2006 - a lifetime ago in football
With a fifth European Cup won just the season before and the Rafalution seemingly well under way few Liverpool fans would have thought, as Steven Gerrard broke West Ham hearts at Cardiff in 2006, that the next 10 years would bring a sole League Cup for Liverpool.
2001 to 2006 saw the club rake in a plenty of silverware. The Champions League aside, the Reds won 2 FA Cups, 2 League Cups, a UEFA Cup, 2 Community Shields and 2 European Super Cups. Final after final, and the League Cup in 2005 aside, we won them all. Usually in dramatic fashion; a late turnaround, a golden goal, a last minute equalizer, penalties... After the relatively barren 90s it was back to "business as usual" for Liverpool supporters (or for those like myself, born in the 80s, a welcome introduction into what being a Liverpool fan had been like).
There was plenty of cause for optimism that more trophies would follow. A much improved 3rd place in the league in 2006, a European force once more, major silverware in back to back seasons, and a manager connecting with the fans. New owners to bring new impetus, new signings to excite the fans. I remember it well; genuine enthusiasm as to where we could go and how far Rafa could take us.
Fast forward ten years as we try to pick ourselves up from the huge disappointment in Basel. As other posts and threads have pointed out, it hurts. It really hurts. As I reflected on it yesterday I wondered just why it hurt so much? Of course it's painful to lose a final, particularly one where we'd led, under a manager who has already built a rapport with the fans, and a European final at that. Of course in losing the final we miss out on a swift return to the Champions League. With it we lose out on the financial rewards and the exciting European nights (and perhaps the players) that top flight European football brings. In fact after our league finish, we miss out on European football altogether.
I think it's more than all of the above though; it's a final and a defeat that can only really be appreciated when put in context. This isn't meant to be some depressing or pessimistic dirge. I wrote it as a reflection, a look back at 10 difficult years on the pitch for the club and for the fans. A decade of almosts, of nearlys, of false dawns and coming painfully close time and time again. It's not bitter. Not an Evertonian cry of "ifithadnofbeenfer..." But a look back and where we've been, and with it a look forward to where we could go2007
It began in Athens, as so many things have. Another European Cup final on the back of a phenomenal run. Barcelona beaten in their own back yard, Chelsea conquered at Anfield once more. In 2005 we took on the cream of Europe with Djimi Traore, Igor Biscan, Florent Sinama-Pongolle, Josemi, Nunez, Scott Carson, underdogs led by a brilliant manager and driven on by a passionate Kop and an inspirational captain. In 2007 we had the best midfield in the world (and a song about it) to go with a solid defence and strikers scoring goals. We went in arguably as favourites; but we lost. In Istanbul we had lower expectations and the victory was all the sweeter given how unlikely it seemed at half time. In Athens we felt robbed. A deflection off Inzaghi's arm. A consolation that came too late and a comeback that never quite clicked. We watched and we fumed but... as I remember waking up the next day and remembering the night before, I recall in the days that followed thinking "We'll be back. There will be more chances, more trophies, more great nights." That optimism softened the blow, and so we moved forward. The first setback in what was to be a difficult decade.2009
Of course 2007-2008 brought with it more heartache and another sense of missed opportunity with our narrow semi-final defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League. But the hurt paled into comparison with the disappointment just one year later when despite winning 10 of our last 11 matches, smashing United 4-1 at Old Trafford and amassing 86 points and the best GD in the league, we fell painfully short of our first title in 20 years. Gerrard and Torres dazzled as Robbie Keane came and went. Goals galore and a solid defence. A huge task but one that seemed ever more possible as we thumped United, crushed Villa, grabbed the points right at the death against Fulham. In the end it was to be too much as Macheda made the only meaningful contribution of his career, a couple of late winners edging United over the line in first place. Again the pain of coming so close, again that renewed optimism that Rafa was taking us forward and that we would surely win the title soon with this team and this manager. But this on top of 2007... the hurt was starting to grow just a little bit more.
Twelve months later and Rafa would be gone, a disappointing league campaign which couldn't be rescued by silverware as we were knocked out in the Europa League semi-finals. Liverpool had been a force under Benitez, a top-four mainstay who had for 5 seasons won or challenged for the biggest trophies to be won in the domestic game. A new dawn for Liverpool, but one that seemed abruptly cut short, as a malaise set in at the club that in my opinion we've never quite shaken off.2012
Hodgson's ill-fated spell was swiftly curtailed and we were given Kenny. His beaming smile, effortless class and his undoubted and profound connection with the fans brought positivity back to Anfield in spades. In 2012 we won our first trophy since 2006 (and indeed to date our only trophy) and although our league campaign had faltered, the FA Cup looked like affording us an opportunity to get back on the horse, to pick up where we'd left off and to continue the renaissance of the club that Rafa's departure had dimmed. Chelsea of all opponents; LFC fans could think of little sweeter than Kenny beating the plastics at Wembley to deliver major silverware. Which made the hurt all the more when it didn't happen, again compounded by a sense of what could have been after Carroll's header was clawed off the line, almost rescuing us from a pretty poor display. We'd missed out in a CL in 2007, a title in 2009, and now an FA Cup in 2012. To compound it, Kenny left in the summer. Could the cup have saved him? Perhaps not, but his departure and the sense of what might have been made things worse. 7 years since Stevie G lifted the Cup. Several missed chances.2014
Possibly the most painful of all? I don't know. I still struggle to discuss this season, which is all the more depressing how many wonderful memories it gave us. Phenomenal football, supreme Suarez, goals goals goals. Swiping United aside imperiously, Coutinho's late winner against City. A belief. "Poetry in Motion". One of the most improbably runs since... well, since our form in the run-in in 2009. And still, and again, not enough. Runners-up. In itself and given the years that preceded it, a real achievement, but one that I just couldn't appreciate, all the more so as we limped out of the CL we'd worked so hard and so magnificently to qualify for the following year. What should have been a platform for growth turned into a basis for frustration. Luis left, Brendan wobbled, LFC floundered. Two semi-final defeats in 2015, and not long later the end of Rodgers. Another false dawn, and a frustrated despondency in some sections of the fans, as expectations were brought high then slammed down again. 2016
And so we find ourselves in 2016. 5 managers, one League Cup and multiple missed opportunities later. But things are turning around, we feel. The League Cup final defeat is a frustration but... ah well, only the League Cup. And we played most of the final with Kolo and Lucas, and still took City all the way to penalties! A poor league performance, but this was a bizarre season; Leicester champions and both Chelsea and United finishing outside the top 4. But in Europe, we brought back those memories. United beaten, Dortmund disposed of in spectacular style, Villareal shown the passion of Anfield under the floodlights. And we started to believe again, to hope again. And so to lose in the way we did, at the time we did, in the manner that we did, just as hopes were starting to rise? After a decade of almosts, of missed opportunities, to feel that another might have slipped through our fingers. Frustration growing exponentially as we start to wonder... when will we win a major trophy again? Why do these finals, these league battles keep going against us?
So of course it hurts. It really hurts. Liverpool's last decade to me is a story, on the pitch at least, of one step forward followed by two steps back. Of false dawns and what-could-have-beens. One or two is painful, but this many, over a decade... A difficult decade
It would be easy to look at the last 10 years of Liverpool with eyes downcast:
We've lost two managers who in their times made special connections with the fans, both of whom left under a cloud, wondering what could have been...
We've seen heroes rise and fall...
Local legends call time on their LFC careers...
10 years is a long time to endure, but 27 years is much longer. As our team continued their hunt for silverware, to put Liverpool back on its "perch", the fans of this club won the most significant victory in their history. Much has been written and will continue to be written about the Justice Campaign and this year's verdicts, and neither am I the person to do so, nor is this the place to write more. But every lost final, every bitter defeat, is nothing as to what the families and the survivors endured. A difficult decade on the pitch for sure but one that off it has seen unbelievable, unprecedented and unexpected victories in court rooms across the country.Victory
Court room victories have not been limited to the Justice Campaign. It's easy to forget how close the club came to financial ruin in 2010. But the fans protested, Standards Corrupted, and a huge legal struggle saw them removed. The club survived where others haven't.Endurance
And despite it all, despite every loss and every setback, every frustration and every false dawn, we won't go away. We keep coming back, over and over again. Every time we fall down, despondent, we get back up again. Sometimes clumsily, sometimes slowly, but despite the best hopes of our rivals we just won't go away. And in 10 difficult, predominantly trophyless years, we have entertained, dazzled, delighted and enthralled...
We've had more special days and nights in the last decade than most clubs have had in their existence.
On top of all of that, we have one of the world's best managers. Soon we'll have a bigger Anfield. Talented players. A glorious history and every reason to be optimistic about the future.
Because we keep bouncing back. In Istanbul. At Anfield. Game after game, year after year.
So... a difficult decade? Perhaps. But we've got reasons to be cheerful.
Here's to the next ten years.