Steven Gerrard would look at you and shake his head if you recited him the statistics: that it is 15 years since a seventh-placed Premier League team soared to second in their next campaign, and more than half a century since a club scored more goals than the 101 Liverpool have put away in the past nine months, yet still be denied a title.
At the start of this journey, when so many smiled condescendingly at Liverpool’s aspirations for fourth, Gerrard would have taken the notion of supplying the goals which secured Liverpool second place. But the captain who trudged through the sunlit centre circle at around 4.30pm, moments after Liverpool’s winner, had his head bowed, all emotion extinguished.
That’s football for you – dragging your ambitions up in line with your accomplishments and leaving behind the quiet desolation that resides with Liverpool today. The players had just left the turf when stadium announcer George Sephton, discreetly imparting news of new champions “up the road”, referenced the concept of “honourable second”. Bill Shankly was the man who put to bed any notion of that position carrying value.
Liverpool 2 Newcastle 1: Player ratings
Liverpool 2 Newcastle 1: Player ratings
1/4 Daniel Agger 6
On first start since March 30 finished smartly for equaliser and could have scored earlier but Kurl saved well from good downward header from corner
2/4 Joe Allen 6
Neat and tidy all game but nothing special, subbed for Coutinho on the hour
3/4 Moussa Sissoko 6
Did well down the wing in first half but faded in the second when Liverpool's dominance grew
4/4 Shola Ameobi 4
Good day completely spoilt by needless petulance
A sense of perspective is needed. A man with a parable for every occasion, manager Brendan Rodgers related the story last night of a letter he had received at the start of this season and read out to the players – “from Ben, LFC supporter” who, in response to the late summer talk of Liverpool striving for the top four, had implored him to think higher than that. “It was about the pride he had in the club and was [telling us] not just to think about fourth but to think about winning,” Rodgers said. “I think at the time the players thought the letter was a bit far-fetched…”
It didn’t when he read it back to them on Sunday. When the events of the past month are far enough behind him, Gerrard might also reflect on an extraordinary over-achievement: not so much breaking in but upending the established hegemony in a football world when the financial chasm between Liverpool and the richest clubs is so substantial.
Few others may achieve this. “People have invested millions upon millions and it’s difficult to get in there,” was how Rodgers diplomatically put it. “Man United have finished last season as champions and ended up… seventh?”
With the old Anfield principles restored, Rodgers could assert last night that “yes” his side could take the next step and win next season’s title, with perhaps five new names, and that, as he put it: “We will be back. We will get better. We are a young group. We will add more players. Now we have got the belief.”
That belief will be immediately enhanced today when City are found to be in vast breach of Uefa’s Financial Fair Play regime: probably more than £100m over-spent. Liverpool principal owner John W Henry’s decision to buy this club in 2010 was based in part on one of his commercial executives, Joe Januszewki, emailing him to say Liverpool’s value had been hugely enhanced by Uefa’s decision to prevent clubs sustaining huge losses under wealthy benefactors to spend on players’ wages. That mattered, Henry said at the time, because “I don’t have ‘Sheikh’ in front of my name.”
That philosophy of Henry’s means that money will not be spent like confetti here this summer. While United – a far bigger commercial beast – are talking £150m, Liverpool appear to be more in the province of £80m.
There was also evidence in the last game of a dazzling campaign how challenging the next step will be. They sprung the season’s big surprise with their breathtaking Anfield football and like all new threats, teams eventually figured a way of dealing with it.
Gus Poyet set up a five-man defence of yellow Sunderland shirts last month; Alan Pardew adopted the same effect in grey on Sunday; and everyone now knows what Chelsea provided in between. Liverpool’s two- and three-goal starts may be less frequent next season and the sweet sensation of annihilating Arsenals and Tottenhams something infinitely more rare. Now, they need to work teams out. As Rodgers put it last night: “Teams have shown us we have to find a way of playing.”
When Newcastle led at half-time, it looked as if they– a team in a state of civil war – were about to leave Liverpool with a season that had not so much tailed away as fallen off the edge of a cliff. The home side could not find a way through the grey wall while their own, yet again, was easily penetrated. Their central defence had already been bisected twice by Shola Ameobi passes for Yoan Gouffran, and Liverpool might have trailed before Martin Skrtel scored his fourth own goal of the season, slicing Gouffran’s cross from the left past Simon Mignolet.
In a season characterised by his own interventions on the hoof, Rodgers changed the system – he went 4-3-4 – “to create a bit more space and get down the sides.” Thus, Liverpool evaded a colossal anti-climax. Their goals, within two minutes of each other just beyond the hour, were replicas – Gerrard first winding a free-kick for Daniel Agger to get a right foot on at the back post, and then another which Daniel Sturridge reached after Tim Krul flapped at it. Two senseless Newcastle dismissals – Ameobi after yellow cards for two episodes of dissent within the space of 10 seconds, and substitute Paul Dummett for a high tackle on Luis Suarez, six minutes after coming on – killed the game.
The dismal stunt put on by those United fans desperate enough to hire a plane to run a “United 20 Gerrard 0” banner before the kick-off was followed up by Newcastle fans’ rendition of the popular new chant about Gerrard on his “a***” which underlines how that slip against Chelsea may haunt him for all his days. Liverpool can help him. A league title, 25 years after their last one, is no longer beyond the bounds of belief.