist that St Etienne was still the best European night ever at Anfield – trust me) and I do believe that we made a difference. Rivaldo’s forty-yard shot? When Steven Gerrard hits them from that range, they go in.
When the final whistle went and all hell broke loose, I had a quiet, emotional moment in which I exchanged the hope, on which I
had survived for ten years, for the certainty that we were back. Back as a force to be reckoned with in Europe. Back where we belonged, beating Europe’s elite. Back, able to hold our heads high with confidence, dignity and self-respect. That is what that victory meant to me and this certainty put a lump in my throat the size of a grapefruit. We hadn’t won a trophy in that match but that didn’t matter – we were back and I was happy to finally accept Houllier as the architect of our renaissance.
If we needed further proof, we got it at Cardiff. It came in the unfamiliar guise of Lady Luck. All successful sides attract a certain amount of good
luck. Ask Alan Hansen about Bruges at Wembley in 1978. Ask the Mancs about the last ten years. The fact that we survived a relatively poor performance and several spurned Arsenal chances and were still in the match was due, in part, to good fortune. The fact that we went on to win, wasn’t. It was because we had Michael Owen and because Tony Adams became too old at a critical moment. However, the fact that Lady Luck has been seen hanging around your dressing room is a real indication that the good times are back. That isn’t to say we were lucky to win. This was just the balance being redressed – which tends to happen over a season. We could easily point to a whole catalogue of instances over the past few seasons when Lady Luck was nowhere to be seen. And in Arsenal’s case, this win had been coming since 1950 (via 1971, 1980, 1987, 1989 and August 2000) so I, for one didn’t give a toss how it was achieved. That it was won by a fabulous pass and a world class finish, was a bonus. Besides, being called ‘lucky’ by Arsenal fans is about as surreal as attending a lecture on humility and bowel control by Siralex.
Much has been written about the Alaves match – rating it as one of the greatest European Finals ever.
Forced to stay behind and watch it from the comfort of my armchair, I have to say it was one of the most horrible, tense matches of my life. I didn’t enjoy it and I felt physically ill by the time we lifted the trophy. It took hours for the stress and tension to drain away, to be replaced by the warm smug glow of satisfaction. Not only were we back amongst Europe’s elite, we had the tangible evidence of a big shiny UEFA Cup to prove it. I dispute the view that we were lucky in Dortmund. The best team won through their spirit and persistence and Alaves lost the match eventually, because of several cynical fouls and their lack of discipline. Lesser teams than ours would have folded after an 88th minute equaliser like that. The remarkable thing was that just days after a gruelling FA Cup Final, we seemed to get stronger the longer extra time went on.
And so to Charlton. By now I was actually against qualifying for the Champions League. My thinking was inspired in part by a contrariness that makes me rebel against the likes of Parry who insist that this, for financial reasons, is the real extent of our ambitions. With our confidence sky high and without the burden of a massive programme of Champions League games to distract us, I really felt that we could mount a serious and sustained challenge to the Mancs for the title during the coming season. That’s what matters. Never mind – we will just have to do it the hard way. And yes, I cheered as loudly as anybody when Robbie’s fabulous overhead went in and by full time I was drunk with the idea that we could go all the way in the Champions League AND give the Mancs a run for their (unlimited) money. Nobody is going to fancy playing us after the scalps we have taken this season.
That performance against Charlton was an appropriate climax to our season – a climax even more explosive than that of Zabriskie Point. The side played with patience, tenacity and spirit. If there is one quality which Houllier has revived, it is the team ethic. You can see how well these guys get on – how they play for each other. Ever seen a player who hasn’t kicked a ball all season, lift a trophy? It is that collective mentality which ran through all our best sides like a steel cable. No room for egos (Robbie) – you are part of a red machine now. You had to admire their stamina in the Charlton game, especially after the physical and mental ordeal they had been through in the games leading up to it.
So, was it a more successful season than the Mancs? Arguably. An unprecedented treble – definitely. Of course, it didn’t take long for the revisionism to start but we know the truth. This was success on a massive scale and nobody is going to take that away from us. We are BACK and anybody who says otherwise has all the credibility of a Jeffrey Archer alibi. Manager of the season? Stuff your awards – we know the truth.
There were plenty of success stories all over the pitch last season. Twelve months ago, my eyebrows were raised as high as anybody’s when we signed Gary McAllister. We knew he had been good but – at 36 – I doubted his worth to us. I have never been so pleased to be wrong. Professionalism personified, as demonstrated by his reaction to scoring against his old club. Elated and gutted at the same time. A true pro. If I could say that one player alone made the difference between success and failure over the season, it has to be McAllister.
Markus Babbel was yet another significant acquisition who cost us nothing. Once he had settled into the right back position, he was steady and reliable week in and week out, giving us valuable width and power going forward. Up front we had few worries as Owen and Fowler have slowly started to put their injury worries behind them. Heskey matured into the good strong all round striker we knew he could be. We just need for our manager to be a bit more gung-ho (like Sven Goran Mobilephone) and play the three of them together in the same side. It solves the problem of keeping them all happy!
Sami Hyypia WAS the player of the year (whatever the PFA or the football writers might think) – if for no other reason than that he went through the season without getting booked. Think about it – in an age where referees wave a yellow card for farting, this central defender spent his season jumping, sliding and being the last line of defence. Not getting booked even once means only one thing: pure class. Mr Potato Head – watch and learn. And how can a player who makes three goal-line clearances in a match not be Man of the Match? When is Hyypia going to get the recognition he richly deserves? Then there was poor Stefan Henchoz – another brilliant season and still standing in Sami’s mighty shadow.
Stevie G came of age and we can be confident that the heart of our midfield is in safe hands for the foreseeable future. He is already a serious contender for Souness’ title of ‘Best All-round Footballer to Wear a Liverpool Shirt’ and the frightening thing is, he can still get better! Of course, to single out individuals for praise, misses the point. All that we achieved last season was achieved collectively. Everybody made a significant contribution and even players like Hamann, Murphy and Carragher who, hitherto, I haven’t rated that highly, matured into vital members of the team who all had great games at some point or other during the season. Elsewhere, other players have been less consistent. Smicer was, at times, brilliant. He can also be frustrating. I was shocked when he was substituted in the FA Cup Final – mainly because I didn’t realise he was on the pitch!
Ziege was a mistake although we might have changed our opinion of him if his overhead kick against Wycombe had gone in. Barmby made a vital contribution scoring several vital goals, especially before his injury. He also created one of the season’s most delicious moments by scoring against the Bitter Blues in the derby. I swear I heard them collectively howl with pain when the ball hit the back of the net. Sander can be erratic but he made some decisive saves – good saves – in key matches and I feel he can become a great keeper in the next couple of seasons.
Of course, fanzines aren’t here to heap yet more adulation on these once-underachieving, still grossly overpaid prima donnas. We are here to point out the shortcomings of our players and throw light on the areas where we want to see improvement. So I would like to point out that the quality of Michael Owen’s handspring after his second goal in the Cup Final was embarrassing. This is an area of his game that needs a lot of work and I am looking forward to seeing a big improvement in the coming season. And, er, that’s it, really.
But seriously, weeks after the season finished, I sat and watched that Barcelona match again and as brilliant as the result was, the performance wasn’t nice to watch. Cruyff had a point. What if Luis Enrique’s shot had gone in – Westerveld was a spectator. Could we have scored again if we had to? I don’t know – maybe this is what success in the modern game feels like: that high scoring humiliations only come along once every Everton Win and most significant results are just ground out. The ability to sneak a 1-0 lead and defend it to the final whistle has been rediscovered. We have also found again that determination which used to win us so many games late on, a relentlessness which dictates that there is no such thing as a lost cause. Perhaps we are going to have to settle for that, for now, and the Anfield belief that just winning isn’t enough – win in style – will have to wait. I’ll certainly settle for it ahead of winning bugger all!
Anyway, during the coming season, I want to see a lot more pre-match huddles on the Kop. We in the main stand started our own last winter and we now regularly huddle down before each match and commit ourselves to not use foul or abusive chants in the Anfield Stadium (we’ve always been above racism – so no need to mention it) and to utter nothing but support and encouragement for our team. We believe that our spirit played a small part in all that we achieved last season and if we can spread this practice around the ground then who knows what might be possible? Get your huddle going.
This trend towards ‘deep’ slogans on banners is an interesting development along the way towards rehabilitating football fans into civilised cash cows. “Wine for my men – we ride at dawn” – what’s that all about? Will it be the Chateau Latour (72 of course) or the 1971 Petrus, Sir? Whatever happened to “Twelve pints of lager for my mates – the coach leaves in five minutes”? More interesting was the maxim at Cardiff “What we achieve in life, echoes in eternity”. Quite a snappy little poke in the eye for the Mancs while at the same time reminding our current players that they now had their chance to make their own mark in history. It was just a pity that the phrase was a piece of Hollywood schmaltz from the mouth of Maximus Gladiator instead of something more profound from Plato or Descartes. If we are really going to blend football and philosophy, I would like to see a Red banner at the European Cup Final in Glasgow next May quoting Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an art but a habit”.
One of the down sides to last season was the countless hours wasted queuing for tickets. In this day and age, when I have bought tickets on the Internet for access to the Uffizi in Florence or an Alcatraz Boat Tour in San Francisco (visiting relatives? – ed) surely it wouldn’t be beyond the club to set up a means of buying tickets for ‘non season ticket’ matches, online. It is typically arrogant and complacent of the club in not providing it’s fans with this sort of access to tickets. Security considerations can be easily overcome. The benefits to all, especially those with access, are obvious – or are we to continue to be treated like foot and mouth suspects – herded in lines outside the ground in
the wind and rain?
The first week in July was a conspicuously bad one for the club with the passing of both Joe Fagan and Billy Liddell. These men served our club with integrity and distinction and we will always speak their names with fondness and respect. It must have been some small consolation to their families that they lived to see the club restored to greatness again.
Hopes for the new season? That we might build on our solidity and become a little more adventurous. The side is full of talent and it is being focused on defensive duties when it could be so devastating if given a bit more freedom to express itself. I hope our participation in the Champions League doesn’t affect our title hopes in the same way that Chelsea and Leeds have been distracted in the last two seasons. Last season is going to be hard to follow and even harder to improve on.
Let’s just remember that success is a fragile and precious thing. Enjoy it, savour it and celebrate it but DON’T ever take it for granted. We never have, and we never should, make assumptions about our next season. We know what might now be possible – let’s go and get to Cloud Nine by winning one (or better still, both) of the trophies that we didn’t win last season.