Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Jonjo Zone

The audio commentary one hears during any Liverpool match through the team site's e-Season Ticket offers an amusing mix of joy and disbelief. Steve Hunter is, as you'd expect, an unabashed Red as he describes the action, and his analysis partner comes from one of a rotation of Liverpool legends – I've most often heard David Fairclough and Phil Neal, though I'm sure there are others. Hunter's call of every Liverpool attack (please hold your guffaws until after I leave the room) reaches a crescendo that is capped with either a dispirited exhale from Hunter and some words explaining how the move sputtered into nothing, or a howl of unintelligible delirium celebrating a Liverpool goal.

Yesterday, after listening to 100 minutes of that back-and-forth during a remarkably slow day at the office, Hunter announced Liverpool was sending out Jonjo Shelvey, the 18-year-old, £1.7 million signing from Charlton. He replaced Ryan Babel, and at this point in what eventually became an historic Liverpool defeat in a domestic cup, I decided Jonjo Shelvey was getting everything I could give as a fan. From a distance of roughly 3,800 miles, and aware of his actions only through a clearly biased audio commentary duo played into my earbuds, Jonjo Shelvey delivered more excitement than I felt at any point while watching the defeat to Manchester United – or any other match this year. He set off on 20 minutes of play (plus a well-taken penalty) that sent Steve Hunter into electrified spasms of exuberant commentary. Shelvey was everywhere in my mind's eye. Sending in crosses and dangerous free kicks, taking charge in the dying minutes of the match by running over to deliver the corner that led to the equalizer. An 18-year-old making his Liverpool debut and exhorting his teammates and the crowd with shouts and arm pumps after converting his penalty during the shootout.

Anyone looking to feel sad about a mix of Liverpool's reserves and youth team losing at home in the Carling Cup to a League Two side can find plenty of fuel for their misery today. The media accounts portray the defeat as just a shade less shocking than if Tom Hicks dropped trou and then squeezed Kenny Dalglish's butt underneath the Shankly Gates, so if despondency is your thing, have at it. Of course, as a supporter, I wanted to hear Steve Hunter call a Liverpool win. Don't be an idiot. There are just different thrills to be had these days, and defining one's fan experience through the expectations and mocking comments of others is the wrong approach.

For example, did you know that Liverpool's latest humiliation means the team has descended into, at last, an irrevocable crisis – a full 3 points out of fourth in the Premier League? It's true. Oh, sweet Mary of Czestochowa united in eternal prayer with Our Lady of Guadalupe is it true! Surely there's no turning back now.

Jonjo Shelvey's 20 minutes of fun racing through my imagination evoked a feeling I first heard a long time ago – something like 20 years, I think – from the comedian David Steinberg. The director of several episodes of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" and numerous other shows had a stand-up special on HBO at the time. In it, he bemoaned the fact no Jewish people had a defiant public attitude. He wanted a prominent Jewish person to get up, puff his chest out and say to the world – and I'll always remember the line – "I'm a Jew! F**k you!"

Everyone enjoying Liverpool's current meekness can just piss off. It's a disgust at the perceptions of others that one would hope the players share among themselves. Observers treat each Liverpool setback as though it came the week after winning the 1984 European Cup Final – as though the "this-proud-club" descriptor is a curse or detriment rather than a point of pride.

Jonjo Shelvey didn't stumble onto the pitch yesterday resigned to the fact that Steve Heighway crossing to John Toshack isn't coming back. He played, even considering the glowing accounts of Steve Hunter and Phil Neal, like a committed, effective and passionate contributor. Jonjo Shelvey sent this supporter off on a buzzing trip where the match became everything, and one player – the fans' representative on the pitch, after all – gave the impression he had matched the observer's emotional interest in the outcome.

Detractors can call it a sign of how far Liverpool has fallen, or a delusion that served to insulate me from the larger worries haunting the club. Look, every fan wants their team to win, but if winning doesn't happen, is there no value in the match? Nothing could convince me the amazing rush of fun I had listening to the descriptions of Jonjo Shelvey's play – while the outcome was still in doubt, mind you – is somehow invalidated because Northampton Town Football Club won the match. I mentioned it in this post back in August and it bears repeating: Liverpool's 2010-11 season is not about self-loathing. Get over it and get on with it. Any number of vaguely Norman Vincent Peale-related sayings also fit.

Besides, Jonjo Shelvey is far too young to struggle with the conflict between present predicaments and past glories. He has too much to prove and doesn't want to waste any time doing it. Here's hoping Roy Hodgson gives him another chance soon because I can't wait to see it, as well as hear it.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The end of the beginning: United helping Liverpool finally get its season started

Sunday brings us the final installment in Liverpool's opening set of fixtures. They were matches that looked like cruel piling on from the football world as they were first viewed when the schedule was released.

Time for some judgments, then, about Liverpool in the 2010-11 campaign, right? Not even close. Well, surely Sunday's match will offer an accurate assessment of where they're headed. Doubtful.

Wary of the toilet-paper-roll-length list of jokes this statement could unleash, Joe Cole was brought in to play a major role in the first team. It might work or it might not, but Roy Hodgson is going to try and get him in there. He played one half against a depleted, but still composed and well-drilled Arsenal, and he'll probably come back for his second run with Liverpool's best eleven this Sunday. I'm hoping for him to get a few close passes in to Torres, or otherwise contribute to getting those passes made from a distance where the passer can see Fernando without a set of binoculars. That's all anyone should expect of him. A goal from him would be amazing, but the contempt for United shouldn't create ridiculous demands from supporters – or lead neutrals to jump to any conclusions. (Of course they will, but this is an attempt at reason on the Web. Forgive my Don Quioxte-ness.)

After Sunday, three of Liverpool's next 20 league matches catch the eye as daunting challenges – away to Everton and Spurs, and home to Chelsea. (Stoke away also is in there, but for all of Stoke's home ground moxie, I'm not classifying them with the Merseyside derby or away to London-based participants in the Champions League.) That's three matches until Feb. 5 (away to Chelsea) that even the most positive Liverpool supporter can see as ending in a loss. The other 17 present opportunities for any team that believes in itself enough to finish fourth.

Now, prediction games are dangerous and nearly always wrong. That's why bookies exist. But, aside from predicting results (and inserting all the usual caveats about injury), there's nothing in Liverpool's short-term or long-term Premier League campaign that compares with:

(H) Arsenal
(A) Manchester City
(H) West Brom
(A) Birmingham City
(A) Manchester United

And that was how they started. With a new manager, playing style and several players moving in and out among the regular contributors. The team remains far from settled, and it won't be until Hodgson can push Joe Cole out there with Gerrard, Torres, Jovanovic, Carragher, Reina and company – I'm hoping Meireles features regularly too – for several games in a row and the players figure out how to work with each other.

What, then, to make of this United match on Sunday? It's always a surreal experience watching Liverpool play United. It's as though my world elevates a few feet higher off everyone else's plane of existence. I wouldn't be shocked at all if scientists observed me and reported my eyes opened wider, my ear canals somehow grew larger and my tongue was able to taste concepts like delirium and trust. Then the camera pans to Gary Neville and the whole thing gets even weirder.

I'd imagine United will win the match, although Antonio Valencia's broken leg leaves me unsure what to make of them right now. He would've been able to lash Liverpool's left flank to whatever extent he wished, and perhaps whoever Fergie drops into that role (Nani) will still do it. Who knows? Berbatov seems to have suddenly figured out how to be damn good again, and I haven't even mentioned Rooney.

OptaJoe hasn't tweeted anything yet about the last time United drew at home in the Champions League and Premier League during the same week (or had three consecutive draws), so I'll rule out a draw for Sunday's match. Bookies, I'm sure, make a United win the most likely result. And for anyone who hasn't figured it out yet, I'm hoping for another fantastic Liverpool result at Old Trafford.

But Sunday's result only closes the prologue to Liverpool's season. Far less talented teams than this one have gone on to qualify for the Champions League, and that's all Reina, Hodgson and anyone else is talking about when asking for patience from supporters. Dammit it'd feel great – I mean, worthy-of-breakdancing-in-the-street great. But Liverpool doesn't have to beat United on Sunday to save the season. The Stadium of Light, Upton Park, White Hart Lane, Molineux and elsewhere are the places Liverpool will have to find its salvation.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Say it with me now! "We dislike SAF."

It's a cold hard fact. Joe Friday would approve.

In truth, though, I think my burning animosity toward Alex Ferguson has dimmed in the last couple of years. I crossed the bridge, a while back, and found myself in a land of make-believe where I don't get abnormally twisted out shape, mentally or, thankfully, otherwise, after the results of matches. It's a land where the inhabitants regularly bury their heads in sand dunes. Quite comfortable. I recommend it. Looking back, I find myself laughing at those fits I'd throw in the car on the way to watch a match. Fist pumps, foul language and general assertions projected forth through songs that'd twist my vocals and warm 'em for a day of shouting.

Meh. Whatever. And yes, as before, that's the 'meh' of gross indifference. Call it maturity but, more likely, I finally swallowed the pill I've been trying to hid in my own food for years ... winning doesn't matter, man. You've heard me say it before. Whatever, more on that another time. Really. (No, really, I promise.)

What matters is that as my lust (no better word) for winning and distaste for all opposition (save my friends, Liverpool - recall, this is a friendly entente.), has waned, so too has my desire to kick Ferguson square in the jaw. Ok, in his nuts too.

Still, somethings never change. And with the derby (Liverpool v. Manchester United tussle this weekend for their rightful place atop The Perch. I hear it's a horrible place to call home. People keep trying to knock you off and all that. Quite prefer a nice medium-sized living space with plenty of wall space to hang reminders of past success. Says the Arsenal supporter.) nigh, I must again share. Hatred wanes, what does not wane, however, is my stubborn belief that Ferguson is a habitual and premeditated abuser of human rights. Once more with gusto ...