Come the end of next season it will be 26 years since Liverpool’s last league title in 1990. In other words, if they do not win the league this season, or next, then by the summer of 2016 they will have gone the same length of time without winning it that Manchester United did between 1967 and 1993.
As things stand, Liverpool are not even close to winning that 19th league title, be it this season or next. United should have won the league in 1991-92 but threw it away and let Leeds United in. Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were already the best in the country and even after the disappointment of that year, you knew that it was a matter of time before they won it.
I was a young pro in the reserves at United in 1993 and I will never forget the huge sense of joy – and relief – that the streak was over and the club were champions again. As for my generation of players, our job was to carry it on. It was the likes of Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Eric Cantona who had broken through and won the first title in more than a quarter of a century.
For Liverpool, it looks as if the wait is going to exceed the 26 years that it took United from the Sir Matt Busby era to the Ferguson era. Liverpool’s chance to break that cycle was last season, even more so than 2008-09, when Rafa Benitez’s team ran us close. Last season was a freak season when it seemed that none of the usual contenders wanted to win the title.
Six months on from that finale in May and Brendan Rodgers is paying the price for having overachieved with Liverpool. They got so close and the assumption in some quarters was that Liverpool could push on and do what United did in 1993, going from second to first. But Liverpool look further away than 12 months ago.
I rate Rodgers as a manager. I liked how his Swansea team played and I think he comes across well in his press conferences. At the moment he looks more stressed out than at any point since he took the job. The expectation at Liverpool got out of control last season and now, when the belief from the fans has been that they should take the next step, the team have been unable to do it. I go back to the signings once again. They weren’t good enough. A manager lives and dies by the players he brings in, especially when someone as big as Luis Suarez leaves. For instance, the £20m price for Dejan Lovren means that instead of looking like a smart call on a player with potential, he becomes a £20m defender with all the pressure that brings.
To go to the next level, Liverpool needed two top-quality signings but they have not been able to get those players and so the momentum that they built over the course of last season has been lost. Instead of challenging at the top of the table, they find themselves losing to Crystal Palace and taking Champions League second round qualification down to the wire. They are going backwards rather than forwards.
Coping without Suarez and the injured Daniel Sturridge would have been difficult for any manager. The only small consolation is that it was the second half of last season that Liverpool’s form really hit the heights.
Winning a title changes everything about the club. After 1993, United were no longer the “nearly club”. No one needed to mention the years that had passed since the great side of Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best had won the league. We had a new group of winners to celebrate, older players like Bryan Robson and Brian McClair, as well as the teenage Ryan Giggs.
There were a new group of players who could say that they had been there and done that. As a club, we were looking forward to the future rather than over our shoulders at the past. Rodgers did brilliantly to get Liverpool so close last year, but the last step is always the hardest.
Play-acting mystifies me. I was taught not to show pain
Every now and again, the curse of play-acting – simulation, exaggeration – strikes the Premier League. It always mystifies me why any player would want to try to get an opponent sent off that way, be it James Tomkins clutching his face after Kevin Mirallas shoved him or Jan Vertonghen making the most of Gaston Ramirez’s kick-out at him.
Eric Harrison, and then later Sir Alex, taught me an important lesson as a footballer: show no pain. No matter how much it hurts, pick yourself up and walk away as if nothing has happened. It was not always easy. In the Euro 2000 play-off against Scotland, Don Hutchison went right over the top on me and raked his studs down my leg. I was in agony but I got up and walked away.
The rule at United was that you just needed to get to the dressing room and if you were still in pain you could do as much whinging and complaining as you liked. But don’t do it in front of the opposition. We liked tackling and getting stuck in ourselves, and we gave no quarter and asked none either.
I find the most appealing part of watching Salford City, or any of the other lower-league games I attend, is the attitude of the players. The tackles are flying in at times, but no one makes a big deal of it. Both sides go in hard and everyone gets on with it.
It is easy to say that foreign players are the biggest culprits, but there are plenty of British players who do it now, too. Having said that, I think it was an influence that came from overseas. At times at United, we had players who went down too easily, like Cristiano Ronaldo when he first came to the club. But Cristiano changed over time and there was no one who got kicked as much as him.
For Ashley Young it became a problem at times. Ashley went over too easily and you can see that in some players it is simply part of what they do. It is hard for them to change.
At United, we looked at what players at some clubs did to win penalties or get opponents sent off and regarded it as an embarrassment. We felt we were good enough to win games without doing that. Professional footballers have to ask themselves whether they are comfortable watching themselves on television exaggerating fouls or rolling around pretending to be hurt. If the answer is no, then they know what they have to do.
Torres’s loss of form in front of goal is remarkable
I watched the Milan derby on Sunday and it seems that things haven’t changed much for Fernando Torres. He has scored one goal all season, in his second game against Empoli, and it was the same on Sunday: no goal and substituted on 73 minutes.
What has happened to Torres is remarkable. From the player he was in 2009, when he gave Nemanja Vidic such a hard time at Old Trafford, to the player he has become, has been one of those mysteries in football. I realise that at times at Chelsea, especially in 2012-13, he did have some decent goalscoring runs. But overall the decline has been sharp.
At his best he was the kind of player I would have loved to have had at United. Then things changed for him at Chelsea.
At the start of the 2004-05 season, I went 15 games without scoring a goal. It was killing me. I felt so low. I had no confidence in my technique. I didn’t trust myself passing the ball five yards. Then I scored against Charlton Athletic at Old Trafford and ended up scoring seven in seven games.
For Diego Forlan, when he went 27 games without a goal for United, the worst thing was he couldn’t even score in training. But he went on to have a great career, at Villarreal and Atletico Madrid. The strange thing is that Torres has never turned that corner, and it feels like he never will.
I’m delighted Phelan has made a return to football
I am amazed that it has taken so long for Mike Phelan to find another job in football, and that he has not yet been appointed a manager somewhere.
It is good to see that he has gone back to one of his former clubs, Norwich City, as a coach. People don’t realise just how important Mike was at United. He took so much of the day-to-day pressure off Sir Alex by making sure players’ commitments to sponsors never affected match-day preparation and got everything to run smoothly and on time.
Mike was always the first port of call when you had a problem. I went to see him first when I wanted to come out of retirement in 2012. He knew the character of the players so well – who needed some consoling words, and who needed a kick up the arse.
Mike would watch training every day and was always absorbing information about performance, fitness and mood. He had a great eye for detail and was liked and respected by the players and the manager. I have no doubt he will make a great manager himself one day.
If Bayern had needed to beat City, they would have done
Those Manchester City fans celebrating the 3-2 win over Bayern Munich: don’t be fooled by the performance. Sergio Aguero rescued the team. Bayern, on the other hand, rested the likes of Mario Götze and Thomas Müller. If they had needed to win that game, they would have done.
The same old problems remain, not least Eliaquim Mangala. Every time the ball comes near him it’s like the fire alarms have been set off and panic is setting in. Going to Rome next month to try to get a result will be no easy task either.