16th of August 2009, some time in the morning.
Myself, as with probably every other Liverpool fan, looking forward to the start of Liverpool’s Premier League campaign; the opening fixture of the 2009/10 season which was due to kick off in just a few hours.
Liverpool were supposed to win the league that season. It didn’t go as planned.
The season before, the Reds were absolutely flying. They came close to the Premier League title; as close as they had done (position-wise) since 2002 and their second-half-of-season form suggested that it was simply a matter of strengthening in one or two key areas and keeping the same form going.
Liverpool lost that opening game of the season, 2-1 at Spurs, and never really recovered. From then on it was a definite downward spiral, on and off the pitch. Crashing out in the Champions League group stage, losing in the F.A. Cup third round to lower-league opposition, defeats to the likes of West Ham, Aston Villa and Darren Bent’s beach ball, even losing the semi final of the Europa League to eventual worthy winners Atletico Madrid – it was all background noise in a story which had gone badly wrong for Liverpool.
Fast forward fourteen months and things had, incredibly, gotten even worse for Liverpool. Rafa Benitez was gone, leaving behind a tale of what-might-have-been after six years, five finals and four trophies; and Roy Hodgson had been appointed the new manager of the club. Defeats against the likes of Northampton and Blackpool, as well as against bitter rivals Manchester United, had ensured it was hardly the happiest of starts for the Englishman, despite an unbeaten run in the Europa League.
But then, something positive happened for the Anfield side. The club owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, were ousted from the club after an unsavoury series of courtroom episodes, the end result of which was the takeover of the club by Tom Werner and John W. Henry through their company New England Sports Ventures (now Fenway Sports Group).
It was a big moment for Liverpool; gone were the crippling debts and extravagant interest repayments – one estimate putting the fees owed to RBS at over £100,000 per day – along with the threat of having to sell the club’s best players. Gone were the lies and back-stabbings, the media-fuelled outbursts and in-fighting which had dogged the last two years under the American duo’s stewardship.
A particularly poignant line from the club’s anthem came to mind: “at the end of the storm, there’s a golden sky”.
Perhaps this was just the new beginning the club had been searching for.
Now as we all know, the team’s results did not improve straight away; nor indeed over an extended period. Hodgson was removed from office, voluntarily or not, but rightly so in either case.
And in came Kenny Dalglish. The wave of optimism, of relief, of happiness, which surrounded the club in the following days was incredible.
I can honestly say I cannot remember such a show of unity amongst fans like it, dating back to probably the run towards the 2005 Champions League final. It was amazing – even after the defeat to Manchester United in the F.A. Cup a day later, it almost didn’t matter: Kenny was back, ergo the club was safe.
And now we’re three weeks further down the line. A defeat to Blackpool, a draw with the Blue Shite, and then back-to-back victories and clean sheets against Wolves and Fulham – the first time in almost exactly a year that Liverpool have managed such a combination, since the wins over Bolton and Everton in January and February 2010.
So what next for Liverpool? What lies in store for the remainder of this season? The mandate back in July when Hodgson was appointed was to “steady the ship” – something that I would argue neither Hodgson nor his then-employers managed to do. Wednesday’s win over Fulham, however, left Liverpool in seventh position in the league: exactly the same place the Reds finished the 2009/10 season in, and a full five places above where we were when Dalglish took over.
Steadying the ship then, perhaps, has been achieved.
Now lets look ahead: Liverpool face a home game against Stoke City next week. Despite the dire performance against the same opposition at the Brittania Stadium only a few months ago, this Liverpool side looks a different proposition and we should be hopeful of a positive outcome in the shape of another home victory.
The day before the Liverpool-Stoke fixture, Sunderland (currently 6th, 5 points ahead of Liverpool) will host Chelsea (4th, nine points ahead of the Reds).
Sunderland have been in fine form of late, especially at home where they have lost just once all season, and it is not beyond the realms of fantasy to think that they could take something off the Blues at home – after all, they played them off the park at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season, winning 3-0 in the process.
Should the Black Cats manage to take something off Chelsea and the Reds do the business against Stoke the following day, Liverpool will be going into their clash against the London club at Stamford Bridge four days later only 6 or 7 (Sunderland win or draw) points behind them. Does a top four league spot suddenly become a possibility for Liverpool?
The Reds know how to beat Chelsea – have done so already at Anfield this season in one of the few bright spots of the Roy Hodgson reign – but knowing and doing are two different things. But consider: two more wins for Liverpool in the next two games, and the club could be just one victory off a Champions League place.
That would be some turnaround for the club in just over a month under the watchful and shrewd eye of ‘King’ Kenny.
By the time those next two games roll around for Liverpool, we will already know one thing for certain: which, if any, transfer opportunities end up being successfully targeted in this window. Bids have already been rebuffed for Ajax forward Luis Suarez and Blackpool schemer Charlie Adam, while the proposed loan of Aston Villa left back and Anfield old-boy Stephen Warnock has dragged on for some time and must be questioned now whether it is likely to happen; he is not in favour at his current club so nothing should effectively be holding up a loan deal for this amount of time.
Ryan Babel has left the club permanently, while youngsters such as Steve Irwin, Victor Palsson and Sean Highdale have left on a variety of temporary deals.
Whether any incoming deals materialise or not, Dalglish is already getting much more out of those already at the club than his predecessor managed. One or two new faces could perk the current players up and would certainly provide some welcome depth in key areas of the playing squad, but there is nothing to say, of course, that a £20 million player would hit the ground running, especially coming into a new league at the mid-way stage. On the other hand, a few good performances or even lucky moments in average performances could provide a real impetus for the team over the remainder of the league season.
Liverpool are also fighting on another front; the Europa League gets back underway midway through February with a double header against Sparta Prague of the Czech Republic. Liverpool will be favourites to progress and should they do so, either Lech Poznan or Sporting Braga should also present beatable opposition for a full strength Reds team.
There are several good sides left in the competition; aside from big-spending Manchester City, Spanish duo Sevilla and Villarreal, Dutch league leaders PSV Eindhoven and perhaps most interestingly from a Liverpool point of view, FC Porto – managed by linked manager Andre Villas-Boas – all remain in the hunt for a European trophy and will offer stern opposition should the Reds seek to go one better than last season in the competition.
Liverpool need, as a minimum, continental football next season. Whether Dalglish (together with his important back-room colleagues Sammy Lee and Steve Clarke) and the team really are capable of putting together such a massively improved second half of the season to clinch a top four spot remains to be seen – certainly the odds are against it and Chelsea’s recent poor form may have been put behind them with a convincing victory over Bolton.
But at least the prospect of it is within the realms of possibility and dreaming now – something inconceivable even only a month ago when the Reds were just four points off the relegation zone, and worse, back in October when languishing in nineteenth position. And at the very least, it seems the chances of a Europa League spot – almost always secured with a top six finish in the league – are vastly increased and could be enhanced further by one or two key signings this month.
The mantra of the very existence of the club is to win trophies – and the Europa League, both this and potentially next season, offers Liverpool a good chance to do just that.
Against Sparta and (should we go through) probably in the next round, it is conceivable that the squad could continue to be rotated, until (if and when) Liverpool reach the latter stages and a trophy seems a tantalisingly close prospect.
Only time will tell just how far Dalglish is capable of leading the club, both in the short and possibly long term.
Some fans would maybe even argue that the position of the team come the end of the season is almost irrelevant now; more important the facts that the club, both on and off the field, are back in good hands.
Such a reaction is understandable after the instability of the past couple of seasons, but is unrealistic in the modern football world – stars such as Fernando Torres need to be playing on the biggest stages of all and, questions of loyalty aside, at least a big step towards keeping the likes of him at the club would be qualification for the Champions League, or showing that we can be capable of doing so given stability and strengthening.
For what it’s worth, for me personally the season is certainly no write-off at this stage and a top four spot is not out of reach yet; nor is the Europa League trophy. Anyone wondering as to the value of this cup need only cast their minds back a year to the disappointment of going out at the semi-final stage, or back ten years to our last exhilarating victory against Alaves.
Liverpool’s season is not over, not by a long shot. A few more wins like we’ve seen in the past week or so and the old confidence could be flowing back through the club in a big way. And who better to lead us through those times than a man who has done it all at this very club?
Remember: Walk on, with hope in your heart.