Perspective needed in season of transition
It wasn’t meant to be like this was it? 10 points off 4th place with 12 games to go, Champions League qualification hopes seemingly over, and the aside from the possibility of further cup success, it looks set to be another season filed under ‘transition’ and ‘must do better’.
Much was expected as Fenway Sports Group followed up a storming second half of last season under Kenny Dalglish with a real show of intent in the summer transfer window, spending an estimated £60 million on seven new recruits. With King Kenny back at the helm after two decades, there was a sense that anything could be possible, and this served to heighten expectations still further.
But missed chances, fluffed penalties, misfiring signings and a bizarre tendency to hit the woodwork have seen Liverpool’s dreams of a return to Europe’s top table dashed, and with fans frustrated at the team’s inability to make the most of their rivals’ inconsistency, there have even been suggestions from some quarters that the King may not be the man to take us forward after all.
Kenny’s return in January 2011 began with mere hope, and the delight at the former number 7’s return to the dugout was matched by relief at Roy Hodgson’s departure. Roy’s reign may have been short, but it felt like it lasted as long as the nomadic 36 year managerial career so often the subject of his compulsive boasts, and at one point it seemed as though the damage he was doing was beyond repair.
Hope isn’t everything in football and you need a darn sight more than that if you want to win things. But if you haven’t got hope, you haven’t got anything, and that is what made Kenny’s return and Roy’s exit were so important. Under Hodgson, a scrappy away win over Bolton was a ‘famous result’ and the mere thought of a win at Goodison ‘utopia’. In the space of weeks, it felt dispiritingly like we morphed from an underperforming heavyweight into a genuine mid-table outfit, and Oh Campione’s refrain of ‘they say our days are numbered, we’re not famous anymore’ was threatening to ring true.
But the appointment of Dalglish changed all that. This is a man who knows only how to win and a man who will never let the fans believe they should settle for anything less than what they expect. Our belief was back and just as quickly as the club’s fortunes seemed to be fading under Hodgson, they were on the rise under the King as the Reds steamrollered through the opposition to end the 2010-11 campaign in 6th as the league’s form team. Six months earlier, the prospect of such fluid, free scoring football and equally impressive results would have been unimaginable.
However, winning a few games when there is nothing left to play for is an entirely different proposition to playing out a whole campaign from scratch under the weight of new expectation, and with several new signings to bed in it was always going to be difficult for the team to match the supporters’ lofty ambitions.
If you asked most Kopites to summarise 2011-12 to date in one word, I suspect the most common answer you’d receive would be ‘frustration’, since the team have had chance after chance to make 4th place their own only to let it slip. After three years without the continental glamour ties we became accustomed to under Rafa, restlessness for a return to the weeknights when the Champions League anthem reverberated around Anfield is inevitable.”
But perhaps we thought it would be too easy. Perhaps we underestimated just how well we did in the second half of last season, and perhaps too much was expected of a team that Dalglish has only just started to rebuild. Maybe Kenny even did too well, because a season that should probably have been seen as the start of a slow climb back to the top was expected to be the campaign in which we reclaimed our place among the domestic elite.
That probably does a disservice to the teams above Liverpool, because there is no longer simply a ‘big four’ competing to finish in the four Champions League qualifying positions in some order. There are six teams (including Liverpool) who all feel they have to be playing Champions League football, and the reality is that we started this season at the back of the pack.
Manchester City and Tottenham have both improved immensely since we last qualified for the Champions League, while Manchester United remain the team to beat in the Premier League. And for all their problems Arsenal and Chelsea still possess strong squads and are more than capable of beating anyone on their day. All five teams had an advantage over us coming into this season and it seems many thought it would easier than it’s turned out to be.
The short-termism within football only ever seems to intensify, and it has created a climate in which fans and chairman have little patience when it comes to managers. The term ‘rebuilding job’ often seems to be met with an attitude of “what? We have to wait for success? But we want it now!”
It’s easy to get carried away when large sums are spent, but the fact of the matter is that for all the disappointment and impatience, Liverpool are probably where they should be when all things are considered. We are still emerging from one of the most depressing and destructive periods in our club’s history, and the size of the task that Kenny Dalglish took on should not be underestimated.
We’re playing catch-up and even after bringing in nine new players in the last 18 months, there are still positions where match-winning quality is lacking, and it was never going to be possible to strengthen in all those areas over one summer. But while Adam, Henderson and Downing may not have been the exotic marquee additions craved by the Football Manager aficionados, their arrival has given the squad something it lacked for a long time: strength in depth.
In the past we have spoken about only needing one or two ‘big signings’ and how we were ‘almost there’, and while it may occasionally have been true, often we were underestimating the weaknesses that needed addressing. But we now have a squad with genuine depth upon which to build, a couple of top quality signings in the summer could see Liverpool build a side more than capable of mounting a strong challenge for the top four.
In January of last year, most of us were more worried about finishing in the bottom three than the top four. Barely a year on from that bleak period, we find ourselves in the in the quarter finals of the FA Cup with Europa League football next season guaranteed courtesy of our Carling Cup triumph. That’s a heck of a turnaround and it’s one that King Kenny should be lauded for. When it’s looked at with a little perspective, it’s clear that our situation isn’t so bad after all.
For now though, it is still about rebuilding, and repairing the damage that was done under the old regime. Bedding in several new players, changing their mentalities and overtaking clubs who don’t have such problems isn’t easy ,and Kenny needs time to get his system right and decide how he wants to approach next season.
Yes, it may be a season of transition but it’s a transition from darker days to a brighter future, and it can’t happen overnight. Kenny has done brilliantly to take us this far so quickly, and questioning his suitability to continue the good work since his return should be unthinkable to any Liverpool fan who survived the Hodgson-era. Champions League football will be back soon enough, and in the meantime, let’s enjoy picking up all the domestic silverware that nobody else seems to want!