Thursday, March 21, 2019

DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE 18



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


Lady Luck



21st March 2019 An international break is normally the footballing equivalent of having to sit through Mrs Brown’s Boys when you’ve been treated to Alan Partridge, The Office and Peep Show for the rest of the year.

Time often moves backwards during these painfully dull periods, when you actually have to consider doing other things with your life. But not this time, though. Sure, there will be moments when the days are dragging and you force yourself to watch England play whichever instantly forgettable team they are up against, but this feels like some welcome respite.

This season has been exhausting. As a Liverpool fan, the business end of a campaign has too often been meaningless during my lifetime, with low-key matches on offer and the only enjoyment that of being able to watch other sets of fans suffering. Under Jurgen Klopp that has instantly changed, however, with every season under his tenure leading to huge occasions in March, April and May.

First there was the Europa League run, then there was a vital top-four finish, last season saw Champions League glory so nearly secured and this time around it is a Premier League title challenge of epic proportions. Every match has felt huge in 2018/19, even taking a physical and mental strain out of supporters who are simply watching at the ground or on televisions across the globe. Fulham away was meant to be a nice afternoon in the west London spring sunshine, but it ended up being a harrowing experience for anyone of a Reds persuasion, with yet more bizarre weather conditions thrown in.

Klopp’s men again failed to hit top gear away from home and they were rescued by the most grown-up, mentally resolute player in the squad. James Milner will never be a fashionable footballer, but he is worth his weight in gold in the big moments. Thank God he had been introduced by the time Sadio Mane won that late penalty, because the thought of anyone else standing over the ball would have been unbearable.

Mohamed Salah, despite being harshly criticised of late - he has contributed plenty despite not scoring - would most certainly have missed. Milner stroked home the spot-kick in his own nerveless manner, of course, sealing a monumental three points and saving the blushes of Alisson and Virgil van Dijk, both of whom have been imperious this season but were woeful for Ryan Babel’s equaliser. Babel really didn’t want to tap that ball in, did he?

A special word of praise for Mane while I’m here. He has been magnificent in the last month or so, scoring 11 goals in as many games and really stepping up while others have floundered a little. He is to Liverpool what Bernardo Silva is to City currently, in terms of influence. I watched some of City’s ultimately predictable win at Swansea on Saturday and Silva was the man who inspired the comeback. He is a quite wonderful footballer, but as a Liverpool supporter, he is someone I also fear because of his winning mentality and underrated bite. See also: Sergio Aguero.

They are the pair who will produce in the big moments in these next few months, as well as the increasingly talismanic Raheem Sterling. City got extremely lucky at the Liberty Stadium, but I couldn’t waste my Saturday feeling irked by that. They were playing in a competition the Reds aren’t even in, for starters, and I have a title challenge to worry about. It did make the topic of luck come to the forefront of my mind, however - something that is unquestionably going to be key in the title race.

Any team in football history to have won trophies have required fortune on their way to glory, and there is no shame in admitting it. If City win the quadruple this season, it will be one of the greatest achievements in English football history, but they have faced endless weak opponents across several competitions. It has helped hugely.
Likewise, Liverpool needed enormous luck to win the 2005 Champions League, from Luis Garcia’s contentious ‘ghost goal’ to Jerzy Dudek’s almost unfathomable save to deny Andriy Shevchenko in the final against AC Milan.

There are seven and eight league matches remaining for the Reds and the Citizens, respectively, and I have no doubt that a few moments will either go in the favour of one team or badly against them. A horrific refereeing decision is around the corner, or perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime volley by a terrible opposition player. Maybe City’s captain will slip and gift Liverpool the title. That would be fun, wouldn’t it?

Whoever ends up sealing glory on May 12th will have fully deserved it, but the eventual champions will look back on key moments that benefited them during the season. Will it be Divock Origi’s fluky stoppage winner at home to Everton? Will Vincent Kompany avoiding a sending off against Liverpool prove pivotal? Or will it be something that hasn’t even occurred yet?

Bias is natural with any football supporter, but I do legitimately feel that the Reds are due some luck in a Premier League title race, having often not had it the few times they have challenged, most notably in 2001/02, 2008/09 and 2013/14.

Then again, I am convinced they used up all of it in Istanbul, so I can’t say I’m holding out too much hope. Anyway, I’m off to fill my time during this international break - whatever I end up doing in the next few weeks, it will be nice taking a step away from the exciting, nerve-shredding few months that will take place after it.
Fulham away for City next, which is a guaranteed three points, then Tottenham at home for the Reds. Please be ‘Spursy’, Spurs.

Henry Jackson



21st March 2019 – “Cast a cold eye on life, on death. Horsemen, pass by!”

The epitaph of Irish poet William Butler Yeats comes to mind as Twitter combusts with rage at the apparently undignified amount of luck coming the way of Manchester City this season.

Countless people have pointed out, between sharp intakes of oxygen, which sides City have drawn in the various cups this season. Without a hint of irony, what used to extract comments like “their name’s written on the Cup this season”, now provokes a Ladslide of cheats and frauds comments. Such is life in the choppy waters of Brexit, Fake News and social media intolerance. We live in truly enlightened times.

In drawing the likes of Rotherham and Burton Albion (in a semi final just to make Jake from Wigan froth even more) and Brighton and Swansea and Oxford and Hoffenheim, some forget that you can also draw Derby County early on in a cup competition and go no further than that. Drawing Tottenham in Europe's last eight this season does not negate the fact that City have had serial squabbles with Bayern and Barcelona in their short stay on the continent. Uli Hoeness, unlucky to be caught evading paying tax, has long pushed for a Champions League formula that reduces luck to a manageable minimum, a safeguard, a reward for being, well, Bayern Munich, but he might like to join Jake from Wigan in reflecting on luck's rich bounty. For a man fortunate enough to have survived a 1982 light aircraft crash in which his three co-travellers expired, he may like to dwell with the rest of us on just how inextricably linked we all are to the fickle finger of fate. 

There is, despite today’s badly skewed playing field, a good chance of failure, even if the magic balls have placed you favourably. City fans know this better than most, having followed a club that has had more public mishaps in our domestic cup competitions than it would be polite to recall just now. You can’t go far in listing lower league clubs before one nightmare memory or another pops up enthusiastically.

To misquote Richard Dawkins, and who doesn’t these days, “we are going to Wembley and aren’t we the lucky ones”. Because, obviously, to reach Wembley twice, with the distinct prospect of a third trip if the FA Cup semi final v Brighton turns out well, is pretty lucky. 

But then luck evens itself out, doesn’t it?  Whoever said that one had eaten too many grapes for his tea. All winning sides appear to have more luck. It could emanate from the amount of attacking they do in relation to their opponents. Find yourself dancing coquettishly around Huddersfield’s penalty box for 85 minutes and someone at some point is going to stick an ill-considered leg out and make a plum of himself. Liverpool witnessed this very scenario last weekend, while making heavy weather of a passive aggressive Fulham side visibly preparing itself for ignominious relegation.

With Virgil van Dijk’s weak header back and Alisson Becker’s indecisive goalkeeping putting the equaliser on a plate for ex-Liverpool man Ryan Babel, the Craven Cottage fixture looked set to provide one of those eagerly awaited slip-ups that the press tell us both clubs are bound to have on the run-in. Luckily anything Alisson could construct in the way of flip-flappery, Sergio Rico at the other end could better. It can be said with some certainty that, on recruiting the Spaniard – replete with full national team honours – Fulham had not been expecting antics of this calibre. Rico flapped at Sadio Mane in the box as the striker was making his way quietly away from goal, giving away a penalty as priceless to Liverpool as it was ridiculously unnecessary for Fulham and, in extension, painful for City.

Cue James Milner to wrap up the points. The exhalations of relief in the away end could be heard on the other side of the Thames. You get the feeling, ever so slightly, that Liverpool are beginning to hang on a little. The early season fluidity has become staunched, the muscles are tense, the minds are busy turning over all the permutations that the final eight games may bring.

Feeling lucky
Throw in a couple of clashes with FC Porto and Liverpool – fans and players alike – will be sharply aware of how much there is to win - and lose - in the final weeks. Liverpool, with a game less in the league and two less in the FA Cup, a comfy-looking run-in and a tame Champions League draw, might feel a touch lucky. City too, with Spurs to entertain in the Champions League, came out of yet another cup draw smelling of roses. With FA Cup duties and the lion’s share of their league programme away from home, perhaps lucky isn’t the most apt word, however. Whatever the outlook, both sides will be counting on the hand of fate pushing them over the line. Relying solely on tired limbs and wavering minds in what still threatens to be a thrilling climax to the season might not be enough.

Dawkins stated, “The universe is older than a hundred million centuries. Within a comparable time the sun will swell to a red giant and engulf the earth”. We are lucky to be here. Despite the odds, we are alive and kicking. The spotlight has passed from some onto others. Now is their time, now is our time. Gather what you have left and head for the finishing line. And may luck go with you every step of the way.

-       Simon Curtis


Wednesday, March 13, 2019

DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE 17


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

Role Reversal



12th March 2019 As City hit the top of the table, finally hauling in an advantage that was as wide as ten points at one point at the turn of the year, so the wheels began to turn, slowly, slowly, grinding and creaking into action. 

A moment that was to be celebrated by club and fans alike turned into a tidal wave of bad press. Coincidence? Well, it would have to be, wouldn’t it? Amid investigations for everything from FFP breaches to whether Jamie Pollock was on steroids when he biffed in that 1997 own goal, City’s arrival at the summit has been shrouded in a media circus of who, what, why and when. That all of this could have been launched in the retrospective calm of the close season does not appear to have been an item for consideration and, instead, those of a sky blue nature are left to make up their own minds about what is behind the timing and the spread of glad tidings. 

In the meantime, having seen a decent lead frittered away and, after a gale-affected derby draw with Everton, finally being overtaken at the top of the table, Liverpool must be wondering just what they have to do to win this league title. It has been an astonishing season from Jurgen Klopp’s team and the criticism now beginning to reach their ears from some quarters is hardly well-placed. They will not be expecting too many plaudits either. Second place is second place, after all, but their form has been almost perfect and they are running stride for stride with one of the Premier League’s all-time best sides. .
Hold on a minute, I'm confused

Despite the doubts cast over some of the financial machinations of a club that has risen dizzyingly fast to the levels of the old elite, on-field questions are all being answered strongly and clearly. For the second week running opponents presented themselves in a shape that suggested hibernation was the only answer. Having struggled to get past a woefully unambitious Bournemouth side, City found Watford equally unwilling to play ball. It is their prerogative, of course, but begs the question what do you do when the dam wall eventually springs a leak? 

Raheem Sterling’s first of three involved a bizarre face-off between rookie referee Paul Tierney and his linesman, before they finally came to the convoluted conclusion that Daryl Jaanmat’s block tackle on Sterling had changed the balance, but there was no doubting the fact that the home side got their just desserts in the end. Liverpool too were put through an early hoop or too by an agricultural Burnley side at Anfield, before prevailing 4-2. The damage, though, if we can call it that, was done at Goodison, where a feisty but limited Everton rolled Liverpool out of their stride to prevent them getting the three points they needed to stay out in front.

This scenario is likely to change back again after the next games, as City take on Swansea in the Cup, while Liverpool have league duties against an almost-relegated Fulham. Moving back into pole position will be a useful psychological fillip with so few games to play and the fixture list will allow that to become a five point gap if they also beat Spurs before City play again in the league. 

As City also visit Craven Cottage next in the league, a direct comparison of the teams’ behaviour and progress in the same fixture will be possible. Will Fulham prove a tricky obstacle owing to yet another new manager, or will they continue to be as wide open as a barn door as of recent weeks? You get the feeling how both City and Liverpool deal with the same fixture will tell us plenty. 

Points in the bag or games in hand? It’s an old topic that has been visited before. City's current overload of fixtures does not seem to be having an adverse effect. The League Cup sits on the shelf at the Etihad, while Schalke have just been dismissed on a convincing 10-2 aggregate in the Champions League. Swansea await in the FA Cup and Liverpool wait patiently for the signs of fatigue and stress that might give them hope. City plough on, meanwhile, towards the unthinkable, unspeakable achievement that may not be as far fetched as some thought a few months back. 

As far as the league is concerned, surely the security of points is a good thing, but the knowledge that City are the English game’s best team at hauling in advantages to win the league will not help those at Anfield sleep soundly over the coming weeks. Nevertheless they can still dream of the title and, to be able to say that at this stage of the season, is proof positive of the magnificent effort all have put in to get them so close to realising that dream.   

– Simon Curtis



12th March 2019 - I was sat at Anfield at approximately 12:15pm on Sunday feeling deeply hard done by. The whole world seemed like it was against anyone of a Liverpool persuasion.

The Reds found themselves 1-0 down to rugby-playing team in Burnley, to a joke of a goal. Alisson, clearly impeded by James Tarkowski, was incredulous about a foul not being given, and that sinking feeling came flooding back. At least two goals required to win, against a horrible side. All I heard from beside me was my dad, who hadn’t been all season until that point, mumble, “I’m a bloody curse on this team”. My look told him exactly what I thought.

We had sat in a bar the previous evening seeing luck benefit Man City greatly, with Raheem Sterling’s incorrect opener turning the game on its head. (A quick word on Sterling, before I continue this sob story. He is someone I have so much time for.
He has been magnificent this season, producing the kind of response David Beckham did after similar abuse after the 1998 World Cup. At least the criticism Beckham received was partly justified!

For me, Sterling is now Virgil van Dijk’s main rival for the two end-of-season Player of the Year awards, with Sergio Aguero in the mix as well. As he scored his third of the night against Watford, I found myself happy for him, rather than angry about another City goal going in. It pleases me to see the tide turning with regards to the way in
which he is perceived both on and off the pitch. Hats off to him.

Not for a second did I expect Watford to get anything from that game, even at half-time, but decisions like that first goal still leave you feeling infuriated. To see that happen to City and then Liverpool have such fortune go against them felt unjust, and I
sat at Anfield convincing myself I was witnessing the title race ending before my very eyes.

Craven Cottage: both Liverpool and City visit next
Then the Reds reminded me that they are not the Reds of old - spineless outfits who would never win once they went behind, and who would drop endlessly soft points at home to weaker opposition. No team has won more points from losing positions this season and Liverpool showcased their ability to battle back from adversity in style, in bizarre weather conditions.

The sign of true ‘bottlers’, right?

People can poke fun at Jurgen Klopp all they like for using the wind as an excuse recently, but when you’re in the ground witnessing it firsthand you realise the effect it has on a ball-playing team. It was on another level on Sunday, with a specific area of the pitch out towards the Kemlyn Road bordering on laughable.

One ball was rolling out for a throw-in, only to spin back behind Mohamed Salah and effectively allow him to beat a man without doing anything. Liverpool didn’t let that bother them, though, or Burnley’s scandalous early attempts to waste time, and Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane had soon turned the game on its head in an instant.

It all felt plain sailing from then on, apart from when Burnley made it 3-2 in stoppage time, then sent a cross into the windy sky almost straight after.

I almost fainted as Alisson came for it, but as he (eventually) grasped hold of the ball with both hands, it felt like the most glorious of releases. Mane did the rest with seconds remaining, as the Reds picked up what I believe to be one of their most important, and impressive, win of the season so far. Many of those watching the Premier League title race unfold appear to be waiting for Liverpool to tail off, just like Tottenham have in such emphatic fashion.

The Reds won’t, though. There is every chance they won’t win the league come May, but they will not be going away until the death. You don’t accumulate your joint-best-ever points tally after 30 matches, for a club with 18 league titles, without being a fantastic football team with bags of belief. The dynamic has switched up at the top, with Liverpool becoming the chasers and City reaching the Premier League’s summit. It should only be a momentary thing, however, as City face FA Cup commitments this weekend and
Klopp’s men head to Fulham. If you want to win the league, you have to beat the team in 19th place, and that extra incentive of returning to the top should aid the Reds further.

Yes, they will have played a game more than City by Sunday night, but it could put that extra bit of mental pressure on the champions in the coming weeks.

Incidentally, by the time City themselves go to Fulham on March 30th, Liverpool could have a five-point advantage, should they see off the Cottagers and beat Southampton at St Mary’s on the Friday night. The latter is not an easy one at all, particularly as Saints are the latest club to create a weird rivalry with the Reds, simply because they have signed a lot of their best players. In some ways I loathe Liverpool being chased, in terms of it not being good for my health, but the pressure it puts on those below you not to come a cropper means it is always the position you want to be in.

City have been fantastic since Newcastle away, not always hitting top gear but showing precisely why their tally over the last two seasons is beyond belief. I haven’t expected a single slip-up since that shock defeat at St James’ Park and they have proved
me right. Frankly, I am still relatively resigned to the fact that they will prevail in every remaining fixture, too, which while bitterly unfair, is also something I would accept and applaud.

Dealing with the pressure of being behind again can only be an added hurdle to overcome, so hopefully Liverpool can breeze past Fulham, nick a win at Southampton and then sit back and watch their rivals. It would have to be Fulham they face in the league next, wouldn’t it? Haven’t they played them eight times already this season?

-       Henry Jackson


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