Chris McGrath: Season of discontent spreads from Anfield to all parts as football fails to raise a smile

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

Perhaps you heard that the owners of Liverpool, alarmed by the morbid demeanour of their players, called in a body language expert to observe the game with Wolves.

Expecting a dossier of meticulous, player-by-player analysis, they were perplexed the next morning to be given a single sheet of paper. And this is all they found upon it: "#*@~*#*!!"

In body language terms, this was the equivalent of a cross between Gordon Ramsay and Captain Haddock, sustained through an amputation only by a bottle of brandy. To a man, the Liverpool players transparently wanted to be somewhere else. Which is just as well, really, because if they carry on playing like that they will soon find themselves in the Championship.

Mind you, the "service" currently being provided for Fernando Torres would look hopelessly vague, even there. The Spaniard duly jogged around looking like Sisyphus with toothache. And when even the leonine Dirk Kuyt wears a hunted, timorous mien, you know you're in trouble.

The fans, meanwhile, showed that the Anfield tradition still flourishes in wit, if not much else, by chanting: "Hodgson for England!" Divorce lawyers would immediately recognise an irretrievable breakdown here. Quite how long it takes the club's new owners to do so remains to be seen. After all, they might survey almost every other ground in the Premier League, and wonder how they got themselves involved in this carnival of masochism.

Though Mario Balotelli may not feel as though he belongs, he actually looks a bespoke fit for his new environment. Even when he scores, he resembles an orphan in a seven-hour queue on Ellis Island. Didier Drogba, meanwhile, "celebrated" his goal off the bench against Spurs the other day by strutting along with his chest puffed out and ludicrously bouncing his team-mates away. Where, you wonder, is the footballer who plays with a smile on his face?

Perhaps this is the other side of the same coin – and coin has most certainly been the mot juste – that vaingloriously proclaimed the Premier League as "the best in the world" on account of its power and intensity. Whenever the exquisite cogs and wheels of Barcelona produce another goal for Lionel Messi, in contrast, he always exudes both humility and pleasure.

Already, with only Manchester City still able to fund galacticos, Chelsea and Manchester United are gaining a queasy glimpse of a future when they will be accountable for their accounting. Wholesome as it is, moreover, the compression of the English elite this season means that a contagion of stress, previously confined to those clubs unmistakably fighting relegation, has become endemic. Halfway through the season, those in contention for the title are united only in self-doubt and anxiety. And the entire bottom half of the table is spanned by just five points.

Now I realise that the whole point of any football allegiance is to give a gratifying, tribal substance to your persecution complexes. But if you were to ask a typical season-ticket holder at each club whether he is deriving undiluted pleasure from seeing his team play, it seems wrong that the automatically positive responses would probably be confined to Bolton, Blackpool and Spurs. Veteran Manchester City fans are probably more dazed than overjoyed. Arsenal, needless to say, for now remain at their customary, agonising crossroads between nirvana and Groundhog Day. Once they cease smarting from their derby humiliation, Sunderland might start to wonder about the Europa League, while Stoke fans will take pride in their own role in making the place such a bear pit.

The eccentricities of their owners, however, will stifle any complacency at Newcastle and Blackburn. West Bromwich seem to have had their fun. And for the rest, it's just excruciating. So far, Aston Villa are the only team to have featured in the "too big to go down" debate. But even Leeds have been champions of English football more recently than Liverpool, and we are still waiting for them to prove big enough to come back up. Villa, of course, are themselves managed by a former Liverpool manager in Gérard Houllier. In fact, when you consider Rafael Benitez's execrable stint at Internazionale, you have to wonder whether there is some kind of curse on the Anfield bench.

Now there's a man who could brush up his body language. You can imagine how a dressing room accustomed to Jose Mourinho responded when this cold, peevish character peered round the door. Benitez sealed his fate with one of those familiar bleats about the lack of investment and backing from the board. That smoothie Leonardo will feel he has a head start already, though Sam Allardyce must be bewildered not to have had the call. He was available, after all, and told us all only weeks ago that he was tailor-made for San Siro.

Anyhow, New Year's Day and all that. A fresh start for all. Now, let's see. Who have Liverpool got today? Ah. The happy Wanderers, managed by a bloke who looks a bit like George Clooney, albeit not quite as much as he thinks. A man who has turned Johan Elmander from a laughing stock into one of the players of the season. A man whose team, hod carriers under Allardyce, recently produced an equaliser against Blackpool – in the last, frantic minute, no less – that could not have been assembled with more flair and daring by Barcelona themselves. Perhaps the Anfield directors will ask Owen Coyle up for a chat after the game, see if he could be persuaded to stick around. That way, perhaps, he might eventually come to understand that the beautiful game is now the crying game.

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