Liverpool are the traditionalist's pick for the English Premier League title, says Neil Humphreys, as the campaign brings to mind the most famous title-decider in Anfield history...
On May 26, 1989, I found myself sitting, cross-legged, on the turf of an east London park with at least two dozen other teenagers. Shoulder to shoulder in a circle, we huddled around a small radio like it was an idol worthy of worship. We had gathered for a kickabout but the scuffed ball was left looking rather forlorn, about 20 yards away, long forgotten.
In a rare moment of sporting perfection, Michael Thomas made every boy’s backyard dream a reality. He breathed life back into a dying game. Romance returned to English football
We had kicked off about the same time as Arsenal at Anfield, where the north Londoners required a 2-0 victory to win the old First Division title on the final night of the season. We had focused more on our own meandering muddling than events up at Liverpool.
And then Alan Smith scored for the Gunners. Arsenal were a goal away from the most romantic ending in English football’s history. Our game was swiftly abandoned. An hour earlier, almost all of us had wanted Liverpool to win; for their attacking panache under Kenny Dalglish; for Barnes and Beardsley; for Hillsborough.
But Michael Thomas, charging through the midfield, did his thing. He scored that decisive second. We rose as one, hugging each other, none of us Arsenal fans, before tearing off around the pitch in celebration. In a rare moment of sporting perfection, Thomas made every boy’s backyard dream a reality. He breathed life back into a dying game. Romance returned to English football.
This season, against all sensible odds, there is a chance of it happening again.
In a delicious turn of events, the Reds now represent the romantics. Liverpool are not just gunning for their first domestic title since 1990. They are promising to become the Gunners of 1989. They are rapidly winning the hearts and minds of the masses.
Beyond the myopic centres of Manchester and Chelsea, every neutral should want Brendan Rodgers’ unlikely title challengers to prevail.
What the Premier League is fortuitously witnessing right now may not be repeated again. The overbearing oligarchs won’t be so obliging next season. The Middle Eastern owners of Manchester City bought the club not only to diversify funds while their oil wells keep on pumping, but to sell their country to a sceptical world. A top English club is an ongoing branding exercise. And yet, despite City’s sterling community work and philanthropy in the area, they are not quite the “people’s club” they wish to be among the top four.
Liverpool are still perceived as the likely lads upsetting the big boys; their impudent, attacking play sidestepping the cold, detached, muscular ATM machines that are trundled out on match days.
Something quite magical has returned to Anfield. Noise. The Kop has always been a cacophony of Scouse songs, wind-ups and piss-takes, but this is something else
The thought of omnipotent oligarchs struggling to pull off their dastardly schemes of global domination – potentially thwarted by those cheeky imposters from Liverpool – is a comforting one. City and Chelsea’s billionaires are at risk of ending up as cartoonish schemers from Scooby Doo. They would’ve gotten away with it, if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids from Merseyside.
And the Reds need to triumph this season. Chequebooks will be waved in the air like City and Chelsea just don’t care after the World Cup. The absence of a Premier League trophy in the cabinet room is one thing, but a loss of face in the boardroom is quite something else. They will return with a vengeance, with the debt-ridden, breathless Glazers possibly bringing up the rear.
This is Liverpool’s greatest opportunity to walk alone.
Otherwise Luis Suarez could walk off. If Real Madrid make the striker this year’s prized catch, he’ll be off even with a winners medal in his pocket. But a title presents him with a dilemma at least. He will procrastinate. There will be reasons to stay.
Chief among them is the scintillating, swashbuckling style introduced by Manager of the Year-in-waiting Rodgers. This is where the Reds leave the Gunners of 1989 far behind. They might even eclipse the great Liverpool sides of the 1970s and early 1980s, if not their trophy haul. Anfield hasn't had it so good in a generation.
Suarez is threatening to end the season with an extraordinary goal-a-game average, Daniel Sturridge’s consistency has England supporters daring to dream of World Cup progress beyond the group stages, and Raheem Sterling and Philippe Coutinho are dancing in the Merseyside moonlight.
Something quite magical has returned to Anfield. Noise. The Kop has always been a cacophony of Scouse songs, wind-ups and piss-takes, but this is something else. This is the collective roar of belief; a series of Hobbesian, brutish, hypnotic, ritualistic chants that are lifting the hosts and unnerving visitors. You’ll Never Walk Alone is ripping hairs from the back of the neck and spitting them at opponents.
With a perfect soundtrack, a rogue’s gallery of opposing villains and a real sense of Spielbergian adventure, Liverpool’s captivating narrative is difficult to dismiss. Any remaining sceptics still resistant to the club’s dashing title run must surely fall for its indomitable local hero.
He is perhaps the greatest player never to win the Premier League. He is the Oscar-less Richard Burton of the modern game. No footballer deserves a winner’s medal more than Steven Gerrard
The long wait
He will be 34 at the end of next month. Captain for both club and country, he made his debut in 1998 and has finished above Manchester United only once in his entire Liverpool career. That was back in 2002. United came third. He is one of the finest English midfielders of all time. He is perhaps the greatest player never to win the Premier League. He is the Oscar-less Richard Burton of the modern game. No footballer deserves a winner’s medal more than Steven Gerrard.
His manager, team-mates and supporters have all referenced him in their title challenge. Everyone wants to win it for Stevie G. Even Manchester United fans shuffle their feet and mutter something into their beer about the Scouser meriting his place at the pinnacle.
From Gerrard’s renaissance to the rehabilitation of Suarez, Liverpool’s invigorating style and their comparatively mediocre resources surely make them a welcome roadblock to City and Chelsea’s blitzkrieg advance towards domestic domination.
And if the skipper can guide this fantastical script to its fairytale conclusion by charging through the midfield and doing ‘a Michael Thomas’, then even the game’s most hardened cynics should party like it’s 1989.
Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. You can find his website right here.