The Journey Since Our Last League Cup
The “business end” of the season. A uniquely British phrase that you soon pick up from football commentators and pundits alike, the “business end” of the season has become one of my favorites. Americans might call it “the homestretch” or “crunch time.” Regardless of your preferred nomenclature, it is without question what all sports fans look forward to in any given season. With dwindling opportunities to get results, it’s the short span of time at the end of the season where the winners separate themselves from the whiners.
There is no official start to English football’s “business end” of the season. The timing may vary depending upon which team you support. Some opinions state that it begins following the final international break in March. Others think of a shorter window encompassing the final few matches of the season. For me, it begins on the last weekend of February when all four competitions are in high gear. The League Cup Final is played on that Sunday, which admittedly I only watch when Liverpool are involved. But it’s the first opportunity to win silverware for every club, and you can’t win them all if you don’t win the first. February is also when the first knockout rounds of European competitions commence, and the FA Cup starts taking shape with only sixteen clubs remaining. As far as the Premier League is concerned, there are about a dozen matches remaining in the season which is enough to get on a run and achieve something. This is also the time of the year when I start paying serious attention to the results of rival clubs. I typically can’t be bothered by a late penalty dubiously called to help Manchester United scrape out three points in December. But when Tottenham travels to the Etihad on a Saturday afternoon in late February, you can bet that I’ll be checking to see if Harry Kane can somehow pull out a last-minute winner against Man City. Spoiler alert: he can.
Our Last League Cup Appearance
On Sunday, Liverpool Football Club will have the chance to earn the season’s first trophy when they play Chelsea in the League Cup Final. The Reds last won this trophy ten years ago this month. Back then it was a glimmer of hope during the darkest of times for Kopites. We weren’t far removed from going into administration, all due to the horrible ownership of two American numbskulls. Kenny Dalglish had replaced Roy Hodgson, whom history will prove might’ve been the worst managerial hire in club history. As a caretaker manager, Dalglish was navigating through a favorable draw as the club found themselves playing for silverware. They were set to face Cardiff City, a lower-tiered club struggling to qualify for the promotion playoffs into the Premier League. You rarely see a lower-league club make a cup final, and Liverpool was hardly must-see television at the time. It was the network executive’s nightmare. And if you weren’t a fan of either club, you wouldn’t know the result. All things considered, it was a rather exciting match that included two goals in extra time before heading to penalties. In a rare twist of irony, the last kick was missed by a Gerrard. Only it was Stevie’s cousin Anthony who played for Cardiff City that couldn’t convert, so Liverpool ended up winning the 2012 League Cup.
I fondly recall celebrating that Cup victory at my friend’s home-built bar nestled in the backwoods of Chatham County. It was the same day as NASCAR’s season-opening Daytona 500 race, which had been under a lengthy rain delay. About a dozen people wandered to the rural hideout expecting to see stock cars rumbling around an oval track, instead, they saw a grown man wearing a charcoal Liverpool long-sleeved kit smoking a cigar celebrating a rare Liverpool Cup victory. At that time, it was about the only thing Liverpool supporters had to root for. There was no European competition for the Reds, and the Premier League dream disappeared long before that Cup Final. We were in seventh place seven points behind Arsenal, who were in fourth place at the time. Cynicism had crept into the mind of every Liverpool supporter. No one expected success, rather we hoped for it.
What Came Next
There was a general feeling of malaise around the Liverpool family. Even though we had just won the League Cup, everyone knew we were still climbing off rock bottom. And we had a long way to go. Meanwhile, our rivals were thriving. Sir Alex Ferguson had just won Manchester United’s 19th league title the season before, knocking Liverpool off that perch. Manchester City was in the fourth year of the Abu Dhabi ownership, eventually seeing the rewards with their first league title since 1968. Chelsea was nearing completion of the first decade in the Roman Abramovich era where they had won three league titles. And then there was Arsenal, in their fifteenth year of Arsene Wegner’s regime where he had collected three league titles of his own for the London club. Four clubs hovered near the top of the English footballing pyramid, fighting their way to the top. All that a fan truly wants in the “business end” of the season are matches that matter. Something to look forward to on the weekend. Our rivals would consistently offer that to them like a plate of appetizers, teasing them to hang around for the main course. And if they went home disappointed, at least they could laugh at the mockery that had become Liverpool Football Club. Because we were shite, and no one could deny it.
I recall enjoying that celebratory cigar, thankful that clubs like Manchester United and Chelsea had previously been eliminated in what they considered to be an inferior Mickey Mouse Cup. Deep down I knew it was a consolation award. But I wanted to enjoy that moment because I honestly didn’t know when I would get another opportunity. I knew that a financial gap existed between the top clubs and Liverpool, and that “new money” had brought a new layer to competition at the top. I just couldn’t possibly fathom how Liverpool could ever get back to that perch which Sir Alex so proudly knocked us off. It wouldn’t happen overnight, if at all. There was some hope that the club was acquired by Fenway Sports Group (FSG). If they were able to get the Boston Red Sox their first World Series title in 86 years after only a few years of ownership, then perhaps they were bright enough to figure out a way to get Liverpool back to the top as well.
Brendan Rodgers Era
In the years that followed the League Cup victory, Dalglish would be replaced by Brendan Rodgers. By virtue of winning the League Cup, Liverpool earned a spot in the Europa League. Despite advancing to the knockout stage, that journey ended with a dismal February loss to Zenit St. Petersburg in the first round. Even though they squandered that European opportunity, it was nice to see that they had one. We were also eliminated early in both domestic cups that season, giving us only league matches to enjoy that spring. It wasn’t pretty, and I’m sure most fans stopped paying attention. We were ten points out of a Champions League spot, sitting eighth place behind both Everton and West Bromwich Albion. Let that statement sink in for a minute. Those are the clubs that we were chasing to get back into Europe. It felt like baby steps getting off that rock bottom.
Liverpool would finally ascend back into contention for the 2013-14 season, and we all know how that season ended. Suddenly there was to be had about the Reds. Had Liverpool returned? Was this success because of the offensive genius that Rodgers brought to the club? Or was it mostly luck of acquiring one of the game’s greatest finishers in Luis Suarez the season before? People were talking about Liverpool again, and it felt good. It helped that there was no European competition that could distract the club, and Manchester United was flailing below us in the table without the leadership of Sir Alex to guide them. What a time to be alive! Chelsea topped the table as we entered the “business end.” Arsenal was a point behind in second with both City and Liverpool on their heels. It was a joy watching them compete on this front once again. Football in April mattered again. Even though we failed to win the league, it had been a long time coming to see them actually get that chance.
Turned out that season wasn’t really a sign of a new arrival, rather the proof that you can still catch lightning in a bottle. Luis Suarez became the deadliest striker in England, and everyone hated him for it. And I loved watching everyone else hate him. It was beautiful but short-lived. Suarez would choose to depart Liverpool that summer for the greener pastures of Barcelona. The Spanish giants would pay handsomely for his services, and I had hoped that would help replenish the badly suffering squad depth. If you had taken a closer look, you’d notice a clear evolution into what Liverpool had become. They were no longer a mid-table club hoping to possibly win a domestic cup. Instead, we had turned into a stepping-stone for great players to earn their payday at a richer club, while hopefully getting a chance to win something along the way. This was progress. I was satisfied that promising young players could come to Liverpool to ply their trade, giving us a few good seasons while possibly allowing us to dream about another title. Then they could depart with a hearty handshake while providing the club with a nice transfer fee to profit. Use that windfall to buy some new youthful prospects, rinse and repeat. At the time I had accepted this was probably the best that Liverpool could hope for.
The next campaign was a disaster. Having received a fortuitous Champions League draw, we managed to finish behind Real Madrid and Basel in the group stage. Our hopes of a sixth European Cup were short-lived. Yet there was still the consolation of playing for the Europa League. It was such a disappointment, as I had allowed my expectations to creep ahead. I was thinking that we’d be competing for a European Cup with clubs like Bayern Munich or Milan, not going through the motions against a Besiktas in the tedious Europa League. When we lost to the Turkish club, it was the first time I thought to myself that perhaps Rodgers was not the right guy for Liverpool. Chelsea and City had made the Premier League title race a two-horse show, distancing themselves from the pack. Liverpool was not quite eliminated from a return to the Champions League, a requirement that would be crucial if they were to re-establish the club as a legitimate annual contender for meaningful silverware. Five clubs (Arsenal, Man United, Southampton, Spurs, and Liverpool) were left fighting for two available spots. It kept my attention throughout the “business end” much like the FA Cup dash to the semifinals. But as I was getting accustomed to the feeling of springtime disappointment, Liverpool was unsuccessful to achieve either of those objectives. Still, they managed to qualify for another Europa League season, which was nice to see another small step of progress. Typically, most people couldn’t care less about the Europa League. But there had been a shift in the importance of that competition when UEFA decided to grant its winner a free pass into the following season’s Champions League. It could no longer be considered a distraction. If Liverpool would ever climb back into the conversation of elite footballing clubs, they needed to prove that they could contend for four different trophies each season. That included the Europa League if need be. It became obvious to everyone that Rodgers was not the guy that could achieve this level of consistency. His inability to properly manage multiple competitions was borderline embarrassing and FSG could see it.
Enter Jürgen Klopp
Finding success with a squad inherited by another gaffer is not easy, but you could see something beginning to take shape when Klopp came to town. If nothing else Klopp reinvigorated our hope. Somehow the club earned their place in the League Cup Final, the first silverware opportunity in six years. It felt fantastic watching Klopp earn early success. Even though we would lose in penalties against Man City, it still felt like progress. The league, however, was long lost just like our hopes of finishing top four. We sat in eighth place behind Southampton and West Ham, bringing back nightmares of seasons past. But we had hoped with the Europa League, and what a run that turned out to be. We eliminated Manchester United at Old Trafford, then topped that off with a dramatic last-minute goal to defeat Borussia Dortmund at Anfield. No one seemed to give a crap about the league that spring. But I certainly made sure to block off my calendar for those Thursday afternoon fixtures in Europa! Alas, that run would again end in temporary disappointment that would be quickly wiped away. If Klopp could perform miracles with an inherited squad, just wait until he has the chance to acquire the players he wants!
With no European distractions in 2016-17, Klopp could focus on the football that he preferred his players to play. Domestic cups suddenly became the distraction for Klopp, and his lineup selections proved that to be fact. The focus was firmly set on a top-four finish. Everyone knew it was well within our grasp. By the time we got to the “business end” of the season, Chelsea was starting to run away with the league title that season. But we were still fighting Arsenal and Manchester United for that last coveted Champions League berth. It went down to the wire with Liverpool needing to defeat Middlesbrough at Anfield to clinch that spot, which they did 3-0. You could feel the excitement was back. There was optimism about the future. They didn’t qualify through the backdoor of other clubs’ failure. They didn’t qualify with the luck of a fortuitous draw in an elimination tournament. It certainly didn’t feel like “lightning in a bottle.” In a way, this squad felt miles better than the team that nearly won the league three seasons earlier. This team felt like one that could sustain long periods of success. Klopp was the real deal, and you could see the progression. But still, I wanted more. They need to be competing for more than just one title as the season concludes.
The Transformation of LFC
Liverpool was ready to transform themselves to the next level, where qualification for Europe was an expectation, not a dream. Players started taking notice as well. Back in the summer of 2014, Liverpool was hot in pursuit of Barcelona striker Alexis Sanchez. Even though Liverpool nearly won the league that season, Sanchez chose to join fourth-place Arsenal instead. Rumors were rampant that his wife preferred to live in London. The truth was that few people bought into the hype that Liverpool was an elite football club again. I didn’t blame Sanchez for picking Arsenal over us. They had a better track record at the time. But three years later in the summer of 2017, the tide might have finally turned. Southampton’s Virgil Van Dijk was the best center back on the planet, and he chose Liverpool as his next club over both Chelsea and Manchester City. Then one of the best goalkeepers in the game, Alisson Becker from AS Roma, decided to join the Reds the following summer. Then we signed one of the best midfielders in the world as Thiago Alcantara left Bayern Munich to join Liverpool in 2020. Three of the world’s best footballers at their respective positions all chose to join Liverpool Football Club. Suddenly players are choosing Liverpool instead of settling for it. Is this because of Klopp? I won’t argue that his presence was helpful, but there is one tangible fact that all three of those players have in common. Something that Alexis Sanchez could not claim. All three had played against Liverpool and Klopp at Anfield before signing on the dotted line. Each saw the atmosphere created at the magical ground and wanted to be a part of it. That had to have played a big part in their decisions. A former Southampton teammate of Van Dijk once admitted that after a match at Anfield, the Dutch defender asked him “why wouldn’t you want to play in front of this crowd every week?”
We’ve come a long way in ten years. I’m not really sure I fully understand how it happened, but I’m clearly thankful it did. We were a mid-table team reveling about our history singing songs about how other clubs had none. We would hope of qualifying for any European competition available while our rivals expected it. The switch has been flipped. We are no longer looking up that mountain, begrudgingly wishing we were more like our rivals. They look up at us, envious of what we’ve achieved. Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, and Manchester United is on their sixth manager since his departure. Arsenal hasn’t been considered a relevant threat to the top four since 2016. Their supporters used to laugh at our demise. Now they see us competing on all fronts with a legitimate chance to win every competition we enter, wondering what happened. I don’t know how long we can sustain this level of success, and some supporters rightfully fear this may fade away once Klopp chooses to retire. I’m not so sure they are correct, but regardless I can’t be bothered to worry about it now. What matters most to me is that Liverpool is playing meaningful football at the “business end” of the season. And we are finally doing it on multiple fronts. We are one win away (versus Chelsea at Wembley this Sunday) from hoisting the season’s first piece of silverware. We are one win away (against Norwich City at Anfield) from advancing to the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. We are one draw away (against Inter Milan at Anfield) from advancing to the quarterfinals of the Champions League. And assuming other results fall as they should, we are one April win away (against Manchester City at the Etihad) from drawing even with the defending champions in our quest to win our 20th league title. The dream of a quadruple is alive. Let that statement sink in for a minute. Let it marinate for an hour, a day, or even a week. Enjoy this while you can. This is rarified air that few supporters get to experience. Drink it in. I know I will. I can’t wait to see how the journey unfolds over the next few months. The “business end” of the season is here. And these lads are capable of doing the business.
See you at the pub! Up the Reds!
Ken Kendra The opinions expressed in this blog are mine and do not necessarily reflect that of AmericanScouser.com or Liverpool Football Club. I am the author of the books “Walking Through The Storm” and “The Golden Sky” both available on Amazon, Kindle, World Soccer Shop, and other book depository outlets. Follow me on Twitter: @kjkendra11