LIVERPOOL: WE ARE BACK ON OUR PERCH
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
- The Christmas Hymnal “O Little Town of Bethlehem”
On that fateful night in May 1990 when Kenny Dalglish held aloft the then first division diadem before it mutated to the Premier League and a change of trophy in 1992, no one could have predicted that the 18th title held aloft that night would be the last for thirty years. But in the reality of our existence as a club, it is exactly thirty years now that Liverpool last won the League title – a title that was its bread and butter until then. Even this League win was delayed by at least three months. In the process, Liverpool broke two records that would otherwise be an antithesis of each other. We became the team to break the record of earliest to clinch the League title (by match day) and simultaneously the latest to clinch it (by calendar date). It was a memorable day in June. I subconsciously broke into the Christmas hymnal “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight) when Chelsea stopped Manchester City on that fateful day. Then we had to wait for another month until last night to lift the trophy. It was like waiting for a long longed after Christmas gift.
It was a harrowing thirty years of heartache, toil, sweat, blood, death and tragedy laced with moments of brilliance and unbridled happiness. The League remained elusive and by the twentieth year in 2010 it became the Holy Grail upon which all will seemingly rise and fall at Liverpool. All efforts since 1990 ultimately fell short of winning the title and the 2008-2009, 2013-2014 and 2018-2019 seasons stood out. In the first of those seasons, Liverpool became the only team to lose only two matches amassing 86 points and did not win the League. In the second of those seasons, Liverpool came within a Steven Gerrard slip of claiming its first Premier League title playing some of the best and most scintillating brand of football the League had ever seen. In the third of those seasons, Liverpool lost only one match amassed 97 points and yet did not win the League. That has never happened in the history of European football and the modern game. In these three seasons along with the 1996-1997 season Liverpool led the League by Christmas and yet failed to win it in May of the following year when curtains were drawn on the hitherto erstwhile season. In all that time every other team that had led the League by Christmas went on to win it at the end of the season. You will forgive us if we started feeling despondent and helpless.
It does appear even before 1990 that Liverpool and tragedy had a thing or two in common. There was Brussels in May 1985. Liverpool and the old Lady of Italian football, Juventus of Turin squared up in the Final of the old European Cup (now rechristened Champions League) at the dilapidating Heysel stadium in Brussels, Belgium. It was an era when hooliganism defined football and violence was a staple in English football epitomized by fans of Clubs like Millwall and to a large extant Liverpool fans. Thirty Nine lives were lost when following an altercation between Liverpool and Juventus fans a section of the Stadium wall collapsed; majority of the dead were Juventus fans. God rest their souls. This earned English Clubs a Five year ban from European Competition and in Liverpool’s case for Six years. When the ban was lifted in 1992, it took Liverpool whose powers had declined by then another Ten years to get to the Champions League in 2002.
Still tragedy dogged this great Club like a Siamese twin. Long before 1989 when Hillsborough happened, dilapidated grounds in the English game had become an issue of grave concern. Grounds were old and needed renovation or outright rebuild, standing areas were overcrowded without much thought for public safety and health implications. The conservatives led by Margaret Thatcher did not think much of the game which was still largely a community or working class elixir. Their attitude towards the game was at best lukewarm. Something had to give and it had happened to do so on a night Liverpool showed up at Hillsborough, Sheffield Wednesday’s ground to take on Nottingham Forest in an FA Cup semi final in April 1989. It had to be Liverpool. The stadium and the standing terraced areas were full to capacity and the stadium handlers even at that kept letting people in. Talk of a tragedy foretold!
The tie started as scheduled but what happened next was unimaginable and remains the biggest tragedy in British sporting history and it further accentuated the uneasy relationship the rest of England has with the City of Liverpool which considers itself Scouse first, English second. At the Leppings Lane end of Hillsborough crowds surged crushing Liverpool fans against the high fence barricades which separated the pitch from the stands across grounds in England at that time. The Police were unimpressed whilst this was happening; the fans cry for help was not immediately appreciated as it was probably overlooked as another crowd trouble. This led to delays in emergency response.
When the authorities eventually acted, it was too late. Ninety Six Liverpool fans, all Scousers lay dead. Ninety Six! Ninety Six!! Ninety Six!!! Ninety Six men, women and children went to a game and never returned home. Imagine the trauma, the loss, the vast emptiness, the world that ended. Ninety Six Scousers dreams died at Leppings Lane, amongst them the youngest to die at Hillsborough, Jon Paul-Gilhooley, the then Ten years old older cousin of Steven Gerrard, the man who arguably became the greatest Liverpool player ever. The rest of England led by the infamous Sun Newspapers blamed the dead! The families of the dead to their eternal credit did not rest and they fought for justice for the Ninety Six until the year 2016, Twenty Seven years after when the Courts ruled and all of England accepted that the Ninety Six were unlawfully killed when the authorities did not do their job that tragic day at Hillsborough as it was determined that police errors in planning, defects at the stadium and delays in the emergency response all contributed to the disaster. The behavior of Liverpool fans was not to blame.
The tragedy that was Hillsborough took its toll on everything Liverpool. In less than two years Kenny Dalglish was gone. The many funerals he had to attend, the grieving families he had to comfort, the leadership he had to show at that unimaginable time of tragedy took its toll. He could not bear the physical, emotional, mental and psychological torture anymore. Without warning the Club called that impromptu press conference in 1991, his resignation announced and the great Dalglish was gone. Liverpool continued the Boot Room tradition by appointing Greame Souness to succeed him in 1991. Greame Souness was a great midfielder and servant for Liverpool but he changed too much too soon. He let experience go and the young players though good had not yet honed the winning mentality of the giants Liverpool were. The team was aging and signs of decline already showing. Still people at the Club did not even think it will take three years how much more 30 long years to regain the title.
Then Souness made the fatal mistake. He granted an exclusive interview in April, 1992 on the third anniversary of the Hillsborogh disaster to the Sun newspapers which had been declared public enemy number one on Merseyside on account of the despicable lies the newspaper told about Liverpool fans in the wake of Hillsborough. That was the beginning of the end. Many even said he was paid for the interview. The Liverpool faithful never forgave him. Matters did not improve on the pitch. It was only about when not if such that by 1994 when he was sacked no one raised an eyebrow. In came Roy Evans as a readymade replacement in the famous boot room tradition. Souness has since apologized and put the 1992 interview incident down to a fatal error of judgment.
May be this was the time to jettison the boot room tradition! But old habits die hard. The appointment of Roy Evans as already noted followed the boot room tradition. Since Bill Shankly in 1959, everyone who led Liverpool was of the boot room and has been at Anfield or had a strong connection to Anfield since the man who built Liverpool into the modern force it became set foot at the Club’s Melwood training ground. Evans inherited a crop of talented young stars: Steve Mcmanaman, Robbie Fowler, Jamie Redknapp and a host of others were as talented as Sir Alex Ferguson’s crop of the time but their mentality and professionalism was not quite on par with that of Manchester United as perceived by football aficionados. Unfortunately the infamous Armani cream suits they wore at the 1996 FA Cup final at Wembley which they lost 1 – 0 to Manchester United cemented their spice boys’ image. Roy Evans’ team was good, they played attractive football and by Christmas of 1996 they were top of the League but things quickly changed. They lost the League to Manchester United eventually. As much as Roy Evans tried, he was never going to win the battle as the French revolution was catching on at Arsenal with the appointment of the Frenchman, Arsene Wenger in 1996 from Nagoya Grampus 8 in Japan to take over the reins at Highbury.
The World was changing rapidly and so was football. The French flavor was irresistible following the instant success of Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger in North London and by 1998 Liverpool brought in the Frenchman Gerrard Houllier, who had just won the League in France with Lyon but made the fatal mistake of designating him joint manager with Roy Evans. Nothing up to this point illustrates more than this; that Liverpool has lost its way and has become desperate for any modicum of success including adopting a model that could clearly never work in football. The partnership lasted a few months and Houllier out rightly replaced Roy Evans in the latter part of 1998. He set Liverpool on a new cause and there was renewed hope with his continental approach that Liverpool would finally find success in the premier League after the team won the three Cup competitions on offer in 2001 and were back in the Champions League places but yet again by Christmas of 2001, even though Liverpool led the League at various points Houllier was diagnosed with cancer. By the time he was well enough to retake the reins at Anfield in the new year of 2002, Liverpool had slipped badly and ultimately lost the League to Arsenal. From then on, Liverpool limped on for another two years with Houllier at the helm.
Football meanwhile had changed in other more profound ways but Liverpool was badly let down by those who led the Club at the time. Since the premier League was created in 1992, the commercial aspect of the game took on a new significance. If you were going to be successful, you would need a lot of money and brand recognition. Manchester United recognized this and took instant advantage. They went to great length to develop their commercial brand coinciding with their sustained period of success. They minted the cash and became as big as any sporting institution in the world whilst Liverpool doodled. By the time the David Moores family which owned Liverpool woke up to this reality, it was too late as we had fallen too far behind. We literally fell off our perch ourselves when we did not do the right things at critical times in the years since 1990. Sir Alex Ferguson did not knock us off our perch. We fell off it. At any rate, we are back on that perch now.
By 2004, it became clear that Liverpool needed a shot in the arm in the coaching department and Rafa Benitez represented that in all ramifications even though Liverpool also casted envious glances at the then emergent Portugese whizkid, Jose Mourinho who arrogantly christened himself “the special one” when he made West London his new home bankrolled by the billions of the Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich. Rafa Benitez had just ended the reign of a dominant Madrid in Spain with then minnows Valencia with two back to back La Liga wins after 44 years of waiting with a EUFA Cup win added to the mix. He arrived at Anfield with not much pomp as we had become wary of too many false dawns. For where Liverpool were when he arrived, success probably came too soon for him as he won the Champions League in his first season with a very unremarkable team against probably the best team that ever played in the Champions League final in AC Milan. That iconic Final in 2005 is largely considered the best Champions league final ever as an unfancied Liverpool team came from 3 goals down in a first half capitulation to tie it 3-3 in an extra-ordinary 6 minutes spell shortly after the restart and eventually nicked it on penalties after extra time.
The legend of Istanbul has been told, retold and will be told again and again in a million pages in newspaper columns. Rafa went on to build a good team over four years winning an FA cup that was christened the Gerrard final in 2006 in as dramatic a fashion as the miracle of Istanbul. Gerrard scored the goal seen by many as one of the best goals ever seen in any Competition’s final history. Those two early wins in the Rafa era set Liverpool up nicely for what many believed would be years of success but we reckoned without the American cowboy owners of Liverpool: George Gillett and Tom Hicks to whom David Moores sold the Club in 2007. Still Rafa’s Liverpool were arguably the best team in the premier League in the 2008-2009 season and came agonizingly close to winning the title losing only two matches whilst beating United and Chelsea, their main rivals for the title home and away only to fall shot by four points in the end. By this time the civil war at Anfield between the two owners themselves and between them and Rafa had reached a crescendo over failed promises to invest in the playing personnel on the field and problems of funds and lack of trust off it.
By 2009, a once proud sporting institution of excellence had been brought down on its knees. Liverpool faced administration on account of the debt piled on it by the American owners who borrowed against the assets of the Club to acquire it in 2007. They did nothing about the urgent need for a new and bigger stadium or an improved and expanded Anfield even though they promised that “the spade has to be in the ground within 60 days” of their acquisition of the Club. They stripped the Club, sold our best players and the money made available to Rafa was inadequate to replenish the playing squad. The Royal Bank of Scotland was owed 237,000,000.00 Million Pounds and Liverpool was bleeding. Sir Martin Broughton, Chairman of British Airways and a Chelsea fan was brought in by the owners to save Liverpool and find a new owner. Things quickly unraveled. Rafa’s once brilliant team played poorly and he was eventually relieved of his job in the summer of 2010. To his credit, Broughton did a great job of finding new owners for Liverpool albeit after a needless High Court case in London brought by Gillett and Hicks to stop the sale. The New England Sports Ventures (NESV) which later became Fenway Sports Group (FSG) bought the Club for 300,000,000.00 Million Pounds on October 15th 2010.
The venture capitalists out of Boston and owners of Boston Red Sox in America led by John W. Henry unlike the former regime proved to be responsible owners. They made mistakes but they quickly learnt from them and moved on. They sanctioned the appointment of Roy Hodgson who was a bad fit. They brought in Damian Comolli who brought in Andy Carroll from Newcastle United in an all round bad deal albeit cushioned by the sale of a waning Fernando Torres to Chelsea for 50,000,000.00 Million Pounds. Roy Hodgson was to last only six months and the cavalry in the King, Sir Kenny Dalglish was summoned to the rescue in the autumn of 2011 for a second spell at Anfield at a time we were languishing in the bottom half of the League table. The serial winner that is Dalglish won a League Cup by the time he bowed out in the summer of 2012 to be replaced by Brendan Rodgers who had distinguished himself at newly promoted Welsh team, Swansea, the season before.
Brendan Rodgers talked the good talk at the beginning. His first season was just there. Then the team exploded in the second season playing some of the most exciting and exhilarating brand of football the premier league had ever seen but defensive frailty plagued the team all season. That team was built on the brilliance of Luis Suarez, the assured swashbuckling forward play of Daniel Sturridge, the mercurial midfield wizardly of Phillip Coutinho and Captain Steven Gerrard (Mr. Liverpool) who all season long in the twilight of his career played a blinder from a slightly further back midfield position you would call a quarterback in American football. Then came that unfortunate day in the run-in in April, 2014. Chelsea arrived at Anfield and Liverpool needed only a draw. Against an old wily fox in Mourinho, the naivety and inexperience of Brendan Rodgers showed as he went gungho for the win when all he needed was a draw to firmly stay in it. In an irony of the cruelest sort, the great man, the man who needed it most, Steven Gerrard slipped and Liverpool lost the title that night. In the end Manchester City triumphed by two points. Of all Liverpool’s near misses, that was particularly galling as the team imploded the following season as the departing Luis Suarez was not properly replaced. Brendan Rodgers who never regained his mojo was gone in October of 2015.
The malignant hand of fate is written all over that loss to Chelsea in 2014! How do you explain that it was to be Steven Gerrard, the man who single handedly dug Liverpool out of a thousand holes all his career who would uncharacteristically slip and deny us the chance to end what was a 24 year wait at the time? I do not know how he dug himself out of that dark place to become the successful coach he is at Rangers in the Scottish League today with a not inconsiderable chance of taking the reins at Anfield in future. Perhaps this is the greatest testimony to the character, resilience and greatness of the man who has taken his lack of a premier League medal in an otherwise brilliant career in his stride.
The pain of the 2014 loss was acute but then you wonder what the alternatives would have been. In all likelihood, if we won that League title, Juergen Klopp may not have walked through the doors of Anfield in October, 2015. If that means we would not be Premier League Champions, European Champions, European Super Cup winners and World Club Champions today we would never know. In classic Liverpool fashion this current win was almost truncated by the global pandemic Covid – 19 which led to the suspension of the league in March and many feared the League may never be concluded and in those moments when the Premier League considered what to do there were fears and palpable danger that the League may be declared “null and void” as a vociferous minority clamored. The thirty year wait may well have continued if the FA acted irresponsibly. In those moments we waited with berthed breath and thought why always us! But in the end, all ended well. As we celebrate, we continue to spare a thought for all those who lost their lives to the still ravaging dreaded pandemic that is Covid -19 and the loved ones they have left behind to mourn them.
The work the German did in five years is staggering. It is nothing short of phenomenal. He is now favourably compared to the great Bill Shankly. In reaching three successive European finals, winning one and coming from the disappointment of a 97 point League season losing only once and yet not winning the League to do so the following season at a canter with Seven matches to spare and breaking all records imaginable in the process is the stuff of legend. This epochal achievement may or may never be equaled but in ending Liverpool’s thirty year wait for the title he broke new grounds, brought joy back to Anfield and a spring in the steps of all Liverpool fans the world over. It is even more remarkable that he did this in a sensible, sustainable and regenerative manner bringing back the old values of the club that should ensure continued success for the foreseeable future. This man’s humane and winning steeliness at all times did it for us. In no other world but in Klopp’s world does Liverpool overcome this great Manchester City team in such an emphatic manner. He is an epitome of cool and his positive energy reverberates and radiates even at moments of defeat. Indeed Klopp himself was filmed after the defeat to Real Madrid in Kiev in the Champions League Final in 2018 singing “We saw the European Cup. Madrid had all the f—ing luck. We swear we will keep on being cool. We will bring it back to Liverpool”. He f—ing well went and did just that the following season.
The famous Anfield crowd played its part in this success. From the Kop end to the Annie road end, armed with the most famous anthem in world sport – You Will Never Walk Alone – it vociferously backed the Club at both bad and good times. Liverpool suffered tragedy and heartbreak in the thirty years under review but even in those lean years it still proved to be a hugely successful club with League Cups, FA Cups and Champions League wins with some real class players donning the iconic red shirt of England’s most successful Club with the Liver bird proudly and defiantly perched on their breasts. It is a mark of Liverpool’s greatness that it won 11 titles in 17 years between 1973 and 1990. The European Royalty that is Liverpool has won Six European Cups in an unprecented level of success unknown by any other in England. Only European power houses, Real Madrid and AC Milan have won more. That it took Manchester United, our fiercest rivals 26 long years in which they won 13 titles to catch up and overtake Liverpool’s League title haul is a testimony to this special Club’s dominance and a tribute to those men and women who laid the building blocks for success at Anfield.
As Jordan Henderson lifted the coveted trophy in his now customary shuffle at the famous Kop end at Anfield last night, all before him who tried and failed for thirty years basked in the euphoria of success, shared in the glory and as Klopp alluded to, this win is a win for Dalglish, Roy Evans, Gerrard Houllier, Rafa Benitez, Brendan Rodgers and indeed all Liverpool managers since 1990. It is a win for Steven Gerrard, Robbie Fowler, Dirk Kuyt, Sammy Hyppia, Jamie Carragher and the hundreds of players who tried since 1990 and came short. It is a win for all the Anfield faithful who spill from across the Mersey River to the World beyond. The hopes and fears of all the years were indeed met that fateful night in June 2020 in that moment of triumph when Liverpool ended the 30 year title drought. Now we march onwards to greater things.
Stephen Onimisi Obajaja Esq., a Partner at the Lagos Law firm of Fountain Court Partners who prides himself the number one Liverpool fan in Lagos founded the group “Legal Kopites” a platform for Lawyers who support Liverpool in Nigeria to explore the winning Kop Spirit which Liverpool has represented since 1892 and to create their own history and bond as an integral part of the larger Anfield family.