Louis McGillick tries to make sense of a tainted optimism on Merseyside.
Liverpool Football Club are the favourites to win the Premier League. Fucking hell. Barring long grass, thick goal lines or an FA conspiracy the Reds will win the title in May, leaving oil-rich Manchester City and London-Media-Sweethearts Tottenham shaken in their wake. A glorious achievement for the plucky, fabulously wealthy and constantly reported-on underdogs. Jurgen Klopp will be forever enshrined in a city that loves football like no other, a city that sucks balls into nets through song, a city that lives, breathes and dies for the game in a way that no one else could even begin to understand. The Kopites can stand on the shoulder of a Dutch giant, surveying the desolated football landscape that they’ve left behind after sweeping through the Premier League like a hot knife through butter, back on their fucking perch – and you can print that.
Except, maybe it isn’t that simple. The problem with Liverpool is that they’re undeniably one of the biggest clubs in the world, but they’re scared shitless of that fact. Years of Simon Mignolet, Loris Karius and the latter-years Pepe Reina’s avant garde reimagining of the role of a goalkeeper, along with a slew of god awful centre backs and academy products that ‘get’ the club but don’t ‘get’ how to play Premier League football has eroded the collective confidence of the fans and the club itself. The joke about this being ‘their year’ feels outdated now, United and Arsenal are the modern day purveyors of confidence rooted solely in the fact that they were great 10 years ago. Liverpool fans have kept the sense of pride and history but have lost the sense of entitlement that comes with winning. Now, for the first time in a generation, they have the squad and the manager to reflect their status in the sport and they don’t know what to do with it; they know a club such as theirs should be challenging for the title but the reality of the situation seems to be as daunting as it is exhilarating.
Nightmares of Demba Ba and Dwight Gayle still taint collective spirit of scouse optimism. This current day Liverpool side are Champions League runners up, and Van Dijk alone makes them ten times the team that Luis Suarez led to glorious failure five years ago. Yet there are parallels. Brendan Rodgers’ team also destroyed elite opposition in rabid dogs of war style five minute assaults, they focused play on their famous front three and they faced up to a fluid but imperfect Manchester City in an exhausting title race. Rodgers’ team fell short of City in 2014, and Steven Gerrard’s Shakespearean soliloquy about ‘not fucking slip[ping]’ foreshadowed the fall, encapsulating the tragic duality of a club and its fanbase. The speech was at once an iconic rallying cry that brought to mind the salad days of the 1980s and That Night in Istanbul, and also a paranoid aversion to the expectations brought on by that very history – a paranoia that ultimately brought their title challenge tumbling down.
It might be that the burden of the club’s history is no obstacle for this more solid, professional Liverpool side. Perhaps Klopp’s team can ride the wave of optimism all the way to a trophy that has eluded them since the manager’s playing career was in its infancy. But then again, it might be that the potent mix of expectations and fears in the stands and on Liverpool’s streets serve to corrode the success of the would-be history makers. Like a matador that has been gored one too many times, Liverpool might find that the bravery and skill that built their reputation, elude them in front of a baying, expectant crowd. Until May, we’ll have to wait and see.