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 a success.
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 Everton…………
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 best.
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, 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……………