Mark Godfrey

18 for 18, part 9: Liverpool's coming of age?

Mark Godfrey
18 for 18, part 9: Liverpool's coming of age?

PAUL BREEN looks at Liverpool’s reasons to be cheerful after a year that’s seen them become serious and expected title contenders for the first time in a quarter of a century. This is part 9 of our 2018 review - the 18 for 18 series.

The mood music’s changed at Anfield this season. There’s a genuine hope that the great unrequited chase for a Premier League title is coming to an end. Last time Liverpool won the title, MC Hammer’s U Can’t Touch This hadn’t yet charted in the UK. That’s how long ago it was – May 1990 – a time as close to the death of John Lennon as the birth of young stars such as Rhian Brewster. James Milner was four years old and baby Daniel Sturridge a couple of days short of his eighth month of life. Mohammed Salah, born in 1992, wasn’t around in the era of Barnes and Beardsley. Virgil Van Dijk arrived in the world a year after the comparable Alan Hansen lifted Liverpool’s last ever league trophy.

By the time baby Van Dijk arrived in Breda in the summer of 1991, the trophy had passed into the hands of another great centre half. Tony Adams hoisted the trophy aloft for Arsenal, just two seasons since the infamous last-minute smash n’ grab by Michael Thomas. The balance of power had shifted from the Mersey to the Thames – but wasn’t it just a temporary thing? League trophies for most of the eighties belonged in Liverpool, even when loaned to Everton. Surely very soon under Souness, normal service would resume. 

Liverpool’s traditions as a club and as a city demanded success. Back in the Industrial Age, in the days of cotton and slavery, the grand old town was known as ‘The New York of Europe.’ Even as great wars came, and the cigarette ends of Empire burned out, Liverpool refused to lie down and get beaten. This city, built on migration and innovation, carved out a new identity for itself. First, a close first, it became the music capital of Europe, thanks to a band of local boys, mostly with Irish blood in their veins. But by the time The Beatles burst onto the international music scene, something else was happening to shape the city’s new identity.

Another migrant had arrived on the banks of the Mersey; from Ayrshire via Huddersfield. Hard-headed, big-hearted socialist Scotsman Bill Shankly landed at Anfield on a mission. He’d make the place a bastion of invincibility, a fortress of red fire built on characteristics of hard work and a sense of community. Shankly, in a short time, achieved something few managers have ever done in England – even Alex Ferguson, most latterly. He left a legacy that could survive a handover not just to one man in the form of Bob Paisley but to all who followed in the three decades since he first set foot on Anfield’s hallowed turf in 1959.

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Shankly built an empire that kept rising time and time again, even in the face of such modern adversity as Heysel and Hillsborough. That was why, even as the empire began to unravel with the rise of old rivals Leeds and then Manchester United, Liverpool fans held true to a belief that form is temporary, class is permanent. The league was on loan. You could even say it was almost back home in the season Kenny Dalglish took hold of it for Blackburn Rovers. But as the 90s gathered speed, the title never came home. A new generation of Spice Boys had sprouted from the seeds of Shankly’s dying legacy. The league had a new name – ‘Premier’ and maybe even a new soundtrack – ‘The Leaving of Liverpool.’

By the mid-noughties, Liverpool’s 18 titles had faded out of view, out of history even, as the pendulum moved back and forth between London and Manchester. The Leaving of Liverpool was surely in full swing. But unlike in that song, where the narrator’s heading off to California, America was on its way to Anfield – a venture capitalist America in the form of private equity investors. Hopes were high at the start when Tom Hicks and George Gillett rode into town, less than a year after Rafa Benitez led the club to their fifth crown as champions of Europe, on limited resources.

Though they provided money for such signings as Fernando Torres, by the time they left the great club was on its knees. At home games, even the politest of banners read – “Built by Shanks, broken by Yanks.” By the end, Benitez seemed broken too – beaten down by always being left a couple of key players short. Maybe things would have been different with the artistry of a Salah or Suarez alongside Torres, Gerrard and Alonso. And yet, at the same time, Benitez’s transfers were more Souness than Shankly. Even his finest moment in Istanbul on the May 25th, 2005 came at the helm of a team largely shaped by Gérard Houllier. So many times, so many promises of final pieces in the jigsaw – and it turned out to be more of a Mark Gonzalez than a Mo Salah.

Then, in October 2010, the Fenway Sports Group took charge of Liverpool Football Club, under the control of John W. Henry, another investment manager, but a more sports-minded one. Though there were teething problems in terms of performance, something that was seemingly lost had returned to Liverpool. If not the League title, at least hope and a sense of fans getting their club back again. The return of Kenny Dalglish, their prodigal son, solidified this sense of Shankly’s club, their club coming back to the fore. Ultimately though despite flashes of success and a return to silverware, the past couldn’t be brought back to life. The days of John Toshack couldn’t be reincarnated in the form of Andy Carroll. The game had moved on, dominated by managers such as Arsène Wenger and José Mourinho, alongside the great Sir Alex Ferguson who’d been able to shift and change with the demands of the time.

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Though Brendan Rodgers had a short spell in which he almost ended the title famine at the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough, Henry’s Liverpool wasn’t yet the finished article. Even if Suarez, Sterling and company had won the League in 2014, it may have been more of a ‘Leicester’ or a ‘Leeds’ than when Manchester United first set the tone for dominance in the early 90s. Liverpool needed something else, something more to have a serious chance of being contenders, winning a title and staying as contenders.

That missing ingredient wouldn’t come in the form of a Robbie Keane or Gareth Barry, the one that famously slipped away with the last throws of Rafa’s dice. Instead, in line with Liverpool’s proud tradition of being shaped by migration, they’d find new hope in the form of another migrant with an infectious passion for the game. One from a place slightly further away than a pit village in Ayrshire but somebody whose values echoed those of Shankly – of laying foundations for success by building a club and culture from the ground up, recognising the history of the club as bigger than him, but never the fans.   

Jürgen Klopp turned up in Liverpool in October 2015, fresh off the boat after a short break from football, having established a reputation at Borussia Dortmund. Labelling himself ‘The Normal One’ from the outset, he set about the task of bringing glories back to Liverpool, of making Anfield a bastion of invincibility once again. Sharp-witted and self-deprecating at times, he infused confidence into a team built by Brendan Rodgers, getting back to its best. By the end of the season they’d have reached two finals, losing both – first a League Cup to Manchester City and then a Europa League final where they were beaten by Sevilla without ever getting into gear.

Much was expected of Klopp’s second season though he was short on major signings, seeming to concentrate on style instead. Sadio Mane, on reflection, was the stand out signing of that first summer transfer window which also saw the captures of Loris Karius, Joel Matip, Ragnar Klavan and Georginio Wijnaldum. The team he put together finished in the top four, qualifying for the Champions League. In his second transfer window, though fans cried out for concentration on the defence, he spent £34million on Mohammed Salah and a further £35million on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Alongside these, he brought in Andy Robertson and Dominic Solanke. Though the former, bought from Hull, turned out to be a bargain on a par with the days of Shankly and Paisley, the lack of defensive strength and cover haunted Liverpool through the early season.

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Come January though, Virgil Van Dijk – all six foot, four inches and £75million worth – stepped into the heart of the Liverpool defence. As the giant Dutchman took on the mantle last worn by Alan Hansen, Robertson relived another Liverpool tradition of great Scottish defenders from Alex Raisbeck through to Billy Liddell and Ron Yeats, all the way to Steve Nicol. Further up the field, Salah was having the season of his life, playing as a piece of poetry in motion, scoring goals to grace 18 title winning seasons, never mind one of battling to get into the top four. Suspicions were though that to some extent he was carrying a not-quite-perfected team with his season of superhuman efforts.   

Come the end of the season and the Champions League final against Real Madrid, the team’s flaws would be highlighted in the cruelest of fashions. First, Salah got injured by what looked like a wrestling move from the streetwise Sergio Ramos. Without a bench comparable to Madrid’s, Liverpool’s confidence wilted. Next, in the biggest game of his life, Karius made himself an eternal meme in the story of goalkeeping howlers. Liverpool lost and ended another season trophyless.

So why then have they come into this one with such confidence that things can be different? First, in the summer, maybe even for the first time, Jürgen Klopp has directly tried to address the flaws, rather than staying faithful to what he has as if to prove a point. Maybe he’s learned lessons from the latter-day failings of Arsène Wenger in refusing to recognise when major change was needed. His pursuit of Van Dijk, despite such a hefty price tag, had already shown willingness to compromise in the face of change. Adding the signature of Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson Becker for the grand sum £56million proves further intent.

Similarly, the arrival of Fabinho, Xherdan Shaqiri and Naby Keïta (after a year’s wait) has brought a new depth to a squad that seemed so threadbare when facing its moment of reckoning against Real Madrid just a few months before. Liverpool at last look to have a team that can compete on several fronts and win ugly if they have to, which again isn’t an expected Klopp characteristic. Not even a traditional Liverpool characteristic but one the fans will accept if it means an end to the title famine – especially in those times Salah struggles to reproduce last season’s super heroics.

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Of course, this isn’t all down to Klopp and the football migrants he has brought to Anfield. The fact is that John W. Henry has provided funding where previous owners could not or would not. Aside from this, Klopp’s transfers have been astute. Maybe in the old times, Bill Shankly or Bob Paisley would have seen Van Dijk’s potential in his Celtic days and snapped him up before he ever went to Southampton. But that was before Klopp’s time. He had to pay market value, and in today’s market he has got value for money – in a different way to that of Andrew Robertson.

He’s also made the most out of young players coming through such as Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez, with others following close behind. For some this may be a season too soon; as for Liverpool’s title ambitions in general, it might well be 2020 before the dream of bringing home the League gets realised, with one season’s experience of a genuine challenge and the return of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to the squad. But whenever it is, maybe the title of football’s first city is coming home to Liverpool.     

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