Sports fans’ memories are nasty, brutish and short.
I went to college at the University of Alabama in the twilight years of Bear Bryant’s legendary coaching run. Even after he brought the Southern school scores of trophies and a dozen championships, a few good seasons without a title got fans whispering that the old man was past his prime and should probably just leave.
The Red Sox pink-hatted frontrunners who flooded into Fenway after the club’s first championship in 86 years were also the first to abandon ship when Boston’s fortunes took a short downward turn. Of course, only a fool would expect a title every season. But those were indeed the very fools who jumped on Boston’s bandwagon after eight decades of misery, and then promptly jumped back off after a few years of ups and downs.
Last April, I traveled to Anfield to watch Liverpool beat Chelsea, reward the city with its first league championship in over 20 years and seal the legacy of captain Steven Gerrard. But a terrible thing happened on the way to LFC’s 19th title. Captain Fantastic took a spill on the pitch, surrendered the ball to Demba Ba and watched helplessly as the Chelsea striker buried his bungled ball into the back of the net. That miserable moment also buried the Reds’ championship hopes and Gerrard’s victorious exit from English football.
For American sports fans, Gerrard’s tumble might have been the English equivalent of Bill Buckner’s botched ground ball that lost the 1986 World Series for the Red Sox. But that parallel would only work if the Sox first baseman had been Ted Williams instead of Bill Buckner. Just as the Kid had been synonymous with Boston baseball before and after the war, so too had Steven Gerrard served as the heartbeat of Liverpool football throughout the club’s new century. And even though Williams had been the best thing to happen to Boston since Babe Ruth, Fenway fans would have still lustily showered boos down on the great left fielder had he blown Boston’s chance at a World Series trophy.
YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE
But boos were not what I heard on that late April day in 2014. Instead, Gerrard’s historic blunder that will be mournfully recounted in pubs across Liverpool for the next 50 years, was spontaneously followed by the roar of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” The sound rose from the floor of that old pitch like an old B-52 bomber taking off and stopped my swearing long enough to get me defiantly singing along even though I had just witnessed the most heartbreaking blunder in my sports world since the Red Sox’ historic 1986 collapse.
At that moment, I was especially proud to be a Liverpool fan. As I left the stadium, I drove away from Anfield consoling myself with the realization that I would rather lose heartbreaking matches following Liverpool rather than winning titles wearing Chelsea blue. After all, Liverpool had fans with the kind of character and grit that a Russian plutocrat or an Arab prince could ever buy with their billions. It is the kind of heritage that is earned through decades of bitter defeats and glorious wins. Which is all a long and tortured prelude to the topic at hand: whether Brendan Rodgers should be ditched or given one more year to prove himself.
For me, it’s not a close call.
Before Rodgers’ arrival in 2012, Liverpool’s fortunes had fallen to such a miserable state that most matches the previous winter were unwatchable. Daglish’s uninspired and outdated brand of football landed Liverpool in 8th place for the first time in two decades. Any hopes of a fourth place finish in the near future, let alone a championship win, seemed disconnected from reality. In short, Liverpool’s style of football that year was rotten.
Rodgers took control and in short order, the Reds found themselves on the way to their first league championship in over two decades. The Slip killed our storybook ending, but who would have believed when Rodgers was hired for the job that Liverpool would find themselves in a position to win the league title two short years into his reign?
Not you and not me.
A MISERABLE YEAR
With the new season came hopes of a top four finish and another trip to Europe. But then Suarez left, Sturridge came up lame, Sterling acted like a petulant brat at the worst possible time, Balotelli played disastrously to form and Liverpool stumbled along without a decent striker. Some of those setbacks were out of the manager’s control, but he did help piece together the club’s exhilarating winter run when Sturridge managed to put a few healthy matches together.
From the middle of December through mid-March, Rodgers managed a run of 24 matches with only 2 losses. During that time, Liverpool looked like the most exciting young team in England with a healthy Sturridge joined by young talent like Can, Ibe, Sterling, and Coutinho. That revitalized side contributed to Liverpool’s return to top form and helped them post victories over Man City, Southampton and Tottenham.
But those string of victories were followed by another Sturridge injury and another stretch without a decent striker up top. Firing Rodgers won’t change the fact that Liverpool will never be competitive against the likes of Chelsea, Man U or City until they spend generously on getting a world class striker with a long history of putting balls in the back of the net. Rodgers should also be given more power over transfers than the current committee process that bogs the process down and disperses responsibility. Halfway measures will not work anymore. The price for victory in the Premier League has skyrocketed over the past few years, and unless LFC pulls a top flight striker to Anfield, we will all be spending our next several summers debating whether our club should have finished 5th, 6th or 7th.
Liverpool should give Brendan Rodgers a vote of confidence, a world class striker up top and one more year to prove he is one of the best young managers in the business.