Monday, April 26, 2010

Apathy in pursuit of ABU? Why hoping Liverpool loses to Chelsea diminishes the club's legacy more than Manchester United ever could

The Premier League has a conundrum scheduled for Liverpool fans Sunday at Anfield. Undermanned and fighting long odds to qualify for the Champions League, supporters will see their team take on Premier League leaders Chelsea in the season's penultimate game. Should Liverpool manage to win, it would represent a high point in a drab season – and almost certainly hand the title to Manchester United. Their 19th title. One more than Liverpool's (co-owned) record of 18. It would give a bunch of people we all don't care for very much each Saturday new inspiration for yet-to-be-written anti-Scouse songs that somehow position John O'Shea and Gary Neville as superior to Kenny Dalglish in his pomp. Or something like that.

Yesterday, as Steven Gerrard rediscovered his considerable talents while attacking the David Fishwick stand at Burnley, a Liverpool fan and city native who has my unquestioned support and loyalty imagined wearing a Chelsea shirt to the bar this Sunday. Even I joked to a Man U fan yesterday that I should win Liverpool's "Be Our Keeper For A Match!" contest in time to stand between the posts versus Drogba and friends. The attraction of "Anyone But United" is powerful and obvious, but whether you really want Chelsea to beat Liverpool this Sunday depends upon how much you fear the future. And how much you're willing to let post-1992 English football bug the shit out of you.

United have won 11 titles during the Premier League era. If the team fails to win No. 12 this spring, it will not alter how they are the unquestioned dominant force in the current era of English football, which can be further explained in this easily understood before and after comparison. As many times as I've looked at the "before" image there, it never ceases to make me wonder. Arsenal 10th! QPR in fifth and, of course, charming Oldham, who I once watched in the FA Cup on a Fox Soccer Channel broadcast a few years ago and had to remind myself was once a Premier League team. From the start, United has pushed around the assorted sides that have made up that table through the years, with Arsenal and Chelsea occasionally getting their shots in when they could. This unpleasant – and unavoidable – reality is not going to change, no matter how many times United narrowly misses out on winning the title because Chelsea accumulated a couple more points over 38 games. This has been United's era, and their supporters are going to puff their chests out on their own perch now. Should any Liverpool supporter hope to see his side lose just so that United arrogance only peacocks at 85 or 90 percent of capacity? Is now really the best time to cynically jeer United's inability to win the league? Chelsea winning the league this season provides Liverpool fans with short-lived relief – a sense that one more slight against the club in a season filled with them was avoided. Just try making a banner to unfurl at Anfield out of that sentiment.

The reluctance and fear that permeates any Liverpool supporter's opinion of seeing United win No. 19 should be a temporary condition. Hatred for it and an inability to deal with it are symptoms of dread and worry surrounding Liverpool's own condition. I'm not suggesting you go out and walk arm in arm with a United fan on the way to their open-top bus parade, but try viewing it in something other than the either/or conclusion simply counting title trophies inevitably brings about. Hoping to see Chelsea all but clinch the trophy at Anfield this weekend is a byproduct of that condition. "Either United has more titles or Liverpool has more titles. That is how we will determine superiority." If that doesn't bring about a satisfactory answer for one side, you can always grab a ruler, drop your pants and see who the real winner is when the goals scored and conceded columns don't add up to your liking.

A more productive approach to this weekend's match can be found in the league table. Liverpool are two points from fourth, and the team's long-shot fight for that final Champions League spot – which has been written off for several weeks – is still alive. Of course it's unlikely, but until Villa, Spurs or City get to 69 points, it's not yet impossible. If Fergie added a defining chapter to his legacy and won the league, but Liverpool pulled off a last-day theft of that money-printing slot, it would remove several doubts about the club's future and offer a reason for supporters to celebrate an arduous campaign. Should Liverpool acquiesce to Chelsea's triumph when such a result is still there for the taking? Is United's failure more important than trying to salvage until the very end participation in the competition around which all of the club's organization is structured?

More ephemeral joy can be found in beating Chelsea purely for the sake of victory. In a series of Twitter posts Sunday, Brian Phillips from the Run of Play showed how historically dominant Chelsea has been this season. Five goals shy of setting the record for that statistic in one Premier League season. Largest goal differential in the history of the Premier League. Why not hope to see Liverpool beat such a team? Aston Villa has a very real chance of playing in the Champions League next season. Chelsea applied a dropkick-hammering combination on them so intense that bizarre "Martin O'Neill to quit Villa" rumors surfaced. Remarkably, several people actually believed them. There are many simple joys any fan could take from seeing Liverpool defeat a committed Chelsea team this Sunday.

If you just cannot stand your magnanimity without a dose of the ol' tribalism, beating Chelsea would allow Liverpool to essentially deliver United's 19th title. It would allow those so inclined to say to the gloating United hordes, "As a gesture of goodwill, here is your 19th title. Remember you got it because we defeated the team you couldn't." Sure, United fans might scoff and only intensify their jibes, but the point is there are ways to view United winning No. 19 other than just how it reflects on Liverpool's position within the English game.

The Premier League season has been a crunching lurch, and not just for Liverpool. This past weekend saw the elimination of another one of any league's great amusements: the last-day relegation scramble. Who doesn't love to see those shots from the final day of spectators watching the match in front of them while a radio is pressed against an ear to hear of any updates from elsewhere in England, where the other team(s) competing for Premier League survival have fans doing the same? This year, the only last-day festivities will be among Spurs, Villa and City fans – maybe Liverpool too – in the race for fourth. In the title chase, would Chelsea and Manchester United fans even use radios in this day and age? I'd think those clubs would just flash score updates on the electronic advertising boards. The Samsung/Manchester United Club Shop out-of-town scoreboard, if you will. It's not quite the same.

The likely outcome Sunday is that Chelsea will win. It would fit the narrative of the 2009-10 Premier League season. That is, it would lack all drama. It's a season many tried to shape as the year of the unpredictable when, in fact, it's just the year one of the top four played poorly a handful of times and will likely drop out of that group, allowing one of two other well-funded sides to appear in a Champions League qualification match. Arsenal are comfortably third but exuding all the happiness of being in a near-zero-brain-activity stupor. Elsewhere, Landon Donovan made a cameo that provided one of the strongest runs of form for a team. Wolves grinding out low-scoring results served as another relative "high point." Rooney had about three months where he performed in all the Rooney-ness the world has expected from him until he, again befitting the storyline, broke down. It's been the season where the most fascinating developments happened all year at the league's 20th-place team. For a while now the best part of the calendar turning each week was everybody got that much closer to the World Cup.

It's all the more reason the last thing Liverpool supporters should express is sad disappointment if the team manages to beat Chelsea. There has been enough despondency at Anfield and in England for one season. Even if the team should win on Sunday, there could be more sad notes to come for Liverpool, so take what you can get as a fan. We need more high points in between David Conn articles about the club.

In the end, the United people can go and wave their green-and-gold scarves and celebrate whatever they care to – or whatever spirit they feel defines them. Liverpool has had enough identity crisis problems this season that the club and the fans don't need to top it off by finding joy through losing at home. There are many more important issues to figure out going forward during the next year or two than to worry about Alex Ferguson having led Manchester United to one more title than Liverpool. Sure, it'd be fun to see Gary Neville crying as a bucket of horse vomit is poured over him, all while Yuri Zhirkov conks Fergie over the head with the Premier League trophy in the background. But if Hicks and Gillett don't sell soon to someone who wants to – and can afford to – improve the club, that joy will be short-lived, entirely empty and without hope for the future. Loathing Manchester United and trying to beat them is part of the Liverpool supporter's experience, but it shouldn't be allowed to define it. After all, they're not even the best side in England anymore.


Elliott said...

I'm obviously biased as a United fan, but as an American who never experienced the heat of this affair first hand, I have to say....I don't hate Liverpool. I think the Dalglish era was one of supreme dominance, not just in England, and my only prob with Scousers is how pitifully the American owners have ran it into the ground.

That being said, you have to admit that Rafa Benitez resembles a hamster and thus makes for an easier target than most managers not named Phil Brown

iansmith said...

Three things... first Liverpool will not roll over in this game they proved it many years ago when they beat Blackburn on the last day of the season to seemingly gift United the league only for them to blow it away at West Ham.
Secondly it seems to me that United need,no thrive on the history card more than liverpool, every song is anti scouse or liverpool even though we havent been a title threat for way too long! Fergie's raison-detre ( has been to win one more title than liverpool, when (not if )they achieve it where do they go from there?
Third... notice Norwich in third in the league 92 -93 with a goal difference of -4. How!!!
Ps - I will be wearing 2 liverpool shirts this weekend, 3 just to prove a point!

Jim said...

Rafa's appearance, pitchside demeanor and attempts to be sarcastic in his non-native language make him an easy target, yes. Perhaps if he was 40 pounds lighter, with a full head of hair and Portuguese, he would be more celebrated among the people who decide such things as popular opinion. Winning at least one title would help, too.

Like many Liverpool fans, I have my problems with Benitez. None of them are based upon his appearance or public comments, but I understand why he's viewed as such an easy mark among his detractors. I do admire, however, his refusal to give up. It would've been easy this year.

Kuba said...

Really enjoyed this post Jim and totally agree with you. Cheering against United (as much as I enjoy it) doesn't help our club in any way. I'd rather see us win out and end this horrid season in some uplifting way, even if that does mean United win the title, who cares?

I'd rather focus inward and ask "Why didn't we do enough over 38 games to be up there?"