Liverpool 2016/17 season review

Expectations are always high at the beginning of the season.  This was especially so after Klopp had led Liverpool to the League  and Europa cup finals in the 2015/16 season.

The omens also looked good.  At the beginning of the 1987/88 season Liverpool played Arsenal away on the opening day and just like that year there was a delay.  This time it was due to the completion of the new main stand rather than a collapsed sewer under the Kop.  Nevertheless it could be seen as a positive omen.

Being a season ticket holder in the new main stand it certainly lived up to expectations.  Although high up the view was excellent especially as the seat is on the half way line.  It gave the advantage of being able to see better the teams shape and build up than my previous seat in the Kop.  There was also the novelty of leg room and the acoustics of the stand was spot on as the noise can carry when the fans are in full voice.

Without European football for that season it was wondered whether the benefit of playing no mid-week games would have the same effect as it did for the 2013/14 season.  Liverpool of course narrowly missing out on the league to Manchester City.  Certainly Liverpool got off to a flier beating Arsenal 4-3 a dramatic game whilst the first home game of the season a 5.30pm kickoff against Leicester saw the champions thrashed 4-1.

The football was a game of intense high pressing with teams unable to cope against Liverpool’s attack.  Mane the new signing from Southampton looked scintillating in attack whilst the likes of Lallana and Firmino came on in leaps and bounds.  Previously they had been inconsistent and only showed flashes of what they could do achieve.  This season they were not only consistent but players that Liverpool relied on.

A brief surge to the top made fans dream but unlike the 87/88 team the defence and overall quality was not as good and consistent that it needs to be.  With injuries to key players at certain points in the season and Mane unavailable due to the African cup of nations there was not the depth in squad to cover.  Furthermore the opposition had learnt to stifle Liverpool by playing deep, restricting space and making use of Liverpool’s vulnerability at set-pieces to score.  The bench also offered no real options in terms of changing things tactically on the pitch.

Indeed Liverpool’s record against the other top six clubs was impressive.  Mainly because with the likes of Spurs and Arsenal who were more open benefitted Liverpool who with their pressing game were able to exploit the spaces left open.

The realistic hope of course was that Liverpool would win one of the domestic trophies and finish within the top four.  Liverpool disappointingly were beaten 2-1 at home against  Wolves in the fourth round of the FA cup.  It appeared that Klopp had overestimated the quality of the overall squad as they struggled to get the better of the Championship side.  In the league cup Southampton beat Liverpool 2-0 over both legs which just left the pursuit for a top four spot.

Despite a few stumbles Liverpool managed to make it over the line although if they had not dropped points against the likes of Southampton, Palace, and Bournemouth they may have just finished third and avoid the Champions league qualifier.

Nevertheless for a fourth placed finish it was still achieved with a high points total of seventy-six that would have won Liverpool the league twenty years ago.  Although not spectacular it is an improvement in the league.   Prior to the season you would expect Liverpool to finish between fourth and six if you were judging on what was spent.

There have been highlights namely the back to back wins against Arsenal, beating Leicester, and Everton.  Then of course there is Emre Can’s spectacular goal against Watford.

Mane has deservedly won the Liverpool player of the year and has been sorely missed when he has been absent.  It is also worth noting that Simon Mignolet has improved significantly this season after temporally being dislodged by Karius.  Unless a keeper of the quality of Pepe Reina becomes available then a goalkeeper is no longer the priority that it once was last year.

The only negatives this season from me has been the atmosphere at games.  It is unfortunately one of the changing facets of football that the ordinary fan is being priced out.  There are more corporate tickets and with the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United, and Arsenal it is more being seen at the event rather than love for the team or even the sport.

When you have the likes of two middle-aged men in front of you more intent on showing each other pictures on their mobiles than watching Liverpool play Manchester City it is going to affect the atmosphere.  Then there is the panic if Liverpool are not one up within ten minutes that shows up the sense of entitlement some fans feel.  Silly comments are thrown about before going down to get a pint five minutes before half time and then sodding off in the 85th minute.

Of course you want Liverpool to win but there has to be a sense of realism.  This after all is not 1984 even if the outside world seems to portray Orwell’s dystopian novel.  Getting behind the team is crucial and again can help the team to snatch a result.  The sound of seats slamming as Palace scored the second rather than the sound of Liverpool fans roaring the team to grab an equalizer in the last ten minutes is galling.

Unbelievably there were a few idiots that booed after the draw against Southampton.  Was it frustrating?  Of course it was but the team had given everything and it just didn’t happen on the day.  We had a limited squad with a lack of options on the bench.  You can only do so much and Klopp has got the best out of the team.

For next season and certainly with European football the squad does have to be strengthened.  The defence certainly needs to be improved.  At times they seem shaky and certainly at set pieces seem more vulnerable in conceding a goal.  The team does need to learn to defend as it breeds that confidence with a solid defence.  A centre-half and left back are certainly required.

Another midfielder preferably someone with a bit of pace and guile, and another forward have to be priorities.  Besides this we also need more options to choose from the bench especially when it is difficult breaking teams down.

I am certainly not expecting a marquee signing as this isn’t the way the Fenway group do business but I certainly expect some activity as the defence and size of the squad were issues that became apparent during the season.

This season has seen Liverpool move in the right direction.  If they can keep hold of Coutinho and get Emre Can to extend his contract then it will be beneficial.  Can of course holds divisive opinions but I would say that he does has the ability to be one of the top midfielders in the game.  Critics seem to forget that he is only young.  He can at times be sloppy but he never hides and always tries to make the correct pass or make something happen.  If Can leaves Liverpool I certainly don’t want to regret watching his talent benefit another club.

With European football back and hopefully champions league it will be an exciting season which will hopefully see Liverpool win a trophy.  Above all though I want to enjoy the thrill that the likes of last season’s Europa cup run, the title tilt of 2013/14 and certainly wouldn’t say no to a similar season in the Champions league of 2004/05.

Football can be frustrating and bring despair.  At times you question your own sanity watching a dull 0-0 on a cold January night but games like Istanbul and last season’s game against Dortmund make it all worth while.  Sometimes you have to suffer a bit of misery to appreciate the joy.  That is after all what football is to the majority of supporters.

Above all though I just want to enjoy watching the mighty reds and hopefully experience another rollercoaster journey that Liverpool are good at doing.

The countdown begins to the 2017/18 season!

 

 

 

 

The quiet Don – Revie’s legacy to football

‘When Eddie Gray plays on snow, he doesn’t leave any footprints,’ Don Revie once declared of his Leeds winger.  In some respects and with hindsight he could have been talking about how his achievements in football have been criminally overlooked.

 Despite the years passing there are still books, articles, and documentaries that fondly wax lyrically about the success and legacy of Bill Shankly, Matt Busby, Jock Stein, and Brian Clough.

Yet despite the success of Leeds and being the man who put the Yorkshire club on the map Revie’s achievements are now in the shadows.  Even when Revie’s name is mentioned it has negative connotations that gloss over his talents.

When Don Revie took charge as player-manager in March 1961 of a struggling Leeds United side there was no indication or apparent ambition for the success that was to come.  Rugby league and even cricket were the main sports of West Yorkshire with football not even coming into the equation.  By the end of the decade this was to change with Leeds becoming one of the most feared and dominant sides of English football.

Don Revie was born in Middlesbrough although his playing career came with  Leicester City with stints at Hull City, Manchester City, and Sunderland.  He was by all accounts a gifted footballer with his successful years at Manchester City winning the FA cup in 1956 against Birmingham City.  Revie’s performance earned him the man of the match whilst the year before he was named the football writers of the year award.

It was Bill Lambton the then Leeds Manager in 1958 that signed Revie but under the new manager Jack Taylor was part of the side that was relegated in 1960.  A year later the job was offered to Revie.  Not because they had seen something special with Revie simply because nobody was attracted to the job due to the financial problems of the club.  Furthermore Don Revie was cheap although if Bournemouth had been prepared to pay the £6000 to sign Revie as player-manager then the history of Leeds could quite easily have been different.

One of the first things that Revie brought about was to bring about a family spirit with everyone from the cleaners to the club directors all pulling together.  He personally ensured that he knew everybody’s name whilst having a daily chat.

The referee Jack Taylor once noted that Revie gave money to the cleaners to put on the horses.  If they won they were twice as happy and even if they lost they were still happy at the gesture.  It was something that Revie succeeded at as it made everybody feel part and proud of the club.  Furthermore it brought a sense of togetherness and for Revie it was to bring about a family feeling to the place.

Another change that Revie instigated was that all players be it the first team, reserves, or B sides would all play the same system.  Revie told the Yorkshire Post that ‘any players moving from one team to another will know just what is wanted.’

Bill Shankly’s Liverpool and Guardiola’s Barcelona operated a similar system in the belief it would be easy for players to step up when required.

Revie was left with a very poor side and a club that was in financial difficulties.  Most of the side was compromised of journeymen footballers with the only players of exception being Billy Bremner who at seventeen had just broke into the first team, John McCole whose goals were important to Leeds and Jack Charlton.  The latter was seen as more trouble than he was worth whose surliness and open objection to anything that annoyed him made supporters wonder if he would be the first to go.

The only other notable legacy from Jack Taylor’s time as manager was his backroom staff of Syd Owens and Les Cocker.  Under Revie they would help Leeds to become one of the fittest teams in the league as well as analysing young players and helping them to improve.  Both were hard task masters but the likes of Bremner and Eddie Gray would later appreciate their efforts.

Revie that year managed to keep Leeds up but it was still going to be another two tough years before the Yorkshire club would start to make any improvement.  Even Revie admitted that towards the end of his first full season in charge that he half expected to be sacked.

With funds limited Revie was restricted with the players that he could bring in.  Two of the most notable signings was Bobby Collins from Everton for £25,000 and Albert Johannsen.  The latter was signed on the recommendation of a South African school teacher with Revie only having to pay his fare from Johannesburg.

Although Johannsen was to be inconsistent during his time at Leeds he did bring a touch of glamour and skill in those early days.  Bobby Collins though was to be very influential.  His dogged determination in never giving up or accepting second best seeped amongst Collins younger more impressionable teammates.  It was to be this determination that would become part of Revie’s Leeds DNA.

There was no instant Midas touch with Revie even experimenting by using Jack Charlton as a centre-forward.  It was more a case of hoping lightning would strike twice as the club legend John Charles had swapped defence for attack which had led to him being one of the most feared forwards in Europe.  However Charlton was no Charles and although he scored twelve goals in twenty games he was quietly put back in defence by Christmas 1961.  Most of the goals came from set-pieces but more importantly Charlton was like a fish out of water and didn’t know what he was doing.

One of the influences on Revie was Matt Busby who had advised that if possible to give youth a chance.  It wasn’t just because coming through the ranks that they would show more loyalty and affinity (especially if they were from the local area) but that at a young age they would be more impressionable.  Unlike seasoned pro’s they would be willing to listen, less likely to question, and not pick up bad habits from previous clubs.

The likes of Eddie Gray, Peter Lorimer, Norman Hunter, Gary Sprake,  Rod Johnson, and Paul Reaney to name but a few all came through the ranks and all were to play a major part in the future for Leeds.  With Johnny Giles signed from Manchester United for £33,000 Leeds United were to become quite formidable.

Don Revie brought about another subtle difference to Leeds United by throwing a pre-season party with directors, staff, players, and wives.  Aware of his wife Elsie’s and his own isolation as a player he sought again to bring everyone together and made them feel involved.  Above all he wanted a family feeling about the place as he spoke of their importance to the club.  Revie was aware that domestic harmony could help a player feel more settled and not disrupt his form if his house was an unhappy one.

Over the years Don Revie would in some respects become a Father figure.  He would even make visits, give birthday and Christmas cards, flowers presents to the wives and children.  All of this was appreciated and as they too were made to feel part of the club their devotion to Revie also grew.  In many ways he was like the Godfather’s Vito Corleone.  A man who showed and expected loyalty but equally be tough if required.

To show that this was a new Leeds United and one that would be very much moulded in Don Revie’s image he decided to ditch the yellow and blue strip with Leeds to play in an all white strip.  That there was no dissent from supporters or the board about the change of colours showed the lack of interest within the West Yorkshire area.  Nevertheless it was the start of Revie building Leeds to what we know now.

Although Leeds might have looked similar to Real Madrid that was as close as they got to the Spanish giants in Revie’s first two full seasons in charge.  Slowly though things started to change especially as the youngsters like Bremner, Gray, Lorimer, and Norman Hunter started to shine.  Also the 1963-64 season that they clinched promotion the signing of Manchester United Johnny Giles gave them that edge with the brutal determination of Bobby Collins.

There was also a different to approach with how Revie selected youngsters.  Unlike other managers the size of a player did not bother him.  So long as they had the ability, desire, and willingness to work then they would be given a chance.

Revie also had an eye to get the best out of players by changing their positions.  Terry Cooper was converted from a winger to a left back, Eddie Gray from central midfielder to winger, with Bremner and Giles converting from wingers to central midfielders.

It was now a different Leeds in terms of talent, attitude, professionalism, and desire to be the best.  Johnny Giles observed in Eamon Dunphy’s ‘A strange kind of glory,’ that ‘people were consciously thinking about the game, small things like throw-ins, free-kicks, and corner-kicks were discussed and planned.  People were intent on doing something.  Nothing was ever left to chance.’

Critics at the time may have derided and even mocked the infamous dossiers that Revie had drawn up about the opposition but he was ahead of his time.  The reports drawn by Cocker, Owen, and Lindley were so meticulous that they would observe whether the goalkeeper was a flapper or a catcher or whether the right half could accurately pass the ball across his body to the left-wing whilst running right.

On the Friday the reserves would copy the style and formation of the opposition that Leeds were due to play on the Saturday.  By the end of the session the selected XI would know by heart the movement and as a result be able to anticipate the moves of the opposition for real on match day.

In football today that is nothing new with the endless stats and coaching geared towards dealing with the opposition at the weekend that it would be expected at any professional club.  Back in the 60’s it was more about putting out your XI and letting your rival worry about you.

The work on Leeds fitness was to also have an impact especially as Revie had them playing a high tempo pressing game.  In the ‘Unforgiven,’ by Bagchi and Rogerson they quote Bremner saying how Collins would dictate the game by making ‘them go like bombs for a ten minute spell.  Then he would tell them to tighten up again before going at them again.’

With teams not as fit and being unable to cope it was no surprise that Revie had managed to ensure that Leeds finally gained promotion in the 1963-64 season.  As the good work started to pay dividends it was to be start of the glory years for Leeds United.

Leeds first season in the top flight unerringly summed up the Revie era in terms of being so close but yet so far.  The West Yorkshire side almost won what would have been an incredible double but lost out to Manchester United who won the league due to having a superior goal difference to Leeds.  A week later they lost 2-1 in extra time to Bill Shankly’s Liverpool who won the FA cup for the first time in their history.  Nevertheless it was a fantastic season for a team that had spent most of its history in the doldrums.

It was though a season that Leeds started to earn their reputation as being ‘cynical cheats,’ who fouled, harassed the referee, and looked to gain any advantage by hook or by crook.  George Best recalled walking down the tunnel at Old Trafford ‘I felt a terrific pain in my right calf as someone kicked me with brute force.  I turned.  It was Bobby Collins.  ‘And that’s just for starters Bestie.’  He snarled.

Earlier that season brutal challenges by the likes of Giles and Hunter caused outrage at Goodison that led to the Everton crowd making a pitch invasion.  The crowd was cleared with Leeds winning 1-0 which later led to the Yorkshire Post’s Ian Guild description of the match as ‘a disgrace to football.’

The question and indeed suspicion was on whether Don Revie instructed his players to try to win at any cost even it meant fouling or cheating.  There probably is some truth that Leeds pushed the rules with Johnny Giles admitting ‘I have certainly done things on the football pitch that I am embarrassed about now.’  But as he then stated ‘one has to put them into the football climate that existed then.’

Certainly in that period in the 1960s and 1970s it was a more brutal game.  Going in hard and trying to intimidate your opponent was seen as fair game.  Nearly every team had an enforcer whether it was Manchester United’s Nobby Stiles, Anfield Iron’s Tommy Smith who threatened to ‘break player’s backs,’ or Chelsea’s Ron ‘Chopper,’ Harris.

Despite the notoriety of these players they in many ways gained cult and legendary status of when football ‘was a man’s game.’  Yet with Norman ‘bites yer legs,’ Hunter and Leeds they were viewed as the villains of football.

In some respects there was always a suspicion that Don Revie embraced the dark arts a bit too much.  That he was like a grand wizard who became bad in his pursuit of glory.  From hiring a gypsy to eradicate an alleged curse that had been placed on Elland road to wearing his blue suit that became so threadbare that his underwear could be seen in bright light.

Revie himself openly admitted to being superstitious and following a routine that involved the ‘same lucky tie, one or two lucky charms in my pocket. I walk to the traffic lights every morning, turn round and walk back to the hotel.’

There was of course the famous bird phobia that saw Revie remove the club’s owl badge to the familiar LUFC, having three puffs on a cigar,  before sucking on a mint for one minute, and then chewing gum for ten.

Again superstition although ridiculous is very much part of football.  Being an unpredictable game it gives the person a feeling of control that by following a certain ritual that they will gain some good luck which may win the game.

However the dark shadow or the smearing of Revie’s achievements is that he was alleged to have offered bribes for teams to go easy.  Bob Stokoe who managed Sunderland to a FA cup shock in 1973 against Leeds told the Daily Mirror that during his time as Bury manager in 1962 that Revie had offered him £500 to throw the match.

None of this has ever been proven and as Bagchi and Rogerson point out in the ‘Unforgiven,’ how did Revie on £38 a week with a club that was struggling financially find that amount?  Furthermore why did Stokoe wait fourteen years to tell his story and then for the princely sum of £14,000?

The accusations didn’t stop there with Wolves Mike O’Grady claiming that he had been paid as a fixer in 1973 to offer his teammates £1000 a man to throw their game against Leeds and ensure that they won the title.  Again none of this was substantiated with Revie being cleared by the Police and Bremner winning a libel case when accused of offering the bribes.

Again it all added to the media trying to paint Revie as some kind of super villain.  Leeds achievements would be tarnished because of this despite being one of the best footballing sides in the mid-seventies.

Maybe it was because Leeds were insular with Revie encouraging ‘us against the world,’ mentality.  This was no different to the tactics that Alex Ferguson encouraged at Manchester United.  It brought a sense of unity and loyalty as well as a determination to knock their critic’s noses out of joint and enjoy the discomfort of the critics having to acknowledge that they were the best.  Yet whereas Ferguson is lauded it is seen as another stick to beat Leeds with.

Revie’s man management was also second to none.  He knew when to put an arm around a player and when they needed a proverbial kick up the backside.  Nothing was left to chance as Revie ensured that he knew the character of all his players.  Furthermore he only wanted players who would fit into the work ethic of the club.

Europe was another learning curve for Revie who quickly realised that discipline and organisation was a key to being successful.  During the Inter Cities Fairs cup Leeds used their strength to hit teams on the break and in turn to be able to absorb the pressure.  Their mental strength was also second to none with the Italian press admiring their character and not letting the awful leg break of Bobby Collins by Torino’s Poletti to affect them by seeing the game through and winning the tie.

Breaking your duck in winning your first trophy is always the hardest but despite a turgid match Leeds beat Arsenal 1-0 at Wembley to win the League cup.  In a sense it gave Leeds a taste of victory and the belief that they could achieve more.  Revie was more than aware of this as he showed a rare expression of delight by joining his celebrating team on the pitch.

More success was to come as Leeds went a step further by clinching the Inter City Fairs cup by beating the Hungarian Ferencvaros 1-0 over two legs.  There was a significant delay due to the Warsaw pact invasion of Czechoslovakia with the possibility of the game being called off.  Again the professionalism and organisation was enough to see Leeds through against a team whom Shankly and Busby viewed as one of the best teams in Europe.

The league championship with its long, arduous season that decided the best team in England now sauntered into view for Leeds.  They had finished runners-up to Liverpool in the 1965-66 season but wanted to go that one step further.  By now Leeds had firmly established themselves as a difficult team but needed a title to show that they were not pretenders.

It was to the 1968-69 season when Revie’s Leeds would clinch the clubs first championship in their history.   The team was now maturing with the average age of the squad being around twenty-five.  Besides which Leeds with the two cup wins now had a taste for trophies.  Something that Revie wanted to encourage.

Billy Bremner recalls how Don Revie ensured that the desire and fire to keep winning trophies and not to rest on their laurels was to continually set new challenges.  That was to win the league.  ‘When you haven’t won anything, you’re delighted to win something; but as soon as a new challenge is offered, you have to climb higher.  And so we climbed that bit higher in going for the league.’

It was to be a culmination of Leeds gaining experience and knowing how each other played.  There was in some respects a communal style to Leeds play.  For example Hunter, Cooper, and Gray formed the left side, working the ball in triangles and quadrilaterals between them before seizing on any space given to initiate an attack.  Charlton, Reaney, Bremner, and O’Grady replicated this on the right.

Bremner and Giles having the ability to hit the killer pass once the opposition had committed themselves too far forward.

All season Leeds had stretched the opposition and with their superior fitness that the West Yorkshire side were easily the best side in the league that season.

The title was clinched at Anfield after a 0-0 draw against Liverpool.  It was to be a night were Leeds also felt that they had finally achieved the recognition that they deserved.

Revie had instructed his team that if they won the league on the night then they were to go forward and acknowledge the Kop.  Bremner was unsure but duly led his players towards the goal with the crowd becoming silent.  There was a slight pause before the crowd chanted ‘Champions,’ and applauded the Leeds team for their achievements for that season.

With Shankly declaring them worthy champions it felt for Leeds that they were finally being recognised for their footballing abilities.  After so many years of being branded villains they were now being hailed for their football.

The following season Leeds didn’t let their laurels slip as Leeds chased a unique treble of the league, European, and FA cup.  Bagchi and Rogerson in ‘the unforgiven,’ believe fixture congestion and the lack of help from the league authorities in terms of re-arranging fixtures meant that Revie had to prioritize which trophies they wanted to go for.

In what seems strange in this Premier league obsessed era, Leeds had made winning the European and FA cup more of a priority as these were not only trophies that they had never won but were also equally prestigious.

Leeds with seven games remaining was top of the league but decided that in order to boost their chances of success had to rest players.  For the remaining six games the Leeds team were a mixture of reserves and experienced players which earned the club a five thousand pound fine from the football league.

Sadly for the West Yorkshire club they were to fall short.  It didn’t help that it took three games to beat Manchester United to reach the 1970 FA cup final in order to play Chelsea.  The semi-final against Celtic was to see Leeds comprehensively beaten 3-0 over two legs with the Glaswegian side to later lose 2-1 to Feyenoord in extra time in the final.

That was to be a fate that Leeds would suffer in a replay at Old Trafford as Webb snatched the winner to lift the cup for Chelsea.  It was to be a final remembered for two things.  A poor pitch due to allowing the horse of the year show prior to the final and the brutal tackling and fouling from both sides.

Due to picking up only three points from the final six games the league had duly been surrendered to Everton who were proclaimed the football league champions for the 1969-70 season.

It was a disappointing season but Leeds maturity and confidence in their own abilities as Revie allowed the shackles off showed that Leeds were one of the top footballing sides who would be favourites for all the major honours in the years to come.

Yet they would become more known for choking at the crucial moments.  Some of it was down to appalling decisions made against Leeds whilst other times the West Yorkshire failed to play to their ability.

A fifth round tie away to fourth division Colchester should have not really posed any problems for Leeds.  Instead they found themselves three-nil down and despite pulling two goals were unable to snatch an equaliser.  Sprake was held responsible for the three goals and indeed was seen as the weak link of the team.

Despite the shock cup exit the league was still on.  However another infamous game against West Bromwich Albion with the referee Ray Tinkler’s poor performance to have repercussions’ on Leeds title challenge.  Albion’s Colin Suggett was quite clearly offside with Brown looking for the decision only to continue and square the ball to Astle who put the ball into the back of the net and winning the two points for West Brom.

Barry Davies the match of the day commentator was incredulous and declared that ‘Leeds will go mad and they have every right to be.’  It provoked a reaction from the Leeds players which also ignited crowd trouble who were outraged at the decision.

Arsenal would go on to clinch the league by one point with Ray Kennedy netting the winner against Spurs at White Hart lane.  Again Leeds would be the bridesmaid in terms of the league although they didn’t end that season empty ended as they won the Inter Cities fairs cup on away goals after drawing 3-3 on aggregate but crucially drew 2-2 away in Turin.

It was becoming a familiar occurrence as Leeds once again blew the chance of winning the double in the 71-72 season.  They played some scintillating that year with the highlight being Leeds torturing Southampton with keep ball after being 7-0 up.  As Barry Davies said in admiration it was ‘cruel,’ but at the same time it was breath-taking football with the flicks and back heels as Leeds played a match version of ‘piggy in the middle,’ by keeping hold of the ball.

Leeds it seemed was head and shoulders above everyone else.  The FA cup was lifted for the first time in their history as they beat Arsenal 1-0 who hoped to retain the trophy.  The double it seemed was a certainty as Leeds only needed a point away to Wolves.  However two days after the cup final Leeds were to be denied and frustrated by the referee yet again.  There were three penalty shouts with a blatant handball to deny Allan Clarke.  Wolves won the game 2-1 and with Liverpool failing to beat Arsenal at Highbury with a Toshack goal ruled out for offside, Brian Clough’s Derby County won the league whilst on the beach in Majorca.

Heartache seemed to be the Leeds way and the 1972-73 season was to be no different.  Although they were not in any contention to win the league that season Leeds again reached the FA cup final against second division Sunderland and the European Cup Winners Cup against AC Milan.

Critics assumed that Sunderland had no chance and that Leeds would triumph over the North East side.  It was a case of how many would Leeds would win by.  Instead Leeds failed to deal with the corner with Porterfield gaining legendary status by striking the ball into the back of the net.

Leeds would put the pressure on Sunderland with Cherry’s diving header which was parried away by Montgomery straight to Lorimer who almost equalised only to be thwarted by Montgomery who parried it against the crossbar.  Yet again it was not be Leeds day and to be remembered for all the wrong reasons as David beat the unpopular Goliath.

A 1-0 defeat to AC Milan in the Cup Winners Cup final meant that Leeds ended the season empty-handed.  There was a feeling that Leeds had been cheated following the Greek referee Christos Michas being suspended by UEFA and his own federation due to some dubious decisions against Leeds.

There are numerous theories as to why Leeds United kept falling short at the crucial moments.  Some cited poor refereeing decisions and Hardaker of the football league who was believed to have disliked Leeds due to their reputation.  With fixtures piling up due to replays or poor weather and the football league refused to accommodate or assist Leeds in order to give them enough recovery time between games.

At times with the matches piling up there were key players who were injured and in the case of the Wolves game both Clarke and Giles had pain killing injections certainly couldn’t have helped.  With so many irons in the fire so to speak it meant that the Leeds players were on their last legs and just couldn’t carry themselves over the line when required.

Some even questioned whether Revie thought too much about the opposition and whether that anxiety transmitted to the players.  Dave Watson the Sunderland centre-half stated that he thought the Leeds players were very subdued in their interviews prior to the Cup final.  It could also be said that at times Revie brought the squad for big matches too early and rather than be distracted by every day life were left to brood on the game.

Perhaps it was a mix of all and more than likely being involved in so many big competitions stretched the squad to their limit.  Revie certainly knew his players and he had managed to channel that comradeship amongst the team and supporters.

The 1973-74 season was to be Revie’s last as he left Leeds to take the job of England manager.  However Leeds ended it as champions after going twenty-nine games unbeaten.

Some wondered if Revie took the England job on as he couldn’t bear to break up his ageing Leeds team.  The fact of the matter is that Revie had already got itchy feet and had got caught going for possible talks to become the Everton manager in 1973 when he had got lost and had to ask directions.  Money was another insecurity of Revie with the attraction of more money at Everton whetting his initial interest before deciding to stay at Leeds.

The England job was not to be a success as he was unable to replicate the team and family spirit that he harnessed at Leeds United.  Some players mocked his carpet bowls and ideas.  Revie himself seemed uncomfortable in dealing with the politics of International football and seemed to miss the day-to-day coaching that club football brought.

With England performing poorly and unlikely to qualify for the world cup qualifiers Don Revie decided to quit the job and took up a post offered by the UAE.  Despite the FA having approached Bobby Robson in order to replace Revie they suspended him for ten years.  Although Revie won on a Court appeal he was never to work in English football again with only coaching stints at other middle-east countries.

Due to the manner of Revie’s England resignation and the money being offered to manage the UAE national side he was branded a mercenary with his reputation never Don_Revie_and_Billy_Bremnerrecovering.

Leeds too was never to be the same side that they were under Revie.  In what was a bizarre decision they appointed Revie’s arch critic and nemesis Brian Clough to re-build the team.  With Clough’s brash manner and telling the players ‘to put all their medals in the bin as they had won them through cheating,’ it was never going to end well.  After forty-four days in charge Brian Clough was sacked as manager.

It was to be an end of an era despite reaching the European cup final in 1975 and losing to Bayern Munich.  Again there was to be much controversy and crowd trouble after the referee disallowed a Lorimer goal after initially pointing to the centre circle to indicate that a goal had been given.

As the years go by the achievements of Don Revie seem to fade into the background.  Nothing is mentioned of Don Revie physically building the Leeds United that we all know of now even if the past ten years or so have seen them back in the second tier.  It was Revie with hardly any resources that dragged and moulded Leeds United to be one of the most feared teams in English football.  Prior to his appointment Leeds were seen as a joke and in the shadow of rugby league.  Even Leeds current all white strip is down to Revie who decided to change the colours.

In terms of coaching and preparation Don Revie was ahead of his peers.  In today’s game in-depth analysis and preparation is all part of the game.  Revie in his dossiers and gearing training towards the opposition was so way ahead that at the time it was mocked by others within the English game.

Ironically in this day and age of mass marketing Revie was to be a pioneer by agreeing that Leeds became commercially involved with Paul Trevillion an illustrator more known for you are the ref.  There were track suits with player’s names, sock tags, and the Leeds wave as the players ran out two minutes early before kickoff and wave to each part of the ground who would shower them in applause and cheers.

Revie also encouraged youth and brought a collective spirit right throughout the club.  Everybody was part of this inner family that in turn brought about that resilience required to dig in and snatch a result no matter how badly they were playing.  In short everybody looked after each other.

Of course there was the cynicism and the intimidation that Revie’s Leeds did dish out.  There is no question that they rubbed up the opposition but other teams could just be as physical.  Leeds did push it to extremes and cynicism can be seen in the game today from the little clip, dive, time-wasting or harassing the referee.  Not that it makes it right but from a professional point of view it is about testing the boundaries in order to gain an advantage.

Maybe it’s because Revie didn’t have the statesman like aura of Matt Busby and Jock Stein or the charisma of Bill Shankly.  Neither did he have the soundbites of Brian Clough that the media lapped up.

In front of the cameras Revie always looked uneasy and seemingly shifty.  With the physical approach of Leeds it was easy to throw mud at Leeds with the unsubstantiated claims by Stokoe of offering bribes to go easy casting more dirt.  Revie with his superstition was all too easily cast as dabbling in the black arts of football.

It could be argued that there was an element of snobbery with Leeds not having the glamour of a London team or a charismatic star like Manchester United’s George Best.  They also equally refused to be in awe of anyone’s reputation and gave as good as they got.  Revie certainly showed this from a story given in the Unforgiven.  At an official FA dinner in 1976 Revie objected to the pompous Sir Harold Thompson referring to him by his surname.  Thompson haughtily replied ‘when I get to know you better Revie, I shall you call Don.  Quick as a flash Revie’s response was ‘when I get to know you better Thompson, I shall call you Sir Harold.’

Despite all the knocks and whether you think Don Revie’s reputation is deserved or not Revie’s Leeds United played attractive football.  Yes they could dish it out but they could play with aggression, skill, and pace which many teams of the time couldn’t cope with.  It was Revie who installed that discipline and ideas onto his team in the belief that it would get results.

Don Revie made and was Leeds United that even now his legacy still exists.  Furthermore he was also a pioneer and forward thinker who knew how to build and get the best out of his team.  It is for these reasons that Don Revie should be remembered alongside the greats of Shankly, Stein, and Busby.

 

Liverpool v C. Palace and why top four is still up for grabs

P170423-039-Liverpool_Crystal_Palace-e1492967314296Credit where its due even if it is through gritted teeth, Allardyce got his tactics spot on last Sunday as Palace beat Liverpool for the third year running at Anfield.  It was a game that was always going to be difficult given the erratic performances and results against the so-called lesser lights.  Even so with the finishing line and a top four spot in sight it was a home game that Liverpool needed to make it count.

Palace though were well organised and it was a yellow wall as they played deep and ensured that any space in the middle of the park was restricted.  With Mane unavailable due to injury there was no one to test the Palace defence with skill and pace.   Coutinho and Firmino may have  the guile and skill they were unable to find a way through the brickwall that was Palace’s defence.  Granted Origi is a player who has pace but he too found it hard to get into space.

It meant that the only options to Liverpool was to go wide but with the lack of height and a mass of yellow shirts, Palace were easily able to defend from set-pieces as you would expect from a Sam Allardyce side.

Despite this Liverpool managed to take the lead from a fantastic free kick from Coutinho.  This should have been the catalyst for Liverpool to kick on or at the very least hold onto the goal lead.  Palace would need to push further up the pitch and  leave more space for Liverpool to take hold of the game.

The Liverpool defence this season has been fragile and at times resembles a punch drunk boxer attempting to last the final round.  With only three minutes before half time Liverpool should have had the nous to keep it tight and simple.  Instead Lovren failed to react quickly to the ball as Cabaye gained posession as he raced down the right to play a ball for Benteke to score and equalise for Palace.

Once again there was frustration at Liverpool’s inability to defend and not tightening their hold on the match to ensure they got the result required.

The second half was reverting back to type for Palace who again ensured that Liverpool were not given any space to cause problems.  Another lapse at a set piece from a corner saw Benteke grab his second with a diving header.  With the lack of options on the bench Liverpool were unable to put anyone who could change the game.  Alexander-Arnold, Grujic, and Moreno were thrown on but it was more in the hope of fresh legs rather than any tactical acumen.

Liverpool didn’t look capable of breaking down Palace and despite the six minutes of injury time were unable to snatch a point.  It was a disappointing result following the two excellent away wins against Stoke City and West Bromwich Albion.

There have been a few moans that Liverpool have blown it especially with Man Utd winning 2-0 away to Burnley.  At present that is simply not the case.  Yes Liverpool have made it difficult for themselves but with Manchester United due to play Manchester City this Thursday at the Etihad they also have games against Tottenham and Arsenal.  City themselves also have to play Palace.

Looking at those fixtures there are still difficult games that United could drop points.  Added to which they have injuries to major players such as Ibrahimovic, Pogba, Herrera, Mata, and Smalling.  With the distraction of the Europa cup semi-final against Celta Vigo it is not a given that United will not drop points in their remaining games.

Of course Liverpool themselves are now walking a tight rope and cannot afford to drop any more points.  The remaining games though are not as bad compared to other teams.

There also has to be a dose of realism regarding the situation for Liverpool at the moment.  The squad is light which isn’t helped with major injuries to key players.  Consequently there are not many options that Klopp can turn to.  Liverpool have the fifth highest paid squad in the Premier league and it could be argued are roughly where you expect them to be.

The crowd itself also needs to help in times  of when things are not going well.  Without sounding all ‘member berry,’ (This refers to South Park and its take on nostalgia)

there was a time when following a stunned silence at the opposition somehow managing to score that there would be a roar encouraging the team to get back into the game.  Instead the only noise you can hear are the sounds of seats as the mass exodus starts.

That is more or less waving the white flag rather than screaming encouragement for Liverpool to push forward and salvage something.  It is amazing what the players can do with the support urging them forward that at the very least they can make it as uncomfortable for Palace in the dying minutes.

Jurgen Klopp talked about everyone from the cleaners, coaches, players, fans and anyone associated with the club to be all pulling together and doing their bit.  Which is what some Liverpool fans need to do rather than making the early dart.

There is still a big job ahead for Klopp no matter whether they finish top four or not.  Defensively they need improving not just in terms of buying defenders but in terms of defending as a team.  All season they have looked shaky but just as it is important to attack as a team it is equally the same when defending.  All the good teams know how to take the sting out of the game and show the resilience in coping with any pressure.  Liverpool do not have that ability at present.

Added to which the depth of the squad needs improving especially if they qualify for the Champions league.  Looking at the bench this season shows how limited Liverpool are on who they can bring on to help change the game.

All said and done though the race for the remaining top four places (Chelsea and Tottenham are nailed on for first and second) is pretty much on.  City and United have been inconsistent this season even if the latter have been on a good run of form.  Liverpool despite the setbacks and problems they have faced this season still have a good chance of finishing within the top four and claiming a Champions league spot.  There does though need to be a dose of reality with what Klopp has to work with and the fact that some teams at present are ahead of Liverpool.

The end of Paradise – Will Liverpool ever reclaim the title?

 

Nobody envisaged that when Alan Hansen held aloft the league championship in May 1990 that so far he would be the last Liverpool Captain to do so.  On that warm evening after beating Derby County 1-0  it was presumed to be business as normal.  After all Liverpool had been the dominant force over the past twenty years who prior to the ban on English teams competing in European club competitions had also dominated Europe.

Nobody even after the shock resignation of Kenny Dalglish as manager   in 1991  envisaged that Liverpool would fall down the pecking order.  Nor did they expect that the clock is still ticking twenty-seven years on when Liverpool could declare themselves the Champions of England.

There is still much debate as to how and why it happened.  Graeme Souness is largely held responsible for the dramatic decline with his inferior signings and brash manner.  However it is not as simple as this as was an ageing Liverpool team.  Previously players would be shipped on and replaced as soon as they hit the thirty mark. Hindsight though is a wonderful thing.

Here is a brief summary of each manager and of the problems they faced and how they left the club.

Graeme Souness

With Liverpool still in a state of shock after the sudden resignation of Kenny Dalglish the club turned to its former Captain and current Glasgow Rangers Manager Graeme Souness in April 1991.  Being a former player he would know the Liverpool way and in Scotland had turned around the fortunes of a stagnant Rangers into being the dominant force once more.

Souness was also a born winner who would not tolerate second best.  Something that he alluded to in his programme notes in the final game of the season against Spurs.

It was widely expected that Souness had a re-building job on his hands and that it might take a couple of years possibly three to bed in a new team.  Nobody though expected it be a traumatic three years of turmoil that saw the club going backwards rather than forward.

The major problem which was something that Souness later admitted was that he tried to change things too quickly.  There was also the added conflict with the senior players and former teammates over how he wanted to change the team.  Souness cited that even little things such as moving to drinking a lighter lager or banning fish and chips after a match was met with resistance.

The likes of Peter Beardsley, Ray Houghton, and Steve McMahon were allowed to go too soon with the replacements such as Mark Walters, Dean Saunders, and the notorious Istvan Kozma who earned the nickname ‘Lord Lucan,’ were simply not good enough.

Liverpool still continued to spend big money during that period in the desperate hope of getting it right.  The majority of it was not spent wisely with the likes of Paul Stewart, Julian Dicks and Neil Ruddock not having the ability that was normally required to play for Liverpool.  Nigel Clough was a flop with many believing that he would fit into Liverpool effortlessly with Souness even boldly declaring him as the next Kenny Dalglish.  The only similarities that Clough had was that they both wore the number seven shirt.

Not that it was all bad under Souness who allowed youngsters like McManaman, Fowler, and Redknapp the opportunity to make their mark for Liverpool.  Signings like Mark Wright and Michael Thomas gave fans a glimmer of hope that if they could get quality experienced players with the mix of youth players coming through that the future may not be as bleak.  Rob Jones incidentally signed from Crewe promised to be a steal due to his ability as a right back.

The FA cup was also won in Souness’s first full season in 1992 with goals from Rush and Thomas enough to beat Second division Sunderland.  However the incident with the Sun newspaper reviled on Merseyside due to its lies and notorious disgusting headlines about the Hillsborough disaster was to damage the relationship between the fans and Souness.  After the semi-final win against Portsmouth and with Souness recovering from a heart-bypass he allowed himself to be pictured in his hospital bed with an interview also published in the Sun.  With the anniversary of Hillsbrough it was a foolish and insensitive thing to do and Souness should really have been forced to resign.

With the conflict with players and the fans it wasn’t long before Souness announced his resignation in January 1994 after Liverpool were knocked out by Bristol City then in the second tier.

It certainly wasn’t the tenure that Souness wanted to be remembered for with the team seeming to be going backwards despite the money that had been spent. The club was starting to drift away from being the major force of the game when the club turned to Roy Evans a member of the fabled bootroom.

Roy Evans

After the disastrous Souness regime the Liverpool board went back to basics by appointing Roy Evans who along with coach Ronnie Moran were the last of the bootroom boys.

It was seen as a safe and a reassuring move for the Liverpool board and fans alike.  Here was someone who was tutored in the bootroom and would mend bridges with the senior players still left at Liverpool.

Unfortunately Roy Evans did not have the steel or ability to install the discipline a manager needs to ensure his players know who is in charge.  Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan may have looked and acted like the genial Uncle with their flat caps and comfy cardigans but when required had the ruthlessness to match a Mafia Don.

During Evans tenure in charge there were numerous stories of ill discipline from players making prank calls whilst Evans was being interviewed, players making a game of stealing his car park space, and Collymore alleging that Robbie Fowler got his manager in an arm lock and ruffled his head in jest.

In part it was to lead to the hated nickname of the Liverpool players the ‘spice boys,’ which inferred that the players were more interested in image than playing.  The notorious white suit cup final of 1996 emphasised this more than anything especially as they lost 1-0 to rivals Manchester United.

Evans certainly in his early days did bring back stability and nobody could deny that he brought about swashbuckling football.  Added to which during his time at Liverpool the club always finished within the top four.

Tactically Evans showed that he wasn’t adverse to changing things as Liverpool played with three at the back with wing backs.  It produced the type of football that resulted in two 4-3 wins against Newcastle United both of which were won in dramatic circumstances.

Liverpool also had the emergence of young talent with local youth team products Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman with other young players such as Jamie Redknapp, David James, and Rob Jones.  All of which provided their best football under Evans.

It was the basis of a good mix with the experience of John Barnes and Ian Rush before they moved on.  At this point Liverpool were in a good position to start making up ground on Manchester United who were now the top team of English football.  The hardest part was getting the right players and ensuring they had the right attitude.  Evans though was not to get this right.

A clear out was always going to be needed with the likes of Julian Dicks and Torben Piechnik quickly being sold it could be argued that Neil Ruddock should also have been one of the first players to be shown the door.

Would the likes of Shankly, Paisley, and Fagan tolerated the unprofessional and lack of fitness that Neil Ruddock showed?  Never mind that he wasn’t up to the standard of required of a top-level defender.  The pass the pound game as told by Ruddock with the loser left holding the coin at the end of the game summed the attitude that was wrong within the club.

Despite his ability as a player Stan Collymore was another signing that probably wouldn’t have been made by Evans former bootroom colleagues.  There were already issues that had been highlighted during his time at Forest, Southend, and Palace that may have made them wary.  Collymore of course mentioned about his depression and it would have needed a manager that had the ability to show the support needed.  Unfortunately Evans was not that man.

The signings of Phil Babb, Jason McAteer, Leonhardsen to name but a few failed to reach the level required.  Roy Evans four years in charge was to be part frustration that the team had promise but fell just short.  Even when they challenged for the 1996-97 Premier league title they managed to finish fourth in what was deemed a two-horse race between Liverpool and Manchester United.

Crucially Liverpool didn’t show that resilience required to win league titles.  The ability that Ferguson’s United and indeed Liverpool teams of the past that would never give up no matter how bad they were playing.  Somehow they would always manage to get a result even against all odds.  Evans Liverpool team just couldn’t do that and faltered when they were required to get a result to stay ahead.

Evans only major honour was the league cup in 1995 which in that year was progress fresh from the debacle of the Souness years previously.  After being beaten in the Cup final by Man Utd a year later the 1996-97 season was the one Liverpool had to show that they had mettle to win the big titles.  Instead a year later Liverpool were regressing.  The defence was seen as weak with the team appearing to fall further behind Manchester United with Arsenal under their new French manager Arsene Wenger their main rivals.

Liverpool fans became frustrated at the lack of progress and feared that the eight years since they last won the title would continue for longer under Evans.  Many felt that he had given his best but didn’t have the ability or discipline to get Liverpool back on top.

Not for the first time the then club chairman David Moores and the board were unable or unwilling to make the tough decision.  Rather than asking Evans to resign and appoint a new manager or show that they had faith with Evans by telling fans that he was staying they went with a fudge by appointing Gerard Houllier as joint-manager.

With Ronnie Moran retiring in the summer of 1998 many fans felt that the Houllier was taking over as Evans number two.  Instead they realised that Liverpool now had two managers.

Roy Evans a loyal Liverpool man to the last went against his better judgment when the idea was to put to him.  If it was for the best of the club then he was prepared to go with it.  Sadly Evans was in a no win situation.  If Liverpool were to step up and win titles then Gerard Houllier would gain the plaudits.  Equally if things went wrong which they did during that 1998-99 season then it would be Evans who would take the blame and lose his job.

A defeat in November 1998 against Tottenham in the league cup saw Evans deciding that he had to walk away stating ‘if it’s not working then it would be a bigger mistake to stay.’

Gerard Houllier

The only link that Gerard Houllier had with Liverpool prior to his appointment as manager was as a school teacher during his previous time in the City.  Liverpool felt that a fresh approach was required and since French was in vogue following Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal won the double and France winning the World Cup hired Houllier.

The joint manager scheme by the Liverpool board appeared to be done in the vain hope of a losing gambler throwing his last fiver on a 30/1 outsider.  Inevitably it was to fail and in November Gerard Houllier was now solely in charge of Liverpool.

One of the first things that Houllier sought to improve besides the discipline within the club was to improve the defence that was soft and nervous.  It was to see a more organised and disciplined approach with the players associated with unprofessionalism shown the door.  The football though was to become more dour and cautious with conflict between the Kop’s favourite player Robbie Fowler and Houllier.

The disruptive influences of the likes of Neil Ruddock and Phil Babb were quickly shown the door with Steve McManaman deciding to take up the challenge of playing abroad and signing for Real Madrid.  It was a move that irked some Liverpool fans as due to McManaman’s contract expiring he was able to leave on a free transfer.  That though was the club’s fault for allowing the situation to progress as it did.

With the dawn of a new millennium it was also hoped to be the start of the glory days for Liverpool.  Three trophies within the 90’s was a drought as far as Liverpool football club were concerned.

Houllier strengthened the defence with Sami Hyppia and Stephane Henchoz being signed.  David James whose confidence appeared to be shattered after some high-profile clangers was sold to Aston Villa with Sander Westerveld becoming the new number one.  Didi Hamann was also signed from Newcastle and the talented Czech Vladimir Smicer joining his compatriot Patrik Berger.  Titi Camara was also signed as a forward.

The changes in the team could be seen instantly in that they looked more resilient and solid in defence.  However it was not to be as attacking as Evans Liverpool with caution now being the motif.  Houllier was of the ilk that the team did not need to have the ball to control the game and believed it was about taking that one big chance in the game.

Nevertheless there was still first class talent with Michael Owen being given his chance by Roy Evans looking to prove his potential.  All the signs were good especially as he scored a wonder goal against Argentina in the 1998 World cup.  David Thompson was regarded as the next big thing but it was to be a young kid from Huyton Steven Gerrard who would become the next idol of the Kop.

The gap between Liverpool taking their place at the top was widening and it was now vitally important that the club got the appointment right.  Under Houllier who appointed Phil Thompson as his number two the club despite early promise failed to do so.

Although Houllier’s first full season failed to produce any trophies with Liverpool failing to claim a Champions league place it was the 2000-01 season that brought success.  With Emile Heskey signed in March 2000 and the experienced Gary McAllister that helped the club win the treble of FA cup, League and UEFA cup.  Houllier also managed to ensure that Liverpool finished third to qualify for the Champions league.

It should have been the catalyst to spur Liverpool on to take that big step and be genuine contenders for the league.  Instead the club was to stumble and with some poor signings after finishing second in the 2001-02 season the club was to go backwards yet again.

Why Houllier had decided to spend £10 million on El Hadji Diouf rather than making the loan signing of Nicolas Anelka permanent is still puzzling.  Aside from Diouf’s attitude he was a player that would not fit with the way Houllier set his team up.  Diouf was not a centre-forward to play in a 4-4-2 formation and indeed he was more of an attacking midfielder.  Either way it was a gamble that was not to pay off.  The likes of his compatriot Salif Diao who was average at best.  Then of course there was Bruno Cheyrou who was dubbed the ‘next Zidane,’ by Houllier but the only similarity he had was as a doppleganger.

Although Manchester United were beaten 2-0 for Liverpool to win the Worthington league cup it was to be a poor season for Liverpool who managed to finish fifth.

Harry Kewell was signed from Leeds to bring that extra bit of guile that the critics felt was required but Houllier was on borrowed time for the 2003-04 season.  With the football poor on the eye to watch and results not up to the requirements it was no surprise that in 2004 Houllier parted ways with Liverpool.

Was Houllier’s stint in charge of the reds a success?  Well he would certainly argue that he won trophies but never ever got close to winning what is now the holy grail which is the league title.  Supporters of Houllier would also say that he brought in the much needed discipline in the club, helped develop Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher who eventually found his position in defence.

Liverpool needed someone with the quality to bridge the ever increasing gap between their rivals.  Despite making ground they stumbled and fell behind.  Signings after 2001 were poor and Houllier was mocked when he kept talking about turning a corner after winning after a bad run only to get beat the following week.

Another problem that Houllier had was the quality of football that watching was like being on mogadon.  If results are going your way then you can get away with it but when it is producing poor results then fans are not going to accept it.

There was also the added problem that despite the UEFA cup win that Houllier was tactically outwitted on the continent.  Barcelona in November 2001 outplayed Liverpool as they won 3-1 at Anfield whilst Valencia cut Liverpool apart in 2002 with the 1-0 score line not as close as indicated.

Houllier in the same year had a chance of making the semi-finals against Manchester United and were drawing 1-1 in the second leg after winning 1-0 at Anfield.  For reasons unknown and with thirty minutes still on the clock Houllier took off Hamann for Smicer and upset the balance of the team.  Leverkusen took advantage and won 4-2 which was enough to take them through to the semi’s.

Sadly though Houllier was not the manager that the Liverpool board thought they were getting.  The impression was that he would be similiar to Wenger especially as he was noted for recruiting young talent.  Instead of signing the likes of Henry, Viera, and Pires Houllier signed Le Tallec, Pongolle, and Cheyrou.  Liverpool now turned their eyes to Spain and were impressed with a young coach who had recently won La Liga and the UEFA cup.  Rafael Benitez.

Rafael Benitez

After falling out with the Valencia board over the lack of say over signings Rafael Benitez took up the offer of replacing Gerard Houllier.  It was again to be another rebuilding job but this time Liverpool had a manager with winning credentials.  To win two La liga titles over the giants that are Barcelona and Real Madrid was one hell of an achievement.  The hope was that Benitez coaching ability would see Liverpool leapfrog Manchester United, Arsenal, and Chelsea who had also appointed Jose Mourinho.

Benitez may not have delivered the title but he did come close in the 2008-09 season with Liverpool finishing second on eighty six points.  This incidentally was more than when they last won the league.  Nevertheless Benitez had made Liverpool a force to be reckoned with in Europe.  That Champions league win in Istanbul was one of the most surreal, dream like, and dramatic final as Liverpool came back from 3-0 down at half time against Milan to win on penalties after scoring three in six mad minutes.

The signings of Alonso and Garcia proved to be excellent signings with the likes of Torres and Mascherano also joining the club during Benitez’s time in charge.  There was to be another dramatic final against West Ham as Steven Gerrard once again rescued the club with a last-minute free kick to make it three all and after extra time it went to penalties with Liverpool again proving their cool to win the shoot out.

Another European cup final beckoned in 2007 but Milan gained revenge as they beat the reds 2-1.  This though was where Liverpool were expected to kick on and make a serious challenge for the title.  The 2008-09 season was really the season Liverpool should have won the title.

That second half of the season Benitez seemed to let the shackles off with Liverpool blitzing teams.  Real Madrid were thrashed 4-0 at Anfield.  Another highlight of course putting four past Manchester United at Old Trafford.  Torres with his blistering accelerating pace was scoring goals for fun with Alonso and Gerrard running the midfield.  Yet Manchester United witheld under pressure to win another title.

Looking at the fixtures there are three home games from later November to December against Fulham, West Ham, and Hull that Liverpool could only draw.  If Liverpool had lost one of them but won the other two would have won on goal difference.  However ifs do not win things.

With David Moores selling the club to Hicks and Gillett it was to be a downturn for Liverpool as the two cowboys saddled the club with a massive debt in order to purchase the club.  As a result Liverpool were in a mess with Benitez frustrated in his plans to obtain the players required.

In his last season in charge Liverpool were off the pace and with Benitez at odds with the owners left by mutal consent in 2010.

Again it was to be a case of much promise and optimism but falling short of winning that nineteenth league title.  Benitez had brought back the respect for Liverpool as during his tenure they were one of the leading sides in Europe.  Furthermore Benitez was responsible for not just the memories of Istanbul but the European runs.  Gerrard scoring a dramatic winner against Olympiacos to take Liverpool into the knock out stage and the noise, passion, belief and simply wanting Liverpool to be in the final that sucked in Garcia’s goal against Chelsea in the semi to take Liverpool to their sixth European cup final.

Hicks and Gillette certainly had a major impact on Liverpool regressing yet again but it could be argued that Liverpool had become too defensive.  The players also seemed to have lost belief with the frustration on Gerrard’s face after Torres was substituted against Birmingham in April 2010 which Liverpool needed to win but could only draw 1-1.

Liverpool were in a world of uncertainty with morale low amongst the Liverpool support who were worried what Hicks and Gillette were taking the club.  It was in some respects about to get worse.

Roy Hodgson

There was a look of disbelief amongst Liverpool fans when Roy Hodgson was announced as Benitez’s replacement.  He had managed abroad for Malmo, Inter Milan, and the Swiss national side.  Hodgson had been sacked by Blackburn in 1998 before returning back to England in 2006 to manage Fulham and leading them to a Europa cup final.

From the off the majority of fans were against him who wanted the return of Kenny Dalglish.  The only time Hodgson’s name was chanted was in sarcasm with ‘Hodgson for England.’  Results though were not to turn fans around.  Instead Liverpool were to plunge further.

In some ways you sometimes realise how hard it is to compete at the highest level.  Hodgson looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights at Man City as the Mancunians ran riot whilst Hodgson looked on bewildered and unsure what to do.  His signing Paul Konchesky summed up Hodgson who was so far out of his depth for Liverpool that at times it was like watching a player drowning openly on the pitch.

Consequently it came as no surprise after Liverpool were eventually sold to the Fenway sports group and Kenny Dalglish came back to bring back much needed stability.

Kenny Dalglish (the return)

Some people advise never to look back or allow sentiment get in the way of making decisions in football but for the Fenway group who were now in charge of Liverpool it made sense after dismissing Hodgson.

With Dalglish in charge he smoothed the waters and provided the stability the club needed.  His second stint was not as successful as it was when he first took charge in 1985-91 but for the Liverpool supporters he could do no wrong.

The question was whether Damien Comoli had too much say in the players that Liverpool signed.  Apart from Suarez the likes of Stewart Downing, Andy Carroll, and Charlie Adam were not up to the level required to compete at the top.  Consequently it was no surprise he was dismissed in April 2012.

Although Dalglish was given a three year deal and helped guide Liverpool to a league cup win against Cardiff and runner’s up to Chelsea in the 2012 FA cup final he too was dismissed due to Liverpool finishing eighth.

It is hard to judge Dalglish on his second return as it seemed it was always going to be short term and was more about bringing stability to the club.

Brendan Rodgers

After guiding Swansea to the Premier league and winning praise for the Welsh club’s first season in the top flight Liverpool decided to take a chance on a young promising manager.

There were a few frowns as fans felt Liverpool should have appointed someone with more experience but were prepared to give Rodgers the chance.  Besides the tika taka posession game was pretty much in vogue and Rodgers was an advocate of the posession game.

By now Liverpool had slipped further down and were no longer regulars in the Champions league with their last stint in the competition coming in the 2009-10 season.  Rodgers task was to build stability and get Liverpool back amongst the top four.

It was to be a distinctly average first season with no European football but the following season 2013-14 was to see Liverpool almost claim the title.  The football was very attacking with Suarez leading the line.  In some respects Rodgers team were of the mind of if you score one, we’ll score one more than you.  A defeat against Chelsea at Anfield left it wide open and despite being 3-0 up away to Crystal Palace continued to surge forward in the attempt to boost their goal difference.  Instead Liverpool collapsed with Palace scoring three goals with only eleven minutes left on the clock to grab a dramatic draw.  Despite beating Newcastle at home it was to be Manchester City who sneaked in to win the league.

With Luis Suarez sold to Barcelona and the signings especially Balotelli not proving to be successful Liverpool failed to push and finished outside of the top four.  Their return to the Champions league was to be an embarrasment as despite a group that contained Ludogorets and Basle failed to qualify.  Real Madrid were the only genuine contenders but Liverpool were weakly submissive as they were beaten 3-0 at Anfield and 1-0 at the Bernabeu.  Rodgers had also put up the white flag with the latter fixture as he made seven changes with notably Gerrard, Sterling, and Henderson dropped and put on the bench.

Liverpool seemed to lose that strength of imposing themselves on their opponents and with an ageing Gerrard he was unable to take the game by the scruff of the neck as he used to do.  The calamatious 2-1 semi-final defeat against Villa in the FA cup with Liverpool wilting  despite Coutinho giving the reds the lead meant that Rodgers was on borrowed time.

This was certainly true for the 2015-16 season as Rodgers was intent on Liverpool keeping within the top four.  Indeed it seemed as though he was told to ensure that he had to obtain a certain amount of points.  A draw against Everton was his last game in charge with the enigmatic Jurgen Klopp taking charge.

Rodgers promised so much but failed to deliver at the crucial times.  In europe he was naive and outwitted with the panic appearing to set in when Liverpool needed a win against Basle at Anfield but played a very defensive line up.  Consequently it was no surprise that it ended 1-1.

The being Liverpool documentary didn’t help matters as Rodgers came across as David Brent.  At times he also seemed to tie himself up in knots with tactics with players looking unsure as to what they were meant to be doing as he changed the formation during games.

Rodgers signings were also questionable and it seemed as if he had no say in who Liverpool signed with the transfer committee having a final say.  This was particularly evident when Balotelli was announced with Rodgers seemingly unconvinced.  In the end as hard as it sounds Rodgers just simply wasn’t up to the task.

Jurgen Klopp

Only time will tell whether Klopp will bring back the success to Liverpool.  Undoubtedly due to his success at Dortmund he is one of the best coaches in Europe.  Last season he got Liverpool to the league and Europa cup final with the latter against all odds considering the quality of teams that they played.

Added to which the likes of Lallana, Firmino, and even Mignolet have all improved under the tutelege of Klopp.

One thing for sure is that Klopp is charasmatic  and wants to bring back fun to Anfield.  Furthermore he wants everyone from the tea ladies, the fans, coaches, and players to all work together and to enjoy the ride.  The hardest thing of course is getting the right signings.

Conclusion

It is hard to blame one particular individual for the fall of Liverpool from the top.  Souness tried to change things too quickly and signed inferior players.  Evans was unable to install the required discipline with his teams unable to show the resilence and desire to grind out results against all odds.  Again the signings and particular the defence was poor.

Eight years after Liverpool last won the title was when Liverpool really needed to get it right.  The team had the nuculeas of a young team containing the likes of Fowler, McManaman, Redknapp, Owen, Carragher, and a up and coming Gerrard.  Instead they appointed Gerard Houllier whose career was pretty mediocre before joining Liverpool.

Despite the hype Houllier was no Arsene Wenger not just in terms of the football provided but despite the promise of his contacts was unable to find the young talent that Wenger did in his early years at Arsenal.  Indeed the majority of his signings were poor and the football was dour, defensive, and  predictable.  Instead of Liverpool taking that step forward they took a step back.

David Moores also has to take responsibility in terms of not making the tough decisions and allowing sentiment to get in the way of making the tough decisions.

The joint manager scheme with Evans and Houllier was weak and wasted a season.  Moores should have made a decision rather than hoping against hope it would work.

Selling to Hicks and Gillette was a disaster which very nearly took the club under.  This incidentally was at a time when the money was being pumped into Chelsea and Man City who now overtook Liverpool

Nostalgia also played its part with one eye always on the past that in some respects it has been a anchor around the club’s neck.  Ironically the Liverpool way was always to look forward and never to let sentiment to get in the way of making decisions for the good of the club.  It was always about keeping one step ahead, moving players on at the right time, and ensuring the replacements were of the same quality if not better.  Too much it could be argued is spent reminiscing about the past.

Liverpool under the Fenway group are trying to run the club more efficiently and do not have the inclination or ability to throw big money on superstars.It doesn’t mean that Liverpool can’t challenge at the top in the near future.  They certainly have the manager who can get the best out of his players which is Klopp.  Atletico Madrid have shown that if you get the recruitment right that it can be done.

The fact is that whilst the likes of Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea, and Man City are at the top table, Liverpool are just below.  Nothing stands still and Liverpool at present have been overtaken.  That’s not to say that it can’t change but it just may take time and patience.

We need to talk about Arsene

There are little signs that spring is around the corner. It’s staying lighter longer, the first buds of leaves are starting to sprout and Arsenal are out of the Champions league with the league title already blown as well.  Inevitably come the usual moans from fans demanding that Wenger steps down.  However it has now come to the point that the critics may start to have a point.

With football unless you are consistently winning major titles then fans at the very least expect to see progress.  Despite Wenger ensuring that Arsenal have consistently finished in the top four and competed in the Champions league since its recent incarnation progress has been a flatline.  Some fans believe that a new approach is needed with fresh ideas and a new boldness that Wenger had when he first joined Arsenal and won the double in his first full season in charge.

There are of course fans who still believe in Wenger and that the goal posts have changed in football.  With the money involved in the game it is getting harder to compete and that there has to be some realism.  It takes time to re-build a team and patience is required.

The problem though is that none of the potential such as Walcott, Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain, and Ozil to name a few have made that impact required to win the title or champions league.  ‘Good, but not good enough,’ as Roy Walker on catchphrase used to say.  Patience has been urged but there is only so long that you can be promised about ‘jam tomorrow,’ without wondering if it ever will come.

Critics argue that it has been a flatline since 2008 after the awful challenge on Eduardo at Birmingham saw Arsenal slip down the table.  They have of course still been in the Champions league but have got nowhere close since being beaten 2-1 in the final at Paris against Barcelona in 2006.

That though is partly were the problem lies.  Familiarity and frustration of the potential failing to deliver.  Critics cannot see the current Arsenal side making that extra step towards winning the big honours like the league and European cup which is why they think it is time for Wenger to step aside.  A new coach would at least bring  some excitement and optimism for the future.

Supporters of Wenger would state that the goal posts have changed with the money and the rich backing that have been pumped into Manchester City and Chelsea.  They would cite that the move to the Emirates has had an impact on their spending as the club strive to get themselves on a financial level.  Wenger has always ensured Arsenal a top four finish and a place in the Champions league.

It is reasonable and indeed a strong argument on whether a new man could do any better with the same resources.  ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ is commonly stated with many citing the disastrous brief reign of David Moyes at Manchester United.  Yet when you see the likes of Guardiola, Klopp, and Mourinho taking charge of their rivals you can see why some fans feel that they have missed the boat.

Besides whether a team has enjoyed a trophy haul that would put a Viking raid to shame or battling to get out of the arse end of the table a new manager is always going to be a risk.  The problem is whether fans feel the club is stagnating.  Yes Wenger was an innovator at the time he signed for Arsenal  but whereas the players like Vieira, Henry, Pires, Overmars, and Anelka to name but a few were of the quality to win titles the current crop fall short of the standard required.  Furthermore the question is whether Wenger can deliver those type of players especially as the years fly by.

For the board though Wenger has ensured that Arsenal finish in the top four and meets the minimum demands.  With finance being the big demand of the Premier league era why would the board risk a change of manager that might see the team fall out of the top four?

That though is the gamble that the anti-Wenger brigade would have to take.  The team could take an almighty tumble that they may not even finish in a spot to guarantee Europa league football.  Some fans may be willing to take that chance for at least the chance of new optimism and sense of a new adventure that a manager brings.

The problem with Arsenal is that it is the familiarity and lack of progress that is making many Arsenal fans question on whether Wenger should stay on. At the moment though it appears that so long as Wenger finishes within the top four it is still his shout as to when he decides to hang up his manager’s coat.

 

 

Is this the decline of Barcelona?

The demise of Barcelona has been greatly exaggerated over the years.  It has if anything since the 2004/05 season been one of their most successful periods in Barcelona’s history.  Four European cups, eight la liga titles, four Copa Del Rey, and three FIFA club world cups.  They have played football that at times seems to have been from another planet with the likes of football greats Ronaldinho and Messi mesmerizing fans and opposition alike.

They have of course been at the crossroads before in 2008 with critics deeming that the club had hit its peak after winning the European cup for a second time in 2006.  Rather than building on their success Rijkaard lost the discipline of the changing room with Ronaldinho and Deco to name but a few losing their hunger and seemed more intent on partying than playing football.  The joke being that Ronaldinho was in the gym was a euphuism that he was sleeping off a hangover.

Rumours abound that Jose Mourinho was to take over after Rijkaard had lost his job and that Barcelona needed an experienced winner to turn things around.  The club though probably made one of the best decisions since the club was formed by appointing former player and then current B team manager Pep Guardiola.  Eyebrows were raised as to whether he had the experience but with the aid of his assistant Tito Vilanova took the club to another level.  That team is now remembered alongside the great teams of Liverpool, AC Milan, Ajax, and their arch rivals Real Madrid who had dominated Europe.  Winning it for the fifth time in 2015 acknowledged that fact.  

Although Guardiola was unproven he knew the DNA and expectations of the club.  Furthermore he was a club legend who would be given time but more importantly he was single-minded, determined, and ruthless when needed.  It was not as some people view with hindsight an easy job.  The team had been floundering and the wrong decisions could quite easily have taken Barcelona back.  Added to which the intense pressure from the fans and media alike who scrutinised every decision from tactics to team selections only added to the pressure.

One of the first steps that Guardiola did was bring back the discipline that was sorely lacking.  Training was expected to start at the stated time with any latecomer suffering a  fine as well as a slow handclap by his teammates when he did appear on the training pitch.

Guardiola was also instrumental in bringing a sense of togetherness and working hard for the team.  Anyone who didn’t was shown the door.  Nobody could question his ruthlessness as Ronaldinho and Deco were the first to be shown the door.  The former was a signal of real intent considering he was one of the most talented players at the time despite his unprofessionalism towards the end.  Furthermore they didn’t want Ronaldinho’s behaviour to have a bad influence on a young Messi.

It was also to see a change in the tactics with Guardiola taking full advantage of the quality of his players at his disposal.  Play was to start from the back with the goalkeeper Valdes expected to be also good with his feet.  More importantly though was the intense pressing game that Guardiola wanted his team to play.

Possession was not only important but it was what you did with it that counted.  Losing the ball would see Guardiola wanting his team to put the opposition under intense pressure to regain the ball.  Preferably they would force the opposition towards the sidelines where the passing angle would be halved to increase their chances of regaining control.  Small indeed triangular groups would hound the opposition player and look to cut off their space and options in order to win back the ball.

Defence would now become attack and the Barca players were expected to move quickly and provide an option for their teammate who had the ball.  A lot of the time it would be two or three touches as they buzzed around quickly and menacingly ready to receive the ball at a moments notice.  Indeed the tempo of the game that Barcelona played and the movement was akin to a five a side match.

Every Barca player was expected to work hard and your contribution was to be for the benefit of the team rather than an individual.  With the team well-balanced from defence to attack it was no wonder that they put many teams to the sword and won plaudits for their entertaining play.

Incidentally it was to be the season that Xavi and Iniesta finally started to get the recognition that they deserved.  They suited the style perfectly and under Guardiola shone brightly.  Although Puyol may not go down as a Maldini he was an organiser and vocal leader who ensured that the defence retained its shape.

Guardiola also brought together a sense of unity as well as installing loyalty and belief in his methods.  Of course he would listen to ideas but Guardiola had a manner that is very much required in a modern coach of players not only understanding what he required but the reason why.

The season went off to a slow start in the league with a 1-0 away defeat to Numancia and drawing 1-1 in Barcelona’s first home game of the season against Racing Santander.  Many wondered if the team was still going to show the same inconsistencies that had plagued them for the last two.  However everything clicked into place after beating Sporting Gijon 6-1 away from home and won nine games in a row.

Slowly everybody started to take notice of this fast pressing game or what was termed ‘tiki taka.’  It was spell binding and enjoyable to watch for football fans.  At times Barcelona seemed to be from a different world as they raced away in the league.

In May 2009 Real Madrid the defending champions and needing a result to stay in realistic contention of retaining the title were humiliated with Barcelona thrashing Real 6-2 at the Bernabeu.  A few days later a last-minute well placed goal against Chelsea by Iniesta was enough to put Barcelona into the final against Manchester United.

Talk of a of a historic treble was now openly talked about with Barcelona winning the Copa Del Rey 4-1 against Bilbao.  With the league secured it was the chance of a third European cup title against the reigning champions Manchester United at Rome.

Despite a ropey start Barcelona asserted control after Eto’o had given Barca the lead after a well placed pass by Iniesta who hit a precision pass to Eto’o who raced on the right and put the ball past Van Der Saar.  After that there was only going to be one winner as Barcelona gave the Manchester club a footballing lesson.  A Messi header to make it two in the second half capped a fantastic season.  Indeed 2009 would see them win six titles which included the world club cup.

The following seasons saw Barcelona retain their league title (in what was to turn into the equivalent heavyweight clash of Ali V Frazier) with Real Madrid matching pound for pound but falling short by three points despite finishing the league on ninety-six points.

Inter Milan who would go on to win the European cup that year under Jose Mourinho had knocked out Barcelona in the semi-final 3-2 on aggregate.  Their defensive tactics holding well against the Catalans.

2010-11 season was to be seen as the pinnacle of Guardiola’s tenure in charge.  The pressure though was starting to show which wasn’t helped by Mourinho who Real Madrid had turned to in the hope of hauling in their nemesis Barcelona.

With the Catalan and Madrid clubs going toe to toe in every competition it was to be brutal mentally and competitively.  Mourinho’s aggressive mind games were pushed to the extreme to distract Barca but despite beating Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey it was to be the Catalan’s who would win the plaudits for winning the bigger prizes.  The league was retained for a third season in a row whilst beating Real Madrid 3-1 on aggregate in the semi-final of the Champions league.

Manchester United were comprehensively beaten 3-1 in the final of the champions leagu with Alex Ferguson describing Barcelona as the best side that he had ever faced.  With the plaudits raining down on the Catalans it particularly grated Real Madrid who considered themselves as the footballing equivalent of the Harlem globetrotter’s in terms of being renowned entertainers.

The question now was how long could Barcelona sustain this high quality football and the success it brought.  2011-12 was to be Guardiola’s last season in charge as he took a well-earned break after the pressure that came with managing Barcelona.  Madrid would wrest the league back with Barcelona having to be content with the World club cup and Copa Del Rey.

Guardiola’s successor was to be his assistant Vilanova with Barcelona hoping that they too would have a bootroom legacy like Liverpool.  Some critics even described Vilanova as Bob Paisley to Guardiola being Shankly.

Although Vilanova led Barcelona to the league title with one hundred points there was the feeling that the team was on the wane.  Losing to Madrid in the Copa Del Rey was bad enough but the footballing lesson given to them by Bayern Munich in the semi-final of the champions league rubbed salt in the wounds.  Thrashed 4-0 at the Allianz Arena and soundly beaten at the Nou Camp 3-0.  Questions were being asked especially as the club became more reliant on Lionel Messi.

Vilanova had to step down due to his cancer returning and sadly passed away in April 2014.  In his place the Argentinean Tata Martino was to take charge.  It was not to be a successful season in charge with the club not winning any trophies and blowing the chance to retain the league as they failed to beat Atletico Madrid who in turn won the title on the final day.  This was despite the fact that Neymar had been signed (incidentally his signing would cause all matter of scandal regarding the manner of the transfer deal).

Luis Enrique took charge with Luis Suarez being signed from Liverpool to provide Barcelona with a very potent attack.  It was to bring rich rewards as Barcelona won the treble yet again.  Juventus being beaten 3-1 in Berlin to be Champions of Europe for the fifth time.

Yet despite the trophy haul there had been criticism daft as it may seem directed at Luis Enrique and his team.  Indeed there were questions as to whether he would last longer than the season.  The quality of Messi, Neymar, and Suarez who scored one hundred and twenty-two goals between them though ensured that Barcelona continued to collect the trophies.

Last season saw Barcelona retain the league and Copa Del Rey but this season seem to be jaded and way off the pace.  After the first leg humiliation at the Parc des Princes as Paris St Germain put four past Barcelona questions are being asked and again whether this is the end of the line for Enrique.

It is inevitable that a team no matter how successful they have been will hit a dip.  The players that brought the success get old and either move on or retire.  When Puyol finally called it a day due to injury there was not just a defensive gap missing but that all important leader and organiser.  He was the one who ensured that everybody was in position or urging them to push themselves.

Despite the need of a centre half Barcelona seemed to be happy with Mascherano playing in that position.  Although he has done a good job and certainly does the job required of carrying the ball the Barcelona defence is not as strong as it should be.

Xavi is another big miss as he was part of the heartbeat of the team along with Iniesta.  They brought balance to the team, could move quickly but were ruthless with their passing even in the tightest of spaces.  Iniesta now is coming towards the end and the squad from the Guardiola era is getting less and less.

At present Barcelona do have the best attack in Europe with Suarez, Neymar, and Messi.  Indeed any time that has the latter is always going to be formidable but there is not that symmetry of the past where the team attacked and defended as a unit.

When Guardiola took charge there was a player that was suited to every position and in some respects were the best players in that position.  Add a few tweaks tactically that took teams by surprise it was a formidable team.

Although Messi was always seen to be the main man the team over time became more reliant on the Argentinean.  To the point that a couple of seasons ago when Barcelona played PSG they done everything to get a patched up Messi on the pitch whose presence managed to get them through.  Rewind a few years and although Messi missing would be a blow the team would cope quite comfortably now it is more reliant on Messi than ever.

Tactics is also another matter.  It is always hard to stay one step ahead and teams have learnt to play against Barcelona by restricting space and if possible forcing them further up the pitch.

The Barcelona team now is more direct than Guardiola’s and that is a case of trying to keep ahead of their rivals.  Furthermore each new coach that arrived had their own ideas and influences that they felt would get the best results for the club.  In that respect it could be argued that they have continually delivered the trophies that Barcelona fans demand and are becoming accustomed to.

No team though can keep that level of play or success up forever.  Barcelona will find the next few years tougher as their main players who helped bring them success retire.  When Messi which is a good few years away retires or moves then Barcelona will find themselves back to earth with a bump.  As it is they are now entering the earth’s atmosphere and it will be a bumpy ride when they have to start all over again.  Trophies will be hard to come by whilst their rivals could well be the ones that are ahead.  That though is the nature of football.

 

Brian Benjamin

 


 

 

The shadow of the FA Cup

Despite hype from the BBC and BT sports there was a time when the third round of the FA Cup was genuinely something that people got excited about.  For starters it was a trophy that was worth winning.  On a sunny May morning everybody would tune in from breakfast with the two finalists right up to the final whistle and presentation of the Cup.  There would even be street parties in the cities or towns that reached the Cup final.

The third round was a chance for clubs who perhaps had not made the best of starts to the season and could rescue it with a good cup run.  There was excited talk of ‘whose name was on the trophy,’ which would refer to those teams that somehow scraped through via a last-minute equaliser for a replay and to win the replayed tie with a bobbled goal on a muddy pitch.

Giant killing was something that was always discussed as lower league clubs got a chance to host and possibly knock out one of the top dogs.  It was a chance to be forever remembered like Hereford’s Ronnie Radford’s winning goal that knocked out Newcastle United.  Then of course there is Mickey Thomas’s winning goal for  fourth division Wrexham against Arsenal in 1992.

Gradually though and certainly after the Premier league had started the FA cup started to lose its allure.  Most point to the FA allowing Manchester United to abstain from the 1999-00 competition in order to allow United to compete in the World Club cup.  Although it was a nail in the coffin for the FA cup it wasn’t just that moment.  It could be argued that it was already building up to the FA cup losing its sparkle but it certainly speeded up the process with the FA voluntarily undermining their own competition.

As always it is a culmination of events that saw the FA cup become a competition that became less attractive.  With the newly formed Premier league formed in 1992 it became apparent that money was the big appeal.   Thanks to the mammoth TV money of Sky that was pumped into the Premier league the gulf in finances between those football clubs that were unlucky not to be in the ‘big,’ league grew with those playing in the elite league more interested in bank balances with the Premier league the be all and end all.

During this period UEFA decided to revamp their club competitions in order to placate the big clubs who felt the current set up did not suit their needs.  To avoid the threat of a breakaway European Super league or even an alternative European cup, UEFA made significant changes to the European Champions cup.

You didn’t need to be the actual champion of your league you could finish second for what would now be called the Champions league.  Eventually for the main leagues the top three places would guarantee you a spot with the fourth placed team being able to take part providing they could get through a two-legged qualifier.

Once in you now played the first proper stage in eight groups of four teams with the top two qualifying for the knock out stages of the last sixteen.  There was none of those risky two-legged affairs were a bad result meant that you were out.  Furthermore there was a guaranteed income as huge money was also pumped into the Champions league.  The UEFA cup became the poor relative and rebranded as the Europa league.   It now became a competition so long-winded with the financial reward nothing compared to the Champions league that a lot of clubs saw it as more of a hindrance.  Incidentally the Cup winners cup became defunct.

It now meant that for clubs the priorities changed.  Whether it was staying in the Premier league or trying to finish in the top four the FA cup became less of a priority.  As more and more money was being pumped into the Premier and Champions league it made supporters accountants.  Incredibly fans would be talking about a good season being finishing in the top four over a good run and possibly winning the FA cup.  Slowly the romance and excitement of the FA cup was eroding as there would be a shrug of the shoulders if their team was knocked out.  The Premier league was all that mattered rather than the glory of a Cup win.

Slowly over time football clubs started to play weaker teams citing that the Premier league took priority.  Previously this would have caused uproar but again there are the nods of the head from some fans who believe it to be the right thing to do.  This season’s third round for example Bournemouth played with a different and weaker XI to their previous league game.  None of it makes sense especially as Bournemouth look comfortable in the league that you would think they would give the FA cup a serious go and a chance of winning a trophy.

Football is about the memories, the day outs and the drama if you go all the way.  Which supporter honestly remembers a season of mediocrity by finishing tenth?  Instead its the trips, and last-minute winners that stick long in the mind.  But again the money of the Premier league overrules any romance.

Another attraction of the FA cup was getting to Wembley.  To see your team play amongst the white towers and to play on that beautiful lawn of a pitch.  It made all those earlier rounds of scraping through on farm fields of a pitch more worthwhile.  Furthermore it made you feel exclusive that your club was one of the few that had the chance of playing at one of the cathedrals of football which was Wembley.

Money though inevitably talks that the semi-finals were no longer played at neutral club grounds like Old Trafford or Villa Park they would all be played at Wembley.  Once again the FA undermined their own competition and upped it by changing the kick off time for the final to five o’clock simply to satisfy TV companies.

The FA cup is only just above the league cup in terms of prestige and that’s only because of its history.  Even then some clubs see it as an inconvenience and only start to take it seriously if they get to the semi-finals.

Money has been one of the major factors on why the FA cup is not as prestigious as it once was.  It certainly hasn’t been helped by the FA who have undermined the Cup.

Winning the FA cup was something major.  It made the headlines and legends were made.  Liverpool for example despite winning league championships only felt that they became part of the elite after beating Leeds United in the 1965 FA cup final.  Then there is the Stanley Matthews final of 1953 or what about second division Sunderland in one of the big cup upsets as they beat Leeds 1-0?  Coventry beating Spurs 3-2 is one of the great cup finals and then Wimbledon preventing Liverpool winning a double with a Sanchez header to claim the Cup.

The competition it was said also saved Alex Ferguson from being sacked as the Manchester United Manager in 1990.  Mark Robins goal against Nottingham Forest in the third round being credited as the goal that saved him.  You only have to see the picture of Alex Ferguson lovingly cradling the FA cup after United beat Crystal Palace in a replay to see how much it meant to him.  Ironically winning the FA cup was not enough to save Louis Van Gaal’s job as Man Utd manager last season.

It’s hard to see if the FA cup will ever regain its former glory especially as it is seen as the poor relative.  At present money seems to talk but as previously stated the FA has not done enough to protect or promote its competition.

Maybe there will be a time when supporters will demand that their clubs take the FA cup serious and see a good cup run as a distraction from a poor season like it did in the past.  After all nobody dreams of scoring a goal to secure fourth place but of a rocket goal in the last-minute that dramatically wins your club the FA cup.

Brian Benjamin