We hate Nottingham Forest. We hate Everton too. We hate Man United… (and Chelsea, Arsenal, City, Spurs, … et al.)
Of course, hating something is often as a result of it being a threat – to your own personal health, to your happiness or to your way of life. Right now, plenty of teams are out to sabotage our happiness as Liverpool fans.
Part of the must-win mania surrounding modern football is just how there seems to be a grudge wherever you look. Indeed, modern society seems to be about divisiveness, and the pitting of different groups against one another; as if, despite some progress, there’s also been a regression in recent years.
These days football almost feels as much about wanting another club – or indeed, clubs – to lose as your own club to win; schadenfreude being its own kind of ‘success’ in the banterverse. Social media obviously heightens this, as does the media coverage and the way everything now has to be about confrontation – with the internet providing lots of relatively new ways to argue with the ill-informed, and be wound up by keyboard warriors. In the past you’d rarely run into fans of certain clubs; now they can contact you (or pop up on your Twitter and Facebook feeds) at will. The more we celebrate our own uniqueness – and big-up our differences to others – the more we demean everyone else.
As I’ve posited before, the way games are spread out over an increasingly long weekend only adds to the angst. By the time Liverpool face Man United at Anfield I’ve already sat through (or checked scores for) several other games, in the hope that rivals slip up. I have a healthy respect for what Spurs and their manager are doing, but when they are losing in the 88th minute in the game against West Brom it feels almost like three points for Liverpool; then, when they equalise a minute later, it feels like Liverpool have dropped two points, when all that happened was Spurs gained one, and Liverpool weren’t even in action. When Arsenal hold on with ten men to beat Swansea it feels like another defeat, as does Chelsea thrashing Leicester. And when Pep Guardiola’s exiting Man City side can only draw with Everton it feels like Liverpool have gained two points, although Everton also getting a point feels like another point lost. All this and Liverpool haven’t even played yet.
In the old days there was nothing beyond the half-time and full-time announcements of the other results at Anfield (unless you took a radio to the game, which was reserved for end-of-season deciders). If you weren’t at the game you could follow it at home on the radio, but all the action across the country still took place within the same 90 minutes (and then, after a while, one game on Sunday afternoons). That 90 minutes could be agonising, but it was just one part of your weekend. Now, football impinges on your entire weekend. And then it continues most days of the week, with no respite from the news, views and banter.
Whilst immersed in the action at the game there was never any time to think about, analyse and fret over how everyone else was doing – you found out seconds after the final whistle, and whatever had happened happened. You might hear that a rival won 4-2, but without knowledge of how that game unfolded there could be no investment in hope during the part when they were actually 2-0 behind.
Now it’s a kind of water torture, drawn out for days on end. It means we can find ourselves on edge on a Friday night, a Saturday lunchtime, a Saturday afternoon, a Saturday evening, a Sunday lunchtime and a Sunday afternoon, with all that emotional energy spent before our team even gets to play, on the Monday night.
The fact that every game seems must-win makes a rival’s defeat feel all the better, but only makes you more on edge if your game is up last and everyone else has won. Every single week it feels like the whole world is riding on the result, and that’s not healthy. A must-win game used to describe an end of season encounter when, with one game left, you needed three points to secure the title, qualify for Europe or escape relegation. Now it’s used every week. We used to joke that losing a game was a crisis, but these days it often is portrayed that way.
Early season clashes are almost billed as title-deciders, with nowhere else to go for the hyperbole; Sky TV’s advert for “Red Monday” playing into the hype of today’s clash. And while any result – particularly a clash between two supposed challengers and/or title rivals – can be very meaningful, there is still an incredible amount of time left for things to change.
After three games we were in awe of Manchester City and Manchester United, with their perfect records; their new managers had come in and sorted them out, with no need to faff about with excuses about needing time (when of course, many managers actually do need time; instant good results obscuring that fact).
Then United slipped up on a few occasions and looked distinctly mediocre, as if the shine of Mourinho, Pogba and Ibrahimovic had worn off after less than a handful of games. Man City won their first ten games in all competitions, and looked invincible; and yet they’ve now failed to win any of the past three – which is hardly a disaster, but shows that they are human after all. Last season no one could see anyone but City winning the title after they won the first five league games and yet they fell away badly. Leicester and Spurs only belatedly hit the front. Various teams had spells at the top.
So this encounter tonight won’t settle anything; and a United win certainly wouldn’t make them clearly superior when all it would do is draw the teams level on points. Equally, a Liverpool win would be an obvious (but still small) addition to the weight of evidence that this is a very strong, exciting team, but it wouldn’t seal anything; and a defeat would not mean that the previous results were some kind of charade. This is a must-win game purely for the context of bragging rights, plus the fact that it could perhaps have some small psychological impact either way. But it’s not in any way decisive.
Ultimately, a defeat would still leave Liverpool on 16 points after eight games; a very healthy ratio of two points per match, especially when those matches would have included Arsenal (a), Spurs (a), Leicester (h), Chelsea (a) and Man United at home. Obviously Leicester aren’t as strong this season, but the signs are that Arsenal (doing well against anyone but Liverpool), Spurs (started this season better than last, and recently outplayed City), Chelsea (not struggling in the bottom half like last year) and United (no longer mind-numbingly dull) are all stronger. The Premier League hasn’t imported many peak-years superstars, but the massive spending has probably improved a whole host of clubs (and slowed the small flood of elite talent to Spain).
Whatever happens in a one-off game can still be fairly random (there’s always the possibility to play well and lose), but the added anxiety surrounding this game is that it feels like this could really be a special Liverpool side going places, and this defeat would feel like a sharp detour on that journey; a failed test.
But you can’t pass every test that comes your way; Leicester certainly didn’t last season – losing at Liverpool, for a start. They simply passed enough tests. During Liverpool’s halcyon years the Reds often lost to clearly inferior United sides, and during the period of United domination there were spells, particularly around the mid-to-latter parts of the Evans, Houllier and Benítez tenures, when Liverpool got the better of a side that still went on to win the title. Whoever won the battle often didn’t win the war.
The difference now is that both clubs appear to be fallen giants looking for some kind of revival; and with Liverpool a fraction ahead with theirs. When Liverpool’s dynasty collapsed at the start of the 1990s it was United who usurped them (although Liverpool fell below several other clubs during the Graeme Souness years).
United then went on to dominate from 1992/93 onwards in a similar way – a few more league titles during their heyday than the Reds, but fewer European Cups. But what’s perhaps most interesting is how United have almost mirrored Liverpool in falling from obvious title contenders to being outside the top echelons once the key manager was replaced, despite making record-breaking transfers, and trying new bosses, to try and recapture past glories.
My theory is that a certain sense of invincibility builds up around a successful big club over a number of years (or even during a season, as seen with Leicester), but that once that bubble is burst it actually becomes harder in the aftermath to get the most out of what may be an equally talented side. It’s not necessarily momentum, but a fear factor, especially with so much of all sport being about mindset.
This remains what Sky (and many fans) see as the biggest game in English football, yet Liverpool haven’t won the title in 26 years. And yet over that period of time, the Reds have retained the cachet of an elite club, and the pressures that go with it – such as everyone seeing it as a scalp to beat them. It’s odd to remain a scalp even though you’re far from unbeatable, and I wonder if the same is true of the England team: this country retains one of the stellar names of world football on account of its history within the game, but has not been a stellar side (or had a plethora of stellar players) for donkey’s years. Opponents still raise their game against England even though, in order to get a result, they no longer have to.
Once the magic is gone, and the spell is broken – and by this I just mean the aura rather than anything actually supernatural – the pressure to match greatness from the past becomes a burden. It was interesting to read that Alex Ferguson claimed he rarely used the infamous ‘hairdryer’ rant, and was more concerned with removing the pressure from his players. By the end – just like Liverpool in 1990 – Ferguson was able to win the title with a relatively mediocre side compared to a handful of years earlier, but the winning habit had lived on. Now it’s gone.
In a way it’s like Paul McCartney still being Paul McCartney even though he hasn’t done anything objectively brilliant since 1970. He’s clearly not what he once was, but of course, he’s undoubtedly still the same actual human being (although there was talk of a body swap many years ago).
Similarly, Liverpool and Manchester United are still representative of their histories, whether or not they can match the levels that made them so famous in the first place. That’s what makes this such a weighty encounter. It comes with a ton of baggage.
But stoking the hatred – as always happens around such games – worries me, particularly in this age of rapidly increasing hate, where we appear to be forgetting the lessons of the past.
The second part of this article is for subscribers only.