I have to say that I rather like Roy Hodgson. He did great things with Fulham last year and also he comes across like a rather genial old uncle who’s a bit scatterbrained but everyone loves anyway. Then he just had to go and spoil everything by becoming the new Liverpool manager. Say it ain’t so, Roy…
Anyway, the way things are going for Liverpool, he may not be there for long, which is probably a good thing for him…..and for me. You really want the team who are your arch-enemy to have a manager who you can really despise, like Dalglish, or someone who’s just a complete space cadet, like Benitez. Houllier was always a bit too reasonable and Hodgson even more so. Why couldn’t they have appointed someone truly unpleasant like Dennis Wise or Steve McManaman?
Anyway on a humdrum Wednesday night of Carling Cup football, I was watching United’s second string delivering a routine trouncing to Scunthorpe United, when news came through of extraordinary goings-on at Anfield. My home-town team, Northampton, had drawn Liverpool away in the third round. It was the biggest game Northampton had played since they went to Premier League Bolton and won in the same competition a few years back. I can still vaguely remember the Liverpool team of Yeats and Thompson and Hunt coming to the old County Ground back in 1965/6 when Northampton had their one season of glory in the top flight. As I recall, it was a dull goalless draw and I don’t think the clubs have met since that season.
In the intervening years, Liverpool have had massive success – though not for a while now – whilst the Cobblers have become regular tenants in the Football League’s lower flights with only a Play-Off win at Wembley and the victory at Bolton to get excited about. I used to go to games at the County Ground fairly often as a boy, but once I’d seen Denis Law and, subsequently, George Best strutting their stuff in Manchester United red, home-town loyalties went out the window and United became my team. I still follow the Cobblers’ progress or more often the lack of it, but it’s been some years now since I attended a game; I think the last time was when my mate Ian (a diehard fan) dragged me all the way from St Albans to see them play at QPR about 5 years ago.
Despite all this – or perhaps because of it, I abandoned the procession at Glanford Park, put on Radio 5 and listened to the climactic final minutes of the Anfield game. Needless to say, I was delighted that Northampton went on to win in a penalty shoot-out. It’s the greatest result they have had since the Wembley Play-Off and arguably their most impressive win ever. What’s more, having now seen most of the match, it’s clear that they genuinely deserved the victory because Liverpool were woeful. So, without wishing to come across as patronising I am delighted that the club are having their moment in the spotlight; Northampton is really a rugby town these days and, as a rule, that just makes the Cobblers poor relations even in their own backyard. I hope they get another plum draw in the next round – Arsenal away would be nice, but for all kinds of reasons I hope they don’t get United, even though most of their fans probably do. My prediction is they’ll draw someone like Burnley at home, so no big payday, unless Sky get interested.
Northampton players celebrate with their travelling support after beating Liverpool at Anfield
As for Liverpool, they are going through an appalling patch. The 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford only looks close on paper; anyone that saw the game will know that we totally dominated it, and their goals came due to two stupid bits of defending from our two shakiest performers. Otherwise, they were without any discernible cutting edge and although I would disagree with Fergie’s talk of winning by ‘a cricket score’ (we weren’t that good, frankly) we were nonetheless comfortably better than them – more so than at any time I can remember in the last thirty years.
Of course, they have been heavily reliant on Gerrard and Torres for a couple of years now and you just get the sense that even Stevie G the Professional Scouser is getting tired of carrying his underperforming colleagues. As for Torres, it still mystifies me as to why he decided to return to Liverpool this season. OK, he didn’t have a great World Cup, but he still ended up with a Winners’ Medal and could probably have moved to a bigger club had he agitated to leave. What made him think he was doing anything but rejoining a ship that is sinking fast? After winning little or (probably) nothing at Atletico Madrid, he now looks set to do the same at Anfield and will end up with as few medals as Alan Shearer at this rate. On Sunday, he looked as he has so often of late; half-fit and out of sorts. And that’s it, really. Mascherano has gone, Alonso has gone, Carragher is now as much of a liability as Gary Neville has become for United and the rest of them just look like a bunch of journeymen. When you look at the money Benitez squandered on second-rate players like Lucas, Kyrgiakos, Insua, Babel, Rodriguez, Riera, Aquilani……the list just goes on. OK, Ferguson has had his moments with people like Bellion, Kleberson, Manucho and Djemba-Djemba (so bad they named him twice) but I’d say he’s had more successes than failures overall.
Wednesday night also offered a major contrast between the clubs in terms of the quality of the ‘fringe players’. OK, Gibson scored a great goal at Scunthorpe but is unlikely to really make it, but Smalling looks a major prospect, Macheda will probably be a force once he loses his selfish streak and the likes of Brown, Kuszczak, Rafael da Silva, Anderson and Owen are all pretty experienced at this level. Liverpool played Agger, Lucas, Kyrgiakos, Ngog and Babel of those who have genuine first-team pretensions, but the remainder (including Paul Ince’s son, Thomas, who was a late sub) looked pretty raw and/or decidedly average. The one exception would probably be defender Martin Kelly, who generally played well and saved a certain goal near the end of extra time by blocking the ball on the line, then hacking it to safety from a prone position.
Off the pitch, Liverpool’s financial prospects are probably even dicier than United’s right now, though next month may see the club pass from the hands of their current American owners into the hands of the banks, after which the ‘asking price’ for any potential buyers will probably become a somewhat more attractive proposition – possibly as little as half of what Gillett and Hicks are currently seeking.
Despite this, the picture is gloomy in the short-term. Gerrard is in the autumn of his career, Torres will surely be returning to Spain at the end of the current season unless they can somehow contrive to win a trophy and whilst Reina is a terrific goalkeeper, he may well be their only genuine asset before too much longer. Whoever takes on the club will have to pump millions and millions into rebuilding the squad and without the Holy Grail of Champions League football, there will be many potential targets who will most likely go elsewhere. Also the ground is old and not big enough to generate the matchday income currently being produced by United and Arsenal. Finally, Liverpool have had to watch as more affluent clubs – notably our esteemed neighbours from Eastlands and, more recently, Tottenham – have caught them up and overtaken them in the Premier League food chain.
Ngog’s reaction to his penalty miss just about sums up Liverpool’s current predicament
No wonder things look grim if you’re a Dipper. Naturally, my mate Ian was at Anfield for the game and afterwards he sent me a link to a marvellous piece of confessional video that you can find on YouTube right now. It features a lugubrious and thoroughly unhappy Scouser listening to Wednesday’s penalty shoot-out on the radio whilst pouring his multiple miseries into a webcam for our enjoyment….considerable enjoyment in my case. If I felt sorry for him at all, it’s probably because with the Glazers in the Old Trafford boardroom, there’s a creeping fear that United might go the same way unless the conveyor belt of trophies and success continues. For now, however, it’s possible for me to be more amused than worried by this; here’s the link