by Rick Nash
The past week has sparked an almost-shocked tone of discussion about the existence of schadenfreude in sports, particularly football, consumption. I'd imagine it's because only the half-hearted fans rear their heads towards the end of the season to join in the conversation and are shocked by what they see. "You're all so AWFUL to each other!" they'll say. "These people are your friends! Stop being so mean to them!"
Yes, they're our friends. And yes, we do take pleasure in their pain. And they do the same to us too. That's typically the common bond that makes us friends. It's what we talk about. It's how we relate to each other. Not to be too blunt and sexist, but in stereotypical terms men tend to rip into each other about sports and girls tend to build each other up by talking about how their hair looks amazing (yes, I realise that a lot of men/women don't do one and do the other, but I'm illustrating a point using offensive, lazy stereotypes here...and now you understand it better, so fuck off).
The battle of Man Utd vs Liverpool is about as primal in sports' fans existence as it is for cats to forever be the enemies of mice. It makes no sense. Surely the two can co-exist in peace? I'm sure they could, but if cats and mice didn't beef then we wouldn't have Tom & Jerry or Itchy & Scratchy. Similarly United and Liverpool fans probably wouldn't find football nearly as interesting without this pointless, never-ending feud of 'My Dad would bash your Dad' proportions.
More than that, though, as stated earlier slagging is a way, for many, to bond. Translated, a slag between friends is a way of saying: "Hey, I recognise that you've made this horrible life decision (like being a Liverpool fan). I accept that even if I disagree. But I must make some kind of comment to register my disapproval so that we can move on with our lives with our differences established and accepted."
I'm a Man United fan. And I was okay with what happened to us this season (and yes, I refer to my side as we/us and I could write 2,500 words to prove any argument you may have about why I shouldn't completely and utterly wrong. So fuck up). My attitude was that, under Alex Fergusion, I had got to experience more sporting joy in 19 years prior since I became a fan on September 11th, 1994 (a 3-1 loss to Leeds where I decided, as a 7-year old, that Eric Cantona was cool) than most would in their life. So what if we have to suffer for a while? That's sport. It'll be interesting. And hopefully we'll get a cool return to the glory days before I die. Whatever the case, I can always say that I was there for the peak years. I'm probably due a bit of mediocrity.
So I'm going to embrace this sentiment with open arms and partake in a bit of sporting schadenfreude on this glorious day that saw a large number of Liverpool fans my age witness their biggest opportunity to experience a Premier League win evaporate, and take a look at what exactly I think makes supporting their club such a horrific life decision with some clues from recent history:
25th May, 2005: Liverpool win the Champions League
Football's most notable blagger of our time, Rafa Benitez, experiences his finest moment. The rest of the world finally sees what United fans had for so long: that, as annoying as you thought United fans were, Liverpool were ten times worse. The words BELIEVE and DESTINY irritate the fuck out of sports fans more than English hyperbole in the run-up to a World Cup, mainly because with this Liverpool sparked the last-ever sporting dilemma you want your team to be a part of: what happens when a team who aren't good enough to qualify for the Champions League wins the Champions League? To a neutral observer, Liverpool's celebrations looked like a bunch of people whooping and hollering around a massive bonfire...without realising that it was actually their own house that was on fire. They finished fifth in the league, behind Everton. And were essentially admitted into the competition the following season because UEFA had never seen this trick before, since its expansion from the European Cup, and hadn't sufficient time to put a rule in place to prevent it.
Of course this is something that gets glossed over in Liverpool's history books, just as they likely ignored Benitez repeating the trick of 'shitty league campaigns and squad troubles masked by cup success' with Chelsea last season and again with Napoli this term.
2010: Benitez Out
Liverpool are the sporting embodiment of that girl that you know who always picks absolute dicks as partners while lacking the introspection to think, "Hmm, maybe this approach isn't working for me?" As we'll explore, they have an uncanny knack for falling for superficial charms and shiny, meaningless objects in favour of just wanting a decent football club. You wouldn't mind if this was, say, a smaller club like Southampton who have no delusions of grandeur about them, but when it's coming from a mate of yours who's never seen his club win a league trying to rub their 'success' (with a huge asterisk) in your face? That's a different story.
After being humiliated and nearly driven to mental breakdown by the mind games of Alex Ferguson, who pipped Pool to the league title in 2008/09, even Pool fans finally opened their eyes to the fact that this wasn't the man capable of returning them to the past glory's their Dads had told them about and assured them would happen this time next year. The sale of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid, with the funds going on lavish fees for Alberto Aquilani and Glen Johnson, it was a sobering slap of reality for the Kop End that Rafa was putting lipstick on a pig and calling it a princess. They finished 7th the following season and Rafa was sent on his way in ignominious circumstances for a 'Kop Legend'.
2011: El N...ot That Into You...
Like I said, Liverpool have a habit of placing all of their hopes and dreams on people that just aren't that into them. Benitez managed to buy himself some time courtesy of the one pro to the many cons in his transfer policy, prising El Nino from his beloved Atletico Madrid. Torres was an overnight sensation and, in the desperation to pretend that this was the start of a glorious new era, was quickly hurried alongside Messrs Shankly, Paisley, Dalglish and Gerrard amid Liverpool's top table of club legends.
Except...Torres didn't exactly see it that way himself. Atletico would always be the club closest to Torres' heart and no amount of hero worship would change that. He was just left with the difficult decision of staying with his true love and never fulfilling his (bank balance's) potential or taking a higher profile offer having more than paid back his debts to Atleti. The Premier League had the eyes of the world on it. Putting himself in a Liverpool jersey would ensure he could shine without competition in the hopes of landing a big money offer from title/European contenders. Despite Benitez's replacement, Roy Hodgson's insistence that Liverpool wouldn't sell, soon he was issued a painful reminder that he was Roy Hodgson, he was managing Liverpool, and 'Liverpool manager Roy Hodgson's' declarations didn't carry the weight that he and their fans thought that it did. He went to Chelsea in the transfer window and Andy Carroll was Hodgson's preferred replacement. Hodgson followed soon after.
2012: Long Live The King, The King is...A Racist?
From 'El Nino' to 'Negrito', 21st century Liverpool sure do have difficulties with Spanish colloquial terms. Luis Suarez was the second name on the list of Hodgson's masterplan to save Liverpool following Torres' farewell, though it's tough to give Roy too much credit considering he paid one of the then-Top 10 transfer fees of all-time to Andy Carroll in the first part of that plan. Nonetheless, Suarez was a player of undoubted pedigree at Ajax, despite behavioural issues. If Liverpool could provide the right environment to allow his talents to shine, the right mentor to teach Suarez how to curb his troubling tendencies, then this might be crazy enough to work!
Enter Kenny Dalglish. Originally brought in as a stopgap for the outgoing Hodgson, King Kenny took up the ropes as caretaker before being made permanent after a strong media and fan-supported campaign. Unfortunately, as we've seen, Liverpool legends have an uncanny knack for fucking over this disambiguation of what Liverpool is today. After Luis Suarez was suspended for alleged racist remarks against Patrice Evra, Dalglish made a facepalm-worthy error of judgement in sending his players (including black players like Glen Johnson) out in shirts showing solidarity with Suarez. It was a particularly tetchy and 'real' period in the rivalry between Pool and United, mainly because Liverpool fans were left with the impossible dilemma of agreeing with their most hated rivals or supporting an unforgivable act. Dalglish's return for all of this? A League Cup win over Cardiff and FA Cup Final loss to Chelsea. This led to the, "Well done Kenny, you paid £70million to beat Cardiff" jokes and his swift exit from club, quietly out the back door.
Suarez continued to display his brilliance and his disturbing overtones in equal measure, week-by-week. New boss Brendan Rodgers had come from Swansea, and perhaps lacked the credibility and past success to tone down one of football's most enigmatic stars. So despite his constant defences of Suarez, soon he would learn (as did Kenny) that you can't defend the indefensible. Suarez seemed to not only struggle with racial issues, but teething issues apparently were still a thing for the Uruguayan, as Branislav Ivanovic found out. Suarez was banned for 10 games, despite earning a PFA Player of the Year nomination, and Liverpool ended 2012/13 in 7th.
2014: "We don't slip"
The phrase, "Next year is our year" has become almost as big of a Liverpool anthem as 'You'll Never Walk Alone'. And fans were almost getting ready to deliver their excuses as Real Madrid and Arsenal lurked for Luis Suarez at the start of the 2013/14 season. Until he had a change of heart upon returning from Uruguay's adventures in the Confederations Cup, reportedly having a Champions League qualification clause inserted into his new contract.
Things, finally, began to change for Liverpool: Suarez and Sturridge formed a formidable partnership up front, Brendan Rodgers' attacking style of play that relied on the side outscoring any others seemed to be working, Man Utd were in crisis under David Moyes, Man City and Chelsea seemed to be in transition under Manuel Pellegrini and Jose Mourinho, Arsenal were Arsenal. The door was left open, all Liverpool needed to do was walk through it. They seemed to do so with a dramatic 3-2 win over nearest rivals City in April, after which Steven Gerrard congregated the side in an on-pitch huddle, saying, "This does not fucking slip now."
You know what happened next: Gerrard, literally, slipped. Once again, Liverpool dreams undone by a Liverpool legend. Demba Ba's subsequent goal began a 2-0 win for Chelsea that reminded them that the Premier League didn't end just because their fans felt all warm and squishy inside. With a game in hand, City were now favourites, but Liverpool could remain equal on points (though behind on goal difference...the flip side of their offence-only strategy). That, again, seemed to be going to plan as they led 3-0 against Crystal Palace going into the final day. Unfortunately, just as the title race didn't end at City, the Palace game didn't end at 3-0. Play the whistle, lads! A devastating 15 minute period saw Tony Pulis' men reduce their dreams to rubble as Palace earned a 3-3 draw. They needed a miracle on the final day, they got an own goal from Martin Skrtel. By the time Pool completed a comeback to see off a poor Newcastle side, City were 2-0 up and cruising against West Ham. The title was gone, the dream was over, their best chance in recent memory ruined.
Next year is our year!
And so what can Liverpool fans expect of next season?
Much as they may try, Pool fans can't credibly argue that they weren't inadvertently helped in their title challenge by their 7th place finish a year beforehand. No European football meant no distractions as players could simply prepare for next Saturday each week, while their nearest rivals would have the slight distraction of an Atletico Madrid or Bayern Munich awaiting them on a Wednesday. Even so, at times against Chelsea, Palace and Newcastle, they looked simply worn down and bereft of ideas after a long season relying on Suarez, Sturridge, Sterling and the ageing Gerrard. The fact that an injury to Jordan Henderson caused them so much strife is testament to how stretched the squad are to the challenges of a long season. They need to strengthen. As it stands, I don't believe it unfair to compare them to Arsenal in their limitations, with how one injury can derail all good plans.
Who are they lining up? Media reports link them with Ashley Cole, Adam Lallana, Yann M'Vila (of Rubin Kazan), Christian Tello (young Barcelona striker) and Mario Mandzukic among others. The big question is if these signings are:
a) realistic? Do they have the funds/ambition/clout to attract big players away from the likes of Real Madrid (who are similarly linked to both Cole and Mandzukic)? And,
b) revolutionary? Liverpool's recent history has seen them build around a marquee name with an (at-times) stellar supporting cast, and this season has been much of same with Luis Suarez. It hasn't worked. Look at the squad depth of Man City this year, United last year, Bayern, Real Madrid etc, the teams Pool have to be competing with if their dreams are to become reality.
Do Fenway Sports recognise this or do they see this squad as the finished product, having invested considerably already?
And what of the Champions League they now have to contend with? Does Rodgers follow the lead of Benitez and Dalglish and hope to focus on cup glory and let the league take a back-seat? Does he have a 'European gameplan' as Liverpool's all-attack strategy won't work against possession and counter-attacking masters like Bayern and Real Madrid. Liverpool were perhaps lucky not to drop to 3rd (realistic for a moment on Sunday with Chelsea coming back to beat Cardiff and Liverpool behind against Newcastle) as the long season wore on their players' legs. Add a Champions League and perhaps better FA/League Cup runs to that mix and it doesn't bode well.
With Man City looking to create a dynasty similar to their neighbours, Chelsea under Mourinho having a summer to scout and attract a key striker to bring them back to the top, a big club with the infrastructure and resources of United capable of bouncing back almost instantly under the right man (remember it was less than a decade ago both Bayern and Juventus were also 'in crisis'), you can't help but feel that this was their shot and they will feel the gap between a first and second place finish for years to come.
For the first time in a lot of Liverpool's fans' memories, next season may not look like an improvement for once. They had their chance. They blew it. And, as a United fan, I don't mind taking a backseat and enjoying their misery. Football wouldn't be football without it. And anyone who doesn't understand that, doesn't understand football.
Rick Nash is a former pro-wrestler who currently DJs for hire, makes piss-poor sports bets and has a community radio show. Altogether, he's a real bum, and you should be ashamed of yourself if you thought this piece was in any way insightful or entertaining. But still, follow him on Twitter and stuff.