Rodgers senses ‘the old Liverpool’ in buildup to Sunday’s title-turning match against City and their manager, Manuel Pellegrini
Every season there is one moment. One game, or one goal, when everything falls into place. Federico Macheda curling one in against Aston Villa in 2009. Marc Overmars sprinting through the Manchester United defence in 1998. Steve Bruce’s header in 1993. Chelsea’s players throwing their shirts into the away end at Ewood Park after going 11 points clear in February 2005. And now, at Anfield, there is the opportunity to add another one to the list.
Brendan Rodgers was a first-year apprentice at Reading the last time Liverpool were collecting these kind of memories. The 9-0 against Crystal Palace. The goals from John Barnes that secured a first win at Old Trafford in eight years and a late equaliser at Arsenal. Ronny Rosenthal’s dramatic late introduction as a 2-1 deficit against Southampton turned into a 3-2 win. Then, finally, that raucous afternoon when Liverpool beat QPR and the players had to wait on the Anfield pitch for confirmation that Aston Villa, in second place, had been held to a 3-3 draw against Norwich City.
“Merseyside is at peace again,” read the report in the Times on 30 April 1990. “After the shame and remorse of Heysel and the personal grief of Hillsborough, there was real joy to behold for the first time in five years.” Kenny Dalglish’s final appearance as a player came three days later and Anfield basked in its own glory, maybe thinking it was always going to be this way. Nobody inside the ground that day could have imagined that Liverpool’s 18th title would be their last almost a quarter of a century on. “It’s a long time ago now,” Rodgers reflected. “I was 16 years young.”
A lot has happened to that skinny teenager in the following 24 years and on Friday he could be found at Liverpool’s training ground, holding court in a side-room where the walls carry an old quote from Diego Maradona. “I’ve made Liverpool my English team,” it says. “They have shown that football is the most beautiful sport of all.”
They cherish that quote in this part of Merseyside and it made a good backdrop to everything Rodgers said about what he wanted from his team, the importance of winning with style and, overall, the general sense that there was not even a flicker of trepidation about playing Manchester City, first versus third, red versus blue, with both teams grappling for control of the Premier League.
Anfield, he said, was not a place that worried about anyone these days. “It’s a different place,” he said. “I’ve sensed it. Even the roar is different.
“I sense a real nostalgia, a real feel of the old Liverpool. I use the word nostalgia because, for me, growing up as a kid, watching on TV, hearing the noise, seeing the bloom of Anfield … there’s a touch of that again now.”
His team are four points ahead of City but have played two games more. Chelsea, in second place, are two points off the top and would like to believe the bigger game will actually be when they visit Anfield in two weeks’ time. Rodgers and Manuel Pellegrini, to give them their due, have both made absolutely certain not to describe Liverpool-City as a title decider. Yet the mathematics are still fairly straightforward. Whoever wins this game really ought to win the league.
Liverpool have the momentum, after nine straight wins, and it is their element of surprise that makes them such a fascinating story. Everybody has known all season that City would be roughly in this position.
But Liverpool? They were 28 points off the top last year and, back in Manchester, the publicity Rodgers and his players have been attracting is starting to grate. “Should Liverpool be presented with the Premier League trophy before or after kick-off on Sunday … what do you think?” a comment piece in the Manchester Evening News read earlier this week. “Because if you have been reading national papers, or watching the telly for the past three or four weeks, the scousers have the title in the bag.”
Yet there was another reason why the lorries carrying all the television equipment were backed up outside Melwood and every single seat in the media suite was filled. This is not just a big football match. It is an occasion. Another follows on Tuesday when Liverpool host their annual remembrance service for Hillsborough and Rodgers will be joined by Roberto Martínez, his Everton counterpart, in giving readings to commemorate the disaster’s 25th anniversary.
But first, there is everything that accompanies Sunday’s game. A mosaic on the Kop will read “96” and “25 years”. City have made sure they do the right thing, too. Liverpool’s opponents have taken out a page in the programme for their own message – “YNWA 96” – and Mike Summerbee and Joe Corrigan will take a floral wreath on to the pitch. Then there will be the minute’s silence. And then the din.
The clattering of so many different emotions is a difficult concept to grasp. City were also the opposition when the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster came up. They won 2-0 at Old Trafford and Sir Alex Ferguson was always convinced that the huge significance of the occasion had worn out his Manchester United players, mentally.
Rodgers believes the opposite can ring true. “I think they will feed off it, if anything. We’ll pay our commemoration and the emotion will be at the service on Tuesday. That’s going to be where all the raw emotion comes out. For us, our job now is to provide a lift to the supporters, families and victims in terms of our performance and we embrace that.”
Pellegrini was not being insensitive when he talked about “the team that has the cold mind” winning the match. It is just a necessity for both managers, in particular Rodgers, to ensure the players have their minds absolutely fixed on the game. “It’s not something that’s going to sabotage our work,” Rodgers continued. “It’s going to help us grow and know our responsibility. We carry it every day of our lives here anyway. Ninety-six people died and the victims of that and the families are with us every day of our lives.”
What can be said with certainty is that the game pits together the two most attacking sides in the land. Liverpool’s total of 90 goals is the first time they have reached that figure since 1964, and two more will take them to 50 at Anfield for the first time since 1986.
City are a touch behind, on 84 goals, and trying to achieve something that has been beyond them even in the era of Abu Dhabi’s money: win at Anfield. The last time they managed it was in 2003 and their overall record at this ground is pretty bleak.
They have won only one of their past 22 league meetings here and City supporters of a certain generation have not forgotten what happened in April 1977 when the two sides, once again, were in the top three. Liverpool side won 2-1, courtesy of goals from Kevin Keegan and Steve Heighway, to establish a three-point lead from which they were never caught.
Rodgers, drawing on the memory of “old Liverpool”, talked about “unleashing our supporters” and was reminded about his early days at the club when he had described the Liverpool shirt as “heavy” to wear. “Not now,” he said. “I look at the players and they are so relaxed. So confident. The quality. There are no nerves. We are just excited by it.
“If you become fearful, that’s the first class ticket to fail. So for us, and for me, it’s exciting. It’s the joy of going and playing. This is why we work. It’s nothing to be frightened of. Nothing to be frightened of! We’ve an army of supporters behind us who are incredible. We’ve got a team high in confidence and belief, knowing we can beat anyone.
“At Anfield we’ve taken a huge amount of points this year and that’s not going to stop. Our confidence is to play and pass and move and press and to work and that is something that will be great for us. We have absolutely no fear.”