Make Us Dream, They Dared to Dream, We Go Again and Poetry In Motion, these are all titles of some of the books you can buy this Christmas and they all tell the same story.
A plucky underdog rises from relative obscurity, dispatches all before them before a fatal slip brings them crashing back to earth. The books are about Liverpool’s season 2013-14 season, each a celebration of the club almost winning the league.
It would be interesting to see what authors would title books based solely on Liverpool’s 2014. This year the club went from 11 victories in a row to winning one in eight, from the explosive genius of Luis Suárez to the frustration and mediocrity of Mario Balotelli. The cusp of the league title in May to crashing out of the Champions League and struggling in the Premier League as the year closes. Brendan Rodgers going from winning manager of the year to admitting he may be the first top-flight boss to get sacked this season.
No football club has had as polarising a year as Liverpool.
The club entered 2014 on the back of consecutive losses to Manchester City and Chelsea, but sat in fourth spot and on course to meet their primary aim of Champions League qualification. However, following the stunning 5-1 victory over Arsenal at the beginning of February, Liverpool set off on an incredible run of form, an emotional rollercoaster that reached its crescendo against Manchester City in April.
On the weekend of the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, Liverpool won 3-2 to go five points clear of Chelsea in second place, and seven clear of City, although both had games in hand.
Yet with the sight of the Kop in full voice as a tearful, exhausted Steven Gerrard passionately addressed his team, and with just four games remaining, it seemed destined for Liverpool to win their first league crown in 24 years. But then the most unlikely title victory in Premier League history was dashed as cruel fate intervened. Jose Mourinho, Tony Pulis and the most unfortunate of slips from Gerrard tore up the romantic script.
‘What leaps off the page,’ BBC journalist Ben Smith said of Make Us Dream, ‘is the feeling of reclamation, the feeling of a city and a football club finding harmony’. However, seven months after daring to dream, the club and its fans have awoken to a uncertain and frustrating reality.
Last season’s harmony is long gone, departing, ironically, with Suárez, the most inharmonious of figures. Like Alex Ferguson it appears, through genius and ruthless determination, one man was capable of lifting an entire team to another level. If Suárez was Liverpool’s equivalent of Ferguson, then the club signed a team of David Moyes’ in the summer.
That ‘feeling of reclamation’ that grew in the final months of last season now seems like a cruel tease for fans. Liverpool’s shot at the title seemed to be the beginning of a return to the glory years. The team represented the club the fans believe Liverpool were and should still be. A club that wins titles and plays attractive attacking football, led by a talismanic genius and an articulate, innovative manager. However, as the year ends, nothing has been reclaimed.
Before Liverpool’s opening game of the season, the manager dismissed suggestions the side would struggle without their departed talisman. Rodgers has been right to champion the team’s qualities, and his ambitions have been somewhat thwarted by the long-term injury to striker Daniel Sturridge. However, there is no escaping the questions surrounding Rodgers’ management of the side. Just as the first half of 2014 seemed to convey Rodgers coaching ability, eye for a player and tactical acumen, this season has suggested the opposite.
Liverpool’s defence was weak last season and the manager has seemingly done little to fix the problems. At almost every defensive set-piece Martin Skrtel grabs his opponent’s jersey instead of attacking the ball, the defender is like a drowning man, frantically attempting to pull himself to safety. His erstwhile partner, £20 million summer signing Dejan Lovren, has struggled to the point where veteran Kolo Toure looks a more calming influence. Liverpool’s defence has underperformed and looks completely devoid of confidence, but there is little sign they are working from a cohesive plan.
Despite the much-maligned ‘transfer committee’ Liverpool employ, Rodgers is ultimately responsible for the team’s performances. He apparently has the power of veto over any signing and is meant to be one of the game’s brightest coaches. Circumstances, such as injuries, a busted flush of a goalkeeper and the decline of Gerrard, have gone against the manager. But such events can be the making of a coach, the ability to adjust in situations of ill-fortune.
He has shown signs of adapting in the past, but it is as though there have been three versions of Rodgers at Liverpool. Year One was filled with buzzwords of footballing philosophy, ‘death by football’. Year Two the team was more reactive, playing their best football when breaking fast up the pitch. For the majority of this season, though, it has been hard to recognise any plan.
Just as the fans seem to suffering for their exuberance over last season’s false dawn, Rodgers is paying for some of his comments over the last year. Saying it is ‘easy’ to organise a defence, following Liverpool’s loss to Chelsea in April, reflects poorly on him when one watches Liverpool hopelessly attempt to defend. Deriding Tottenham Hotspur last season for not challenging for the league after spending £100million on new players may now bring a wry smile to some faces, but for Liverpool fans it must sting.
Before Liverpool’s opening game of the season at to Southampton, the manager said: ‘People in football say that it might have been our best chance to win the league, but this year might be our best chance. We will have more belief. We will be stronger this season’. Needless to say, the team have not been stronger in any way. 2014 offered a glimpse at the club Liverpool want to be, but also an image of what the club will be in the immediate future, and it is troubling.
For all of Rodgers’ mishaps, Liverpool’s poor performances and the departure of Suárez, the club have been in this situation before. When tasked with building on success, they have taken one step forward, only to then take two steps backwards. Liverpool finished second in 2001-02 season, ahead of Manchester United for the first time in the Premier League era, having won a cup treble the previous year. That summer El Hadji Diouf, Salif Diao and Bruno Cheyrou arrived and subsequently flopped, becoming by-words for poor transfer dealings. The club exited the Champions League early and finished fifth in the league. Within two years manager Gerrard Houllier had departed and Liverpool were back at square one.
Seven years later, Rafa Benitez’s side also finished second and went into the transfer market in a position of strength. Midfield dynamo Xabi Alonso left for Real Madrid, but the club signed Alberto Aquilani to replace the Spaniard and had Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard at the peak of their abilities. Liverpool began the 2009-10 season as favourites for the title. The summer signings made no impact as the team finished seventh and crashed out the Champions League in the group stage.
However, the immediate problems facing Liverpool go deeper than Rodgers. In an era of petro-dollar fuelled football clubs, and the new Galactico transfer policy of commercial juggernauts Manchester United, a club like Liverpool simply cannot afford to make mistakes in the transfer market. A club that has just spent over £100 million in the transfer market should not currently look like they need to spend another £100 million.
Just as Liverpool were stronger in the second half of last season, Rodgers will be hoping for a similar upturn in 2015. However, qualifying for the Champions League, the objective at the start of the season, seems unlikely, putting Rodgers at risk of the same fate as predecessors Houllier and Benitez.
In modern football, titles are won by commercial leviathans or clubs pumped with petro-dollars. Competing with this giants is hard enough without Liverpool’s many mishaps.
If Liverpool dared to dream in the first half of 2014, and the final six months has been a rude awakening, 2015 could represent a frustrating reality.