Sunday, August 24, 2014

Liverpool’s twin naivety, 11 years apart

Negativity bias be damned.

Man’s tendency to recall unpleasant memories more strongly than the cheery ones must be the unfairest of psychological phenomena -- unfair on you and especially unfair on the happier elements which make your life worth living (or, if you’re in Mumbai, worth slogging).

According to experts, negative emotions involve more thinking and are thus processed more thoroughly by the brain, which is why these tend to be quite hard to let go of.

Then, it is a little surprise that following a season, in which Liverpool football club did not so much thrill me as make me go uncharacteristically bonkers, I’m going to sit and harp on about the few decisive moments when they failed to do so -- for, the fatuity of those moments took me back more than a decade to a time I still haven’t entirely gotten to grips with.

Last season, Liverpool were truly magnificent. Sometimes like a romantic novel, poetically unraveling on the field (with a tragic finale), letting you savour each moment; at other times, like an action film moving at a steady pace only to burst into life with devastating speed, leaving you overwhelmed in the end.

From a personal point-of-view, the glorious nature of Reds’ football couldn’t have been timed better. In my first season as a media professional working primarily on football, the sport -- it felt -- was being stuffed down my throat. It’s true: When something you love becomes work, it unavoidably changes – mostly, for the worse -- the way in which you interact with it.

Additionally, my footballing solitude was heavily tampered with: From the confines of my room, where hours went into scrutinizing matches and absorbing intelligent punditry, matches were now viewed in office, now often muddled up with other sports and certainly accompanied by petulant peer commentary.

This is where Liverpool offered itself as a breath of fresh air. A unique virtual getaway. A weekly source of reinvigoration. A brand of spellbinding attacking football not seen in England since Arsenal’s Invincibles.

Yet, when I could shower more roses, I’m choosing to throw darts. Admittedly, this doesn’t do justice to the team and is a selfish act -- of discharging bottled up thoughts in an attempt to start afresh ahead of the new season.


On 3 May 2003, with a quarter of an hour left, the scores stood: Liverpool 1-1 Manchester City (Nicolas Anelka had just equalized for City), West Ham United 1-0 Chelsea (Paolo di Canio had just netted).

If Chelsea (level on points with Liverpool, but much ahead on goal difference) failed to equalise at the Boleyn Ground, a draw for Liverpool would’ve been as good as a win. In either scenario, the Reds would’ve required only a draw at Stamford Bridge the following Sunday (the league’s final day) to cement the final Champions League spot.

It’s worth repeating: As things stood, a Liverpool goal wouldn’t have mattered. Reds were in pole position. Liverpool manager Gerard Houllier’s in-game management was up for a stern test.

Should he risk conceding another while going for a winner, especially when Liverpool had been on the ropes all game long, surviving by luck rather than skill? Or would holding City to a draw and counting on West Ham to keep Chelsea out be a safer bet?

The Frenchman went for the former option. He made an attacking double-substitution well aware that all Liverpool needed to do – as things stood – was maintain status quo.

Just maintain status quo.

Both games entered into stoppage time. Scorelines did not change. Thus, equations did not change. Liverpool, though, refused to let up in attack, and paid a heavy price for it: Anelka, a former Liverpool loanee no less, volleyed in a 93rd-minute winner.

Both Liverpool and Chelsea lost on that day. But, really, Chelsea won.

Reds’ defeat was infuriating to watch at the time. It’s equally infuriating to relive. It lacked in in-game intelligence. It resulted from a rather poorly calculated gamble, which meant Liverpool needed to win the “£20m match” in London the following week.

They had traditionally struggled at Stamford Bridge, home of Chelsea football club. To be able to settle for a draw as opposed to going for a win would’ve made a massive difference.

Liverpool lost 1-2, after taking the lead (a moment worth recalling my favourite phrase: “I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand”).

Unpleasant memories from that day still live on: Of Jesper Gronkjaer’s sliding-and-slipping winner; of Gianfranco Zola, making his final Chelsea appearance, toying with the Reds defence; and of Steven Gerrard marching off after a horrendous tackle.

It was an awful day, but the real damage had been done the week before.


Fast forward 11 years to 27 April 2014. Three league matches remain.

Anfield is buzzing. The streets leading up to it are buzzing. Here, an outpouring of emotions bottled up for well over two decades is in full flow. The reception is that of returning heroes. The anticipation that of champions.

A bang-in-form Liverpool must only avoid defeat to a second-string Chelsea side. This time, the stakes are higher: The Premier League itself is on the line.

What’s the need of the hour again? In-game intelligence. Just maintain status quo.

Football matches start goalless, a rather simple fact that seemed to betray the most level-headed folks inside Anfield that day. The onus was on Chelsea to score first. Not Liverpool.

Yet, when Blues ‘keeper Mark Schwarzer appeared to be deliberately wasting time as early as the third minute, the collective mood changed. Why? That’s all it took. One effortless trigger, of keeping the ball a tad bit longer than necessary, to break the focus of a side so accustomed to a barnstorming opening.

Luis Suarez, irritated, upset, tapped on an imaginary watch, and remonstrated with the referee. He immersed himself in what he perceived to be grave injustice, and ended up delivering a mediocre performance.

The crowd, previously bellowing chants in support, briefly switched focus towards the opposition (and its manager Jose Mourinho) with a chorus of ‘boos’. Happiness had left the building, after months; frustration slotted in nicely.

Former manager Rafael Benitez’s refusal to step on the throttle cost Reds the title in 2009. This time it was different. Brendan Rodgers’ men had attacked with great abandon to embark on a run of 11 straight wins. They just needed to take a step back, to reassess the immediate needs.

Mourinho’s gamesmanship, designed to get under the opponents’ skins from minute one, did exactly so. It shouldn’t have, for the opposition manager’s reputation preceded him. Why then, did it take Liverpool by surprise?

Liverpool players should’ve been primed for it, prepared to alter their own game, and ready to scrap a nil-nil draw to eventually realise a bigger dream. They didn’t.

Gerrard slipped, decisively and catastrophically. But, in reality, the team never found its footing.

How unfortunate, that at the end of a campaign which provided endless joys, I could only lament Liverpool’s end-of-season naivety.