For some Reds, perhaps even the players, the start of the season felt all too soon, but Liverpool are back and here starts that emotional rollercoaster we all sign up for.
I’ll put my hands up; I wasn’t sure what to expect from the opening day of the new season, at least from a personal perspective. The events outside the Stade de France just over two months ago have undeniably left a deeper imprint than even I might have realised.
Across June and July, apart from writing a couple of retrospective pieces on Emlyn Hughes and Ronnie Whelan, and supplying Henry Jackson with a set of 2022/23 predictions, I kept all things Liverpool at arm’s length.
I didn’t watch one live-action minute of our pre-season friendlies, not even the Community Shield, instead forsaking that for a chilled-out weekend in Yorkshire on the fields of a music festival, making for an accumulative summer where I only glanced in Liverpool’s direction to peruse the brief highlights of a Darwin Nunez goal splurge against RB Leipzig, and to take a look at the ones we scored against Man City.
Not in attendance at Craven Cottage, apart from seeking out the team news 45 minutes before kick-off, I totally ignored the pre-match build-up. Worryingly, there had been no itch for football, no steadily rising desire to get back at it. The sport of the round ball hadn’t belonged to men for the last eight or nine weeks, and that had been just fine.
The opening day of a new season isn’t meant to feel like that. No nerves, no anticipation, it was almost as if the spectre of the return to competitive action was a week or two too soon, which of course it has been.
Another thing to accentuate this sense of detachment and borderline ambivalence is that it would be nine days beyond this opening game until I get the chance to click through the Anfield turnstiles when Crystal Palace roll into town.
Although it probably does, all of this isn’t meant to sound ‘grumpy old man’. I’ve just enjoyed ignoring football since Paris. It has been therapeutic and very much needed. If anything, I’ve enjoyed the break a little too much, a situation that had cast football as an uninvited interloper, one that has arrived earlier than required. Throw in Martin Tyler putting his foot firmly in his mouth with his Hillsborough remarks and it was hardly the loving embrace that August usually provides.
Then came Saturday.
Belatedly, all those familiar, yet previously absent new season sensations did kick in around 15 minutes before kick-off, generally provoked by my children deciding they needed to eat. Suddenly, the idea of not being sat in front of the television at 12.30 brought with it acute anxiety, and it was convenience meals all round.
So estranged was I from the nuances of pre-season, I hadn’t realised just how many injuries Jurgen Klopp was nursing. Bobby Firmino being deployed rather than Nunez was unexpectedly expected. Apart from that call, there were no surprises to be found in the line-up.
A handful of early vague scares, Fulham propelled themselves into their latest Premier League return with a bright and enthusiastic start to the game; I don’t know whether it is a trick of the mind, but it certainly feels like we have been dealt more than our fair share of newly promoted teams on the opening day of the season across recent years.
It took Liverpool a quarter of an hour to adjust themselves to the challenge, and a disallowed Luis Diaz effort should have been the moment of genesis for Liverpool to cruise to a comfortable victory. Fulham surprisingly maintained their early energy, however, and Aleksandar Mitrovic proved a constant threat, the conjurer of a series of unnecessary incidents, along with the opening goal of the afternoon. It all seemed completely unnecessary and self-inflicted to a degree, despite the credit the home side deserved.
Diaz was the source of our best moments. A near miss when trying to get on the end of an Andy Robertson ball across the Fulham six-yard-box, the frame of the goal struck and added to his disallowed effort before the interval.
The second half brought more discomfort; the sight of Thiago exiting with what appeared to be a hamstring problem sounded potentially long-lasting alarm bells. His departure also precipitated Firmino being replaced by Nunez.
Fulham could have extended their lead shortly before the hour when hitting the post. If it hadn’t felt so an hour and a half earlier, football was now feeling very alive and relevant.
Mo Salah carved a chance for Nunez which was blocked by the Fulham goalkeeper, a charmed life being led by Marek Rodak until the two linked again for the equaliser in what was a carbon copy of the previous move.
For Klopp, the trick will be striking the right balance in the front three in this post-Sadio Mane landscape. It is unsettling, but we shouldn’t worry too much too soon. On another day Diaz would have scored a couple in the first half, while Nunez and Salah showed clear signs of potential footballing telepathy.
At 1-1, we should have been looking at a ruthless final half hour where we predictably popped the party, but a careless invitation from Virgil van Dijk was enthusiastically accepted by Mitrovic. Fabio Carvalho was thrown on for Diaz as Klopp shuffled his cards, the former Fulham man sending an early opportunity over the crossbar when opting for a little too much composure.
Our second equaliser came with Salah netting via a ball from Trent and the almost accidental assist from Nunez. Fulham refused to read the script though and a tale of the unexpected played itself out with Jordan Henderson hitting the bar in the final seconds.
Not the ideal start to the campaign, the only plus side of the dropped points was that I felt the full force of the frustration at full time.
It was almost reassuring, an outcome that comforted as much as it pained, safe in the knowledge that you can be estranged from the Reds for a while, but you can never divorce them. Crystal Palace can’t come soon enough.
Up the disjointed Reds.