All football fans are wary of false dawns, even the ones who ritually sing about the golden sky after the frightening dark. It’s not just Brendan Rodgers who might be careful not to overstate Liverpool’s chances of challenging for the title, but as Manchester United fall from the perch they occupied for so long, there are definite parallels with the early-90s’ era-defining shift in power eastwards up the M62.
At first glance, Rodgers and Alex Ferguson are very different beasts. Depending on your inclinations you might say that one is coolly calculating while the other is cuttingly confrontational, or that one is a knight while the other is David Brent.
But as the famous old enemies prepare to clash in a game that could confirm Liverpool’s title credentials while continuing United’s slide into mediocrity, there are certain echoes at Anfield of what Fergie brought to Old Trafford: a determined ethos, wise signings, a trust in youth, a commitment to attacking football and a dedication to the club above all other things.
Taking control of the club
Like Ferguson, Rodgers has an unshakeable determination to establish his ethos at the club, and not just by rapidly selling those whose faces didn’t fit. The Being: Liverpool documentary provoked many a chuckle, but it proved that the new boss was unstinting in taking control of his squad; from impromptu vignettes like his steely admonishment of Raheem Sterling (“you’ll be on the first plane home”), to premeditated psychological set-pieces such as the sealed envelopes containing the names of the three players who would let him down. By the time Rodgers admitted the envelopes were empty, last November, his command was unquestioned.
Rodgers shares a similar ethos to that of Sir Alex
Ferguson took longer to gain full control of his new club; he had inherited a harder task, but set about it with no less conviction. The boozy culture embodied in popular players like Bryan Robson, Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside took longer to overcome, requiring not just training-ground showdowns but a scouting network across the watering holes of Manchester. Still, even when his actions were questioned Ferguson stood firm in his belief that nobody was bigger than the club; it helped when they finished runners-up in his second campaign.
You score two, we’ll score three
Another way to endear yourself to the locals is to buy into the club ethos. For all his off-field psychologies, Rodgers’ public persona was most strongly identified with a commitment to a certain brand of football. Retaining possession and outpassing opponents had been an Anfield axiom since the days of Shanks and Paisley, but the Ulsterman’s Swansea side were such exemplars of the modern keep-ball style that the manager seemed a perfect fit.
Even this season, as Liverpool have evolved slightly from the tiki-taka diktats via a readiness to release their front players early and often, it’s hardly going against the Anfield grain. As Paisley once insisted, “it’s not about the short ball or the long ball, it’s about the right ball” – and goals don’t half put a smile on the face, as this season’s side have demonstrated.
Similarly, Fergie quickly aligned himself with United’s historical preference for attacking football. His first major signing was Brian McClair, his third (after Steve Bruce) was returning favourite Mark Hughes. Both repaid their transfer fees with goals and hard work, typifying their manager’s desire just as Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho exemplify Rodgers’ preferred brand of football.
Fergie's first three through the door: McClair, Bruce and Hughes
Wing play had been part of the Old Trafford architecture since the days of Billy Meredith, and while Ralph Milne might not quite have cut it, Fergie soon brought young Lee Sharpe – the Raheem Sterling of his day – into the first team. Sharpe was followed by Mark Robins and Ryan Giggs, following a tradition of youth promotion that echoed back to the hallowed Busby Babes and would later reap rich rewards with the Beckham generation.
Organising the new and existing talent, a trusted lieutenant on the pitch. For Rodgers it is Steven Gerrard, willingly adapting his game to a deeper role while the young bucks gambol in front of him. For Fergie it was Robbo, the Captain Marvel who liked a lager as much as most but helped uphold the manager’s insistence that off-field fun must never undermine the club’s quest for glory.
A work in progress
The process is ongoing. Although Rodgers rode out initial uncertainties with strong boardroom backing and is now the top flight’s fourth-longest serving manager – relative stability echoing the faith Fergie was shown by Martin Edwards in the trophyless first seasons – this is still only his second season.
Of particular concern to Rodgers is the defence, in which Kolo Toure, Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger can all look individually or collectively susceptible. It took five full seasons and five successful signings at the back (Bruce, Gary Pallister, Denis Irwin, Paul Parker and Peter Schmeichel) for Fergie to get his concessions column significantly under a goal per game, and not uncoincidentally to mount a serious sustained title challenge. For all the attacking elan, Rodgers can’t rely every time on outscoring the opposition while giving them a free pass at the back.
Defensive blunders, like Kolo Toure's at West Brom, have cost Liverpool at times
It’s a lesson Liverpool have learned in their big away games this season. At Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea, they allowed their hosts more passes, possession and shots on target, losing all three games. They did the same at Everton but Sturridge’s late leveller rescued a point.
What they’d dearly love at Old Trafford is the kind of performance they produced in the 5-0 win at Tottenham: dominant and destructive, underlining their superiority over supposed rivals by climbing the table… and, in that case, claiming a managerial scalp.
United’s slide: a warning from history
LIVERPOOL HONOURS 1973-90
- First Division (11)
- FA Cup (3)
- League Cup (4)
- European Cup (4)
- UEFA Cup (2)
- Super Cup (1)
It’s highly unlikely that even the heaviest Liverpool win at Old Trafford would cause the United hierarchy to call time on David Moyes’ six-year contract. They have firmly backed their man despite United’s most difficult season in decades. But just as Rodgers’ revolution recalls Fergie’s evolution of Manchester United from also-rans to all-powerful, Liverpool’s simultaneous fall from grace is distinctly echoed in Old Trafford’s current situation.
Each team dominated a generation. United’s period of pre-eminence was slightly longer: 21 seasons from their first Premier League title to their 13th. Two decades earlier, in the 19 campaigns from 1972/73 to 1990/91, Liverpool won 11 league titles and only finished out of the top two for one season… in which they won their third European Cup in five years.
The start of an era: Lloyd and Smith lift the '73 trophy; Bruce and Robson 20 years later
MAN UNITED HONOURS 1993-2013
- First Division/Premier League (13)
- FA Cup (4)
- League Cup (3)
- European Cup (2)
- Club World Cup (1)
But the league table starts anew each season, and from 1991 Liverpool rapidly declined to previously unthinkable unimportance (the 1992 FA Cup win notwithstanding), finishing 6th, 6th and 8th. In an era when only the champions got in the Champions League – how bizarre – Liverpool finished 1993/94 a howling 32 points off the pace, below Wimbledon and Sheffield Wednesday. (For comparison, if United and Chelsea keep up their current points rate, they will finish on 65 and 86 points respectively.)
The eight seasons after that FA Cup win brought previously trophy-soaked Liverpool just one pot, the 1995 League Cup. United fans, busy getting reacquainted with the Brasso, greeted their long-time superiors’ meteoric fall with an unbridled schadenfreude which will no doubt be echoed on Merseyside should United’s decline be as precipitous or prolonged.
Wanted: No-nonsense Scotsman
Looming large over Liverpool’s fall from grace was the divisive figure of Graeme Souness. Appointed in April 1991 after the sudden resignation of Kenny Dalglish, Souness was in many ways as logical a successor as Moyes was to Ferguson.
In both cases, the idea was to make the transition as smooth as possible. Ferguson anointed Moyes, a fellow Scot who had appealed to Everton’s fans from his first press conference at “the people’s club” and gradually built up a powerful team. Souness, already an Anfield legend from his playing days, had built a strong reputation at Rangers, winning more titles than friends (later admitting, “I was borderline out of order – obnoxious and difficult to deal with”).
Souness' tenure, just under three years, produced one FA Cup win
Each man was to some extent a continuity candidate, but Souness had to rebuild immediately, with decidedly mixed results: when Alan Hansen retired, Mark Wright was brought in but so was Torben Piechnik. Moyes faces a similar reconstruction at the heart of his defence as Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic leave the scene, but Piechnik cost £250,000 rather than the £25m an Ezequiel Garay might cost. Not that Souness was averse to splashing the cash, as he had so successfully at Rangers. Trouble was, most of his big-ticket signings didn’t work: Paul Stewart, Julian Dicks, Neil Ruddock...
Reconstruction is also about knowing what to keep. Up front, 30-year-old Peter Beardsley was out of the team and the door, going on to spend another fruitful half-decade at Everton and Newcastle, the latter finishing above struggling Liverpool. You can draw your own comparisons with Robin van Persie.
And so to Old Trafford
Whether or not Moyes continues in a similar vein to Souness, and whether Rodgers gets anywhere near the trophies Fergie accrued like Esso Collection tumblers, there’s no doubt that change is in the north-west air as Liverpool travel to Old Trafford.
By the end of the weekend Moyes’s men may be 21 points off the title pace, 12 behind fourth place and 14 behind their visitors. The title has long been a pipe-dream, Champions League qualification an outside bet; perhaps neither would be as hard to take as the surrender of bragging rights to their oldest and bitterest rivals.
Old Trafford is far from the fortress it was. United have scored fewer than half the home goals Liverpool have amassed, losing to West Brom, Everton, Newcastle and Spurs in the league, plus Swansea and (effectively) Sunderland in the domestic cups. Chalking off that semi-final defeat (another rarity under Ferguson), United have only triumphed in two of the six games at Old Trafford in 2014.
Even so, the history of the fixture means that Old Trafford is easily the most taxing trip in Liverpool’s run-in: other remaining destinations for a side notably more efficient at home are to Cardiff, West Ham, Norwich and Palace, while April’s Anfield visits of Man City and Chelsea could prove crucial in the title race.
Even if Liverpool don’t manage to put down a marker by joining the list of teams to come away from M16 smiling, they remain on course to finish above their bitterest rivals for only the second time since the release of Sonic the Hedgehog, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Tim Berners-Lee’s unveiling of the World Wide Web. It may prove to be another false dawn for Liverpool’s title hopes, but United should be very afraid of the dark.