Thursday, October 11, 2018

DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE #8


Notes on the 2018-19 title race with a different perspective. Writing with (and about) the enemy. By Sachin Nakrani and Simon Curtis

Under the Volcano



10th October 2018Back in March, following Chelsea’s Champions League defeat to Barcelona, I put out a tweet regarding Lionel Messi following yet another excellent display by the Argentinian at Camp Nou.

“I feel sorry for Lionel Messi because he hasn’t had the privilege of watching Lionel Messi play football. All he can do is take our word for it.”

The tweet was meant as a joke. All night people had been tweeting out the type of stuff you only see when Messi is playing well - ‘we’re not worthy’, ‘he must be from another planet’, ‘greatness in front of our eyes’,  that sort of thing and this was my subtle, sarcastic dig at all of the online salivating.

But, as is often the case with my tweets, people didn’t get the sentiment behind it and thought I was being deadly serious. There were over 3,000 retweets, 6,000 likes and 50 responses, practically all of which were mushy in their praise of Messi.

I initially found the response baffling and nauseating in equal measure, but the more they came in the more my heart melted. Gradually this misunderstanding felt rather lovely - a collective, online appreciation of a player who, let’s face it, deserves all the adulation that comes his way.

I thought of that tweet, and the response to it, while stood on the Kop on Sunday watching David Silva play for Manchester City. He’s no Messi but, my God, he’s a wonderful footballer. One of those footballers that makes you acutely aware of how not-very-good you are at football. The way he manoeuvres into space, collects and cares for the ball like a mother collects and cares for her newborn child, and, time and again, plays the right pass at the right time.

I watched Silva do all of this on the green grass of Anfield and thought to myself, “I feel sorry for David Silva because he hasn’t had the privilege of watching David Silva play football. All he can do is take our word for it.”

The mad, bewildering, scary thing is that he wasn’t even the best City player on the pitch. Heck, he wasn’t even the best Silva on the pitch. Bernardo Silva was absolutely tremendous in centre midfield alongside Fernandinho, showing a level of aggression and robustness that I wasn’t aware he possessed. On the ball he then displayed his renowned technical class; a drop of the shoulder here, a spurt into space there; a pass to the left, a pass to the right, a few forward and the occasional one back. Always in control, always a danger.

City were very good on Sunday. Not their sparkling best but defensively excellent and, in possession, showing the type of refinement and purpose that left me convinced they were going to nick it. And of course they nearly did after Leroy Sane collected a pass from - guess who – David Silva, drove into the box and tempted the otherwise excellent Virgil Van Dijk into a clumsy lunge. Penalty with five minutes remaining, the perfect snatch and grab, and then Riyad Mahrez stepped forward and ballooned the ball so high that it still hasn’t dropped to earth.

All in all, a draw was a fair result. Possession was practically equal, as was shots on goal. Both sides had various spells when they were on top and, overall, neither truly did enough to earn all three points.

Leaving the ground I felt a mix of satisfaction and relief. I would’ve taken a point before kick-off and even more so after Mahrez’s miss. But there was also concern, partly because of how poorly Liverpool’s front three played yet again and partly because of the savvy Pep Guardiola had displayed from a tactical point of view.

Having conceded seven goals in the two games City played at Anfield last season, he was clearly determined to keep it much tighter this time around. It was startling how reserved City were from a structural as well as intent point of view, not really coming forward until around the 15-minute mark. Even then it was tentative and never fully did the visitors go for Liverpool’s throat.

In Tuesday’s Guardian, Jonathan Wilson wrote a piece dissecting City’s display and made the point that for all the talk of Guardiola being a ideologue, he has history when it comes to pragmatism. At Bayern Munich, Wilson wrote, a 4-1 defeat at Wolfsburg led to Guardiola questioning his tactics and whether or not he had got “carried away with his experiments in using full-backs in possession in effect as old-fashioned wing-halves that he had forgotten the basics?” Determined to avoid such a drubbing again, the Catalan wrote what he came to refer to as “the bible”.

Wilson explains what the bible was but for the sake of expediency, I’ll summarise: “Defend better”.

And that’s what City did at Anfield. It earned them a point in a game which last season they got none and if Guardiola is able to mesh the thrilling brand that took City to the title with the type of display that earns them a point in games they’d otherwise lose then God help us all.

Saying that, it could transpire that this was actually two points dropped (which it sort of was anyway given Mahrez’s miss) and that rather than keeping Liverpool at bay, City have allowed them to keep hold of their coattails at a time when their football is stodgy and disconnected. Liverpool will improve and if that comes at a time when City go through a rough patch then we could see a quick turnaround at the top of the table and, ultimately, a shift in the team able to call themselves champions of England.

That team may not necessarily be Liverpool. After all, Chelsea are level on points with the ‘big two’ and look the real deal under the Italian geezer that is Maurizio Sarri, while Arsenal are also coming up on the rails. Tottenham, meanwhile, are having a properly weird season - doom and gloom all over the place yet Mauricio Pochettino’s men sit just two points off the summit having recorded their joint best start to a Premier League season after eight games.

Saying all that, I still believe it will be City and Liverpool who are tussling for the title come late spring. Who wins it remains hard to say - City rightly remain favourites, especially so after their show of canniness on Merseyside. But that display also hinted at a level of trepidation on the part of the champions and a repeat, at Stamford Bridge, the Emirates, Wembley or, dare I say it, Old Trafford, could lead to not only two points being given up but three.

Liverpool’s task is to then pounce and take full advantage, a task they’re up for and, all going well, capable of.

Game on.

  Sachin Nakrani



10th October 2018    When Malcolm Lowry wrote I have resisted temptation for two and a half minutes at least: my redemption is sure” in Under the Volcano, his novel’s main character was almost certainly not thinking about Association.Football. Pep Guardiola, though, will appreciate the thought.

While Lowry’s consul was staving off the urge to get drunk to forget about the mess he had made of his life, the Catalan had more pressing practicalities at Anfield, stemming the expected red tide with his own version of resisted temptation. .

So, Pep had located the button marked “pragmatism” and given it a damn good prod.

That it should be pressed with such enthusiasm at Anfield was no coincidence of course. City’s execrable record there is legendary and will not be repeated in any detail here. Even recent visits have ended in tears and tantrums, despite home games yielding more positive results over the last decade.

Last season was a case in point. Four shipped in a wildly tipping league encounter and three more in a disastrous Champions League collapse. The five banged in at the Etihad in September of 2017 had at the time been a record high against Liverpool since 1937, but was somewhat buried by subsequent developments.

Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp should feel honoured that the free-wheeling man of such vivacious attacking intent decided this to be the occasion for caution, practical shape and tightly coordinated defensive blocks. Laporte and Stones were as tight as could be, Walker and Mendy mostly tucked in narrow and Bernardo Silva, that effervescent little tinker, anchored to Fernandinho’s deep midfield patch. It was all very nouveau pauvre.

Guardiola’s gung-ho mishaps had been questioned at this very place last season. Here was proof if proof was needed of further progress by a coach, who never stops learning, never stops listening.

All this was well and good and eventually worked a treat, but it had been aided and abetted by Liverpool’s queer slump in form. The very part of the side that drove everyone to distraction last season does not appear to be functioning at all well all of a sudden. Mohammed Salah, like the man who lost his sandals in the desert, continues to tip toe around hopefully but appears to have badly singed his toes.

"We're going with Forgive Me Jesus. No one will have thought of that"

Firminho too looked out of sorts, leaving the feisty Mané to run the City defence and get himself tangled with Fernandinho, while carrying the flag for the home side.

To complete the contrariness, Liverpool’s dynamic midfield - led by the excellent Henderson - did what was needed to take part in this tactical battle but little more. Where City had been badly overrun last season, here they produced numbers and shapes to thwart the home flow. At the back, where Liverpool had often fallen down a year back, all was serene, as City’s occasional probing brought few worries to the impressive Van Dijk and his cohorts.

Liverpool will be happy they have removed that tricky string of fixtures from their to-do list. Huddersfield, Cardiff, Fulham and Watford come next, with the only demanding trip the one that takes them to the Emirates to the media’s newly anointed “revolution club”. How swiftly things move these days. European adventures against a fast-wilting Red Star and a goal hungry PSG will fill in the spaces for the coming month or so, but Liverpool will be hopeful that they can use these fixtures to regain some of the verve they started the campaign with.

While a point has kept them as close to City as is possible (“joint top” in certain people’s minds), it also allowed the gale force wind that is Arsenal and the thoroughbreds Chelsea and Tottenham to edge closer. A two point stretch from top to fifth can only be good for the Premier League. City’s pomp and circumstance last season was an eye-catching spectacle, but a repeat of the gap which divided first and second would not be good for the competitive edge we all crave from the sport.

Liverpool have long been held as the torch bearers for the challenge to City. At the weekend they became aware that City’s hierarchy concur with that forecast. In shuttling through the game with their core beliefs under such tight control, City not only resisted the temptation to go gung-ho, but threw down a challenge to Liverpool that on this occasion they were not up to accepting. All pointers continue to suggest a close-fought battle this season. As Lowry’s consul might have said, “I’ll drink to that.”

 Simon Curtis




Saturday, October 6, 2018

DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE 7

Notes on the 2018-19 title race with a different perspective. Writing with (and about) the enemy. By Sachin Nakrani and Simon Curtis

Rivals



6th October 2018 – By the end of the 1976-77 season, City and Liverpool were separated by a single point, with the Blues on the wrong side of the tiny gap. 

Liverpool were champions again and City had to be pleased with runners-up spot to Bob Paisley’s all-conquering side. It had been a tumultuous season and the two sides might well have ended up in each other’s finishing positions had the home game for City that Christmas not blown up in their faces with the clock ticking down towards the final whistle.

With the 50,000 crowd bellowing their appreciation, City hung onto Joe Royle's 35th minute opener, until two minutes from time, when a speculative Liverpool attack led to a misheard call from the out-rushing Joe Corrigan to his defence. Dave Watson, that reliable tower of strength at the heart of City's defence, slid a backpass towards what he presumed was safety, but Corrigan had advanced and the ball skipped past him and into the net.

Dave Watson (left) realises what he has done in 1977.

Watson's anguish at the time was compounded by the end of the season, when that single mistake meant the difference between the two sides come May.

City and Liverpool were beginning to create quite a stir. 

A year later another Maine Road full-house saw City wallop Liverpool 3-1 in a match described by the affable Paisley as "the best of British football". City were absolutely flying, but fell away to 4th as Liverpool were pipped by Nottingham Forest, the newly promoted surprise package of the season. 

Instead of a City-Liverpool rivalry beginning to take root, Liverpool began a titanic struggle with Clough's Forest over the next three years, while City fell away to Malcolm Allison-inspired mediocrity.

Worse was to come, of course, with two relegations in the 80s and plenty more moss-covered shenanigans in the 90s, by which time Liverpool had resurrected their original Mersey-Manchester rivalry from the 60s with United. More recently still, a kind of rivalry with Chelsea popped up, after several titanic Champions League battles.

Yet, nothing at all to speak of with City. The 80s mean streets gave way to indifference, even pity. A general Manchester-Merseyside discomfort gradually dropped away, in the case of City and Everton at least. Having seen Joe Corrigan bottled in a rare Anfield win in 1981, City fell off to levels of pathetic that even the Kop couldn't jeer at with any deep-felt feeling. 0-4 and 0-6 defeats at Anfield within four days under Alan Ball's judicious leadership reduced everyone to gales of laughter. City were a laughing stock. No rivalry could or would come from this mismatched clash.

Perhaps, even in their new clothes, the fact that City's Anfield record has remained resolutely execrable, means today there is still no sign of a proper rivalry, despite the fact that animosity levels are clearly on the up and - particularly this season - the clubs are on each other's radars like never before. 

As with Chelsea-Liverpool, perhaps a couple more Champions League games of the intensity seen last season and a continuation of what seems likely to be a two-pronged challenge for the domestic honours, will bring these two great clubs into sharper focus for each other. City fans can drop the Klanfield always the victims taunts and the Kop can desist from shouting about a club that has only existed since 2008, which thinks everyone's got it in for them.

Or maybe it is exactly this that is spawning new levels of fear and loathing between the two clubs. 

This kind of social media fuelled spite may be playing a part in building things up a level or two. Proper hate plays a part in all good football rivalries after all. There are no exchanges of flowers before the River-Boca games or at Ajax-Feyenoord and Porto v Benfica has plenty of over-stretched neck sinew on show. Love and cuddles a proper football atmosphere never made. The signs, therefore, are good! 

Certainly - as we have seen in the past with games on the European stage - a rivalry that endures can pop up from nowhere given the right ingredients. Forest and
League Cup final 1977-78: the start of something big
Chelsea were never going to be the most obvious of hated opponents for Liverpool but the rivalries emerged over time, thanks to those continental clashes. Little animosity existed for any geographical or historical reasons. 

City- Liverpool has much more possible mileage in it than one with an East Midlands side or one from well-heeled West London. Local bragging rights, building on an already historically tense Manchester-Liverpool rivalry can bring this duel into really sharp focus in the coming seasons. If the clashes between the two sides match the drama and smoke of last season's four games, then it will not take long, there can be little doubt about that. If Liverpool are the real deal and intend to slog it out toe to toe this season, the temperature is about to rise. 

Now all that is needed is a battle royale on Sunday and a couple more fragrant Champions League clashes - perhaps a semi final this time - and we will begin to see a new rivalry in English football that is worth its name.    Simon Curtis



6th October 2018    So here we go then, the Dispatches Derby. Liverpool versus Manchester City, a battle between the top two – and best two – teams in the country and a resumption of a simmering rivalry.

Stop. Wait. Scratch that record and go back a second. Liverpool and City – a rivalry? Really? Is it? According to who and since when?

The first thing to say is that no one person is, or can be, the arbiter of what constitutes a football rivalry. Different clubs stoke different emotions in different supporters. For instance, I properly dislike Chelsea but that’s because my life as a regular match-going Red began just as the great Rafa-Jose battles of the noughties were kicking-off. I went to practically every one, including all three Champions League semi-finals in 2005, 2007 and 2008, and when you’ve gone through something like that it’s difficult not to dislike the other lot. The chants stick in the mind, as do the smug faces, not to mention the defeats; the 2005 League Cup final …
THAT league game in 2014.

But for other Liverpool supporters, specifically older ones, Chelsea are an irrelevance. Only Manchester United and Everton matter in the rivalry stakes, with Nottingham Forest and Leeds United coming in a distant second. It’s about context and experience, contests fought.

Which brings me on to City. Rivals? Could be, but not right now. Not for me, anyway.

There’s been a few tasty games between the sides in recent years, no more so than last season. The 5-0 at the Etihad, the 4-3 at Anfield, and the two Champions League games which well and truly lived up to the hype, in terms of drama and quality. But Liverpool have also had tasty games against Arsenal, Tottenham and, heck, Crystal Palace in that time and no one in and around Anfield look at any of those clubs as ‘the enemy’.

I’m aware the situation with City is different given their status – champions as well as fellow title and Champions League contenders – not to mention the enmity that developed on the back of the bus attack, but I simply don’t feel the hate and neither do most other Reds I know.

As is the modern way, a lot of this has been driven by social media. Reds and Blues shouting about how much they hate the other side on Twitter, with most doing so in order to develop their (reaches for the vomit bucket) ‘brand’.

There’s another reason why I don’t see City as a rival and it relates to the thing that appears to rile their supporters more than anything else. The ‘M’ word. Money.

I’m old enough to remember when City were a vastly different club to the one they are now, specifically in the 1990s when, let’s face it, they were absolutely dreadful. Poor players, poor managers, poor results, no more so than during the 1995-96 season when Alan Ball’s side were relegated. That was a season when Liverpool beat City 4-0 and 6-0 in the space of three days and, in general, my memories of coming up against City back then was that it was no big deal. They were there to be beaten.

City improved in the noughties but remained a team not to be feared, and that’s how it felt it was going to remain forever. But then everything changed. Sheikh Mansour strode into town.

Modern-day Manchester City feel  like a different club entirely. It’s City 2.0. A total reboot. Out went the clanking hatchback and in came the sleek sports car hell-bent on roaring past every other vehicle on the road. And fair play, City have achieved that, winning three Premier League titles and currently playing a style of football that may be the best we’ve ever seen in this country. But please, spare me the protests whenever someone suggests all this may have happened because a wealthy Arab made it possible.

The arguments I’ve had with City fans over this. Jesus, you’d think I had accused their club of sending players to people’s homes at Christmas to piss on their kids. Howls of indignation, cries of media-driven conspiracy and, in one case, someone suggesting with a straight Twitter face that City’s success has nothing to do with the 2008 takeover.

Are you shitting me?! City’s best player on 31 August 2008 – the day before the money came rolling in – was Stephen Ireland and they had Jo up front. City’s best player on 31 August 2018 was (and is) Kevin De Bruyne and they had (and have) Sergio Aguero up front. That didn’t happen through savvy scouting and money earned through shrewd accountancy; it happened because the boys in blue won the lottery.

Yes, other clubs have been the subject of takeovers, and yes, other clubs spend lots of money (Liverpool included), but in my lifetime none have gone from nought to 50 in such a short space of time. Enjoy the success but also accept how it’s come about. The overriding factor. The golden elephant in the room.

So no, I don’t see City as a rival. It’s too soon for that and, a decade on from the big bang, I still find it difficult to fully respect the club’s rise to elite level. It’s like when you play someone at snakes and ladders and you’re leading but they then throw a six and land on the square with the massive ladder and shoot up to the end. Yes they’ve won fair and square, but you’re entitled to feel peeved about how they got there.

Onto Sunday’s match. City are going to win, I can feel it. Partly because they’re an excellent team, partly because they’re due a win at Anfield and partly because I’m properly worried about Liverpool following their loss to Napoli. I was there and it was possibly the worst I’ve seen us perform under Jurgen Klopp. Lacklustre, lethargic, disconnected, crap.

No doubt there’ll be a reaction from the boys in red, and the crowd will be up for it, but if City exploit our weaknesses in midfield and take the chances that come their way then I can’t see past an away win, especially as our front three are not up to scratch at the moment.

A defeat will be hard to take but it won’t be a disaster given Liverpool will only be three points behind City having had the tougher start to the season. It’s all good, all fine, all worth keeping in perspective. One thing it’s not, however, is a rivalry.
. Sachin Nakrani



Tuesday, October 2, 2018

DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE 6


Notes on the 2018-19 title race with a different perspective. Writing with (and about) the enemy. By Sachin Nakrani and Simon Curtis

To Boo or 
Not To Boo



1st October 2018 Raheem Sterling knows the drill by now. Come his first touch on Sunday – and probably at some point before that – he will be booed by the Anfield crowd.

They will also boo his next touch, and the one after that and almost certainly the one after that, and in between will come the chant that has come to define Sterling’s relationship with a group of people who once adored his every move.

“One greedy bastard! There’s only one greedy bastard! One greee-dy baaastarrrd ...”

It’s part of the dance and no doubt Sterling will shrug off the abuse and look to get City on the front foot and flying forward at every opportunity. Or at least he’ll try because in the three years since he swapped Merseyside for Manchester, the winger has made sod-all impact in games against Liverpool. Indeed in last season’s encounter at Anfield – ‘the 4-3’ – Sterling was so ineffective that Pep Guardiola took him off with 19 minutes remaining. And how those of us in the Kop and elsewhere loved it.

“One greedy bastard! There’s only one greedy bastard! One greee-dy baaastarrrd ...”


I chant the chant, City fans, but, I’ll be honest, my heart is not in it. Not fully. Resentment lingers over Sterling’s decision to leave us for you in 2015 but I’m not angry with him – never really have been and certainly not now, not after all this time when both player and club have moved on so much.

Liverpool are thriving and so is Sterling. He was excellent in the 2-0 victory over Brighton on Saturday, opening the scoring with a strike that means the 23-year-old has now been directly involved in 34 Premier League goals since the start of last season, a tally bettered only by Harry Kane (38) and Mohamed Salah (46).

It’s an eye-catching statistic and one that makes me smile. I’m not 100% sure why, given Sterling’s not only an opposition player but one that ditched us for the trendier girl down the road. I should hate that greedy bastard ... but I don’t.

Thinking about it, there are probably three reasons why Sterling’s good work makes me feel good. Firstly, he’s a fellow norf London boy, raised near Wembley Stadium, whose arch I can see from the spare room at my parents’ house.

I’m not one of those people who gets overly sentimental about the place he was born and raised but, equally, I’ve got a lot of time for my neck of the woods –its working-class ethos, its rich diversity, its cracking transport links, so when I hear an actual, properly-good footballer is also from there it naturally sparks interest and raises the warmth levels. Come here Raheem, let me give you a high-five and a tour of the streets where our paths may have once crossed.

Secondly, he’s a Red. Well, sort of. We signed him from Queens Park Rangers but all his key learning took place at Liverpool - at the academy and then at Anfield, under the watch of first Kenny Dalglish and then Brendan Rodgers. We nurtured and developed Sterling’s talent and, boy, what talent it was, even back then.

I’ll never forget watching highlights of Liverpool’s 9-0 victory over Southend in the FA Youth Cup in 2011 and marvelling at how our 16-year-old winger tore the backside of the opposition, forever frightening them with his pace, skill and directness and, come the final whistle, having five - yes, FIVE - goals to his name. And what was that name? Raheem Sterling, of course. It was the moment I knew Liverpool had a ‘next big thing’ on their hands, a status he more than lived up to prior to joining City for £49m in July 2015.

The other reason I like Sterling? Because the right-wing press in this country don’t. The grief that lad has taken from the Daily Mail and the Sun in particular has been nothing short of shocking. It also speaks to a sinister strand of society, namely that of black people knowing their place, and the fact Sterling, someone so young and, given his family background, so vulnerable, has had to deal with this while continuing to mature and excel as a high-level footballer not only says a lot about his character but also provides inspiration for those that follow his path. Namely, don’t let the bastards grind you down.

So yes, I like Raheem Sterling. I’ll still boo him on Sunday, though, largely because doing so has the clear effect of putting him off his game. It’s tactical rather than emotional jeering, aimed at someone I once loved, hated for a little while but, overall, admire greatly.Sachin Nakrani



1st October 2018   I don’t tend to boo very much. It’s a long story dating back to the early 80s but it feels strangely unproductive. Firstly, it’s a daft noise that makes the perpetrator look like a spoon-chinned simpleton and secondly - if you do it with any feeling (and half-hearted booing is not something I have come across) - it makes your brain vibrate and that – if you’ve been drinking all lunchtime – is not a good sensation.

There will be plenty booing at Anfield next weekend, you can be sure of that. The ongoing problem  Liverpool fans have with ex-favourite Raheem Sterling has now been successfully exported to a variety of grounds across the country. Burnley? Stoke? This can only be the sterling work of the Daily Mail or The Sun, one supposes. Fling enough bad press at one undeserving target and the great mass of sheep will cotton on eventually.

Power. booed by the Kippax
It’s a bit like offering a sleepy and unsuspecting electorate slewed information in a referendum, but that, clearly, is a totally different story.

The booing that will cascade off the Kop and other parts of what will be a raw and stuffed Anfield will be matched by similar noises emanating from sections of the away support. The howling is likely to rise as James Milner wanders into the vicinity to take a throw-in.

In 2015 Milner swapped sky blue for bright red (in itself a rare occurrence, usually in the past on the grounds that Liverpool really had very little need for ex-Manchester City players). Robbie Fowler, Dietmar Hamman and Steve MacManaman might have travelled in the opposite direction along the East Lancs road as their careers wound down, but there have been few tolls paid to go west in modern times.

Milner’s transfer was an odd affair. Having turned down the offer of a £165,000 a week, the player accepted a pay-cut of £15,000 a week to join Liverpool. This in itself was a brave and slightly unusual move: a player seemingly motivated by getting a game more than getting a pay rise. Refreshing, in these tunnel-vision days of money-grabbing greed.

As The Guardian's Andy Hunter reported at the time,
                 
Milner’s contract at Anfield is believed to be less than he would have earned had he stayed with City, around £150,000 a week, but the lure of a more regular role with Liverpool – and in his preferred central midfield position – was a key factor in his decision. Remaining in the north-west where the England international is settled with his family was also an influence.

So far so good. Milner’s service to City had been consistent and full of the energy typical of a player who had made it to the international ranks via his indefatigable spirit and apparent willingness to be seen as a utility player.

But wait, this was the crux of the matter. Utility player be gone. Milner wanted central midfield action and trophies. “I’ve come to Liverpool to win things” he stated somewhat optimistically. Emerging as a Liverpool full back under Klopp's tutelage (when he managed to ease into the side at all) raised an eyebrow or two among the City faithful.

Milner airs his reasons for leaving City
Milner, we were reliably informed, had grown impatient with his increasingly peripheral role at the Etihad under Manuel Pellegrini. The Chilean had in fact increased the player’s number of appearances in comparison to the season before, but Milner was not letting hard facts get in the way by this time.

As had happened with Raheem Sterling, whose swift flight in the opposite direction hit a raw nerve with the Anfield support, so the City fans felt slighted by Milner’s “made-up” excuses to go. That he has found a niche for himself in Jurgen Klopp’s smooth-running set-up speaks volumes for his perseverance and fighting spirit. It is difficult over time to hold grudges against a player whose honest endeavour puts many to shame. Milner's acceptance of his Boring Milner tag also plays positively, embracing the joke and playing along to it on social media. 

The fact remains that Sterling clearly transferred to a club with better prospects and Milner did not. Taking away any partisan thoughts, that is clearly the case. 

But, still worth a boo, after all that water has passed under the bridge? My first recollection of booing at Maine Road was from the Kippax for Paul Power. Many clubs have experienced the problem of sections of the home crowd selecting an under-performing player from their own malfunctioning team to moan at and – in the worse case – abuse. City in 1983 certainly gave the faithful plenty of reason to boo, but the singling out of Power was unpleasant and embarrassing. His treatment wasn’t pretty, persuading him to leave and win the league with Everton shortly afterwards. A major influence down the left flank for Howard Kendall's side, Power's treatment was all the more disconcerting as a result. 

Whether Milner can rub certain people’s noses in the dirt by helping Liverpool to the title in 2019 is still open to serious doubt. Liverpool's much heralded best-ever Premier League start still sees them 2nd behind City in the table, after all. If he does, he will have helped his club achieve something very special, will have partly vindicated his move west and will help provoke a wave of euphoria in that part of the country that the rest of us may never fully escape.

Simon Curtis




Wednesday, September 26, 2018

DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE 5


And The Crowds Came Out For Europe (or maybe they didn't)
Notes on the 2018-19 title race with a different perspective. Writing with (and about) the enemy. By Sachin Nakrani and Simon Curtis



26th September 2018 All quiet on the Eastern Front, while the sound of the bubbling cauldron out west fair makes your ears whistle.

The crackling static about City’s turn-out against Lyon in the Champions League was almost as fervent as the deafening screeching coming from Anfield. Why are City supporters indifferent towards the Champions League? Don’t they get it or something?

Well, this has been covered in many places by many people, some more accurately than others. Suffice to say, there are plenty of reasons, not rating Lyon as worthy of a viewing not being one of them.

In fact, historically speaking, a turn-out of 40,000 for a home game with last season’s third placed French team compares favourably with past European ties and continues a consistent thread through City’s staccato presence in the continent’s showpiece tournaments.

Let us drift back to the 70s, with Tony Book’s City beginning to make an imprint on the English game. Exciting times, average league attendances up above 42,000 for the first time in several years, inroads being made on United’s hegemony in the city of Manchester. City are unlucky enough to draw Juventus in the first round of the UEFA Cup, an occurrence quite able to happen on the basis of the strange belief in those ragged-trousered days that cup draws did not need to be seeded to allow Real Madrid and Bayern Munich to get to the semi-finals every year.

Juventus, then as now, the absolute mark of Italian football aristocracy, turned up in unreconstructed Moss Side with what was practically the Italian national side. Zoff, Bennetti, Scirea, Tardelli, Gentile, Causio, Cabrini, you’d Bettega believe it, all sashaying through the cramped Maine Road portals with their delicately cut suits and sweet-smelling cufflinks. Brian Kidd – wearing no nonsense Umbro diamonds – scored the goal that separated the sides after 90 minutes of drama and noise. 36,000 attended. Nobody squeaked about a less-than-full-house the next day.

The following year, with City’s star beginning to fade, the Poles of Widzew Lodz turned up, with star-in-the-making and future Juve midfield lynchpin Zbigniev Boniek emerging fast. 2-2 the final score and the only mention of the 33,695 crowd in the next morning’s papers was when Boniek was assaulted on the pitch by a single member of the modestly populated North Stand.

It was around this time chairman Peter Swales began fiddling the attendance numbers – sometimes very obviously for those of us wedged onto the Kippax and being told we were part of a 24,000 crowd – for tax reasons, so there may have been more present but the official numbers are these.

A year later City were embarking on their final European campaign until the Fairplay Gods threw a lifeline again in 2003.

Twente Enschede (3-2). Colin Bell continuing his heroic comeback in front of 29,330.
Standard Liege (4-0) a late three goal surge brightens the gloom for the 27,489 crowd.
AC Milan (3-0) an unforgettable night with Asa Hartford in charge and everything ticking against the Italian maestros. Attendance: 38,000. The quarter final against Liverpool’s old pals, Borussia Monchengladbach (1-1), was watched by a fraction over 39,000.

As can clearly be seen, 40,000 v Lyon stands good comparison, given it was the first game of the group matches and, therefore, one of those early season European matches that are not exactly on a knife edge competitively. That is what we have been delivered by the Good Men of UEFA with this competition. That everyone begins to wake up for the knock-out phases is for good reason: it’s more exciting. The Europa League is covered in slow growing moss for the same reason. Guaranteed games is good for the penny-counting likes of Ed Woodward, but the fans want to be pushed to the edge of their seats by matches that mean something. 

The fall-out from Lyon was simply “bad day at the office”, “plenty of time to recover”. In the 70s, City would have been staring at almost certain elimination.

How about City’s rivals, who are always harping on about empty seats and a lack of history? Well, it’s all wearing a bit thin, but bear with me just one more time (perhaps). Our chums at Old Trafford fared less well for some of their European nights (see image above) and Liverpool’s famous nights in the 70s and 80s, although Youtube footage will have us believe it was all swaying Kop and You’ll Never Hear The End of Us, were also liberally decorated with matches that just did not seem to appeal to the massed ranks of red scarf wearers.

"If it had been Sofia Loren, I might have gone"

History tells us many things and one of them is not to open our mouths until we have something approaching the full picture of what’s going on.

*** 

As alluded to below by my co-writer, Liverpool’s smooth progress in the league is beginning to make some of us hark back to an earlier era too, this time for all the right reasons. The 3-0 walkover against Southampton was just the kind of nonchalant, never-in-doubt stroll that I remember so painfully from my youth. The scores coming through from Anfield were nearly always the same.

Liverpool one-up. Liverpool two ahead. Liverpool have made it three.

I remember Derby and Spurs allowing the score to go up to five and seven respectively (and later still Steve Coppell's Palace shipping nine) but those three-nil wins without breaking a sweat were commonplace. This one had a little whiff of the Dalglish and Souness about it too and that can only be a growing concern for those wearing sky blue favours.  

  Simon Curtis



26th September 2018   So it’s that time of the year again when Liverpool supporters get excited about watching their team play European games at Anfield and opposition supporters mock them for get excited about watching their team play European games at Anfield. 


“Look at them with their silly banners and their silly songs!” scream the naysayers. “It’s a myth!” they add, “there are no special nights at Anfield!” On it goes, game by game, week by week, season by season … generation by generation. Meanwhile, us Reds just keep turning up and turning it on. Allez, allez, fucking allez.



I’m a pessimist by nature and a cynic by habit but if there’s one thing I refuse to play down it’s Anfield on a European night. I’ve been to practically every one since Rafa Benitez became manager in 2004 and there are very few, if any, that have disappointed. The noise is relentless, the sense of occasion tangible, and the effect … well, City fans know about the effect first hand, don’t you? 3-0 if I’m not mistaken.

When it comes to Anfield’s ‘special European nights’ I get the cynicism and the frothing, because no person involved in this most tribal of sports wants to be told that there’s another gang who do it better. But, I’m sorry, we do.

It’s a way of behaving born through tradition and habit, stretching back to those occasions in the 1960s and 70s when the club was finding its feet on the European stage and realised a great way of progressing past the likes Internazionale and St Etienne was to scare the shit out of them.

Auxerre got a taste of it in the early 1990s before the Anfield crowd lost its power for the remainder of the decade because as much as we shout, scream and sing, the team still needs to be half-decent and under Graeme Souness and Roy Evans it simply wasn’t. 

But then came the Gerard Houllier-inspired renaissance. Barcelona were beaten in 2001 as well as Roma in 2002 before the Rafa years took it to a whole other level. 

Good God those were sensational times. Juventus, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Arsenal; just four of the sides that arrived on Merseyside fancying their changes of European victory before all leaving beaten and battered. Their ears ringing with the madness of it all. 

It’s been much of the same under Jurgen Klopp, with the win over City up there with the best European nights I’ve experienced at Anfield. 

As soon as I took my place in the Kop around 45 minutes before kick-off, I knew it was going to be a good’un - the singing had already started and only got louder the closer we got to kick-off. Flags waved and the lad to my left was wild with adrenaline. His eyes bulging, his pulse no doubt racing. 

Then came the onslaught, and I’ll never forget looking towards the touchline at 2-0 and seeing Pep Guardiola gesturing to his players to stay calm. He knew, we all knew: City were being overwhelmed by a collective force.

Last week, Paris Saint-Germain became the latest team to feel it. I couldn’t go to the match due to work commitments but most of my match-going mates did and, to a man, they claim it was as a belting night as the rest. And here’s the thing City fans, isn’t it good that there are a group of supporters who consistently and forcefully get behind their team during European games and, through some intangible magic, can help make the difference between triumph and disaster? Don’t we all want to believe football fandom is capable of that? 

I know you’ve got your own issues when it comes to European nights at the Etihad, which Simon has outlined and explained in his piece, but surely, one day, you want that there, too? The type of nights you look forward to with feral excitement and remember with fondness years after they have passed. Those ‘I was there’ moments against the biggest and best Europe has to offer. Trust me, you do.

Shaqiri provokes light applause at Anfield
Having missed the PSG game, I made sure I was at Anfield last Saturday for what turned out to be expectedly routine win over Southampton. On this occasion the atmosphere was lukewarm, which was to expected given the opposition and the fact that, for most domestic games, the ‘best supporters in the country’ can be rather tame in their support. A song here, a chant there, but most of the time … very little.

As said, that was to be expected. What did hit me like a kick in the nuts, however, was the collection of messages that ran on the electronic hoardings during game. You may have seen them on Match of the Day - a cross put through ‘manager’ as ‘guardian’ pops up next to it; a cross put through ‘songs’ as ‘anthem’ pops up next to it; a cross put through ‘stadium’ as ‘home’ pops up next to it. 

Now, that really is a load of bollocks.

 Sachin Nakrani


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