Liverpool in the 90’s – The Spice boy era

Wembley on a bright May day prior to the FA cup final can be a glorious sight.  Much was expected in the Cup final of 1996 as Liverpool took on Manchester United in what many hoped would be a classic final.

That though was marginally fractured when the Liverpool squad strolled out onto the lush green Wembley pitch in  flash Armani white suits.  It had to be said that the suits looked ridiculous with the team looking a bunch of ice cream sellers.  However the image and the nickname of ‘Spice boys,’ stuck and was seen to epitomise what was wrong with Roy Evans Liverpool.  It was a team that was perceived as all image and no substance.  More interested in partying with football coming a poor second.

Time is always a chance to put things in perspective and the criticism aimed at Roy Evans can be seen to be harsh.  Liverpool were consistently in the top four and played some of the best football around of that particular era.

Unfortunately for Roy Evans, Liverpool’s dominance was still recent when he took charge in 1994.  After all their last title was in 1990 and prior to that had plundered so many trophies from the 1960’s to 1990 that it would put a Viking haul to shame.  With detested rivals Manchester United the dominant force, the pressure was instantly on Roy Evans to put Liverpool back on its perch.

After the sacking of Graeme Souness whose two and a half years in charge were turbulent.  Due to poor signings, unrest in the dressing room, and trying to change things too quickly, time was called on Souness’s reign as manager.

The problem Liverpool had, was of who to appoint to make Liverpool the dominant force once more.  Looking at the possible candidates at that time there are none that particularly stick out.

Of course hindsight is a wonderful thing to say that Liverpool should have looked further afield to foreign shores.  It is easy to say that Liverpool could have beaten Arsenal to the punch by appointing Arsene Wenger two years before he agreed to join the Gunners.  At that time English football was insular with the possibility that someone like Wenger would have had problems getting his ideas across.  Like the Czech Jozef Venglos whose stint at Aston Villa in 1990 was short-lived there could have been a good chance that the players didn’t take to him.  Furthermore Wenger inherited a strong defence at Arsenal which would not have been the case at Liverpool.  Either way it would have been a brave move for Liverpool to have taken a chance looking at that particular period in time.

Closer to home the only names that could be considered was John Toshack.  Success at Real Madrid and Sociedad as well as having played for Liverpool would make him a serious contender.  As it was Toshack had allegedly missed his chance after turning down the job down in 1991.

Although hypothetical there could have been a chance of trying to bring Kenny Dalglish back to Anfield.  This might have been hard considering that he was building a Blackburn Rovers team that would eventually win the title for the 94/95 season.

That left the bootroom and as Roy Evans was literally the last man standing, was seen as the man to steady the ship and ensure that the traditions of Liverpool were kept.  Ronnie Moran another Anfield stalwart would ensure that his experience and knowledge would also be used.

Football at that particular time was at the crossroads between the old world and the new world of the Premier league.  Not just in terms of the money that was being splashed around but in terms of professionalism.  The acceptable wisdom that a few beers was okay was eventually eradicated to a regime more similar to a high-profile athlete.  Evans had to deal with that as well as re-building a football team that had high expectations from its supporters.

Added to which Evans was used to a world of where players like Souness, Dalglish, Hansen, and Case would take personal responsibility.  Being professional and having the desire to win even if that meant ruffling feathers in the changing room if teammates were not pulling their weight.

This new Liverpool did not have those characters who didn’t care whether it was the European cup final or a Sunday league match.  Winning was what it was all about and the likes of Souness, Dalglish, Case, St. John, and Smith epitomises this during their time at playing at Anfield.

Bill Shankly was certainly a tough character who stood no messing and made sure that his players knew of the high standards that he expected.  Despite looking like your favourite Uncle’s in their comfortable cardigan and flat cap, Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan were as hard as nails who ruled like a Mafia Don when required.  Roy Evans though didn’t have that steel and ability of when to knock a player into line and when to shown him the door.

Ultimately it is about having respect and sadly Evans could not command that from his team.  Part of the job is knowing when to rid the club of bad influences and players who lacked professionalism.  For example Neil Ruddock should have been one of the first to be shown the door.  Aside from the pass the pound game that he was alleged to have instigated (a pound coin would be passed throughout the match and the last person with the coin after the final whistle had to buy the first round) and loud mouthed slogan ‘win, lose, or draw, first to the bar,’ Ruddock hardly looked after himself.

There were also instances of players competing to steal his car park space, not showing up for training, and general ill discipline that led to supporters that the players were not at all that serious about winning.

Some ex-players dispute the lack of discipline and state that Evans could be strict.  After all Don Hutchinson had been bombed out over a drunken indiscretion and Stan Collymore after proving too much of a disruptive influence.  The truth as they say is somewhere in the middle but it has to be said that discipline was not Evans strong point.

Despite having being tasked with re-building a team going backwards there was a nucleus of good youngsters coming through.  McManaman and Fowler through the ranks with Redknapp, Jones, and James the other youth players cited to have the potential to be top players.

Evans was shown to be a coach who wasn’t afraid to change things.  He did introduce three at the back in an attempt to not just stabilise the defence but with the two wing backs added to support the attack.  There was also the nous in the sense of pushing John Barnes into a central role after his losing his pace.  Barnes experience and passing helped keep the midfield ticking over.

Yet there was the sense that Liverpool were falling behind their rivals not just tactically but on how they trained and approached games.  The Liverpool way was always about not showing any sentiment and ensuring that they always stayed one step ahead of the opposition.

Matches and high-profile defeats such as the mist game against Ajax, Red Star Belgrade, and Watford were all instrumental in how Liverpool changed their approach and tactics.  For example the Belgrade game taught the importance of retaining the ball and led to the centre-halves being expected to be comfortable in bringing the ball out.

Liverpool in the mid nineties were still using the old and trusted methods of the past.  John Scales the former centre half talks in Simon Hughes Men in white suits ‘The wooden target boards were still used and they were rotting away. There was no tactical or technical analysis.  There were so many bad habits.’

Ironically Liverpool who had previously always prided themselves in being ahead of the game had allowed themselves to stagnate by continually sticking to old and trusted habits.  Previously the bootroom had been more than aware that the game continually evolved.

There was also complaints that Evans was too simplistic in his views.  That he didn’t have the ability to be able to change things when it wasn’t working or instructing his players what he wanted out of them.  Again times had changed and the mantra of instructing players to ‘play your own game,’ may have worked previously when the team was a well-functioning machine with players signed to play that position but not a team that was being built.

Despite all this the football was highly entertaining with some eye-catching attacking football.  With Robbie Fowler banging in the goals it seemed that if Liverpool could iron out the problems at the back and a view at the time adding a bit more steel in the midfield then Liverpool would end their wait for a nineteenth league title.

As it was Roy Evans signings fell way short of backing up the potential that was already at the club.  Players such as Phil Babb, Jason McAteer, Kennedy, Scales, Leonhardsen, Friedel, and Kvarme to name but a few failed to deliver.  Paul Ince may have been seen as being the steel Liverpool needed but he was not the player that previously excelled in the Manchester United field.

Stan Collymore was Evans high-profile signing from Nottingham Forest for £8.5 million.  Despite his talents he was still a risk after being a disruptive influence at Forest and his previous clubs Southend.

In Collymore’s first season he was productive with him and Fowler terrorising defenders and scoring goals in abundance.  Yet the problems that had dogged his career re-surfaced at Liverpool.  Collymore failed to turn up to training regularly and lacked the professionalism required.  It is only now that we know of Collymore’s battle with mental illness.  Evans unfortunately didn’t have the capacity to recognise this or the ability to deal with the issues as a result.

Success and certainly at a club like Liverpool is what a manager is judged on and Evans fell short.  There was of course optimism when Liverpool beat Bolton to win the league cup in 1995 but that was to be the only bit of silverware that Evans won in his tenure as manager.

Roy Evans despite finishing no lower than fourth in the league failed in delivering the league title.  The nearest that he came to it was in the 1996/97 season when Liverpool finished fourth in a two horse race.  During the run in when the pressure is high it is about delivering results and keeping that nerve.  Liverpool could not take advantage and despite getting themselves in a good position after beating Arsenal at Highbury they messed up by losing at home against Coventry.  As it was a 1-1 draw with Sheffield Wednesday saw Liverpool finish fourth rather than nabbing even a champions league spot.

The harsh reality as cited by Fowler and other ex-reds of that period is that the team simply were not good enough.  None of Evans signings made a lasting impression and it would be fair to say that Patrik Berger and Danny Murphy were probably his only real success.

Fowler in his autobiography believes that Liverpool were not that far behind and not in as bad a state as Gerard Houllier made out.  That is a fair point but at that stage the pressure was taking its toll on Roy Evans.  In his interviews during Evans final full season in charge looked tired and unwell as he seemed to be buckling under the pressure.  The summer of 1998 the Liverpool board should have either continued to back Evans or cut ties.  As it was David Moores fudged the issue and went with a joint manager venture of Evans and Houllier which didn’t work.  After defeat to Tottenham in the league cup in November 1998, Evans called time with Houllier now solely in charge.

The legacy of Roy Evans Liverpool is one of a team that played swashbuckling, cavalier football.  Nobody will forget the two 4-3’s against Newcastle that seemed to sum up both teams attitude at the time.

There is also the negative image of the partying, up for a laugh, not really caring, and lack of professionalism that hogged the headlines of some of the Liverpool players.  Indeed it could be argued that whilst Manchester United had Roy Keane, Liverpool had Neil Ruddock and that crucially is the difference in terms of attitudes installed in the team.

Even now some of Evans ex-players do cite a lack of discipline and leniency.  Jason McAteer says of his former manager ‘I think he found it hard to drop or discipline players.  We were all his boys.  We had some big characters there, and he found it difficult to deal with the Collymores and Ruddocks.’  Maybe Evans expected his players to be more adult and take responsibility but a manager has to quickly stamp out any indiscipline and make an instant mark.  Evans failed to do so.

Of course if some of the signings had been real quality and if they had got players like Thuram or Desailly then things might have been different.  As it was Liverpool were great in attack but brittle at the back.

Thrown into the mix was that Liverpool’s methods were still stuck too much in the past.  What had worked previously didn’t mean it still did.  In terms of tactics, training, and diet it all needed a fresh approach.  Something that ironically Liverpool had never been afraid to do in the past.

It could be argued that Evans was unlucky with injuries with Rob Jones finishing his career early and a serious injury to Redknapp whilst playing for England meant he never got the best out of some that young potential.

Evans Liverpool despite its frustrations still provides some fond memories.  The football was fun and at the beginning with the likes of Fowler and McManaman the future did seem bright.  Yet the team fell short and unfortunately it was to be the white suits and not trophies for what Evans Liverpool will be remembered for.

 

 

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Why the Coutinho transfer saga is more about Liverpool’s poor recruitment strategy.

With a pocketful of cash from the Neymar deal and Barcelona needing to re-build it was slightly inevitable that the Catalan club would be linked with Liverpool’s Coutinho.  It has been a move that has been mooted for the past year especially as Barcelona are re-building and require an attacking midfielder.

Of course there is the argument that the majority of teams are selling clubs, especially when Barcelona and Real Madrid come a knocking but regardless of whether you think it is good business or not, it has shone an awkward spotlight on the transfer and scouting under the Fenway group.

The problem has now been exasperated as Coutinho has now put in a transfer request.  This has led to a few believing that he should be sold for the highest price possible.

However the quality of the Liverpool squad is not up to scratch especially as it needs to improve despite finishing fourth and qualifying for a Champions league play-off spot. There are still problems with the defence with the lack of quality of the bench very much apparent last season as there were no options when Liverpool struggled to break down defensive teams.  There were no player who you felt could change the game or change the formation to test the opposition.

From a footballing point of view it does not make sense to sell Coutinho no matter the fee offered.  I imagine there might be a few people scoffing at that notion, after all every player has his price.  However Liverpool do not have the time to get an adequate replacement and will be to the detriment of the club’s progress this season.

It is a team that needs building for Liverpool to be challenging for the major honours.  Losing your best players is going to make that harder as well as questioning the ambition of the club.  After all it has been five years since Liverpool won a major trophy and even then that was the league club.

Although the years have been lean Liverpool due to its history and large support still has some stature in the footballing world.  It needs more than ever to start proving that the last few years have temporary or very soon be just a famous name from the past.

Liverpool’s first game of the new season away to Watford which ended 3-3 has shown the same old problems of the last year.  A poor defence and the inability to hold onto a winning lead with only a few minutes remaining on the clock.  The club is great in attack but there is always the sense that they are only a moment away from a mistake in defence which will wilt so easily.

These are problems that should have been rectified prior to the season beginning but swift action is needed otherwise it will be a groundhog season for 2017-18.  Regarding the transfer request from Coutinho it would probably be better if Liverpool could reach an agreement that they will let him go next season. This though would be on the proviso that the fee is acceptable and that Liverpool find a suitable replacement.

A club can only be successful if its recruitment and scouting is good.  Take Atletico Madrid for example.  They have consistently obtained quality players for decent fees and have been consistent challengers in La Liga and European football which has seen them win major honours.

Fenway appear to have a business strategy with regards as to how Liverpool sign players.  Namely signing young potential players who they hope will live up to their reputation and then selling them on for a vast profit whilst bringing in a new batch to keep Liverpool competitive.  The only problem with that is that you have to ensure that you have the right recruitment and scouting in place.  If that was the case then there would be no real resistance to Coutinho being sold to Barcelona.  The quality in the squad would already be there to cope with a loss.  Added to which there would be the confidence the scouting system would provide a more than adequate replacement.

Unfortunately the reality has been very different to the business theory of the Fenway group.  The likes of Downing, Carroll, Charlie Adam, Coates, Borini, Markovic, and Balotelli to name but a few have failed to live up to expectations and have been poor.  Even the likes of Jordan Henderson, Lovren, and Mignolet have been average and not been good enough to take Liverpool up to the next level.

The successes can be counted on one hand with only Suarez, Mane, and Coutinho being the players who have shown the quality required if you wish to compete at the highest level.  Fenway’s money has been spent on mediocrity.    It could be argued that when non-footballing individuals or people with self-interest are involved then problems are going to arise which has been the case with Liverpool.

It seems that the problem isn’t so much about Coutinho being sold to Barcelona it really is about Fenway’s scouting and recruitment strategy for Liverpool and the next direction that they take. 

When the player-manager was in vogue

The 1980’s invokes images of big hair, shoulder pads, crap but catchy pop tunes, blockbuster movies that were original and a time when there was only four TV channels to choose from.  It was also the period that the player manager became fashionable after Liverpool led the trend by appointing Kenny Dalglish as player manager who promptly led the reds to the double in his first season in charge.

Prior to 1985 the view was pretty much the same as now.  A manager needed to be experienced to manage at the top-level.  Furthermore a manager needed to take a detached view to assess the play and make changes when required.  Being on the pitch would limit that opportunity whilst also making the relationship with players slightly difficult.  The role of manager also means responsibilities off the pitch such as contracts, scouting, discussions with the coaching staff, and media work.  Something which can distract from concentrating on your game.

The only time that a player became a coach was either in a moment of instability such as the manager being dismissed.  In other circumstances it would be due to a lack of numbers such as when Don Revie had to name himself as a player when he first took charge of Leeds.  A player manager was never intended to be a long-term prospect.  That of course belonged to the comic pages of Roy of the Rovers.

One of the greatest players in the club’s illustrious history Kenny Dalglish could quite easily have hung up his boots and still have been a Liverpool legend.  As it was Kenny Dalglish was to become an icon for his achievements and statesman like support for the city.

There are no specific reasons as to why the Liverpool board decided to appoint Dalglish as manager.  With Fagan being the last of the original boot room staff perhaps they felt it was time for a new generation to lead Liverpool forward.  They may also have felt with the likes of Ronnie Moran and Roy Evans as part of the backroom staff it would make the transition easier whilst Dalglish learned the ropes.  For extra support Bob Paisley was to provide assistance and advice when required.

With the aftermath of Heysel which led to English clubs being banned from Europe after Liverpool fans were responsible for the death of thirty-nine mainly Juventus supporters it was in some respects a season of uncertainty for the 1985-86 season.

Everton were very much in the ascendency whilst Manchester United’s ten straight wins to the season saw them viewed as genuine title contenders.  It seemed that this was to be a season of transition as Dalglish got to grips with management.  Alan Hansen would later complain to his friend and manager that it was the worst Liverpool team that he had played in.

That was something else that Kenny Dalglish had to get to grips with and that was the relationship between being a player and now being their boss.  It meant distancing himself away from his teammates and not allowing himself to be involved with the jokes of the changing room.  Now it was his responsibility not just to install discipline but ensure that there was no favouritism.  Players would have to be dropped even sold whilst Dalglish picked what he thought would be his best eleven. That incidentally also meant dropping himself if appropiate.

Despite all these problems Liverpool still managed to keep themselves within distance as Manchester United faltered.  However a 2-0 defeat at home against Merseyside rivals Everton in February saw many believing that the title would be staying at Goodison.

This though was when it started to resemble a story from Roy of the Rovers as Liverpool went on a twelve game unbeaten run gaining thirty-four points.  The turning point had been when Everton had unexpectedly lost 1-0 away to Oxford whilst Liverpool beat Leicester at Filbert street.  It meant that the title was no longer in Everton’s hands with Liverpool needing to beat Chelsea to clinch their sixteenth championship.

It was to be a spectacular goal from the player manager Kenny Dalglish as he carefully chested the ball with his upper body before rifling the ball into the Chelsea net.  No manager had single-handedly won the title but that goal by Dalglish did.

 

A week later Liverpool had the chance of becoming only the fifth club to win the ‘Double.’  Standing in Liverpool’s way was Everton who had narrowly missed out on winning the title.

Once again the story of the match resembled something out of the pages of Roy of the Rovers.  Everton started off well and took the lead courtesy of a Gary Lineker goal as they led at half-time.

The second half was to be Liverpool although a bust up between Bruce Grobbelaar and Jim Beglin after a mix seemed to galvanise the team.  It was to be the finger tip save over the bar from Grobbelaar from a Graham Sharp header that was to be turning point.

By now Jan Molby was running the midfield and played the ball through for Everton’s kryptonite Ian Rush to equalise.  It was Molby again who set up Craig Johnston before Rush secured the cup and broke the camera as it hit the back of the net.

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Wearing a large red hat and a beaming smile Kenny Dalglish had led Liverpool to an unexpected double.  Both on and off the pitch he had been influential in adding a new chapter of continued success for Liverpool.

The next season was to see Liverpool end the season empty-handed finishing runner-up to Everton in the league and being beaten by Arsenal 2-1 in the Littlewoods league cup final.

Although Dalglish had tried to restrict his presence on the pitch Liverpool still missed his influence.  Conscious that the team couldn’t rely on his presence on the pitch forever he aimed at bringing in players to remedy this concern.  Spending some of the money as Ian Rush had been sold to Juventus it was to lead to one of the most exciting Liverpool teams as Dalglish signed John Barnes, Peter Beardsley, John Aldridge, and Ray Houghton.

For the 1987-88 season Dalglish’s influence was now from the dug out as the reds ran away with the title going twenty nine games unbeaten.  A FA cup win the following season followed although that season would be remembered for the ninety-six lives lost at the semi-final at Hillsborough through the gross negligence of the Police and authorities responsible for hosting the venue.  Kenny Dalglish was to be a statesman and support for the club and the city of Liverpool during this traumatic time.

The club retained the title in 1990 with Kenny Dalglish to make his final bow as a player coming on as a substitute against Derby County on the 5th May when Liverpool had clinched their eighteenth league title.  A year later Kenny Dalglish had left Liverpool after the 4-4 all draw against Everton in the FA cup final.  The pressure and Hillsborough had caused a massive strain on Dalglish who for the sake of his health stepped down.

Due to the success of Kenny Dalglish there was a spate of player-managers.  Glasgow Rangers had decided to follow Liverpool’s lead and appointed Dalglish’s former team-mate Graeme Souness in 1986.  Prior to taking charge, Rangers had last won the league in 1978 with the only recent success coming in the Scottish league cup.  Aberdeen under Alex Ferguson prior to taking charge of Manchester United had knocked Rangers into the shade to become the dominant force in Scottish football.  With Celtic winning the title in 1986 Rangers felt that swift action was required to ensure that they did not stagnate further.

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As a player Souness was a proven winner as he won numerous league championships and European cups with Liverpool.  Sampdoria had also brought success with a Coppa Italia and he was still very much a formidable player at thirty-three.  With money to spend Souness signed the top stars of the English game.  The likes of Chris Woods, Terry Butcher, and Graham Roberts were signed.  Other English stars to follow were  Mark Walters, Gary Stevens, Trevor Stevens Ray Wilkins, and Trevor Francis.

It was to have an instant impact even though Graeme Souness was to mark his tenure on his debut by being sent off in the 34th minute for two straight yellows against Hibernian.  The second yellow could quite easily have been a red for what was a nasty challenge on George McCluskey.  Despite this Rangers won the Scottish Premier league and league cup beating Celtic in the final of Souness’s first season in charge.

During his time in Scotland Souness was constantly at loggerheads with the SFA with Souness admitting years later that he ‘was obnoxious and difficult to deal with.’  One touch-line ban saw Souness provocatively get round it by naming himself as a substitute.

Some viewed Souness’s time as manager of Rangers as a revolution and he certainly built the foundations for the Gers dominance and nine in a row Premier league titles.  Souness also has to be given credit for ending the club’s sectarian view on not signing Catholic players.  Of course there was controversy when Souness signed Mo Johnston in the summer of 1989.  To add fuel to the fire Johnston had reneged on agreeing to re-join his former club Celtic meaning he received from both sides.

Souness was unperturbed and simply stated that he signed players purely on their footballing ability and not the religion of the footballer.

Following Dalglish’s shock resignation from Liverpool it was Souness who promptly accepted the offer to join his former club in April 1991.  That though was not to be successful.  Apart from an FA cup, Souness was unable to bring the success that Liverpool had become accustomed to.

Other clubs seeing the success that Dalglish and Souness had brought to Liverpool and Rangers felt it was the way forward.  One of the reasons was that a big name could attract the best players.  Seeing a renowned player manager gave the impression that the club had ambition.  Furthermore it also meant having an experienced head on the field and with the likes of Glenn Hoddle who was in the autumn of his career could still be influential on the pitch for Swindon Town and Chelsea respectively.

Hoddle became the second-player manager to lead Chelsea to the FA cup final against Manchester United.  Naming himself as a substitute and coming on in the sixty-eighth minute for Craig Burley there was no inspired come back as Chelsea were soundly thrashed by Manchester United to claim their first double.

The former Everton star midfielder Peter Reid became Player-Manager of Manchester City after Howard Kendall returned to his former love and club Everton in November 1990.  It didn’t bring Manchester City any silverware but brought stability and whilst Reid was in charge a hope that they were building towards something long-term.

After Lennie Lawrence had failed to get Middlesbrough promoted straight back to the Premier League the club’s chairman Steve Gibson turned to Manchester United’s Bryan Robson who became player manager in the summer of 1994.  It was seen as a mutual arrangement for both parties.  For Bryan Robson it was a chance to cut his teeth in management away from the harsh glare of Old Trafford as well as a chance to keep on playing.  Of course Robson saw it is a learning curve with the ambition at the time to replace Alex Ferguson when he decided to retire or to take the England job.  With Middlesbrough promising the financial backing it was a job that Robson felt was hard to refuse.

For the Teessiders it was a signal of intent and that the club were ambitious in not just getting back into the Premier league but to be a footballing force.  With a shiny new stadium far removed from the dilapidated and tired Ayresome park it meant that with Bryan Robson in charge that they could show how serious the club was in trying to attract the best talent.

It certainly worked with Robson leading Boro to promotion to the Premier league as Champions.  This was to be an exciting period for Middlesbrough with the club living up to its ambitions.  Juninho was in many respects a shock signing as Robson signed the Brazilian from São Paulo for £4.75 million in October 1995.  Seen as one of the best young Brazilian prospects not many expected Juninho to sign for a newly promoted club that had been in many respects been a yo-yo club between the divisions.

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The signings didn’t stop there with Ravanelli and Emerson also purchased in the summer of 1996.  It was a season in some respects to rival Sky’s football soap Dream Team that also began in that year.  Middlesbrough suffered a three-point deduction for not fulfilling a league game against Blackburn Rovers.  Robson cited a bug that had hit the squad but the FA felt that it was too late notice and that Boro could have fielded a team hence the points deduction.  Ironically the three points was the difference between staying in the Premier league and were relegated as a result.

However the drama didn’t stop there as Middlesbrough reached two cup finals for the first time in their history.  Both were to end unhappily as Boro lost to Leicester in a league cup final replay 1-0 after drawing the first game at Wembley 1-1.  The FA cup final was to end in defeat as Chelsea beat Middlesbrough 2-0.  Ironically Chelsea’s manager Ruud Gullit was also a player as was Gianluca Vialli when Chelsea again beat Boro 2-0 in the 1998 league cup final.  Neither Robson who had played his last game as a footballer in January 1997 against Arsenal or Gullit would play in the respective final.

That though was to be the height of Robson’s managerial career.  Although they won promotion back to the flight at the first attempt that was about as good as it got.  Middlesbrough still signed the top stars such Boksic, Ince, and Karembeu but Robson was unable to win the club silverware.  He resigned as manager in 2001 with his replacement Steve McClaren winning Boro’s first trophy the league cup after beating Bolton Wanderers 2-1 at Cardiff’s Millennium stadium.

Chelsea seemed to think that the player-manager was still in vogue with Ruud Gullit being appointed player-manager.  Although sacked nine months later after winning the FA cup he would later describe his time at Chelsea as the ‘happiest time in his career.’

Gianluca Vialli was Gullit’s replacement and again he was also player-manager in 1998.  This though was to be the last time time that a player-manager would be appointed full time with a top flight club.

Success also came Vialli’s way as he led and played in the 1998 Cup Winners Cup final with Chelsea beating Stuttgart 1-0 courtesy of a Zola goal.  Vialli also played the full ninety minutes of the final although did not start or name himself for the League cup final when Chelsea beat Middlesbrough 2-0.

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That though was to be the Indian summer for the player-manager as the big clubs gravitated back to the experienced coaches.  Now the criteria was a manager’s past success and whether he was tactically astute.  A footballing legend as player-manager is no longer a pull of ambition to attract the top stars.

Of course there are other reasons why the player-manager has fallen by the wayside.  As previously stated the role has become much bigger in terms of dealing with off the pitch activities expected of a manager.  This can vary from dealing with contracts, agents, scout players and the opposition as well as having to constantly deal with media demands.  Managing full time can be a tough and lonely job without the added worry of your current form as a player to contend with.

A Premier league manager is now expected to hold a UEFA pro licence which again means a player finding the time to complete and pass prior to a football club offering a manager’s job.

There still has been player-managers in recent years but these have been more of an emergency due to the manager being sacked.  Garry Monk for example was interim manager after Brian Laudrup was sacked in 2014, whilst Ryan Giggs was an interim manager for Manchester United in 2014 after David Moyes was dismissed.

With expectations and the pressure to succeed so high football clubs are now reluctant to take a chance with a young player manager.  There is also less job security as a football manager with clubs getting itchy as soon as the team hits a bad patch of form.  Consequently most clubs would rather now go for experience believing it to have a higher chance of success rather than pitching into the unknown.

Nevertheless there is a certain bit of magic and drama of having a player-manager in charge of your football club especially if he scores the winner that clinches the league title.    After all isn’t that part of the charm of football that it brings unreal magic and stories that would make the editor of Roy of the Rovers think twice as a story line?

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!

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

 

 

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