Writing something like this is always a case of wise after the event. Yes it’s easy to be smug, sit back and then, having not been at the sharp end of things, sanctimoniously blather on about Rafa and the team, what went wrong and what they should have done like it’s some kind of end of term report. So sorry for that but it’s not going to stop me giving my thoughts on our general achievements. The issues of Rafa, the squad, the owners (yes you’ve been quiet but you’ve not been forgotten) will be addressed in more detail as the summer months unwind.
Many thought 2008-09 would be a make or break year for Rafa. The goodwill stored in the tank after Istanbul and then topped up after his shabby and amateurish treatment by the owners last year wouldn’t be exhausted however, if certain issues weren’t addressed, it might at least sink towards the half way marker?
The key issue was that many fans wanted a change of focus, a change of priority. From what they, rightly or wrongly, saw as Rafa’s main concern, The Champions League, to their main priority, after nineteen years and still counting, the league title. I guess the extent of the target depended on how realistic or overly optimistic or demanding you were. For me to be top of the table in May and to finish four points behind the eventual winners will do, for now! Settling for second best to the Mancs? Lowering standards? Not good enough for a team like Liverpool? As far as I’m concerned these conclusions are born of old redundant benchmarks, ie our past glories, rather then how we’ve done in the last two to three years. The past is to be celebrated, it is always there and great source of pride and comfort, it hurts that we aren’t recreating those days on a more regular basis but some of the current squad were in nappies the last time we won the league so they shouldn’t be burdened with such comparisons? It’s divisive and subjects the club to the suffocation of expectation. This never seems to work, ask Newcastle!
So what of this season? After his Fergie rant, Rafa seems to have got himself a reputation for liking facts. It’s almost as if this has suddenly become peculiar to him, as if the rest of populous lives in the land of make believe? However, continuing with the theme. It’s a “fact” that we finished second our best position since 2001-02. We only lost two games, becoming the first team to do so and not win the title. We were unbeaten at home and had the best goal difference. We also scored more than anyone else (77 goals count them). We won four out of out six games against the called top four and drew the other two! All very nice but, all this is shunted into the siding of irrelevance by the “fact” the premiership trophy is sitting at Old Trafford rather than forty or so miles west at L4. Why?
Towards the end of the season Rafa, as if anticipating the inquest, was at pains to highlight our lack of strength in depth and financial clout compared to the rest of the top four. Naysayers will point to our record against the Chelsea, Arsenal and the Mancs this season however, others will point to the dip we had after Christmas when injuries and perhaps tiredness exposed our lack of back up resources. Injuries did hit home Torres and Gerrard started less than a third of our games together and the point is bought home when you see Fergie’s bench for the Champions league final (schadenfreude is a negative pastime but…..) which included Berbatov, Tevez, Scholes. So, Rafa has a point however he must also look at this in conjunction with his recent signings, as mentioned before more of that this summer. All this contributed to the main reason explaining why we fell just short – lack of consistency.
This has been well documented. I’m referring to a litany of depressing home draws – Stoke, Fulham, West Ham and Hull. Add to this the away defeat against relegated Middlesborough, another draw at Stoke and a very irritating one at Wigan and there you have it. With the exception of Fulham The Mancs did the double over all these sides. A contributory factor to the title switching from ours to lose to one we were chasing but relying on others to slip up? Excuses that these sides come to Anfield to park the proverbial bus were as unconvincing as our attempts to get results against them. These were performances that were particularly puzzling and exasperating when compared to those against the top four?
The 4-1 win at Old Trafford, proved what we could do if we turned our mind to it more regularly. It was easily the highlight of the season but deep in the back of the mind I’m asking what have we come to if the highlight is simply beating The Mancs? Perhaps equally, if not more encouraging, were the games were we snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, or a draw (Middlesborough, Man City, Fulham, Wigan and Portsmouth) which showed an admirably determination and force of will?
Nonetheless people will inevitably focus on those draws. Perhaps the real difference is experience and the ability to be pragmatic. To acquire the knack of grinding out a result when the chips are down, to win ugly from time to time? We proved we could do that at the end of the season with an excellent run of form, something like 11 wins out of twelve. But it also suggests that like last season Rafa and the team take time to get going. Is it significant that we put this run together when the pressure had eased ie. we were chasing the Mancs rather than the other way around?. I guess we need to apply this attitude to the entire season. Surely the squad, having seen how close we came, will be better for this, more determined and less accommodating to visiting opposition in 2009-10?
Elsewhere in Europe after a straight forward group stage we caved into Chelsea again. Slack defending at Anfield saw to that but even so we nearly tuned it around at their place and gave them a hell of fright to boot. However, with the league and, more poignantly, the Hillsborough 20th anniversary the day after, it didn’t seem to matter as much this time. The victories against a meek Real Madrid were simply victories against a name from the past nonetheless it must have pleased Rafa immensely to overcome his home town club in their own stadium. It is also a measure of how the priority changed this season that to my mind Europe became a hindrance to main goal, the league?
In the other domestic cups we lost to Everton in the FA Cup or so I’m told, I was watching Tic Tac advert. Fair enough local derbies can go either way but once more we left the Carling Cup, this time at the hands of Spurs, with a performance that suggested our exit was not exactly voluntary but would not be viewed as a disaster. On the youth side we missed out on our third FA Cup in four years at the hands of “Wenger’s babes”. Steven Gerrard deservedly won the PFA Player of the year award if not for this season but for an accumulation of superb and valued contributions over the years. Rafa’s verbal jousts with Fergie, although welcome as someone was standing up to the old man, ultimately proved to be a tiresome and irrelevant issue.
So by a large we got what we asked for. An improved league challenge which is surely what everyone wanted above everything else? Rafa delivered and in doing so has given us much to be positive about for next season. Oh dear, it can only go downhill now!!! No silverware I know, and for the third year, but at least we were challenging for one of the two trophies that sadly nowadays only seem to matter, and right to the death.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be writing a season review. Perhaps we are only part way through a project and now the increasingly difficult trick for everyone is to remain level headed, cool, steady and try to build on 2008-09, push on and take it further.
I pray that such patience will lead to its own reward. It’s been a long, long time, hasn’t it?