Thirty years of hurt never stopped them dreaming.
This was a triumph for unity and for innovation. It was a triumph for calculation, for critical distance, for fist-pumping. For throw-in coaches, for sci-fi pitches, for shrewd transfer policy. For Mane, for Bobby, for Mo; for Milner, Hendo, and Trent; Shanks, King Kenny and Stevie G. It was a triumph for patience. It was a triumph for perseverance. It was a triumph, at last, for Liverpool.
No one has ever won the league so early. No one will ever win the league so late. Seven games to play; barely five weeks until next season was scheduled to commence.
It was perhaps the strangest campaign in memory even before the apocalypse did its best to derail it. Before their 3-0 loss to Watford, the champions won 26 of 27 Premier League games in 2019-20. If you widen the scope to include the previous season, they lost once in 66 outings before defeat at Vicarage Road.
They are extraordinary numbers in an era of extraordinary teams. If Liverpool win their remaining games, the champions of the last three Premier League campaigns will have amassed 300 points collectively. That’s just 11 fewer than the total won by the first *four* 38-game season champions between 95-96 and 98-99. In terms of yield, it’s a swing that makes Manchester City and Liverpool 25% stronger than the Arsenal of Viera, Wright and Bergkamp and the United side that won the treble.
Last season was Liverpool’s 29th without winning the league. Euro 2020 will be the 29th tournament England have contested since 1966. Both know what it feels like to be stranded in the footballing tundra, a million miles from where they are meant to be.
The key difference, of course, is that Liverpool have won a lot of trophies in that time – not least two Champions Leagues. The main honour, however, the one that is the best metric for evaluating the strength of a football team, was always just out of reach. And in this sense, the parallels with the national team are obvious.
Since winning the league in 1990, Liverpool have gone close only a handful of times. “Next year is our year” became the rallying cry, an increasingly desperate mantra which was only ever half-believed. England were forced to adopt a similar attitude as a coping mechanism for perpetual disappointment.
Initially, it was the duopoly of Manchester United and Arsenal that kept the 19-time champions at arm’s length. In the same era, Blackburn Rovers also snatched the crown. In an ironic twist, that triumph came at Anfield on the final day of the 94-95 season. A little over a year later, England had to watch Germany win the European Championship at Wembley.
Then came the upstarts. Chelsea and Manchester City won titles before the world rubbed its eyes in disbelief as Leicester City did the same. England too watched tournament after tournament pass them by. Argentina, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Portugal, even Denmark and Greece – all got their first taste of international silverware before England have reached another final.
But on the rare occasion that either went close, it was never a feeble story. Suarez cried when they missed out in 2014 just as Gazza had done 24 years earlier in Turin. Liverpool failed to capitalise on the talent of the Spice Boys and the thrusting brilliance of Gerrard just as England did with the golden generation. Both have endured crises of leadership and a lack of forward-thinking, naively thinking that their status alone would one day lead them back to the top of the game.
But after copious soul searching, Liverpool and England have realised that they have no divine right to success. The catalyst for revolution in both cases was reorganisation at board level, a galvanising figure in the dugout and an unflinching commitment to progressive football.
Jurgen Klopp has transformed Liverpool into an almost universally liked – or at least admired – club, a state of affairs that would have been completely unthinkable a few short years ago. Gareth Southgate has brought the feel-good factor back to England in remarkably similar fashion. Press-conferences that were once tense psychodramas have become love-ins; gallows humour has given way to an optimism that is both genuine and well-placed.
At a practical level, club and international management are wildly different beasts. Jurgen Klopp has been able to fine-tune Liverpool Football Club at every level, letting his personality and philosophy bleed through every aspect of it, from the coffee machines in the lobby to the ferocity of the high press. The simple matter of logistics makes this level of influence impossible for a national team manager. Gareth Southgate’s task is to maintain a level rather than enhance it. He can ensure his players are well drilled in terms of strategy, but the reality is that the limited time he has with his players means it is his job to get the best out of his players rather than actively improve them.
But in recapturing their respective teams’ identities and re-energising a world-weary fanbase, the two managers resemble one another very closely indeed. Southgate has done it in a much quieter, much more English way. There has been less touchline theatricality, less bombast, more restraint in his dealings with the media. But the end result has been the same: neither England nor Liverpool feel like the kind of cold, faceless firms which professional football teams in the modern era so often are.
Liverpool is a club in love with itself, its tradition and its history. And with a history so rich, why shouldn’t it be? Until relatively recently, England hated everything about England. The infighting, the conservatism, the endless penalty shootout losses – all were seen as inherently English. Now the national team is something we take genuine pride in, b oth on and off the field. Nowhere is this duality more evident than in the front-three. Has there ever been a more socially conscious and outrageously talented forward line than Marcus Rashford, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling?
The challenge for Southgate now is to do what Klopp has done and turn that pride into prizes. Until Klopp won the Champions League last season, the accusation levelled at his work with Liverpool was: “yeah, but what has he won?” The charge was nothing but a platitude as – crucially – Liverpool were improving year on year. Yet, ultimately, football is about legacy. And at some point, the silverware will need to come for Southgate as it has done for Klopp.
It was thirty years of hurt for Liverpool; it is now 54 for England. But the signs are there. At the European Championship, there is every chance England could send champagne corks flying just as Liverpool have done with this stunning title triumph. The dog days are over – maybe next year will finally be our year.