From Issue 47, Summer 2000
This is always the hardest column of the year
to write. Do it as the old season ends and capture
the feelings of frustration/elation/ confusion/celebration
(delete as applicable) but risk not being up to
date on those priceless summer signings like Zidane,
Roberto Carlos and Figo? Or leave it till late
and risk those very valid end-of season emotions
ebbing away and writing a column that fails to
reflect what we really felt at the end of last
season? I have decided on the former option so
if these two pages lack any reference to the goings
on at Euro 2000 or our summer swoop for world
class players, it is because of the need to express
an opinion on the season just gone while those
bitter sweet memories are still fresh. It is also
a better perspective from which to assess the
club's prospects for the new season.
So, season 99/00... what did you think? The view
I heard expressed more than any other was that,
at the start of last season we all said that European
qualification would be deemed a success and applying
that criterion, we had a successful season. Twelve
months ago, we really were in uncharted territory
and the influx of six new signings meant that
none of us knew what to expect of players about
whom we knew so little. We also had a manager
yet to make his potential clear to us. Our prospects
were uncertain but what we DID know was that Arsenal,
Man U or Chelsea would be the teams to beat if
we were to become serious contenders.
These three teams were every TV pundits' top three
at the start of the season. Even our early and
rather impressive victories over Leeds and Arsenal
gave us cause to temper our optimism because we
had seen us loose to relegation certainties Watford.
But even at that stage there was much to admire.
The determination and spirit shown by the team
in beating Arsenal was something that we hadn't
witnessed in a long time. They played as a unit
and worked so hard for each other. Hyypia made
us all nervous early on because we have had so
many false dawns where centre halves were concerned.
From Nicky Tanner and Hysen to Piechnik and Kvarme,
a succession of players had initially impressed
only for their form to dip after a few games.
We held our breath all season but Hyypia just
kept on going and has now established himself
as the true heir
o a Yeats/Lloyd/Thompson/Hansen/ Lawrenson line
of succession. Those of us who watched Sami on
a regular basis know who the real footballer of
the year was and we really wouldn't trade him
for some obnoxious Neanderthal Manc pixie, whatever
the football writers might think. Just look at
the man. On second thoughts, let's not!
So we'll just look at the player instead then.
How can they glorify this crude yob thug and make
him the equal of gentlemen like Matthews, Callaghan,
Dalglish or Charlton who all conducted themselves
with the utmost dignity on the pitch - even if
Sir Bobby was a bit of a spiv when it came to
Cup Final tickets.
There are different ways of looking at the way
the season unfolded. There was a lot of Yin and
Yang to it - light and dark, highs and lows. In
a positive light, we achieved what we did while
playing much of the season without Owen and Fowler.
When they did play neither of them ever seemed
fully fit. Defensively we have dealt emphatically
with our frailties. Up front we have, on paper,
four class strikers. We have a manager who looks
as though he has the passion, determination and
authority to put things right. The performances
against all of the top sides were proof that we
can now compete with the best in the land. And
however disappointed we were at Bradford, the
fact is that we achieved what we set out to do
back in August - get back into Europe. Viewed
in those simple terms, our season must be deemed
The negative side is worryingly familiar. Our
failure to secure a Champions League place was
the result of failure to beat lowly opposition
like Bradford, Watford or Everton. Winning just
one of those games would have made the vital difference.
If there was a weakness last season, it was in
midfield. Defensive invincibility was won at the
expense of midfield domination, as the midfield
played so deep to support the defence. We were
frequently slow breaking out and support for the
forwards was often woefully inadequate. Our defenders
were anchored in their own half and even the attacking
role of the full backs (always an important element
in our success) was withdrawn.
We no longer stretch defences with our wide play.
We seem to have only one game plan. While the
passing game might be effective against footballing
sides like Arsenal or Leeds, we need a different
sort of approach to 'Dogs of War' like Everton,
Southampton or Bradford. If we can evolve that
ability to adjust our tactics against the varied
sides who make up the Premier League, then we
will be in a position to match the consistency
of the Mancs. Whatever other criticisms that we
level against them, their willingness to gamble
all and go for a win has served them well and
won them countless points.
We need to pay lowly opposition less respect and
attack them with a little more gung-ho attitude,
which we see from them when their Manc backs are
to the wall. But we have been here before haven't
we? Sides under Souness and Evans also looked
to be this close. The difference is that we now
have a solid defensive foundation from which,
hopefully, we can be a little bolder next season.
Of course, at the point in April when we beat
Spurs 2-0 to go second, anything seemed possible.
A rare win at Wimbledon only confirmed our view
that second place was a formality. Then we played
OK, the derby game is always a pain. While the
Bluenoses now have Graham Poll to put up there
on their dartboards with Clive Thomas, you will
never hear sense from them. However careless Westerveld
was, he was still in a hurry to get the ball up
field so that we might win the game. And of course
Don Hutchison knew what he was doing in encroaching
on the kick - they had happily settled for a draw
(why else was Hutchinson seeking to waste time?)
so it was a bit rich to hear them crying about
being denied all three points.
The one monumental mistake that Houllier made
last season was in the timing of his comments
about our viability as serious contenders next
season. Just before the Chelsea game and when
we were on our best run in years, he tried to
defuse expectations for next season by stating
in the press that he felt that we were still two
or three seasons away from mounting a serious
challenge to the Mancs. While I accept that this
assessment is probably fair and honest, the timing
of it before such a difficult fixture dealt a
major blow to the confidence of such a young side.
Such comments should clearly have been withheld
until the season was over, as I believe they were
the single biggest factor in the collapse of our
form at the end of last season. That and a lack
of experience when dealing with crunch matches
where something major is at stake. We never got
going against Chelsea and always looked second
We quickly went into a downward spiral: Leicester
beat us, then Southampton held us and Bradford
stayed up against all the odds (although I WAS
pleased for Paul Jewell). The Leicester game was
especially dreadful and even though that famous
Liverpool fan Graham Poll had a terrible match,
we were second best all over the pitch. After
conceding another early goal, there was no way
we were going to get back into it. At that point,
there must have been some sort of collective retrospective.
I know I began to doubt my own view that we were
the second best team in the country. The evidence
in favour of this view might have been a bit thin
and overlooked the fact that some of our victories
along the way had been less than convincing. We
only beat a poor Wimbledon 2-1, the win at Watford
was almost blown... If we were having doubts,
then surely the players too were starting to suffer
from a crisis of confidence. Gerard Houllier's
comments about the
viability of our next championship challenge must
have been the pin that burst our balloon.
here was something else going on at this point.
There seemed to be a second agenda governing team
selection at the end of the season. The premature
re-introduction of Redknapp and Fowler (and possibly
Owen too) seemed to have an adverse effect on
our performances. It would be unforgivable if
these players were brought back prematurely in
an attempt to enhance their prospects of making
Kevin Keegan's 22 for Euro 2000. Putting England's
needs before those of Liverpool Football Club
never has been, and never will be, acceptable.
I would also hate to think what the long-term
implications are for the players too, being asked
to play before their recovery was complete.
This 'second agenda' also seemed to have ramifications
for one of last season's real success stories.
Hands up all those who thought that Titi Camara
was very shabbily treated as the season progressed
my, that's a lot of hands. Camara's ability to
do the unexpected and to turn games with an act
of unpredictability was exactly what we needed
against some of the Premiership's scrappier clubs.
I don't know of anybody who was happy to see Heskey
in the side ahead of Titi. I know we were all
aware of the need to embrace the squad ethos and
accept that players would need to be rotated as
the season progressed, but it always seemed like
Titi was the first to get dragged off or thrown
on with minutes to go when we were trying to salvage
something. His overall contribution was exceptional
and basically, he is exactly the sort of exuberant
player that I'm happy to pay to see in a red shirt.
Please Gerard, put him in the team and leave him
there - if he goes to Celtic, it will be a dreadful
mistake. And let's not forget where the season
all went wrong at the end - we stopped scoring
goals. I still believe the outcome would have
been different had Titi featured more prominently
in the run-in.
Other little puzzles involved the fall from grace
for Rigobert Song - another player full of commitment
and enthusiasm for the Red cause. Nobody will
ever convince me that Jamie Carragher is a better
option at right back than Song - or was Song's
biggest crime that he liked to get forward instead
of adhering to the rigid defensive role that Houllier
expected of him?
There were other success stories last season.
Steven Gerrard has emerged as a midfield general
who can call that position his own for the next
ten years. That he is a local lad and cost us
nothing is a major bonus and another feather in
the cap of Steve Heighway. Paddy Berger had a
great season although not everybody seemed convinced.
It seems that as well as being expected to run
for 90 minutes, always be available and also to
score some sensational goals, he is also being
held accountable for not finding a cure for cancer,
failure to pay off the third world debt, THAT
decision by Clive Thomas in 1977 and the fact
that Tony Blur has turned out to be more right
wing than Enoch Powell. Get off Paddy's back and
stop moaning at him. His goals alone were sufficient
contribution to silence even the most demanding
of supporters. Apparently not. So we ended the
season with a tantalising glimpse of what this
young squad is capable of. We have already re-established
ourselves as one of the country's top clubs. Now
we must build on the solid foundations laid by
our Gallic general. It's tempting to say that
the future is bright - but we have been here before