The ferocious winds blew in from the Irish Sea, past the Kop and down Walton Breck Road to the point where it joins the bottom of Anfield Road. There were no cars, no policemen directing the traffic or stewards guiding supporters; no horses and the smell of manure across tarmac. There was, however, the faint noise of a football match taking place and an overwhelming sense of suspense. There were steamy windows in the wonderfully shaped Flat Iron Pub or “the Flatty” as it is known by those who drink there regularly; there was a gathering of local Liverpool fans, who sipped their pints as they waited in hope but not necessarily in expectation.
When, 32 miles away, Raheem Sterling wriggled through Manchester United’s defence, the fear began to rise. Men sat around tables lifted slowly from their seats, expecting the worst. Glasses slammed against bar counters and others spilled theirs on the carpet. David de Gea was there, though – “what a goalkeeper,” someone said. It was not quite “Yernited, Yernited”, but the praise being lavished on United’s first-half performance was unprecedented in this corner of the north west.
The mood would change. ‘A sign’ came when Jesse Lingard had the chance to equalise but he spurned the opportunity. Lingard had been at Liverpool’s academy when he was very young but Warrington-born, he was United through and through. “Favours off that lot? No chance,” was the conclusion when all had been settled.
Now there may have been some industrial language used in this sequence as well, especially when it was realised that with the flow of fixtures which follow from here, there’s a likelihood Manchester City will be confirmed as champions a week on Saturday if they beat Burnley and Leicester and Liverpool don’t win at Newcastle having faced Barcelona at the Nou Camp three days earlier.
Liverpool’s season might unravel rather quickly over the next fortnight or their campaign could extend by another three weeks, changing history forever. Whatever happens between now and the end of the season, though, Liverpool can be quite confident about one thing. Their place at the top end of the table is more secure than it has been at any moment since City were bought out by Abu Dhabi in 2008 and changed the financial landscape of football overnight.
Their fall from that point was rapid and it was illustrated less than two years later when Chelsea came to Anfield seeking to do something similar to City in last night’s Manchester derby.
Liverpool’s rivalry with Chelsea was new but it was intense and by losing the second to last game of the 2009/10 season at Anfield, Carlo Ancelotti’s side were able to win the championship the following weekend.
There had been a stench in the atmosphere that day because the consequences of the result did not seem to resonate with everyone even though it involved confirmation that Liverpool would not be a Champions League team for the first time in seven years.
For a club that had reached two finals in that period, the journey back proved an awfully long way. Though the economic designs and frailties of Liverpool then and United today are incomparable, they are linked by the control of American owners who had only one interest in mind when they became involved in English football and that relates to the making of profit: hoping they could sit on an asset and watch it grow with minimal investment or core guidance.
The same can be said of Stan Kroenke, who might be European football’s fourth richest owner but that wealth has not correlated into sporting success. Presently, Arsenal are not even English football’s fourth best side and like United are on course for the Europa League – though their potential absence in the Champions League might stretch into a third year and this acts as a warning to United as to what can happen when those above them accelerate away, just as Liverpool’s story of struggle in the earliest part of this decade should act as a warning too.
While on the pitch United have now finished behind City for six seasons in a row and have lost each of their three home derbies, the cost of absentee ownership and poor appointments at executive level is now beginning to show at United in the way it once did at Liverpool, a club where the fight for cultural identity goes on but the improvements have been vast.
Even if United have money to burn – or more likely waste, whether it is in terms management, recruitment, style of play, wider planning, stadium suitability or even the state of the training ground (a new facility in Kirkby is rising quickly), United are falling behind Liverpool and they are certainly behind City on every level that matters but popularity. The sight last night of torrents of water gushing from Old Trafford’s roof, indeed, symbolised the decay of the stadium and how things have been left in spite of the need for repair.
With Arsenal struggling to escape an entrenched beige personality and question marks over Roman Abramovich’s commitment to Chelsea, who face a transfer embargo, it is beginning to feel like the only realistic challenger to the Premier League’s top two is Tottenham. That is not quite what Liverpool and their supporters want but it does represent progress.
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