For the umpteenth time in a little over a decade, Liverpool supporters are looking ahead once again to a new dawn. But then, we’ve had so many false dawns in recent times, it’s easy to get cynical and say, “Yeah, same old story, same old result…”
So why should we, the loyal Koppites, have any reason to be excited about the recent developments at Anfield?
I’ll tell you why, and if you’re going to read on, get comfortable, brew some coffee, and put away that Playboy mag – ‘cos this could get a wee bit long….
Ever since Kenny Dalglish’s shock resignation as manager in 1991, we’ve been trying to find the right replacement – someone to return this club to its rightful position as one of England’s – and Europe’s – best football clubs.
We tried to replace King Kenny with another Scot, Graeme Souness. Souey, of course, was one of Liverpool’s greatest players during our domination of the local and European football scene. Contrary to what some so-so LFC supporters might say today, we welcomed him back to Anfield as manager with open arms. He’d just led Glasgow Rangers to the Scottish league championship as manager, and with him being an LFC old boy and all, kept with the Liverpool spirit of keeping the manager’s seat ‘within the family’.
Well, we all know how that turned out.
After one measly FA Cup victory, several poor league finishes and some severe backlash from supporters, Souey was shoved aside for Roy Evans. Once again, the decision was hailed by supporters and the media. Evans was the last of the legendary Boot Room boys, the behind-the-scenes team that was the heart of Liverpool’s glorious victories from the 60’s to the 90’s. Evans started well, bringing back the cherished pass-and-move philosophy that was missing during the previous couple of years. We won the League Cup in 1995 and reached the FA Cup final 1996 – only to go down to a sucker-punch of a goal from Eric Cantona. But after that season, we began to lose our way. Besides inconsistent form from players, damaging ‘Spice Boy’ allegations and disciplinary problems, what eventually proved to be Evans’ downfall was the fact that we never really challenged for the title.
So the club brings in Gerard Houllier – the man credited as having been a key influence in France’s historic World Cup win in 1998. After an ill-judged, brief dalliance as joint-manager with Roy Evans, monsieur Houllier took sole control in Nov 1998 and began rebuilding – not just the team, but the whole club. The training ground at Melwood, Anfield, players fitness regimens, diet, tactics, strategy, etc. Nothing escaped the Frenchman’s gaze. And in the beginning, he was successful – enormously so. The amazing treble-cup triumph of 2001 is a tribute to the long hours put in to improve the players’ fitness levels. Could any team now be capable of playing in as many matches as Liverpool did then?
But then, once again, the wheels fell off the wagon. Some might attribute the club’s slide to Houllier’s heart troubles, but regardless, the club was struggling, the players were suffering from low morale – and the supporters were losing patience. The final straw, of course, was the 30 point gap between fourth placed Liverpool and champions Arsenal in 2003/04. Players were publicly expressing disappointment, while Steven Gerrard and Michael Owen were dropping hints that they could leave if the situation did not improve.
Houllier had to go – and to his credit, he chose to do so. The search for the new gaffer was on.
From the start, there seemed only one choice that the board was favouring. Rafael Benitez, the Valencia manager who succesfully led the Spanish club to two Spanish league titles and a UEFA Cup. Liverpool fans would also remember the demolition job performed by Valencia over the Reds during the 2002/03 Champions League group matches. Here was a man who’d managed a club with limited finances and few stars and yet managed to overshadow the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona. Seeing how Liverpool are currently in a position where they cannot afford to spend too heavily, Benitez’s credentials with Valencia is no doubt appealing.
Hence, Rafa is now Liverpool’s first ever Spanish manager. Although the club so far has made only two signings (defender Josemi and striker Cisse), there is already a lot of positive buzz coming from the players and the staff at Anfield.
Liverpool have just recently concluded a successful tour of USA (which is more than can be said for Man Utd), having beaten Celtic and Roma, while narrowly losing to European champions Porto. In less than a week’s time, Liverpool will play their first competitive match of the season – away to GAK in the Champions League qualifiers. This will then be followed by the highly anticipated clash of new managers at White Hart Lane, with Rafa’s Reds facing Santini’s Spurs.
Wanna know what the players themselves think of the changes at Anfield?
Igor Biscan: “He’s [Benitez] been very good. Training has been hard, but it always is at this stage of pre-season. Time will tell but the early signs are encouraging.”
Milan Baros: “We are playing more offensively and that style seems to suit us. We’ll have to see what happens when the real business of the Premiership and Champions League starts but I’m enjoying it.”
Harry Kewell: “I like playing for Liverpool and want to feel settled now with the new boss Rafael Benitez….. It’s always nice when a new manager comes in who wants to play the ball and use the wide midfield men. I love the way we’ve been playing so far. All this passing and movement is great for me and I’m really enjoying it.”
Steven Gerrard: “… it’s been good. The most important thing on pre-season tours like this is to get your match fitness back. The training is going really well and the boys are enjoying it, even though it is very tough. We’ve been going into these friendly games a bit stiff and tired but I think by the first game of the season we’ll be fit and raring to go.”
Michael Owen: “We created a lot of chances and scored a lot of goals. Our attacking play was very good and so was the defending. It was a good performance, so let’s hope it can continue like that.”
John Arne Riise: “Everything we do in training is about the use of the ball. Yes, we have our physical exercises with our running, but for Benitez training is about telling us how we use and keep the football. The players like that…
There’s more confidence about the squad now. All of us want to play the kind of football the fans want to see and I think under Rafa Benitez we can play some good stuff.”
Well, I know it’s pre-season, but hearing the news that we’re going back to our roots – pass and move, the Liverpool groove – is music to my ears.
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