It is difficult as a Liverpool fan not to have any views on the season that’s just finished. We won a trophy. We were in a final for another trophy. That sounds good. We finished 8th in the league. We won only six games in our home. We scored 47 goals in total over the season – Man City scored 55 goals in their home games. That sounds awful.
Having taken a few weeks to mull things over, I wanted to assess things in the context of the Liverpool story in three stages to get a better picture of where we are and what we should hope for.
Liverpool, as is often noted, have not won the top league in England since 1990. That’s 22 years. In that time the team has been managed by Souness, Evans, Houllier, Benitez, Hodgson and most recently Dalglish.
The decline really began with Souness who for one reason and another failed to maintain the club’s championship credentials. The Evans to Benitez years were those of disappointment with occasional promising moments. We won knock-out cup trophies – in fact in the intervening years, we’ve won all the knock-out cup competitions – FA Cup, League Cup, Community Shield, UEFA Cup and Champions League.
Yet in all that we’ve only ever been genuine contenders for the League title perhaps twice – once in the Houllier years (01-02 season) and once in the Benitez years (08-09 season). Up until 2009, though we were regarded as a team who would be there or thereabouts and certainly a part of the important Top Four teams that regarded Champions League football as part of the norm.
The achievement of Rafa to get Liverpool to finish second in the 2008-09 season was remarkable especially considering the contention that was taking place in the corridors of power at the club. For all that, however, it was still hardly seen as a gross over-achievement by the club, and indeed was something to be expected for the amount of trust that had been invested in him at least by the support of the fans, and by his own timeline of making progress within five years.
To put my cards on the table, I was never a fan of Benitez. I feel his time at the club was graced by his superb achievement in getting Liverpool to win the Champions League in 2005. The euphoria that gave the club carried him, and the added success of an FA Cup and Champions League runners-up in the following seasons allowed people to overlook his actual progress (or lack of) as far as the League form was concerned.
I didn’t enjoy his rotation of the side (I’m not against rotation, I was against his rotation), I didn’t enjoy the limited way we played, I didn’t enjoy his inconsistency and the lack of a sense that this Liverpool side would be worthy of winning the Premier League. Sure he wasn’t an abject failure at the club, and he certainly has his supporters who would to this day love him to return to the club, because he was a savvy managerial tactician, his devotion to the club could not be questioned and those are good things as far as the fans are concerned.
I had my reservations, though, and those were borne out beyond even my concerns when Liverpool had a disastrous season in 2009-10. Finishing 7th was bad, the way we finished 7th was even worse. That was compounded by pathetic performances in the cup competitions. There are those who want to put this down to the fractious atmosphere at the club where the maligned Hicks and Gillett were seen to be obstacles to the progress Benitez wanted to make at the club. Those explanations have their validity, but don’t account for basically the same squad that finished 2nd one season coming 7th one season later. It is not only insufficient reason for such a dip, it is also at a stage in the manager’s time at the club where he could ill afford such a dire turn out.
Unsurprisingly I wasn’t sad when the news came through that Rafa had left the club. Let’s be clear though. In as much as the team had finished 2nd two seasons previously, this was still a team that had much to prove to retain its status as a top four team. A lot of work evidently needed to be done to get the team back on track.
Although the decision to select Hodgson as the replacement for Benitez was understandable in the light of his work at Fulham, it became clear soon into his reign that he would find it difficult to stamp his own brand on the club. It also became apparent that the fans were not too thrilled at the football they were seeing and if I was dismayed with the Benitez style, I was stumped to come up with anything positive under Hodgson’s reign. So a team that already had work to do to prove itself a top four side, were now playing catch-up big time.
So it was time for the Return of the King, which I’ll explore in the next part.