A FOOTBALL match took place on the banks of the River Humber yesterday that had claims to being the most meaningless Liverpool have played in their recent history.
While supporters all over the country this weekend headed to grounds full of nervous apprehension or giddy anticipation, those Reds who crossed the Pennines to see their team for one last time before the summer break had nothing to cheer or inspire them.
After having their great expectations buried under a catalogue of dismal performances, a crippling injury list and – most alarming of all – a mountain of debt, there was a weary resignation about the Liverpudlians housed in the Smith & Nephew North Stand.
No wonder. This, of course, has been the season from hell, one that has seen Liverpool’s boardroom politics and finance issues replace action on the pitch as the main talking points, leading to the club’s once proud reputation taking an almighty pummelling.
In normal circumstances, you might have anticipated that, with this fixture at Hull City being the final one Liverpool have to fulfil until July, there would have been some sense of relief. Here, after all, was an appropriate time to draw a line in the sand.
Yet a draw, frustratingly, was all they could manage against the already-relegated Tigers; the day might have been memorable for Jack Robinson who, at 16 years 250 days, became the youngest player in Liverpool’s history, but it wasn’t for anyone else.
All it means, then, is drawing a line in the sand is going to prove impossible. It would have been beneficial to all parties if Liverpool could simply consign events of the past nine months as a blip but reality suggests a cold, calculated view must be taken.
Here are the reasons why. For starters, Rafa Benitez’s squad has a number of significant shortcomings; an experienced, top-class left-back is required, so too is a quality striker, while good, solid professionals are needed to provide strength in depth.
If correcting those problems was all that was required for Liverpool to start pushing up the table again, there would not be so many furrowed brows today as it would ‘simply’ be a case of foraging in the transfer market.
Doing that, however, requires money and, as you will have noticed in Friday’s publishing of the accounts for Kop Football (Holdings) Limited, Liverpool are suffocating under the burden that Tom Hicks and George Gillett have lumbered on them.
Consider the figures for a moment: record losses of £54.9m – which included interest payments of £40.1m – to the year ending July 31, 2009 and a quite staggering £472.5m owed, in total, to creditors.
Those figures, remember, came from the season in which Liverpool finished second in the Premier League, accrued a record points tally and looked to have firm foundations in place for a successful push for the title.
Now the perception is that the foundations for next year are resting on quicksand so, with that mind, have a glance into the future and think about the way things might look when the 2010/11 campaign gets underway.
Will Steven Gerrard lead Liverpool out? Will Rafa Benitez, despite his declaration in a packed press conference, be standing in the technical area directing operations? Will Fernando Torres be leading the line with Javier Mascherano protecting the defence?
That it is impossible to say ‘yes’ emphatically to any of those questions shows exactly the state of flux which Liverpool are in; it’s all well new chairman, Martin Broughton, saying players don’t have to be sold but what happens if they say they want to leave?
Think about it from their point of view; how unappetising does starting the new season in somewhere like, say, Armenia, the Faroe Islands, Kazakhstan or Lithuania possibly three weeks after being involved in the World Cup final sound?
But, again, that is reality. When news came through that Blackburn Rovers had scored at Aston Villa, Liverpool had even more of an incentive to stage a grandstand finish and ensure their first European action would not be until mid-August.
Instead – in keeping with the way this season has gone – when Liverpool needed a goal, they were betrayed by familiar failings; either taking one touch too many or passing when shooting was the better option, they failed to trouble inexperienced keeper Matt Duke.
True, it might have been different if Gerrard had enjoyed better fortune; he saw one shot crash against the post in the dying minutes after a slaloming run and another whistle past Duke’s upright after he had been teed up by Dirk Kuyt.
He, more than anyone on the pitch, deserved some sort of reward for his efforts, his quality dwarfing the midfielders alongside him; asking Gerrard to share a pitch with Nabil El Zhar is akin to asking Fred and Ginger to share a stage with Stavros Flatley.
Only Gerrard knows what his future holds but those looking for hidden messages will have seized on the fact he battled his way past hundreds of pitch invaders to clap the visiting section; was this, they will wonder, the captain waving goodbye? It has to be hoped not. Gerrard might have endured an in different season with his form but he is still a genuine world class talent and Liverpool would be all the poorer without him – the longer uncertainty swirls, the more precarious his position becomes.
Take that as a warning. Any peace within the club at the moment can be best described as fragile and Benitez’s suggestion in his press conference that “senior sources” are briefing against is a pointer to the political minefield within Anfield.
A club hoping to be successful has no chance of realising such ambitions if it is perceived that important figures are more concerned with pursuing plots normally associated with Machiavelli.
This, without question, is a monumental summer for Liverpool and should the wrong moves be made, you would have to seriously worry about the long-term ramifications and question their ability to compete in the positions to which they have become accustomed.
They can either become united once more, return to the values that were synonymous with the golden era and move forward with purpose; should they go down the road of bickering, individuality and hesitancy, one thing is guaranteed.
Meaningless matches like this one will become the norm – and those dreams of returning to English football’s peak will be shattered forever more.
HULL CITY (4-4-2): Duke: Mendy, Mouyokolo, Gardner, Dawson: Atkinson, Boateng, Cairney, Kilbane (Geovanni 76): Cullen, Vennegoor of Hesselink (Fagan 84). SUBS: Myhill (GK), McShane, Barmby, Cooper, Olofinjana. Bookings – Atkinson (60)
LIVERPOOL (4-2-3-1): Reina: Mascherano, Carragher, Kyrgiakos, Agger: Lucas, Gerrard: El Zhar (Ngog 62), Aquilani (Pacheco 74), Babel (Robinson 88): Kuyt. SUBS: Cavalieri (GK), Skrtel, Degen, Ayala.
Att – 25,030 Referee – Andre Marriner
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