Just four games: Liverpool's 19th title
Four games is what separates Liverpool and a 19th title. That’s something I never believed I would see so soon after Brendan Rodgers came to the club. Growing up that elusive title never came. There were some signs if you could call it that under Roy Evans, Gérard Houllier and Rafa Benítez but when push came to shove and questions were being asked of those players and teams, Liverpool would dwindle and fade away. But not this Liverpool team.
While the Manchester clubs (mainly United), Arsenal and Chelsea were lifting the Premier League, Reds fans could always be proud that the club held the record for league titles, until Sir Alex Ferguson’s United managed to win their 20th title. Liverpool still have the five European Cups. But the tide is changing. Sir Alex is gone and his successor is finding out what every Liverpool manager since 1991 quickly found out, expectations of a club’s past glories can weigh heavy but what we’ve witnessed in the past few months suggests that one ‘cycle’ is about to end and another about to begin.
Exactly 50 years ago, Liverpool won the league title, the old Division One championship, with the record breaking goal-scoring partnership of Ian St. John and ‘Sir’ Roger Hunt, - the last time a strike-pairing at Anfield hit 20 goals each in a single season. That was also the start of the glory years for Liverpool, when Bill Shankly won his first league title, what the legendary and larger than life Scotsman from the coal-mining village of Glenbuck called the club’s ‘bread and butter’, - Liverpool have been starving for 24 years, and this side built by Rodgers with Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, just as St John and Hunt before them, look hungrier than ever for the league.
As I collect my thoughts after what I witnessed in Liverpool’s 10th successive victory on an emotive and moving day at Anfield, from the immaculately observed one minute silence, to the attacking play of Raheem Sterling, Suarez and Sturridge and the roar of the Kop that accompanied them when the Reds drove forward, evoking images from the heydays of the 1970s and 1980s, of Steve Heighway, Terry McDermott, and Kenny Dalglish, or Peter Beardsley, John Barnes and Ian Rush.
Even during the 2008/2009 season, the last time that the league looked a real possibility, with a side which featured Steven Gerrard, Xavi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Dirk Kuyt, and Fernando Torres, and despite the 4-1 win at Old Trafford, 1-0 at Stamford Bridge, the countless times I remember they had to wait for last minute goals to win the points, at the Emirates, Fratton Park, and Craven Cottage, by the turn of the year, Rafa’s boys were doing the chasing and fell four points short, and that team lost only twice that whole season.
This time it’s different, top of the table with four games left and destiny in their own hands. So close that everyone connected to the club knows that this could be it, as the Liverpool captain Gerrard put it, in his post-match speech, a rallying call, to his team-mates huddled together in the centre of the pitch that was caught by television cameras and picked up by microphones after the hard-fought 3-2 victory on Sunday, “This does not f**king slip now. Listen to me, this does not f**king slip. Listen, listen, this is gone. We go Norwich, exactly the same, we go again. Come on!”
Gerrard knows more about the club and its ongoing tussle for the title than anyone and more importantly what it means to the fans. Falling on the 25th anniversary of Hillsborough made the day even more personal and poignant for the captain from Huyton. His cousin Jon-Paul Gilhooley was the youngest of the 96 Liverpool fans who lost their lives on that day. The tears and emotions at the final whistle were for his cousin, Gerrard has mentioned in his autobiography that he plays for Jon-Paul.
Gerrard is a player that has the life blood of Liverpool Football Club running and pumping through his veins. He’s won everything in the game, League Cups, FA Cups, Charity Shield, Super Cup, UEFA Cup and the Champions League. He gave us moments that will live forever, the goal against Olympiacos, the double in the ‘Gerrard Cup Final’ in Cardiff and that perfectly directed header that fired the fight-back in Istanbul, moments that I for one will never forget until the day I die. But while those memories are forever imprinted in the thoughts of the fans and trophies have their place on the shelf of the club’s trophy cabinet, the league has been the one that Gerrard has wanted to win in his career more than anything. At 33, he knows this maybe his last chance.
I remember first watching the young 18-year-old Gerrard, skinny looking little kid from Huyton, in a UEFA Cup tie against Celta Vigo. It was his first start and he was booked for a sliding tackle on an opponent, something that would become part of his game throughout his playing career. He looked nothing like the legend he has become, nor did anyone expect him to play over 600 games and score more goals than King Kenny and have over 100 caps at international level, let alone captain both his club and country. However despite having the talent, some would say natural, but he had to work on his game, an example to any young player wanting to make his name in the game and he continues to play with the same fire, fervour, and enthusiasm which I first witnessed in his early years.
His ability to play in any position on the pitch has benefited him and Liverpool, he made his debut coming on for a right back, asked to play on the right and defend and was destined for a defensive role in midfield (but that was to come), for a time he played on the left under Houllier and had a prolific season when Rafa Benitez forced him out onto the right wing, to the player’s abhorrence and played as a second striker in ‘the Torres years’ (but the less we speak about that the better).
Then Brendan Rodgers came to Anfield, and the veteran captain was moved to a deeper position, a role that he was first earmarked for when he forced himself into the first team 16 years ago. Everything seemed to click into place this season. His career has come full circle or ‘cycle’ in the view of his manager and now the title is for the taking.
The Liverpool captain, a lifelong LFC supporter, is doing everything humanly possible to lift the Premier League, and with every blade of grass he covers on the field, every Liverpool fan knows their captain – the human embodiment of the club on the pitch – is just like one of them, dreaming and fighting on the field for a 19th title. Just four more games, we still dream. “We go Norwich, exactly the same, we go again. Come on!”