What Next for Liverpool’s Squad? (and What Would Shankly Have Done?)

What Next for Liverpool’s Squad? (and What Would Shankly Have Done?)
May 4, 2021 Chris Rowland

 

It’s February 21st 1970. Struggling in the league, Liverpool travel to 2nd Division Watford in the FA Cup quarter final, seeking some solace in the FA Cup in an era when the FA Cup was still significant enough to provide some.

What happened next was a fulcrum in the club’s development, and arguably the trigger for the massive success of the 70s and 80s. Liverpool lost 1-0 at Vicarage Road, an ignominious and infamous defeat, and ended up finishing 5th in the league, behind Leeds, Chelsea, Derby and champions Everton.

That season had already been preceded by a few seasons of nothing very much following the mid-1960s successes under Bill Shankly. Following promotion as champions back to the top flight, Liverpool won league titles in 1963/4 and 65/6, with their first ever FA Cup in 1965 sandwiched in between. Add a European Cup semi-final in our first season in the competition, and our first European final in 1966, the  European Cup Winners Cup where we lost at Hampden Park to Klopp’s former club Borussia Dortmund, and you can see what a golden, if relatively short, period it was. Liverpool had moved to the top of a pile that included the Man Utd of Busby, Best, Law and Charlton, Don Revie’s Leeds and Harry Catterick’s Everton.

But between 1966 and 1972, it all kind of fizzled out – gradually, but it’s always only retrospectively that you truly begin to realise how far you’ve fallen and how long the decline has been in situ. Whilst always being towards the top end of the table and always qualifying for Europe, it was in the UEFA Cup rather than the European Cup for that fallow period. Several trophy-less seasons passed while United, City, Leeds, Everton, 1971’s double-winning Arsenal and finally Brian Clough’s emerging Derby were crowned champions, before we clambered back to the top in 1973. That 7-year itch that was just a minor irritant compared to the 30 year gaping chasm we just filled, but it still felt a long time to fans sated on mid-60s glory, the Beatles and Merseybeat, on Liverpool being the place to be, on documentaries on the swaying, surging, clamorous Kop.

After that Watford defeat, a harsh reality set in. A cold wind blew. Something had to be done. The penny dropped for Shankly that he may have remained loyal for too long to the core of his 60s team. His band of heroes had turned into yesterday’s men. The end had come for all-time club legends like Roger Hunt, Ian St John, Ron Yeats, and Tommy Lawrence, as well as more recent arrivals like Bobby Graham and Alun Evans. In fact the keeper Lawrence was dropped for the very next game, with one Ray Clemence stepping in (and staying in place for a good while!)

Only Emlyn Hughes, Tommy Smith and Ian Callaghan, and briefly Chris Lawler and Peter Thompson, survived the cull as a succession of new blood began to make its way into the team; Kevin Keegan, Alec Lindsay, Larry Lloyd and Ray Clemence all from lower league clubs; Steve Heighway and Brian Hall from even lower than that; John Toshack and Peter Cormack the big money signings, from Cardiff and Forest respectively.

Shankly’s was more ruthless Red Revolution than soft evolution, and within two years of the Watford nadir, a new champion team had been constructed, and its fortunes transformed as quickly as it had been built. But it still took two years.

By the start of that 1972/3 league/UEFA cup double season, only Chris Lawler, Hughes, Smith and Callaghan were left from the previous manifestation. The 1974 FA Cup followed as a new dynasty began to forge its own legacy for Bob Paisley to build on when he took over in 1974.

So it’s been done before – and it may soon need doing again.

Of course what Jürgen Klopp has achieved in his six years at Anfield could already be characterised as a transformation – but does he now need need a quicker and more deep-rooted one?

Klopp’s arrival at Anfield excited us at the time, and would get us exponentially more excited later. If on October 8th 2015 there was much work for Klopp to do on the pitch – and there was, with a starting squad that featured Mignolet, Clyne, Moreno, Can, Lallana, Coutinho, Benteke, Sturridge when fit, Lucas, Lovren, Skrtel, Sakho, Allen, Kolo Toure and Ibe (41 appearances in all competitions that season!) – there was also plenty to do off it, with an Anfield full of nervy, edgy, suspicious doubters with a bad case of PTSD.

Five and a half years later, only Henderson, Milner, Firmino, Origi and Gomez remain from that original squad, and the days are probably numbered for some on that list. During that time Liverpool have reached three European finals, a Europa League final just a base camp for consecutive European Cup finals, one record-breaking league season as runners up on 97 points followed immediately by one with 99 points and that Premier League title triumph that finally removed that ultra-adhesive gorilla (*hitherto undiscovered sub-species) from our backs, with a World Club Championship and a European Super Cup thrown in. It has been an awesome, unprecedented few years.

Of course, we had to sell one of the aces in our pack for top dollar to Barcelona to afford two we really, really needed, and both of them world-class. Coutinho for Virgil and Ali? Deal!

It, and Klopp, turned Liverpool into Mentality Monsters and a champion team, and turned Anfield into an intimidating cauldron full of believers, before a virus brought the Noise to an end.

That’s some squad development and mood manipulation he’s done, right there. What we have today is largely a squad alloyed together in the fierce heat of competition, and a group of players that has achieved spectacular success together – at one point, champions of England, Europe and the world. So far, so stupendously good. At one point last season the record was scarcely believable – P27 W26 D1 L0 Pts 79. That was never, could never be, a remotely realistic benchmark, by definition. It was an absolute all-time freak. Only one direction you can go from there. Like Icarus, we were flying close to the sun.

Over the coming period Klopp faces arguably an even greater challenge than creating this dynasty in the first place. And he does so at a time of great uncertainty over the club’s ownership post-ESL. Will he still be the man in charge to carry out the required reset? All Liverpool supporters will fervently hope so, and that he doesn’t decide that is a step too far and a job for someone else – or decide new ownership is the time to take a rest.

As Shankly is the former Liverpool manager Klopp is most likened to, in his philosophy and his modus operandi, and in his bond with the fans, then perhaps he can look back to that Shankly revolution for inspiration.

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