Brian Viner: Appetite for Turkish delight much better satisfied by bread and butter of League

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The Independent Football

Even as a jaundiced Evertonian, I had to take my blue bobble-hat off to Liverpool on Tuesday night. Mind you, I failed to suppress what can only be described as a semi-hysterical cackle when Roy Evans popped up on the radio the following morning and ventured that Liverpool, by denying Chelsea a place in the European Cup final, had shown that money does not necessarily buy you success in football.

For the record, in the six years since Evans was removed from his Pinky-and-Perky arrangement with Gérard Houllier, the Liverpool board has shelled out comfortably over £100m in the transfer market. By any standards other than those of Roman Abramovich, that doesn't exactly amount to financial restraint. And if Houllier were there still, he would doubtless be saying that he needs only three or four more top-class players to produce a team capable of winning the Premiership title within the next three or four seasons.

Still, I don't begrudge Liverpool fans one single frothy pint of their euphoria, especially now that the Football Association has ruled in favour of the fourth-placed team progressing into the Champions' League, even should Steven Gerrard hoist the trophy in Istanbul on 25 May. If Everton beat Newcastle at Goodison today, fourth place should be theirs. On the other hand, I don't know any Everton fans who would be surprised if Newcastle take three points home with them. Optimism comes as naturally to Evertonians as mooning against coach windows did to the late Mary Whitehouse.

Whatever happens, it has been an extraordinary football season on Merseyside, the extraordinariness extending even to non-league Marine, whose manager Roly Howard this week celebrated his 1,975th game in charge, thought to be a world record unless there's some guy running a village team somewhere in the Andes who can beat it.

But the one match that will endure forever in the memories of those who were there - and quite a long time in the memories of those who weren't - is the Liverpool v Chelsea semi-final, second leg. At about 11.30 on Tuesday night my mobile phone trilled excitedly and it was Alan Hansen, who knows what big nights at Anfield are all about, but reckoned that in terms of passion and general hullabaloo, the one he'd just witnessed one was unprecedented. "It was unbelievable," he said. "Absolutely frightening. It was so different when I played. If we'd had atmosphere like that, we'd never have been beaten. Now, if you give them anything in that stadium, they go ballistic."

As Hansen said, back in Liverpool's halcyon years there was always the recollection of big European occasions recently gone, as well as the certainty that more would be along shortly. Liverpool fans in those days were like connoisseurs of great clarets, earnestly debating whether the '84 European Cup win was better than '81, and did '81 have the edge on '78, and could '78 compare with '77? To Evertonians trying to quench their thirst with watery Vimto, relatively speaking, this was both intensely annoying and hugely enviable.

While Liverpool lifted European Cups, we picked up our thrills however we could. The date April 29, 1978, is seared into my memory as indelibly as any European triumph is seared into the memory of any Liverpudlian: that was the day Bob Latchford scored his second goal, a penalty, in a 6-2 demolition of Chelsea (how times change!) to win the £10,000 offered by the Daily Express and Adidas for the first player in the top two divisions to reach 30 league goals. Not for 10 years had a player scored 30 goals in a season. Latchford scored with just eight minutes of the season left and we all celebrated as though we'd won the Double. Almost exactly six months later, when Everton beat Liverpool for the first time since November 1971, we celebrated as if we'd won the Treble.

In a different kind of way, that's what is happening for Liverpool fans now, starved for so long of the success they once considered a birthright. Yet when it was happening, they inevitably became complacent. In 1990 the League Championship trophy was paraded at Anfield for the 18th time to respectful applause, but nothing much more. Had that well-known Knotty Ash astrologer "Nozzer" Nostradamus been the stadium announcer that day, he could have announced that it would be Liverpool's last title for at least 15 years. That would have cranked up the emotion. Unfortunately, he had snuffed it in 1566.

The big question now is whether Liverpool, win or lose in Istanbul, can use the money earned and the kudos gained to help them become title contenders again. For, however satisfying it might have been to send all those nouveau-riche Chelsea fans back down the M6 disconsolate, the two clubs still stand 33 Premiership points apart.

Even the gap between Liverpool and Manchester United in third place is a yawning 18 points. And Rafael Benitez is bright enough to know that the bread-and-butter of the league offers more long-term sustenance than any amount of Turkish Delight.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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