It was always going to be tense. There is a deep rooted rivalry between United and Liverpool that always sails close to hatred. The two most successful sides in English football have a history and heritage that bears comparison: but the mutual dislike is embedded deep within the DNA and identity of both clubs.
The occasion yesterday in many ways was more important than the game itself. It was an opportunity to remember 96 football fans, Liverpool fans that went to a game and never came home. And after 23 years of lies and cover up – yesterday was also a celebration that the collective power of people won the battle for the truth against the state.
The atmosphere before the game was sombre and respectful; Suarez and Evra set the scene by rising above the media fuelled hype over the handshake and acted like professionals – especially difficult for Suarez who will always feel as though he was the biggest loser in a disputed incident. But credit goes to both who put personal differences aside to pay respect to the 96.
Despite a few isolated incidents during the game, notably a rendition of ‘Where’s your famous Munich song’ from the travelling fans, the game passed off without any major incidents of the vile chanting which has become such an ugly sideshow of this fixture. That was – until the end of the game.
Clear video evidence show United fans chanting ‘Always the Victim’ and worse still ‘Murderers’ after the game had finished. It is alleged it was in response to provocation by a single Liverpool fan mocking Munich. Either way – it was a sad ending to a day where both clubs made every effort to build bridges – to try and channel the hatred into a healthier type of rivalry – the type of rivalry it should be.
There is an ignorant minority that support every football club. They will always be the ones that take things too far – in an attempt to show off and seek attention. It is right to name and shame them – those intent on abusive and inappropriate chanting have no place in modern football. It is a stain on the game – and the action of those Manchester United fans guilty of mocking Hillsborough brings shame on them and the football club they support.
The same can be said for any fan that thinks it is acceptable to mock death and tragedy – whatever club they are from. It can only change if challenged by decent minded fans; some of the comments about Mark Halsey from a Liverpool fan after the game went way beyond any kind of line. It is a sad symptom of football today that some people believe illness and death is ‘fair game’ and a weapon in the arsenal of footballing insults.
You will never sanitise the game – or the rivalries within it – but football can take a few lessons from rugby. There has to be a line drawn – otherwise the image of football will forever be tarnished by an ignorant minority (although sadly, the chanting of United fans after yesterday’s game seemed more like a majority).
Rodgers is learning the hard way
It is difficult not to feel incredible sympathy for Brendan Rodgers. He has all of the tools to be a fantastic manager – but circumstances have conspired to give him an almost impossible task. Rodgers appointment was on the back of the sacking of the biggest legend in the history of the club – a manager that won a cup last season. The sacking of Dalglish was a harsh decision – he was afforded money, but he was not afforded time. The two are a mutually important commodity if you want to achieve success.
Against the backdrop of Dalglish’s sacking, Rodgers also has the shadow of another former manager hanging over him. There is a large sections of Liverpool fans that rightly revere Rafael Benitez; a European Cup winner that transformed the club into a European giant. There was widespread discontent that Dalglish was sacked and Benitez not approached during the summer.
That said – the majority of Liverpool fans seem to be behind Rodgers ideals. He has made the effort to understand the club – and what it means to supporters. He is trying to bring a philosophy and a style to the club. He is trying to do the right things – but he has been constrained by avoidable mistakes and an inheritance of the bad luck that dogged the club last season. He was also on the end of a terrible refereeing performance against United.
Rodgers needs a fan base behind him that is looking forwards, not backwards. That is something that Liverpool is trying to do at every level. That is what the appointment of Rodgers signifies – a club looking to the future.
The fixture list was always going to present Rodgers with a challenging start. Manchester City, Arsenal, and Manchester United in the opening 5 games – squeezed between two very tricky away games at West Brom and Sunderland. That is not the start you want as a new manager – especially when you know that unless you hit the ground running you will be trying to manage mutterings from the sceptics.
The debacle of deadline day put even further pressure on Rodgers. He was left with a talented – but very thin squad. He has had to rely on youth to fill the void that has been left by the failure to land players before the window shut. He has lost Lucas – a lynchpin of both the team and Rodgers system for a number of months. Injuries to Agger and Kelly expose an already thin squad.
But the one thing about Rodgers is that he is a brave manager. He is somebody that believes firmly in his own judgement; and he is happy to take risks and take the responsibility if they fail. That is a great attitude to have as a manager and a great asset.
Giving youth a chance
This season we have seen the emergence of Raheem Sterling who is fast becoming an integral part of Rodgers side. Against United – with both Henderson and Sahin on the bench – Rodgers opted to bring on Suso for the second half. He was instantly rewarded as Suso played a huge part in Liverpool’s goal.
Both Sterling and Suso have proven that they have the ability to compete at this level – against the top sides. Neither has been given an easy introduction – both have been thrown in at the highest level. That bodes well for our future. The introduction of youth into our first team will inevitably lead to mistakes – but it will also lead to a fearless and dynamic approach to games.
The situation Rodgers finds himself in has led to the fast tracking of some of our youngsters. Whilst the results haven’t been good – there has been enough in the performances to suggest we will win games this season. Against both City and United we could easily have won in difference circumstances. Our second half performance against Sunderland merited 3 points.
We don’t have multiple options – but we do have good players. As well as Joe Allen this season our stand out player has been Raheem Sterling. He has incredible maturity for a 17 year old. His awareness and game intelligence is way beyond what I expected – I knew about the raw pace – but his end product, ability to play with his head up and to know when to play the right ball, tracking back, and intercepting the ball have all been outstanding. If he can add goals to that list– he has all of the tools to be a world class player – but he still has a lot of work to do.
At the end of the storm
We have had a difficult start – and the game against United was perhaps the most frustrating game so far. We dominated the game throughout – even with ten men. The referee had a stinker, giving every 50/50 decision to United. The sending off was a terrible piece of judgement – it was either two yellows or two reds for Evans and Shelvey – out of the two challenges, Evans looked worse: two feet off the ground.
Luis Suarez is not getting any decisions at the moment. Referees have marked him which is both judgemental and against the interests of fair play. It means that he is offered no protection; and that opposing teams can foul him in the knowledge they will get away with it. Suarez can help himself by being less dramatic when fouled – and I hope that is something Rodgers will be telling him.
But yesterday’s performance gives lots of hope for the future. The team played well and controlled the game; they controlled the pace and possession even with ten men. There were times yesterday where you could see that Rodgers blueprint was starting to work. We still have work to do – and we need to find a consistent source of goals – but we are creating chances.
Rodgers said after the game that he believes it will click soon – and you can see why he remains optimistic. He needs to regroup and focus the players on the job in hand. We have a run of games we can get points from coming up; so it is important nobody loses the faith at this early stage of the season.
Beyond this season
Rodgers has had a tough start to life at Anfield. He has quickly had to adapt to the realities of the situation the club is in; and he has had to carefully navigate his way through the cultural complexities and commercial sideshows like ‘Being Liverpool’.
He will be keen to get through this season with a steady progress. He will know that it isn’t this season that will define his reign at Liverpool.
The focus on the strategy of Liverpool’s owners is finances and FFP; but that doesn’t have to be the Holy Grail to success. In 5 years time the spine of our side will include Kelly, Coates, Allen, Henderson, Shelvey, Suso, Sterling, Yesil – all who will be in early-mid 20’s with 5 years experience. There are also a number of others that could be on that list.
FFP is important because it gives Liverpool a level playing field and the ability to compete financially at Europe’s top table. But as United proved in the early 90’s when Neville, Giggs, Beckham and Scholes all came through – a strong youth system can be a platform to success. It doesn’t always have to be about ability to pay huge fees.
Rodgers will know he has the spine of a very good side coming through. It is his role to nurture and develop them – and to retain them. If the club can generate enough resources to add the right quality at the top end of the market to supplement those young players – our long term future looks good.
There is going to be more tough times this season – but there will also be better days than against United. This season will be about consolidation – but it will have the added bonus that instead of sending out talented youngsters out on loan to the Championship – they are getting real experience at the highest level – and they look like they belong. That can only bode well for the long term future of the club.
There is a balance needed between the present and the future – but we don’t look far away from being a very decent side right now. We haven’t seen the best of Gerrard or Suarez yet this season – both of whom can provide goals – Sahin is a fantastic talent but needs to work on his fitness. We will get better as the season progresses.