A hat-trick from Yossi Benayoun clouded a familiar malaise in 2009, as Jeff Goulding continues his Classic Match series ahead of Liverpool vs. Burnley.
It’s back to 2009 we go for this weeks classic match against Burnley. Here we find a football club in turmoil and moving inexorably down the road to administration. In perhaps the greatest act of sporting vandalism since Graeme Souness demolished the Anfield boot room, Tom Hicks and George Gillett were dismantling the whole institution.
Broken promises about spades in the ground and the failure to capture “snoogy doogy” had brought Kopites to the point of open revolt. Turmoil that had until now raged behind the scenes was now spilling through the cracks and the manager’s press conferences were becoming increasingly fraught. The splits at the very top were even making it onto our TV screens.
The Reds, restored to the pinnacle of European football under Rafa Benitez, had gone agonisingly close to winning the Premier League in the 2008/09 season. However, all of that had placed a giant band aid over the gaping wound of ownership.
In the summer Liverpool had said goodbye to quality players such as Xabi Alonso, Sami Hyypia and Alvaro Arbeloa. They’d hung on to the unhappy Fernando Torres by the skin of their teeth and added Alberto Aquilani, Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Glen Johnson and Maxi Rodriguez.
All around were signs of a crumbling empire. The pride, hope and optimism of 2005 was beginning to feel like ancient history and fissures were beginning to appear on the Kop. Rafa, once universally worshipped, was now seen by a minority as part of the problem.
Many felt he’d played a part in the sale of Alonso, a player the Kop adored. Their ire was fuelled by the proposed replacement, Gareth Barry. Rafa would argue he’d been told to sell, if he wanted to bring in reinforcements. Xabi was his most bankable asset and in any case the Spaniard had always wanted to go to Madrid.
We may never know the truth on that one, but if Alonso wanted out, he wasn’t the only one. Stories in the press suggested that many of Liverpool’s stars were instructing their agents to get them out of Anfield. It was becoming abundantly clear that the American owners were broke liars. They had to go before the squad was completely decimated.
We’d have to wait over a year for that to happen and things would get far worse, before the club would eventually stabilise. Unfortunately Rafa wouldn’t survive the mess and we would see the madness reach new heights, with the appointment of Roy Hodgson as his replacement.
In the midst of all of that was a clash with Burnley on September 12, 2009. Going into the game the mood around Anfield was grim. Pepe Reina had given an interview in which he stated that winning the league wasn’t a realistic target. After going so close just months earlier this was damning.
Guest of honour that day was Michael Shields, a Liverpool fan jailed in Bulgaria after being wrongly convicted of assault in the aftermath of Istanbul. Tasting the Anfield air for the first time since that heroic comeback in 2005, he must have wondered what the hell had happened to the club he loved while he had been away.
Burnley were sat comfortably in mid-table and the Reds were hovering just outside the top four. Liverpool had been in indifferent form in their opening four games, winning two and losing two.
A 3-1 reverse against Aston Villa at home had been particularly chastening, with the boss suggesting his players lacked fight. The game had ended an unbeaten home run that stretched back two years.
With Rafa’s words still ringing in their ears, they responded with a 3-2 away win against Bolton Wanderers, after twice coming from behind to seal the points. Still, such was their inconsistency, victory felt far from assured as they lined up at home for the visit of the Clarets. Then along came Yossi.
Benayoun had been dropped for the trip to the Reebok Stadium, but found himself in the starting line up against Burnley. He didn’t let anyone down.
If a young Red found a time machine and journeyed back to this game, they’d have instantly recognised the feeling in the stands. It would have felt like a home away from home. As the match got underway, there was nervousness all around, accompanied by mutterings and moans as each pass missed its target.
These are the sounds of supporters who have tasted success, but are terrified they may never enjoy it again. Sometimes I think that malaise has never really left us. It still lurks on the Kop, sapping our energy and filling us with doubt.
We endured the tension for just 27 minutes. Liverpool surged forward and Benayoun picked up the ball from Johnson, sidestepped a defender and slid the ball into the net, past the helpless Brian Jensen. It was like someone released a pressure valve and relief exploded in joy.
On the pitch the players seemed to feel lighter and suddenly were moving the ball around with an all too familiar swagger. Gerrard and Lucas were running the show in the middle. The captain should have scored, but was denied by a mixture of goalkeeping resilience and the woodwork.
Lucas also went close before Burnley won a corner, just before half-time. The nerves were back and the fear of an equaliser was palpable. The ball was swung in and Reina punched it clear. Somehow Torres had it and he broke forward at pace, feeding Benayoun, whose shot was parried. Kuyt seized on the loose ball and fired the Reds second.
Half-time arrived in short order and the gloom had lifted. The Clarets’ resolve had been broken and we could look to the second half with hope. On the hour mark Benayoun would end the game as a contest and allow Rafa to introduce Andriy Voronin, Philipp Degan and David N’Gog. Remember them?
The third goal was simplicity in itself, with Gerrard charging into the box in imperious style and squaring an easy ball to his Israeli teammate for the simplest of tap-ins. The Reds looked hungry and Yossi in particular was ravenous, snatching what looked like his hat-trick, only to see it ruled offside; a decision that seemed harsh.
He wasn’t to be denied though and with just eight minutes left on the clock he would finally claim the match ball. This time it was the turn of the ponytailed Voronin to turn provider and Benayoun beat the flag to steer the ball home. 4-0 and the result didn’t flatter the Reds.
Liverpool would win their next five games, including a 6-1 demolition of Hull City and a satisfying 2-0 victory over Manchester United. However their woes would return at the end of October with a 3-1 reverse at Fulham, followed by two disappointing draws.
A derby victory would lift spirits, but the Reds could not manage the sort of run that had seen them finish second the season before. Liverpool would finish a miserable seventh in the league and crash out of the Europa League in the semi-finals. Their hopes of a final appearance against Hodgson’s Fulham were dashed by Atletico Madrid’s late, late show at Anfield.
It was a miserable end to an awful season, but it would foreshadow even greater turmoil that would see one of the finest sporting institutions on the planet taken to the very brink of extinction.
We’ve been climbing the hill ever since. Maybe we should remember that as we watch Jurgen Klopp rebuild what others had torn apart.