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'Suddenly, Liverpool was having a pint. Even more of a pint than normal'

Read an extract from the book ‘From the Jaws of Victory: A History of Football’s Nearly Men.’

Liverpool's Steven Gerrard (left) celebrates with team-mate Luis Suarez.
Liverpool's Steven Gerrard (left) celebrates with team-mate Luis Suarez.
Image: PA

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from ‘From the Jaws of Victory: A History of Football’s Nearly Men,’ compiled and edited by Adam Bushby and Rob MacDonald. The chapter on Liverpool’s 2013-14 season is written by Neil Atkinson. 

After Liverpool beat West Ham United 2-1 at Upton Park on 6 April 2014, I recorded a show at the top of the tower, St Johns Beacon, which looks out across the whole city.

Liverpool had absolutely clawed their way to the sort of 2-1 victory that history has tried to pretend was beyond this side. Sam Allardyce had lashed Andy Carroll up top and hit the big man repeatedly, but Liverpool repelled them time and again. Two penalties. Steven Gerrard tucked away both and Liverpool saw it out.

Liverpool top of the pops. Two clear of Chelsea; four clear of Manchester City, though they had two games in hand. Manchester City up next at Anfield. It was the first time since 2009 that Liverpool had been top in April (then with a Manchester club being two points behind with two games in hand). That, in turn, was the first time since 2002. Liverpool two clear of Arsenal. Who had two games in hand.

While recording the show, I was getting texts about where the drink was happening. The Saddle on Dale Street. I couldn’t believe it. With Steve Graves, I walked across town. “I mean, it’s not a good pub this, Steve. There must be some mistake. Maybe it is a holding position boozer.”

When we opened the door, it hit us. The heat. The sweat. The effervescent glow of smiles on faces. The joy making the light shimmer. And the noise. The wall of noise. Adam Melia and his brother Daniel glorifying This Is How We Do It by Montell Jordan on the karaoke and an entire room chanting back at them. The room being as eclectic as it can be. The Saddle receiving the overspill of Liverpool’s gay district, its karaoke led by Candi; Liverpool supporters and lesbians and lesbian Liverpool supporters chanting the chorus back at them. South Central does it like nobody does. People on tables, roaring, laughing, dancing, carousing. This was the happiest I’ve ever been in my whole life.

You can’t tell the story of 2014 without telling the story of all the other bits, the places where the ley lines meet. I’d argue you can’t tell the story of 2020 without telling the story of 2014 as well. There’s never a neat start to these things. In this book, the better football writers than me will find beginnings. But I don’t write about football. Not really. I write about what things felt like …

THE SECOND BEGINNING

I was in a boozer in London when they sacked Rafa Benítez. Me and Daniel Fitzsimmons were attending some meetings about some film work. Dan’s phone buzzed. My phone buzzed. His buzzed again.

The people we were meeting said: “Don’t you want to check your phones?” No mate. But Dan did. He looked at me. He nodded. We wrapped the meeting up and went elsewhere and stared off into space. Both upset. Both, frankly, exhausted. What Benítez had shown…

THE THIRD BEGINNING

When Liverpool made Brendan Rodgers manager, I didn’t really know what to think. Let’s see, I thought. Let’s just see. And, I thought, it will also be nice to have a manager I don’t wake up in the night anxious about, you know, like the bloke who nearly died or the bloke who fought for the soul of the club or the bloke who, closer than anyone else alive, personified the soul of the club. I thought maybe this will help. A bloke coming in from outside who no one knows much about. Someone not infected with our nonsense. Maybe he’ll get us playing a bit. And if he doesn’t, well, we just get rid of him. Whichever way it goes, it’ll be nice to get a full night’s sleep …

THE FOURTH BEGINNING

On October 3 2010, Liverpool faced Blackpool at Anfield. Roy Hodgson was in charge. The club was owned by Hicks and Gillett. I didn’t go in. I went to the ground but when push came to shove, I just couldn’t face it.

They came back into the upstairs of the boozer I was in around the ground in their dribs and drabs. The first was someone called Kev Walsh. He arrived back on about 30. We watched the game and we talked.

Three days later, Liverpool were sold to FSG (then NESV). Not long after that, the court case decided it. Then Roy Hodgson took us to Everton. We got beat 2-0 and he said to win there would have been utopia. Lad, we win there when down to 10 men.

Before Christmas, I met Kev in Pogues and we watched a Chelsea game. We agreed that Chelsea were our big team now. We go to the football, we watch Liverpool, but it’s nice to see Chelsea do well and win things. We’ll watch the cup final if they are involved. We were joking of course but it showed how far Liverpool had fallen and…

THE FIFTH BEGINNING

You’re at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, it is July 2013 and Liverpool are playing. This is obviously weird but an early example of something you call Mad Job Syndrome and go with it. Last night, oddly, you were on stage in front of 1,000 Liverpool supporters at a hotel doing jokes and bits. Dr Karl Kennedy of Neighbours fame and Craig Johnston were both there. Mad Job Syndrome.

There are 100,000 present in Melbourne to watch your football team from your wonderful but frankly weird city in the north-west of England play against Melbourne Roar. They put the lyrics to You’ll Never Walk Alone on the big screen and in the section put aside for ‘active’ supporters, you drink your white wine for which Australians have mocked you and you’ve smiled politely because their beer is frankly awful and no one needs telling that. You think to yourself: “This all has to mean something. You can’t be this big and just trundle. This has to have some sense of purpose to it. This cannot just become a nostalgic roadshow.”

There has to be something more. There has to be another adventure. Something has to start. You think “fuck nostalgia” and you never stop thinking it because, say what you want, the whole decade of the 10s supports that conclusion. You think it has to be a joy to be alive in the now and if anything is worth working towards, if any story is worth telling, it is that one. Please let the story be that one, you plead …

THE SIXTH BEGINNING

soccer-barclays-premier-league-liverpool-v-stoke-city-anfield Liverpool's goalkeeper Simon Mignolet is congratulated by teammates. Source: Peter Byrne

August 17 2013. Simon Mignolet saves a penalty in the last minute against Stoke City after Daniel Sturridge had given Liverpool a 1-0 lead. Kolo Touré had turned up in the summer and said this was a squad that could win the league. He’d been downright adamant about it, but there was a vague feeling somewhere that this didn’t seem quite as strange as it should — Manchester United had lost Alex Ferguson and replaced him with David Moyes, and we knew all about David Moyes and we knew what old footballers looked like. We’d been there.

The end of the 2012-13 season had seen Liverpool score a lot of goals and look very lively. What transpired to be the key positive transfer window of Rodgers’ time had just happened. Liverpool had signed Phillipe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge. The latter, especially, inspired an upturn in form and by the time the campaign had finished, Liverpool had been able to look genuinely dangerous and had gone just shy of two points per game for the second half of the season, which made them much of a muchness with Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham.

When Mignolet saved the penalty on his Liverpool debut, the ground exploded. A point against Stoke City on the first day of the season would have killed us. Gerrard grabbed him by the throat after. It is possible Simon never entirely recovered. Steve Graves says out loud: “We can win this league, you know.” He makes his case. It is almost as good as Kolo’s.

It’s a punch in the face, the realisation that, yes, we could win this league, you know. A punch in the face I’m glad I got early. A punch in the face that every Liverpool supporter would get between August 2013 and April 2014. For the first time since April 2009, it is valid to say: “We can win this league, you know,” and that is the only sentence ever worth saying.

Sturridge 0-1 vs Villa followed and then Manchester United and David Moyes rocked up. Sturridge 1-0. United looked devoid of ideas. Liverpool played three, won three. Kolo Touré incredible in all three games.

Let’s do it. Let’s win this league. These are our lads. You know who my favourite players are? The 11 who wear red.

The beginnings. What makes them hard is you know how this ends. You are sentient and you know when this book is published too. You know what has just happened. Liverpool have just won their first league title for 30 years. There are things that have to be said. Liverpool didn’t not win the league for 30 years in terms of what it felt like.

For me they hadn’t won it since 2002, since Emile Heskey went to Leeds and destroyed them, since Vladi Šmicer scored last minute against Chelsea and I was convinced only to be crushed. That was my first time not winning the league. That was my year zero.

For others, they maybe hadn’t won it since Istanbul. For some it may be 2009 and others it may actually be this season we’re looking at here; 2013-14.

But also, frankly, it is insulting to the vast majority of football supporters to act as though it was 30 years of disappointment. I’ve mostly had a lovely time and Liverpool won everything else in those 30 years. It did gnaw though. It did gnaw at you. It did grate. Just one. Just give me one of these things those old bastards had 18 of. Just give me the one. I’m begging you. It grew obsessive.

You know when I didn’t have a lovely time? From about 2007 to about 2010. Supporting Liverpool, going to the game, talking about the game had been to have an argument, a perpetual argument. Over ownership, leveraged buyouts, protests, net spend, Benítez, our place in the world and our direction of travel.

Supporting Liverpool had been supporting a thoroughbred racehorse laden with baggage. Those who can’t get beyond having seen behind the curtain, can’t get beyond the back room and the gossip, can’t get beyond what has gone before. Football minds melded beyond what happens on the green thing to obsess only over what happens everywhere else. I know this. It’s hard to get your innocence back. I recognise that. Because that is 2008-09.

Liverpool’s title charge in 2008-09 mostly wasn’t an enjoyable experience. It was fraught. It was stressful. It was about sticking it to people. Not about the adventure and not even really about sticking it to people who didn’t support Liverpool. It was about sticking it to people internally, sticking it to fellow Liverpool supporters. It’s an amazing thoroughbred, Benitez’s 08-09, because it was carrying all sorts. Mostly weaponry either stuck in it or thrusting weaponry back. It was laden. It was fettered.

I’d never go back to 08-09. Not for a second. Not for a moment. Not even for 1-4 at Old Trafford. It was thoroughly unpleasant, waking at 3am wondering if tomorrow is the day Benítez ridiculously gets sacked, arguing in the ground every other week. But I’d do 13-14 again, knowing what I know now, even living through the glory of 2018 to 2020.

I’d live that nine months over and over and over again if I could. Groundhog season. No one was looking to stick anything to anyone. Not when you could give them a cuddle instead. I’d go back in an instant. Back to waking at 3am excited that it is Saturday, Saturday, Saturday and still being up at 3am on Sunday, Sunday, Sunday. I’d go back in the blink of an eye. I’d do it mostly so I could see my friends that happy again, faces moist with sweat, improbability and delight.

2013-14 continued. Luis Suárez got back from his bite and his attempt to move to Arsenal. Not quite sure which of those two things were more irrational.

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soccer-barclays-premier-league-norwich-city-v-liverpool-carrow-road Liverpool's Luis Suarez celebrates scoring. Source: Stephen Pond

And then Suárez happened and just kept happening. Transfer requests easily forgotten, biting people easily forgotten, racism issue all too easily, shamefully too easily forgotten.

What makes it easier to block the negatives from your mind is that Luis Suárez from October ‘13 to March ‘14 happened more than any top-flight footballer in England ever has. It’s like playing with 12 men. Possibly 13. He is both a nine and a false nine and he does bits out wide as well. He scores a header from 18 yards and every brilliant performance he puts in, Daniel Sturridge strives to match. The day Suárez heads home from a mile out as part of a hat-trick, Sturridge somehow lobs a keeper who isn’t off his line. Suárez gets two at Stoke, Sturridge makes it five by doing keepy-ups on the goal line.

Luis Suárez scores four against Norwich City at Anfield. Let me tell you about the weakest goal — it is reminiscent of Peter Beardsley’s volley against Everton at Anfield in 1987. The third best is a 25-yard free-kick.

That night, Everton win at Old Trafford. Manchester United are none of our business. This is the first time since 1990 that it is due to their shortcomings rather than ours.

Two weeks after Norwich at home, they go to Tottenham Hotspur at 4pm on the telly. No Steven Gerrard, he’s in the studio. They batter them 5-0. Suárez a pleasure but Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling are incredible. It’s quite possibly Liverpool’s best away performance of the decade. After the game, Gerrard remarks he is worried he won’t get back into this team. Everyone laughs because they don’t understand Gerrard. He is worried he won’t get back into this team.

Over Christmas, they lose twice. Once at Manchester City, once at Chelsea and, in the long run, there’s an argument that these results are what cost us the title. There is harsh officiating in both matches — Raheem Sterling opens the scoring at the Etihad only for it to be given offside. It wasn’t. Samuel Eto’o throws a shocking tackle in early at Chelsea but you can do what you want first five, can’t you?

Suárez has a late equaliser chalked off. But Liverpool had gone ahead in the game so what can you say. Liverpool end the calendar year six points behind Arsenal.

In mid-January, Aston Villa come to Anfield and Liverpool play Steven Gerrard at the base of the midfield and it is difficult to put into words how hard he finds the game. It finishes 2-2 and my God does Gerrard struggle. We host a resurgent Everton the following week, Ross Barkley is in fine form and everyone hopes Rodgers doesn’t pick Gerrard there. If Everton win, they go above us.

Rodgers picks Gerrard there. He scores the opener, the sort of header that thunders home. Then Sturridge gets a quick-fire brace, the second a lob in front of the Blues, which is just unreasonable. Suárez makes it four immediately after half-time and then we get a penalty. Gerrard puts his only foot wrong all night. He hands Sturridge the ball. Sturridge misses. Had we made it five, we may have made it 10. We were that good. Steven resplendent. Steven the king of all he surveys.

Steven is suddenly that good. Steven is incredible in interviews. Steven is Liverpool captain like he never has been before. Steven says: “If you want to play two on two against these two, all the best.” All the best.

Liverpool drop points at West Brom. Kolo Touré makes a mistake and the side is punished. Then they have Arsenal at Anfield. Arsenal are top of the pile, eight ahead of Liverpool. It’s 8 February. It’s Saturday 12:45 and I have powered into the ground. This is it. It is now or never. It is now. It will never, ever be more now.

Liverpool go 4-0 ahead on the 20-minute mark and my God is that flattering to Arsenal. It genuinely should be six. You have never seen the like, not before nor since. Liverpool win the ball back through Henderson and Coutinho and turn Arsenal around so quickly. They can’t keep track of Suárez, Sturridge or Sterling. Everywhere there is a runner. Liverpool cut them to absolute ribbons. It’s thrilling, visceral stuff. It’s also funny. After the fourth goes in there’s a sound

I’ve never heard in the football ground before or since and it is that of thousands of people just laughing in disbelief. After the game, Steven says this: “I’m trying to think of a performance I can remember in the last 15 years. Maybe one or two in the Champions League got close but that was as explosive as it gets. That is right up there. That’s definitely in the top three performances I have been involved in. You are talking about a side that is top of the league with world-class players, ones who are worth £42m. Jack Wilshere, one of the country’s big hopes. (Santi) Cazorla, a World Cup winner. We have absolutely demolished a top team from start to finish.”

Steven understates it. The first half is the greatest half of football any Liverpool side has played since 1990. It could be the greatest ever. Liverpool punching everyone in the face. We were out after, out all day, hanging out for Match of the Day, staying out for a massive dance. By February of 2009, I felt like an old man. I had seen too much, lived too much. I was strung out. Roll on five years and Liverpool 5, Arsenal 1 makes me feel like a teenager even just thinking of it now. It makes me want to drink in the park. It makes me want to neck. It makes me want.

soccer-2014-liverpool-v-chelsea-apr-27 Liverpool fans. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Suddenly, everywhere you went in the city, everyone you spoke to, everything that happened had a buzz. Everyone was talking football, talking The Reds. It helped that Everton were playing well too. The whole city was alive with the sound of togger.

Suddenly, Liverpool was having a pint. Even more of a pint than normal. The Saddle tableau wasn’t unique. All over the city, parties were being had every weekend. Boss were putting on Boss Nights which were boss. The whole city bounced to the weekend’s rhythm, boozers packed for almost every game that had any sort of an impact at the top, boozers spilling over before, during and after when The Reds played. This wasn’t limited just to the city of Liverpool. The worldwide diaspora were going out and watching it together. Suddenly, it was football that made you want to be with your mates, football that made you want to make new mates. Because these Reds.

Suddenly it was a joy to be alive. Suddenly everyone has been punched in the face. We can win this league you know.

They go to Fulham. Kolo Touré makes a mistake but Steven plays the greatest through ball to Daniel Sturridge you have seen in your whole life for the equaliser. Regardless though it is 2-2 last minute and Liverpool get a penalty.

Steven steps up and scores and he wheels away and takes his top off. Look at him there, just look at him roaring at the away end, top whirring, Jordan Henderson in relief behind him. Look into his eyes. This puts Liverpool fourth, but Steven has seen Liverpool fourth. Steven knows fourth. Steven doesn’t take his top off for fourth. Steven has been punched in the face.

This is here and this is now. Steven’s carried this burden, Atlas-like. The broadest shoulders in Liverpool. Steven’s been this man who looked around and lacked players who could make it happen with him. Not now. All the best.

They didn’t stop. Four against Swansea, three at Southampton, three when they dominated David Moyes’ Manchester United, Steven drawing Fellaini’s actual blood, Liverpool making United metaphorically bleed. Liverpool swanked around Old Trafford that day in a way they hadn’t for at least 30 years before or have since. Steven missed a penalty for his hat-trick. It didn’t matter.

Six at Cardiff. Four against Tottenham — Liverpool’s season aggregate against Spurs being 9-0. Then came Manchester City at Anfield and Liverpool battered them for half an hour. It was only 2-0 and it should have been more. It needed to be more. Anfield was a bear pit. I can’t tell you. It was the most vociferous it had been for a league game in years. Manchester City walked into absolute fucking hell, the like of which they walked into again in November 2019. It was no way to play football. It wasn’t fair.

And then they were ace. Let me tell you about Manchester City for the 20 minutes after half-time — it was amongst the greatest performances by an away side at Anfield. They penned us not in our own half but our own penalty area. It was terrifying and every single one of those Manchester City players stood up in a way that left you deeply impressed. They had us living on our nerves and they got the two goals back.

The game settled and then Philippe Coutinho scored one of his few goals of the season and Rodgers dipped his knees on the pitch after an arcing drive into the corner and it was bedlam and I couldn’t stop crying and the last 10 minutes were as unbearable as I have ever seen in a football ground and Martin Škrtel appeared to handball it 16 times and I mean it when I say I couldn’t stop crying and while it would be fair to say we’d all had a drink it would also be fair to say people could barely watch and Jordan Henderson got sent off and finally the final whistle went and then Steven got them all in and got them in a big circle in front of The Kop and Steven told them they were on the verge because they were and then Steven told them that this doesn’t slip now and I couldn’t stop crying and the ground didn’t stop roaring while Steven told them that this does not slip now.

We went out. The ‘we’ there is practically everyone in Liverpool. It was a Sunday afternoon, Liverpool is a big city, a big drinking city and every pub was bursting at the seams. It was unbridled. It was unfettered. It was freeing.

They went to Norwich on Easter Sunday. Won 2-3, Sterling magnificent. But they missed Henderson you know. They missed him massively. I have a lot of thoughts about Chelsea at Anfield and Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. A lot of thoughts:

• Liverpool weren’t trying to go hell for leather against Chelsea when Steven slips. If anything, they were too patient, Steven too deep, Liverpool too settled for half-time.
• They did though suffer through not getting the early goal and anxiety setting in.
• Luis Suárez had gone off the boil by that game at Anfield. In part because of tiredness, in part because footballers do.
• In the second half, Liverpool completely lose their heads and this is where Chelsea’s frustration tactics work. Steven has about 100 shots, all of them never going in.
• One of the greatest nights of the season is when Liverpool go to Selhurst Park and try to score 10.
• Liverpool had an attempt every three minutes the ball was in play and a load of them were good efforts, unlike Steven’s from the weekend before.
• The greatest moment of that season is when Suárez gets the ball out of the goal when it goes 0-3. Nothing has ever summed a football team up more. The snides, the greybeards will say that doing that and then drawing 3-3 sums the team up better, but those people are wrong and no one wants to dance with them, drink with them or kiss them.
• Honestly, let me tell you about him getting the ball. We celebrated it more than the goal, celebrated it like it was two goals, celebrated it like our lives depended on it, celebrated it as it was the greatest release and relief imaginable, celebrated it because it was unzipped, unfettered, unbridled, celebrated it because what else were we in it for but this?
• I still think about Steven not sleeping nights. I still occasionally don’t sleep nights because Steven isn’t sleeping nights.
• We got what we came for. In a sense, Suárez, Sturridge, Henderson, Rodgers, Sterling et al did too. But Steven didn’t take his shirt off at Fulham for this. There is only one nearly man in this story in the end. It isn’t me, I had the best time. It wasn’t us. It wasn’t them. It was Steven.

soccer-barclays-premier-league-crystal-palace-v-liverpool-selhurst-park Steven Gerrard consoles Luis Suarez. Source: EMPICS Sport

It is important not to forget what 13-14 felt like. There is a history of football that is handed down to us through record books and television. It’s a history that is predominantly written by the grey-bearded and the distant and by the cynics.

Some of these dwell within our own parish, a darkness in their souls uncleansed, consistently unable to forgive Brendan Rodgers for one sin or another, perhaps even for bringing the party but perhaps for not being the bloke who nearly died or the bloke who fought for the soul of the club or the bloke who closer than anyone else alive personified that soul of the club.

For many of these, the hard facts of the matter will always prevail. Hard facts can’t dance. Hard facts have no rhythm. No one wants to get off with hard facts. The football history that really matters is about the stories, the collective experience, the days and the nights, the coaches and the buzz. Remember not the hard fact of the 3-3 draw, your side losing a three-goal lead, but instead remember that they were trying to score 10. Remember they were trying to do the impossible. Remember how proud you were of how close they came.

Remember too, loving footballers. We learned to love footballers again in 13-14 under Brendan Rodgers, because at his best, he so clearly does. Footballers doing amazing things, making children of us, is a wonderful thing.

We learned that goals are paramount to proceedings and learned that without them, nothing can be achieved. These might seem like straightforward and obvious enough virtues but it had been a dark place for far too long. Rodgers brought Delusion. Delusion turned to Hope and then became Belief.

We hadn’t had Belief for what felt like the longest time. Without what we had then, without those reminders of what it was meant to be, how it was meant to feel, the how and why of being happy, of being joyous and loving footballers, Jürgen Klopp would have had a steeper mountain.

Regardless though, that is a fresh story. Today, I can close my eyes and see Suárez hitting the post against Arsenal, Steve Graves on John Gibbons’ shoulders that night, Henderson forcing it in against Swansea. I can see Škrtel rising against Arsenal, Ben Johnson and Adam Melia singing I’m On My Way by The Proclaimers, Jon Flanagan rattling into Roberto Soldado.

Gerrard with his top off against Fulham. Gerrard with his top off against Fulham. Steven with his top off against Fulham.

We nearly had it all. What we had was everything. We nearly found the promised land. We found one another. We nearly won the league. And now you are going to believe us.

From the Jaws of Victory: A History of Football’s Nearly Men is published by Halcyon. More info here.

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