Have Liverpool turned a corner?

… or does the pain of previous failures or near misses shape your outlook on this seasons title run in?

Having been brought into this world nearly 36 years ago and being decked out in Liverpool kits before I was even aware, there was only going to be one team for me. Obviously I missed the glory years of Liverpool due to my age, but I vaguely remember us winning our last league title in the 1989/90 season. But as a seven year old, I didn’t hold the “Liverpool is my life” mentality that I do now which is bordering on an obsession.

Since our last league win, we have experienced some extreme highs and some extreme lows.

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The upside of being a Liverpool fan

So lets start with the highs that stick out for me………..

The Fa Cup win in 1992 was the first trophy that I really remember being obsessed about us having to win.  Not a great game, but beating Sunderland 2-0 with goals from Michael Thomas and Ian Rush. I thought to myself, this is what winning feels like…..I need more of this in my life.

Then there was the 1995 Coca Cola Cup Final, or as I remember it, The Steve McManaman Final against Bolton. Not spectacular, but another win and another trophy.

Fast forward to the 2000-01 season and the lesser known hattrick of trophies. The League cup final against Birmingham was a painful experience even though we won. The Uefa Cup Final against Alaves was pure madness in a footballing sense and left me feeling ecstatic with the win but confused with what I had just watched. Then there was the FA Cup final against Arsenal. We were outplayed for 80 minutes by an outstanding Arsenal side. We rode our luck and centre back Henchoz proved to be an amazing goalkeeper for us. With 7 minutes remaining and staring at a 1-0 defeat four minutes of madness followed. Michael Owen bagging a brace and celebrating with his cringey roll. But who cares, we have been battered by a Rolls Royce of a team and somehow performed the ultimate smash and grab.

The league cup final win against Man United aside in 2003, the next couple of seasons were pretty drab……but step forward Rafa Benitez and his class of 2004/05. I was made up when we appointed Rafa, having watched his Valencia teams join the party in Spain and beat the likes of Real Madrid and Barca to the league. His Valencia side taught us a real footballing lesson when we played them previously so I was drooling with the prospect of him creating that at Liverpool. He didn’t have the easiest of starts with Michael Owen jumping ship to Real Madrid for pennies (plus Antonio Nunez!!!) and lets be honest we were appalling in the league that year (who can also forget the Djimi Traore pirouette in the FA Cup against Burnley??!!). But it was the Champions League that will forever stay in my memory.

After the initial excitement of being back in it and beating Monaco 2-0 we had some poor results. Apart from an Igor Biscan inspired win away against Deportivo we were quite poor. It was all set up for the last game against Olympiakos at Anfield. Win 1-0 or by two goals if they score and we are through to the knockout stages. Being Liverpool we never make things easy, and when Rivaldo slipped one in from a freekick I feared the worst. Beforehand Gerrard had been interviewed and it was all over the papers that he didn’t want to wake up the next morning having been knocked out and I honestly thought it was going that way. Step up Sinama-Pongolle and Neil Mellor. From nowhere we were back in it, and just needed one more. I remember Gerrard hitting one from range after the whistle had blown and it squirmed under the keeper and over the line. There were half-hearted celebrations as the whistle had already been blown. And then this happened……… “lovely cushioned header, for Gerarrrrrrrrrrd! Ohhhhhhhh you beauty. What a hit son, what a hit!!!!” This iconic moment and bit of commentary by Martin Tyler and Andy Gray still gives me goosebumps whenever I hear it. Everything about it is perfect. Minutes away from going out of the Champions League, the quality of the strike, and the commentary is spot on (even if it is Andy Gray who hates Liverpool, but he can't contain his passion for the game at that moment). This moment is where the Champions League came alive for us that year. Don’t get me wrong, nobody could predict what was to come but when that ball hit the back of the net something shot through my body like a surge.

Fast forward to the knockout stage and Bayer Leverkusen. The way we swept them aside was nothing short of remarkable. How were we rewarded? A mere tie with Juventus…… I was lucky enough to be at Anfield that night and it was rocking. There was a buzz in the air hours before kick off and then the team was announced…….Anthony Le-Tallec…….WTF is Rafa thinking?! Oh how wrong we all were, he played a blinder and before we knew it, we raced into a 2-0 lead with a great finish from Hyypia and an absolute worldie from Luis Garcia. Juventus then clawed their way back in and threatened our goal but Scott Carson thwarted them a couple of times…….until he flapped at a save from Cannavaros header that trickled in. The away goal would normally take the shine of the result but I walked out of Anfield that night feeling invincible. The second leg was painful and some real scares but Rafa had masterminded his way past Juventus. What the fuck is happening here? This team of misfits combined with a few players of quality were starting to make fans believe.

Other teams laughed at us, but there was a belief brewing inside the club. Even getting Chelsea in the semi final, who had walked the league didn’t dampen my hopes. I thought we could do it. The first leg, a 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge with very little action apart from a flying Cech save and a Lampard miss only fuelled my feeling that we could beat them over two legs. 3rd May 2005, and again I was lucky enough to be at Anfield. To date this is still the best atmosphere I have ever experienced. The atmosphere was electric for hours before. Anfield was packed two hours before kick off and you could feel the stadium bouncing. This was the moment…..forget the league results, lets go at them. A few minutes in and it was absolute bedlam, Luis-Garcia’s ghost goal made the stadium erupt. I was there with my Dad and brothers and after the celebrations had died down I looked around and I was nowhere near my seat anymore. I think I had been thrown about 7 or 8 rows forward and one of my brothers had somehow worked his way back by a similar amount of rows. The game then felt like an eternity to finish and then when the 4th official held up the board for added time it felt like the game was never going to end. I can still see Gudjohnsen drilling one in within stoppage time and it flashing past the far post without touching anyone. I felt like I couldn’t breathe at that moment, my hands were sweaty, and then the moment we’d all been waiting for, the final whistle……Anfield erupted again……We were going to the Champions League Final!!!!

25th May 2005 was a big day personally for me, it was my last day at University and I had 3 exams that day and the mighty Reds were about to play in the Champions League Final. The exams were an inconvenience to me as it meant even if I could get tickets I could not go to the final, but my aim was to get the exams done and get out the last one as quick as possible and then get down the pub to cheer on the boys (hopefully a double celebration). The teams were announced………Harry fucking Kewell???? No Didi Hamman???? What is this madness. Then you see the Milan team, Dida, Cafú, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Jaap Stam, Gennaro Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf , Andrea Pirlo, Kaká, Andriy Shevchenko, Hernán Crespo. Fuck me, that’s a who’s who of tried and tested International players. But do you know what?! This may have been the alcohol in my blood talking, but I honestly thought Liverpool with the likes of Jerzy Dudek, Djimi Traore, Steve Finnan, Harry Kewell, Vladimir Smicer, Milan Baros, Josemi, Antonio Nunez & Igor Biscan in our squad could cause a major upset and win. This positivity soon evaporated and we got schooled by Milan for the first 45 minutes. I remember going to the toilet at halftime and actually talking to myself. “What the fuck is this? All that hardwork to get to the final and we are on the verge of embarrassing ourselves. Fuck it, it’s done now, lets just make sure we don’t get embarrassed second half, come on Liverpool”

The second half was just mental. 5 minutes of carnage as Gerrard and Smicer pulled it back to 3-2 and then Gerrard goes down in the box……..The camera pans to Alonso as he waits to take it. It seems like an eternity, he starts licking his lips…..he still hasn’t taken it. Then the doubt kicks in again. “He’s gonna miss” I say to my mate. He does, but my word I’ve never seen Xabi move so fast to smash the rebound in the top cormer. “Fuck me, it’s actually happening, it’s on!!!” Milan looked shellshocked and I felt we needed to hit them again while they were stunned. Riise smashed one in from distance that Dida palmed away. The carnage then died down and Milan got a hold on the game again. The nerves then started to creep in, Traore clearing off the line and then that save by Dudek from Shevchenko in extra time. That was the moment where through a see-saw of emotions I was sure we were going to win it. Into penalties we went and Dudek mustered the ghost of Liverpool goalkeepers past. The moment Dudek saved the penalty from Shevchenko I could not help but cry. Liverpool Football Club, what have you done to me?? The night carried on celebrating the win and also finishing uni. Topped off with me trying to jump on my mates back but actually just flattening him and crashing his chin into the concrete and splitting it open. What a night.

Then the 2006 FA Cup final against West Ham. We go 2-0 down but respond quickly through Cisse. And then Gerrard to pull it level. We surely will go on to win this now……until Konchesky whips a cross in that sails into the top corner over Pepe Reina’s head 3-2. I lost hope with about 5 minutes to go as I thought it was going to be one of those days, and then that man Gerrard smashes the most ridiculous half volley in from so far out that he may aswell have been down the road at the local chippy.I definitely lost my shit again when that went in and beer was flying everywhere. From nowhere Gerrard had dragged us back in. With Pepe’s reputation as a penalty specialist I was confident for the shootout. Pepe redeemed himself and we went on to win. Emotionally that game did me in, but what a feeling to finally win it.

The next trophy just didn’t feel the same. Winning the 2011/12 League Cup on penalties against Cardiff was great as you could see the emotion in King Kenny when we had won, but there was something missing from that one

 

Going and doing a Liverpool….

Now this is not a phrase I like using but it’s one that I have used many times.

There have been some great times being a Liverpool fan, but also some rock bottom times. Liverpool over the years have had the habit of raising our hopes and showing so much promise, convincing us to believe and then pop…..the bubble burst and we all come crashing down as fans.

My first real memory of my heart being broken by Liverpool was the 1996 FA Cup Final. The final against your biggest rivals, one that you can’t bear to lose. First we rock up in those cream suits, looking like a bunch of ballbags, and then we play out one of the worst FA Cup Finals I’ve ever watched. I mean, it was terrible. Matters were only made worse when David James failed to clear a punch properly and it fell to Eric Cantona who just smashed it back in. Like an arrow it went through a crowd of bodies without touching anybody and into the back of the net. Game over……fuck football!

Fast forward to the 2006/07 season where we finished 3rd in the league but again it was about our love affair with the champions league. We steam rolled our way to the semi’s  where again we met Chelsea, this time beating them on penalties at Anfield. AC Milan were waiting for us again in the final. The omens were good, we had improved as a team since the 2005 final and Milan were a very aging team. I honestly thought we would win that game, but although we were the better team, goals from Pirlo and Inzaghi were enough for Milan to beat us with Kuyt snatching a late consolation goal. That felt like a real low moment and it was summed up by Rafa’s rant at the then owners of the club Hicks & Gillett. I suppose the result balanced out 2005 though where Milan were the better team by a mile but lost and then we were the better team on the night in 2007 and lost.

Next was the 2008/09 season. Look at the players we had in the starting line-up. Reina, Carragher, Skrtel, Mascherano, Alonso, Gerrard, Torres, Kuyt. Our first 11 was strong but our squad was weak. But nonetheless we challenged and should have won the league that year. I remember the game away against Fulham in April and Yossi Benayoun scored a late winner in a game that looked like we could play for 4 hours and nobody would score. At that point I believed that we could go on to win the league, and this was intensified when we went to Old Trafford and humiliated United beating them 4-1. In all fairness I believe we won every game after this apart from the 4-4 against Arsenal which pretty much ended our hopes. Our downfall that year was too many draws against the lower clubs that we should have been easily beating. We drew against the likes of Stoke (twice), Wigan, Villa, Fulham, West Ham and Hull. Man United didn’t look back after their Macheda inspired comeback against Villa (I shudder thinking about it now).

Next there was the 2011/12 FA Cup Final against Chelsea. This day was painful for me as at the time I was working for Bedfordshire Police. The day of the final fell on one of my Rest Days but a couple of weeks before the EDL decided they were going to do a march/protest in Luton, so my Rest Day was cancelled and I had to work. My shift was due to finish two hours after kick off so my plan was cut myself off from the world and the watch the game on delayed coverage when I got home. Something just didn’t feel right with this and curiosity was killing me, so I ended up effectively being a zombie for my shift as my mind was elsewhere. “I wonder what the score is?, “I bet we are fucking losing and it’s all my fault because I’m not watching it”. I became very superstitious between 2004 and 2014 when it came to watching Liverpool. I had to watch it live without fail and I had to listen to You’ll Never Walk Alone about 5 times earlier in the day, and I also had things like my lucky pair of boxers that I had to wear. They only stayed lucky until we lost though mind!!!!!

Fast forward to getting home and putting the game on…..we started so slowly and before we knew it we were 2-0 down. It was a really poor performance until Andy Carroll was thrown on. After grabbing one back Carroll was presented with a glorious chance to equalise at the back post. He connected perfectly with the header but it was too close to Cech, but at that point I didn’t care….I was off celebrating. I was sure that the ball had crossed the line and Cech had clawed it back over and onto the bar. It had to be a goal, Carroll was celebrating. “Get the fuck in”. “Hold on, whats happening? They are still playing?!” “Ahhhh fuck off he hasn’t given it”. At that moment, for a short period, football was dead to me, the remaining minutes of the game were just a blur, I was watching but not taking anything in. I was sure that it crossed the line and still now when I see it, the ball looks over the line, but it wasn’t given. To have celebrated so passionately and then to have that feeling snatched from you is demoralising. Why is football so cruel some times?

Onto the 2013/14 season and probably the most painful of our near misses. Brendan Rodgers was in his second season as manager and had us playing some amazing football going forward but we just couldn’t defend. We were top at Christmas but after consecutive defeats to Man City and Chelsea we dropped to 5th for New Years Day. From then we won 14 of the next 16 games (drawing the other two). After our 8th win on the bounce, winning 4-0 against Spurs we went to the top of the league. Suarez, Sturridge and Sterling were flying and we looked unstoppable. I remember counting down each game with nerves and excitement…..6 cup finals to go, 5 cup finals to go, etc… but in the back of my mind and I spoke about this with friends at the time, my gut instinct was we were going to do a Liverpool and fuck it up. Five games to go and City come to Anfield and we win an emotional game 3-2. Gerrard gets a huddle going at the full time whistle and gives it the famous “we don’t let it slip”. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, a tear in my eye. “We are gonna do it you know” I would tell myself, and then that little demon would answer back “you’re gonna fuck it up”.  Fuck off!!!

Three games to go and in roll Chelsea and Mourinho’s bus and delaying tactics. They got under our skin and we all know what happened next. That day right there was when I thought it was over. Forget about the Palace 3-3 draw, all we needed to do was draw with Chelsea and then win the last two and the league was ours. But we didn’t know how to approach the Chelsea game and got Mourinho’d. The only reason we threw it away in the Palace game was because we were going for goal difference and lost all composure. If I see any clips of that Chelsea game, it still hurts. Brendan Rodgers got a lot of stick for how it ended at Liverpool but this season was one hell of a ride and he took us so close to winning the league. Some of the games were unreal.

On the back of that season, and losing Luis Suarez we went into the 2014/15 season with a strike force of Fabio Borinio, Rickie Lambert and Mario Balotelli. Needless to say I was not confident. We were a shambles in the Champions League and our performances in the league were abysmal. We ended up with 62 points that year. Just think about it for a while, we currently have 60 points after only 23 games!! As the season went on our one true hope was the FA Cup and we were paired with Aston Villa in a semi-final showdown. I have never been a fan of the semi’s at Wembley but that’s another story, but nonetheless I was excited to have a ticket for the game and confident we would beat Villa. It all started so well, 1-0 up and looking comfortable, and then we just stopped playing. Benteke was too much for us and we found ourselves 2-1 down. Looking down from the stands it was apparent that we had no plan B, and the players out there just lacked that killer instinct to carry out the plan of a struggling manager. Reckless shots were being fired from ridiculous distances that were never going to trouble Given in goal. Balotelli did manage to put the ball in the back of the net, but was incorrectly ruled offside. I look back at that game now, and I hated it. The cracks were showing in the Rodgers regime and I could not see an upturn in our fortunes. Players were wanting to leave and we were bringing in substandard players. This period of time was a very low moment for the club and the only period that was worse during my time is the horrendous Roy Hodgson era.

The next season started, surprisingly with Rodgers still in charge and no real improvement. I loved everything Rodgers did for us in the 13/14 season, but I’d had enough of him and all his talk of character. The time for change was now. I’d seen rumours of Klopp coming in but took it with a pinch of salt. When it was announced that Rodgers was gone and then confirmed Klopp and his team were coming in, I was ecstatic. I was with my father-in-law at the time (an Arsenal fan) and he said straight away that we would win the league with Klopp in charge. Lets hope he is correct. Immediately it was as if a cloud had been lifted from the club. Nobody expected miracles straight away but from the first minute Klopp oozed class, and looked the perfect fit for the club, and still does. It was going to be a rocky process until he got his players in, but first guiding us to the League Cup Final within a few months of being there was better than I imagined.

Step up Man City in the final. Again, I had my ticket and was bouncing with excitement as I headed down to Wembley. City would be tough but we could do it. We conceded a rubbish goal from a goalkeeping point of view, Mignolet being beaten at his near post. It didn’t look like we were going to get anywhere but then Coutinho grabbed the equaliser and I started to believe again. We actually looked the more threatening after the goal but it just didn’t happen. And then down to penalties. I love them as a neutral but hate them when it means something. Our penalties were shocking as big Willy Caballero made save after save, and once again we are left to watch on as the Liverpool players fall to their knees whilst City players celebrate gleefully. I could not wait to get out of that stadium but stayed to watch City lift the trophy with envy.

Still in the same season the Europa League got interesting when we were drawn against Man United. We wiped them aside at home and then when they were on top at Old Trafford, Coutinho silenced them instantly by scoring a wonder goal. Then came the glamour tie against Klopps former club Dortmund. The first leg was a great result getting a 1-1 draw and then we all know what happened under the lights at Anfield. I am not ashamed to admit that I actually screamed like a girl when Lovren rose the highest to head in the winner that night. You could see that there was something special happening at the club. I thought we were destined to win the Europa League after that night and sneak in the back door to the Champions League. Villareal put up a fight first leg, but were easily beaten in the Semi and then we faced off against Sevilla. This was our chance to win a trophy and get back in to Europe’s elite competition. I was convinced it was going to happen. Half time, 1-0 after a worldie from Sturridge, “this is really going to happen”.  17 seconds later and my world came tumbling down. We just collapsed and were helpless against Sevilla who were relentless. I have never doubted Klopp as our manager and never read too much into his losing record in finals but after that defeat I felt that there was a serious hoodoo over the club. When would it ever end?

The next season I had to get used to ridiculous kick-off times as I moved to Australia but it was enjoyable watching the team come together and qualify for the 2017/18 Champions League. When it started, our performances in the group stage of the tournament were very erratic. Draws at home against Sevilla and away at Spartak Moscow didn’t set the pulses flying. Being 3-0 up at half time away against Sevilla and then drawing 3-3 just felt like the Liverpool way and then throw in a couple of 7-0 wins against Spartak Moscow and Maribor and we qualified through the group. The draw against Porto was favourable but nobody expected us to go and win 5-0 at their place. That is when the belief started running through my veins. Next up was Man City in the quarters and we blitzed them at Anfield. That first half was unbelievable. I had some slight nerves for the second leg which were made worse by Gabriel Jesus scoring so early and them absolutely battering us for the first half. But with Van Dijk now on board we were no longer a pushover. When Salah dinked the ball into the net it was bedlam. About 5:30am and the wife and kids asleep I ran around trying to celebrate silently. Who is going to stop us now when we play like this?! We then got a favourable draw getting Roma in the Semi and that first leg was insane. Going 5-0 up in a semi final was beyond my wildest dreams……and then we did the Liverpool thing, conceding two late goals to very much keep the tie alive. I always thought we had enough for the second leg but I was very twitchy for the last 5 minutes. Don’t do a Liverpool!!!!! So we held on and through to Kiev we were to play Real Madrid.

I genuinely believed that we would go on to beat Madrid and thought I had to go out and watch it somewhere instead of at home on my own. At midnight after an hours sleep I set off on my way into the casino in Sydney to watch it. I was exhausted, but that was irrelevant, I was not going to miss us lifting old big ears for the 6th time. Nothing I saw in the early exchanges of the game convinced me otherwise. We were all over them, and then Salah got injured. At that moment, my arse fell out. And we all know what happened after

This one felt different though. As downhearted as I was in the final stages of the final and immediately after, this feeling soon changed. I had one more pint to drown my sorrows and then headed on my way home. As I stepped out of the casino and into the light of the morning, I felt positive. Positive that this team with this incredible manager was only just getting started on its journey. It was a strange feeling. We had only just lost the biggest final in club football there is, and I only felt down about it for about thirty minutes. We had just lost to the European heavyweight Real Madrid.  Go back and watch that final again, we had them penned in at the start, they looked scared, and then the Salah and Ramos incident happened. Immediately when he went off, you could see the dynamic changed in the game, but we weren’t rolled over. Essentially we were beaten by two absolute howlers by Karius in goal and one worldie from Gareth Bale. Don’t forget we pulled ourselves level after going behind, and at 2-1 we also hit the post with Mane. Things could have been so different……what if Karius didn’t make those horrendous mistakes? What if Salah didn’t get injured? What if Mane’s shot went in off the post? It wasn’t time to look back, it was a time to look forward. Look forward to an exciting time supporting this football club. We had just been thrilled to our limits with our run to the final, and although beaten I was extremely proud of what we had achieved.  It was a strange feeling but I was already looking forward to next season with a few reinforcements.

 

So back to the title of this article. From my personal experience, in recent years I have always had the protective mindset and thoughts that Liverpool are going to fuck it up. Even if it looked impossible to throw away, the demon inside of me would be saying “this is what Liverpool do”. I’m not sure if it was a way of me preparing for the worst and to soften the blow if it does happen, but that thought was always there.

But something has changed, the club has changed. The work Jurgen Klopp has done is immense and I have never been so excited to be a Liverpool fan. I don’t look at games and think we are going to fuck it up anymore. There’s a resilience there, there’s a confidence there. I approach every game with excitement and a little bit of impatience. I am not going around shouting that we are going to win the league, but I am allowing myself to believe.

But if we don’t win it this year then we dust ourselves off and go again next season. This is not the ‘last chance saloon’ that some would have you believe, this is, I believe, the start of something beautiful. Look at our manager, he is the perfect fit for our club. Look at the improvement’s in the squad since Klopp came in and the current players who have all committed with long term deals with no release clause in their contracts. This will only be strengthened further with new recruits in the off season.

It is going to be a long four months, but for now, strap yourself in and enjoy the ride. Enjoy every game of the season. Its going to be an exciting run-in with more potential ups and downs along the way. Recent weeks have proved that we have evolved as a team. Previously we had one style of playing which worked most of the time, but every now and again we were found wanting. But this season we look a different beast. Just looking at recent weeks we have shown we can win in several ways. The performances against Wolves and Brighton where we comfortably control the game from the back and then do enough to grab the win without ever looking stretched is something we have not done before this season. The wins against Bournemouth and Arsenal were pure dominance and ruthless where they just couldn’t cope with us. And Saturdays heart-stopping 4-3 win against Palace showed that we can face up to a challenge when needed. Things looked rough for us at times during that ninety minutes and it was a flashback to the 13/14 season. We were not overly convincing and got our luck along the way, but we walked away with 3 points (Something Man City failed to do against them).

Fifteen games to go. We are four points clear. Next up Leicester City. Don’t dread what could happen, instead look forward to it and embrace it.

BELIEVE