Liverpool on verge of return from the wilderness
In an era they dominated, the Reds were rather blasé about yet another title win 24 years ago. It was to be their last, until now perhaps, writes Tim Rich ahead of the potentially decisive Chelsea game
Sunday 27 April 2014
Kenny Dalglish always said you should remember the date – April 28, 1990. It was the day Liverpool became champions for what many feared would be the last time.
They came from behind to beat QPR 2-1 to win the title with two games to spare. Alan Hansen, who was to be handed the trophy three days later, thought the crowd applause ordinary, blasé almost. Manager Dalglish was relaxed enough to bring himself on as a sub to have one last taste of the Anfield pitch in the final game of the season as they thrashed Coventry 6-1.
It was the most routine of championships, won by nine points and the club's eleventh in 18 years. But the truth was that Liverpool were an ageing, exhausted team, still marked by Hillsborough, and with an increasingly fractious dressing room.
Fast forward to April 27, 2014 and Liverpool are a very different team, populated by young and hungry men and boys for whom a championship will never be routine. The current manager Brendan Rodgers is 41, a couple of years older than Dalglish in 1990. The crowd will be anything but blasé, queuing 10 deep along Anfield Road prior to today's game against Chelsea that could go a long way to sealing Liverpool's position as League leaders.
"That does help," said Rodgers. "A player coming in on the opposition bus, looking at that, they are not going to be too comfortable. The game starts there on that road and it rolls into the game.
"When I came here I thought we needed to get back to owning Anfield. We needed to own the ground – our changing rooms, our grass, our supporters. And it's our ball."
In Dalglish's final season as Liverpool manager, the one that finished with two Wembley finals and the sack in 2012, Anfield was very different. Nine of the bottom 12 clubs left Anfield with at least a point. West Bromwich Albion won their first game there since 1967, Fulham triumphed for the first time.
"People were coming to Anfield and having a nice day out," said Rodgers. "They were coming too easily, enjoying it and maybe even winning. That was the key in this period of my time here; you have to make the home tie the most difficult 90 minutes of your opponent's life."
It is three months since Liverpool dropped a point at Anfield, seven since Rodgers, employing no fewer than four centre-halves in what he called "a slow, lethargic" game, lost to Southampton.
It was a mistake he did not repeat. Liverpool's game has become increasingly quick and increasingly geared to landing a rapid knockout blow. By the time 26 minutes had passed on the clock, Liverpool were two up at Norwich, two up against Manchester City and Tottenham and leading Arsenal 4-0. If Liverpool do not break Chelsea in the opening half-hour, then the huge expectations might begin to turn in on them.
Rodgers is unusual for a Premier League manager in that he lives in the city where he manages, where it is more difficult to escape the constant, almost suffocating pressure. He does not feel the need to take himself away. "I am always thinking about football," he said.
On Thursday night he took himself to St George's Hall to watch An Evening with Jamie Carragher. It wasn't quite Bill Shankly taking his wife, Nessie, to watch Rochdale Reserves but he has a lot in common with his mentor, Jose Mourinho, who observed: "I have no outside interests, no hobbies, just football and my family."
There is one other difference between Liverpool on April 28 1990 and on April 27 now. Then, Liverpool were not popular winners. An Aston Villa side led by a young, media-friendly manager in Graham Taylor had come close to the title.
In previous seasons Liverpool had seen off romantic challenges from Southampton and West Ham and were seen as an insular, arrogant club, wary of outsiders who had inflicted the Heysel ban on the rest of English football. Now, across most of the country, they are being willed to win. They will become the most left-field title winners since 1981 when Aston Villa became champions – a side that, like Liverpool in Rodgers' first campaign, had finished seventh the previous season.
For clubs like Villa and Newcastle United, Liverpool have become a template for a success that does not involve foreign billionaires with questionable credentials or moves to new, soulless arenas. In Spain, Atletico Madrid are doing much the same; breaking the old cartel.
"When I was young I gravitated towards clubs who had a top-to-tail philosophy," said Rodgers. "Make no mistake, Manchester City were nowhere until the money was put in. You need the money if you want to go from here to there very quickly.
"But in order to sustain it, you want to bring your own through and actually put a structure in place that makes it sustainable. Certainly, it's more fulfilling. When I retire from football, yes, I want to look back on some trophies but it's not the only thing. I want to look at Raheem Sterling and hear him say: 'You know, you worried about us, you gave me a chance'. That's more important to me than it might be to some other managers."
Liverpool v Chelsea is live on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 2.05pm
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