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


Monday, September 17, 2018

DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE 4


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

Liverpool 5 out of 5; City Strolling plus Merseyside Police With Smoke in their Eyes:
 
Watchful Eye: Everything very much under control

17th September 2018 – I do that Soccer Saturday Super 6 thing. You know the one - predict six scores correctly from six designated Saturday games that kick-off at 3pm and you could win a bundle of cash. It’s practically impossible to get right but also free to enter so, you know, might as well.

Manchester City versus Fulham was one of the six games on offer the Saturday just gone. I decided in 0.00000000000000001 seconds that City were going to win; all that was open to debate was by how many. Would it be six? Would it be seven? Could it be 10? In the end I went for 4-0 and absolutely fucking trust Pep’s boys to let me down.

3-0. Is that it? You lot serious? Frankly I don’t think you are?!

In all seriousness, this was the stroll most of us thought it was going to be and the only surprise was the margin of the triumph. Fulham arrived at the Etihad Stadium having conceded nine goals in their previous four games and no fewer than two in each of those. In other words, they’re not very good at defending and, as such, I expected City to well and truly put them to the sword. To rack up a hammering.

That appeared well and truly on when Leroy Sane scored after only two minutes, and while City continued to dominate they only scored two more, from David Silva and Raheem Sterling. “It could have been more than three goals,” Guardiola said afterwards - yes mate, it could have been four.

More than anything, Saturday’s win emphasised the depth of quality in City’s squad. Sane was making his first start of the season and simply picked up from where he left off last season while Bernardo Silva was magnificent, showing he absolutely has what it

takes to be David Silva’s long-term successor in east Manchester. The fact John Stones was able to have the afternoon off and Riyad Mahrez and Gabriel Jesus could come on for second-half cameos, stretching their legs but not having to exert themselves  too much ahead of Wednesday’s Champions League opener against Lyon, told its own story.

It’s all going very nicely for City and it was certainly a nice touch making life-long fans Vera Cohen and Olga Halon mascots for the day. Aged 102 and 97 respectively they more than most appreciate just what a golden age this is for the club.

Vera and Olga will also know what a Liverpool title win looks like and, having been at Wembley on Saturday to see Jurgen’s boys make it five wins out of five with a commanding performance against Tottenham, I’m starting, for the first time this season, to believe. As Barney Ronay put it in the Guardian: “Get ready. It looks as though, this time, the Reds really are coming up the hill.” 


God I hope so. 

Sachin Nakrani



14th September 2018 – Well, it took them a little while, but Mirror Sport in conjunction with Andrew Robertson have explained to us all how Liverpool can win the Premier League and Champions League this season. I'd been waiting for that. More on this shortly. 

It took Merseyside Police a while too (really this time) but they have finally made their report on the disturbances before last spring’s Champions League quarter final at Anfield. As expected, It’s not exactly Wuthering Heights, but it does make for an intriguing read.

Liverpool Football Club will be relieved, if not wholly surprised, to find they have escaped further punishment. This on the grounds that the police were sadly unable - owing to the scarcity and poor quality of the mobile phone footage of the “event”, which lasted some 20 minutes, took place all along the length of the approach road to the ground and involved at its height a baying mob throwing bottles from a variety of prime positions, the best of which appeared to be the roof of several police vehicles – to glean clean footage of exactly what happened.

That is, there were youths throwing dangerous weapons at City’s bus from the roof of a police vehicle and they were neither apprehended, nor can they now be apprehended, for reasons outlined above.

What a relief it will be to the good people of Liverpool that they have no obvious reasons to start assuming they are living in a city that is open to complete anarchy and the perpetrators of said chaos can run off scot free into the woods, or any such similar growth that still exists between Widnes and the great rolling beyond that is the Irish Sea. 

No, they can rest peacefully. Merseyside police were and are able to do their job to a satisfactory level. Only a month or so ago, to illustrate the point, the apprehension of no fewer than nine Italians, believed to be supporters of Roma, who caused affray in the first leg of the semi-final at the same venue, took place without fuss.

The Liverpool Echo brought us the good news thus: “Merseyside Police said the arrests were made in relation to various alleged offences - including attempted murder, affray, Section 47 assault, possession of offensive weapons, possession of a controlled drug, criminal damage and being drunk and disorderly”.

Atmosphere, la-la-la

Perhaps they had been issued with heat-seeking binoculars on this occasion.

Pep Guardiola, seen exiting the bus on the big night and thanking Liverpool stewards and staff for their protection (the police were perhaps otherwise occupied trying to regain possession of their vehicles at the time), weighed in with his opinion, saying, “I’m not the police. The cameras were not good there”.

To put an end to an unseemly affair, there was a good deal of smoke wafting around Anfield on the aforementioned evening, making it very difficult to make out the difference between the real thing and tasteless cavorting about which, in its own way, is an apt enough metaphor for modern football itself. Take away the smoke, the mirrors and the hot words and sometimes what you have left is a shrivelled sausage and a slim-fit replica shirt.  

Meanwhile, we were back to the action that matters after countless days of international friendlies and the unfathomable Nations League scrunching tediously into gear. Liverpool’s fifth consecutive win was only the third time in history they have managed such a feat from the Big Kick-off. Spurs, looking stretched, parched and short on ideas, were well beaten by Jurgen Klopp’s well organised side.

It is fair to say – and has already been said several times – that they look the real deal this season. How Liverpool square this excellent start with the fact it sees them only 2nd in the table is not clear. Take a look: New-look, vigorous Chelsea are top. City meanwhile are up to 3rd and strolling around like the season’s proper business is yet to begin.

It begins this week, in fact, with Champions League games beginning to clog up the fixture lists of the top sides. Liverpool face Paris St Germain, then, in four of the next five, Chelsea twice, Napoli and City. As Barney Ronay remarked enthusiastically in the Guardian “It looks as though, this time, the Reds really are coming up the hill. It was not that Liverpool played irresistibly well. This was not a performance to drive the imagination or a whirl of red pain for Tottenham. Instead this felt like something better”. Better even than red pain?

After the next five games, we will know for sure whether the Reds are coming up the hill or merely meandering over the bumps and troughs of yet another challenging Premier League campaign. In the same run of games, City will pit their wits against Lyon, Oxford, Cardiff, Brighton and Hoffenheim. When the two sides meet on Sunday 7th October, Liverpool may well be nursing one or two bruises from a very testing schedule, but Andrew Robertson will still be taking each game as it comes.

  Simon Curtis




Friday, September 7, 2018

DISPATCHES FROM THE OTHER SIDE 3



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


3) INTERNATIONAL BREAK
 

5th September 2018 – We have not yet got to that stage of the season where commentators reporting on Liverpool’s progress assume a pitch and velocity that suggest imminent combustion, but it can’t be too far away. The international break has put a slight dampener on things, but we'll soon be up and running again. 

Summer has come and gone, long and gentle though it was and the first chills of autumn suggest it is time to take a tight rein on our optimism. We are, after all, only four games in, so far in this nascent 2018-19 season.

Already, though, the signs are there, like clouds sitting atop volcanoes on a clear September morning, that Liverpool are made of stern enough stuff this year to stick around longer than last season. A title challenge is what it's being called. That challenge will – almost certainly – be levelled mainly at Manchester City, the title holders and most obvious obstacle to Liverpool’s ballooning ambitions.

International breaks are loathsome things for club managers and the first one of the season, coming just a matter of weeks after a start has been made, is particularly hard to bear.

Liverpool, at least, can take their early breather looking down on everyone else. Whether the fact that Chelsea and Watford form some kind of thin as mist buffer between them and City at this point is anything other than false security remains to be seen. Certainly two points is neither here nor there; the dropped points at Molyneux nothing to carp about and City’s early season form nothing to get your hopes up too high about either.

In short, there’s a heap of work to be done and nothing of note has happened yet anyway. Or has it? A certain Thomas Gronnemark might like us to think differently to start with.

Gronnemark, in case you had been trekking the most wifi-unfriendly outer reaches of the Faroe Islands for the last fortnight, is Liverpoool’s throw-in coach. Yes, football has moved on to this. We have been through speech therapists, used up the worldly wisdom and sharp elbows of press officers and heaped praise on goalkeeping coaches, so now it is high time the throw in got some attention.

Roy Delap may have brought the act of restarting play a certain amount of limelight, when he hurled a few game changers into the box on Stoke’s behalf a decade ago, but this, we are reliably informed, is different. This, we are confidently told, is about more possession, better possession, winning possession, dangerous possession. Already at the repeated mention of the magical word, you would assume, Pep Guardiola is cocking his head to get a better listen.

"I saw Joe Gomez take some really good throws for Liverpool that I had not seen him do before, he was fizzing it in there," said Ian Wright, using a tone that suggested this excited him more perhaps than it should have done.

Liverpool, in defeating Leicester City last time out, had 54 throw-ins. Sounds a lot? It is a lot. And Mr Gronnemark is insisting on Liverpool’s players using them properly. No Benjamin Mendy larking about here, just good solid, sensible throw-ins.

If this is one tiny crumb of evidence that Liverpool are leaving no stone unturned this season in their efforts to close the huge gap that separated the two sides in May last season (look away now, it was twenty-five (25) points), then – however tempting it is to ridicule – City must prepare themselves for a challenge that is being prepared in every meticulous detail. Scrupulous to the nth degree, Herr Klopp is leaving nothing to chance in his battle royale with Señor Guardiola.

May the most painstaking planner prevail.  Simon Curtis



5th September 2018I found myself thinking about Watford on Monday.

Not a usual occurrence but they had beaten Tottenham the day before to make it four wins out of four – a remarkable run and one which, going into the international break, makes them one of four teams to have a 100% record in the Premier League, alongside Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City.

Oh wait, City don’t have a 100% record. They drew one of their games ... with Wolves.

Now before you starting posting death threats through my letterbox, City fans - I’m not taking the piss. Quite the opposite, actually. Because in that moment I genuinely thought City had begun this season in typically serene fashion, swatting aside all-comers with their brand of intoxicating and ruthless football. That they haven’t remains a source of surprise.

As it is, three wins and a draw remains an excellent start for City, especially considering they have scored 11 goals in the process and conceded just three. Pep’s boys have also won away at Arsenal and will not be the only team to come unstuck against Wolves this year. Oh, and they hammered Huddersfield to within an inch of their life, while putting Newcastle in their place thanks to an absolute howitzer from Kyle Walker. I see he’s scoring goals now as well. Great.

The issue is that, by their own standards, not winning four out of  four games feels like a small failure on City’s part. Maybe they won’t be as great as they were last season? Maybe us Liverpool fans can hope for glory, after all?

I remain unsure - City still look strong and have players to come into the mix who have so far been conspicuous by their relative absence, most notably Leroy Sane. The 22-year-old has made only one start this season, and that was in the Community Shield. Quite frankly I’m terrified what he’ll do, and what he’ll give City, when he comes back into the side properly, which I assume will be sooner rather than later.

So City have stumbled but by no means have they fallen going into the current break from domestic battle. Pep will hope his troops return from their respective international games in one piece ahead of the first real intense stage of the season; fixtures in midweek as well as at the weekend, including in the Champions League and er ... against Oxford United in the Carabao Cup.

Nothing has dissuaded me from the belief that, come May, City will be champions again.
Well, it’ll either be them or Watford. - Sachin Nakrani




Other Tedious Stuff

Poets and Lyricists