The Importance of Winning


When you listen to Rodolfo Borrell or Mike Marsh talk after a defeat, you can feel their annoyance at the result.  They might try to be diplomatic in what they're saying but their tone of voice and body language betrays their true feelings.

It might seem petty but the coaches' reaction is, in truth, more than justified.  If you've been involved with football as much as they have, then you're bound to realise that for some of these players winning the FA Youth Cup or the reserves league might just be the pinnacle of their career.  It is out of respect to such players that they show such a strong desire to win games and, ultimately, competitions.

The second reason is less altruistic.  They know that winning is the best advert for their own work.  People buy into success and if they see a side that is winning they attribute part of those results to the coach.  Equally, a losing side is - in the mind of most people - at least partially down to bad coaching.  It doesn't matter what kind of players you have, how tough the competition or whether they're playing against older kids.

Yet by far the most important reason for such an attitude is that winning needs to become a habit that these kids has to learn.  This was highlighted by Iker Casillas following Spain's win at Euro 2012 when he said "We have got used to winning from a very young age. We won the Under-16s, the Under-19s, the Under-20s.  We learnt to win."

What Winning the League Cup Really Means



Winning; a seemingly unassuming word tasked with describing something that is seen as being fundamental in a human being’s life.  Each day we are asked to win, to wake up when we want to give in to sleep, to beat the competition, to fight the urge to eat or drink excessively.  Win, win, win.

Last Sunday, we were told that Liverpool had to win.  They had to in order to justify the £100 million spent on new players.  They had to if they wanted to justify the faith in Kenny Dalglish.  They had to in order to save this from being a disappointing season.

And, once the League Cup had been won, we were told that this was of huge significance in the grand scheme of things.  Winning is infectious and it would inspire the players to try and repeat such a success.  It was even suggested that players would now be joining Liverpool because they had seen them win this trophy.  This win would lead to more wins.

At the end of the day, however, winning the League Cup was only important because it added another trophy to the list of those won by the club.

It has side benefits, undoubtedly.  Players’ morale, you would imagine, will be higher than normal and if that translates to added confidence then it will help in upcoming games.  Financially it should be a boost because it puts the club in the headlines (for the right reasons) whilst offering a trinket to parade around.   Note, however, the conditional in those statements.

In itself the League Cup means nothing and it certainly isn’t any guarantee for any future success.  History – in the form of the Liverpool side managed by Roy Evans and its inability to win anything after a League Cup success that was similarly heralded as the start of great things – teaches that.  History also shows that performances can worsen after a similar win, with players feeling that they’ve won enough and suddenly can’t find the motivation to pull themselves out of a slump.  For evidence just look at Birmingham last year.

What the League Cup does show is that there is enough in this Liverpool team to achieve success.  Perhaps not through the final itself but certainly through the route to Wembley that included wins at Stoke, Chelsea and Manchester City.  Those were truly big wins, not because of the opposition or competition but rather as they required character and tactical discipline just as much as they required skill.

Indirectly, however, the League Cup also highlights that this is a good cup side, a team that can raise its game on special occasions. 

A comparison with the league exposes a different side, one that stutters more than it should.  It has shown this team for what it is one that can sparkle on occasion yet on others falls victim to a disjointed pattern of play that is caused by the heavy influx of new players that it has experience over the past twelve months. 

Only when that rhythm of play of all players is more in tune and incisive will those problems fade away.  And only then will the truly important winning – that which leads to the Premier League – commence.

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What Winning the League Cup Really Means



Winning; a seemingly unassuming word tasked with describing something that is seen as being fundamental in a human being’s life.  Each day we are asked to win, to wake up when we want to give in to sleep, to beat the competition, to fight the urge to eat or drink excessively.  Win, win, win.

Last Sunday, we were told that Liverpool had to win.  They had to in order to justify the £100 million spent on new players.  They had to if they wanted to justify the faith in Kenny Dalglish.  They had to in order to save this from being a disappointing season.

And, once the League Cup had been won, we were told that this was of huge significance in the grand scheme of things.  Winning is infectious and it would inspire the players to try and repeat such a success.  Continue reading "What Winning the League Cup Really Means"

Book Review: The Didi Man


First off, a confession: I don't like biographies.  In particular, I don't like player biographies.  Too often they're pretentious, ego-massaging,bank account boosting exercises in self-promotion that offer little in the way of genuine insight.  Unless, of course, you consider tales of lads' nights out or those of puerile banter as falling under the category of insightful.

It is for this reason that I tend to avoid biographies especially those of players I like. Because just as it is said that you should not meet your heroes for fear that reality tarnishes the image that you might have built of them, so too (perhaps even more so) biographies because you might realise just what sort of person they are.

So it was with something approaching reluctance that I approached Didi Hamann's biography.  As a player, Hamann wasn't as visible as Robbie Fowler or Steven Gerrard but that didn't mean he went by unnoticed.  Particularly when he didn't play, as happened in the 2005 Champions League final, when the team clearly missed the defensive balance he brought to the side.

The fans certainly appreciated him and the feeling was mutual: when his career was over, Hamann opted to stay on Merseyside rather than return to Germany.  So there was a lot to like about him, and that was something that I didn't want to ruin.

Thankfully, there was no need to worry.  Hamann does talk about the people he met at Liverpool as well as recount some very colourful stories of his time in England.  He certainly confirms the rumours of him being at the heart of most pranks that took place at Melwood. But there's also a lot of thought here.

Unlike many others, he underlines the importance of Gerard Houllier in restoring Liverpool's status as a top side. He might not always have agreed with him, and he states this, yet he still manages to talk repeatedly about what was good about the French manager.  You're left in no doubt that certain aspects of Houllier's management style will be adopted by Hamann himself.

His analysis of the problems of the English national team is among the most incisive I've read, one that should be picked up by those at the FA.  There's his appreciation and admiration of Giovanni Trapattoni, who won him over by his desire to teach irrespective of whether the players in front of him where first teamers or reserves with little chance of making it.

Most of all, there's his wonderful assessment of Rafa Benitez whom Hamann ultimately defines as a genius.

And whilst the tales of his pranks are admittedly funny, the real entertainment is provided by the strength and clarity of these views in a book that will leave you not only with a greater knowledge of Didi Hamann as a player and a man but also with the ability to better appreciate the game of football.

Full disclosure: a review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.

Book Review: The Didi Man


First off, a confession: I don't like biographies.  In particular, I don't like player biographies.  Too often they're pretentious, ego-massaging,bank account boosting exercises in self-promotion that offer little in the way of genuine insight.  Unless, of course, you consider tales of lads' nights out or those of puerile banter as falling under the category of insightful.

It is for this reason that I tend to avoid biographies especially those of players I like. Because just as it is said that you should not meet your heroes for fear that reality tarnishes the image that you might have built of them, so too (perhaps even more so) biographies because you might realise just what sort of person they are.

So it was with something approaching reluctance that I approached Didi Hamann's biography.  As a player, Hamann wasn't as visible as Robbie Fowler or Steven Gerrard but that didn't mean he went Continue reading "Book Review: The Didi Man"

January Not a Bad Month for Deals


January, the start of a new year, is often seen as a month of hope.  Resolutions made as the previous year came to an end are still fresh in the mind as is the belief that they will be maintained.  That similar resolutions were made (but not kept) before doesn't matter.  This time round will be different, this time round I will make it.

Football, however, is much more cynical and allows no space for such naive hope.  So it is that January is seen as the month for the desperate, when those who are in trouble trash about in a made bid to change the flow of things.  Only they look imploringly at the transfer window that January brings with it, praying that it will deliver that player which could save their season.

With choice not being on beggars' menu, so it is that they must make do with what is available.  And pay exceedingly for it.  They have to look for players that others don't want; those who are either playing badly or whose character has proven to be too difficult to handle. Or else take punts on young players who are on the fringes of others' squads in the hope that their talent makes up for their lack of maturity and experience.

That is how the January transfer window is seen.  There is no value in it and you cannot get the players you really want unless you're willing to spend far more than they are worth.  It is a sellers' market, and that's never a good thing for those on the other side of the bargaining table.

Such truth holds most of the time, but not always.  The £23 million that Liverpool paid Ajax last January, when they exploited the Dutch club's financial worries, was a pretty good deal.  It was the same when Maxi Rodriguez joined with Atletico Madrid unwilling to keep paying his wages.  So too when Deportivo La Coruna opted to cash in on Alvaro Arbeloa so desperate were they to get their hands on the money.

Then there were those instances where January happens to be an off-season month.  It was such a timing anomaly that brought Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel to Liverpool.

This does not mean that Liverpool will sign any players during this transfer window much less that they will be successes if so.  But it does show that there can be exceptions to any theory, regardless of how firm the wide spread belief in it is.

And that should be enough to allow you to enjoy transfer rumours in hope, rather than look at them in cynicism.

Why Carroll Needs Patience and Time


It only takes one bad touch for the criticism to start.  You know that it's coming as soon as Andy Carroll misplaces a pass or fails to control a ball; the comments that he's not worth the money spent on him, how he's a big mistake, that he's too lazy to try and make it work.

You can even sense some wanting him to fail so that they can tell everyone that they told you so.

There is a lesson about not writing players off prematurely in Lucas Leiva's transformation from Liverpool's fall guy into one of the team's most important players. Yet, judging by the negative feeling towards Carroll, there are quite a few who seem unwilling to heed it.

It is undeniable that so far Carroll hasn't really delivered.  Just as there's no arguing that he has struggled to make an impact.  But there have also been enough glimpses of his potential to see that there is something quite interesting there.  That game last season against Manchester City where Carroll scored twice by itself should be enough to convince just how good he could become.

That is hardly surprising.  Carroll has all the characteristics that you could want in a striker: incredible strength, a tremendous shot, virtually unbeatable in the air, the willingness to sacrifice himself for the team and also a good technique.  

Yet in his lack of experience he is missing one very important element.  Barely eighteen months of first team football - most of which were in the Championship - aren't enough for a player to have developed fully.  He still has to learn about his own game as much as anything else.

What has made Carroll's life particularly hard is the £35 million Liverpool paid to get him.  Had he joined for even half of that amount, there would be far greater acceptance and willingness to allow him to grow. But instead people look at the size of the fee and decide that for that kind of money Liverpool should be getting a player who is at the peak of his ability.

Yet he isn't.  The fee was simply a product of the circumstances that preceded the transfer and not really an evaluation of Carroll's value at that point in time.  Liverpool were willing to pay such an inflated amount because they had the cash and wanted to send out a message of their ambition.

But they were also willing to pay it because they believed in Carroll's potential.  The trick with potential, however, is that it can be difficult to coax especially when the player is under pressure.  Young players will go through rough patches, they will make mistakes and they will struggle.  It is all part of the learning process.

That's what's happening to Carroll who has to get used to a team playing in a different manner and with greater expectations then he's been accustomed to.  The potential is definitely there but the pressure is eroding his confidence.  As he doesn't yet have the maturity to deal with it so the problem keeps getting bigger with every game where he disappoints.

It is a vicious cycle that only Carroll himself can break.  Just as Lucas found the inner strength to dig deep and eventually prove his critics wrong, so too must Andy Carroll.  With time hopefully he'll manage to do just that so that Liverpool will finally get the player worthy of all that money they paid for him.

Time To Prove Worth for Spearing


It is an unfortunate reality of the game of football, one which dictates that an injury to one player means an opportunity for another. So it will be for Jay Spearing who seems to be the player within Liverpool's squad who can best replicate the job that Lucas Leiva carried out and which someone else will now have to do in the Brazilian's injury forced absence.

Ironically, in certain aspects Spearing's career mirrors Lucas'.  He too has been deemed as not being good enough by fans unwilling to look past first impressions.  His is a presence that many look at skeptically with the belief being that he isn't big enough to play in such a central role that is normally the fighting ground of giants like Yaya Toure.

Like Lucas, no one would have blamed him had he asked to leave or if he'd accepted one of the opportunities to go out on loan placed before him.  But instead he chose to stay at Liverpool to fight it out despite the apparent futility of such a decision.

Unfortunate or not in its origin, this then represent his make or break moment.  Now is the time for him to show that he is fit for a starring role and not just a supporting one.

It won't be easy.  Implausible as this might have seemed two years ago he will have to play in Lucas' shadow where his every game will be analysed using the standard set by the Brazilian as a measuring stick.  Which, given how well Lucas has been playing, is a tough ask.

Yet such thoughts do a dis-service to Spearing who has been playing very well whenever opportunities have presented themselves.  Perhaps his displays haven't been as eye-catching as Lucas' but they have been effective, confident and determined.

Not that this should be surprising.  Pushed forward by Steve Heighway as being ready for the first team when he captained the FA Youth Cup winning team in 2007, Spearing eventually progressed as one of the better players at reserve level.  There he rarely failed to impress, dominating most games and showing that he was on a different level to most of the other players on the pitch.

That, however, wasn't enough to get him into the first team.  It was only when Kenny Dalglish took over as manager that he started being looked at as a squad member who could be relied on, rather than simply someone for the occasional meaningless cup game.  Still, with the investment in central midfield during the summer, he was the one who ended up suffering the most.

Now he can show his true value.  Now he has the opportunity to prove that there's no need for Liverpool to bring someone else in that role in January.  Now he can prove that he's big enough for Liverpool.

Players Must Show That Liverpool Aren’t a One Man Team


Back in the nineties teams would travel to Anfield with one plan in mind: that of stopping Steve McManaman.  The thinking was that if they managed this then they were well on their way to getting something out of the game.  It wasn't a tactic that worked as much as its reputation suggested yet it worked often enough for it to continue being used.

That tactic seems to be back in fashion.  It would be incorrect to say that the last three teams to have come to Anfield all did so with the aim of going away with a point but all three paid particular attention to Luis Suarez.  The belief that by limiting him you limit Liverpool is growing.

Yet at its core it is a false belief.  Last season Stewart Downing was often Aston Villa's match winner whilst Blackpool's valiant fight against relegation was largely down to Charlie Adam.  These two players have the potential to turn a game in Liverpool's favour.  Only they haven't been doing it.

Nor has anyone else.

Liverpool's problem isn't the over-reliance on Suarez but rather the deficiencies of other players.  Just as players used to stand back and let Steve McManaman and, later, Steven Gerrard try to save games, so too it seems that the current batch are abdicating their responsibility and hoping that Suarez comes up with an invention that wins the game.  But, as we've seen in recent weeks, it cannot work that way.

That this is happening is partly down to the number of new players that there are.  These are still getting used to playing in a different environment that has new (and greater) pressures to what they were used to.  They are also still trying to fit into a system the workings of which are still new to them with team-mates whom they don't know and who don't know them. And rather than letting their instincts take over they let fear rule.  It is much safer to try to get the ball to Suarez then try something yourself.

This was increasingly apparent against Swansea when preying at the back of the minds of most players was the thought of dropping more points like they did against Norwich.  As the game wore on and the fear grew, so did the misplaced passes which resulted in Liverpool ceeding control of the game.

Over the course of the season, only rarely have Liverpool's midfield players really taken control and been dangerous.  Rarely has anyone other than Suarez really shown the mental strength and determination to push up a notch.  When that happened - Henderson's cameo appearance against Manchester United springs to mind - then we saw midfielders really in with a chance to score.

Suarez, being Liverpool's best player, will inevitably always feature prominently in attacking moves; it would be foolish to structure the team otherwise.  But he cannot and, with the talent that there is in the squad, he need not be the only focus.

Yet if the other players keep deferring to him then it is only natural that other teams start reacting to that.  The problem, then, isn't that Liverpool's main threat is Luis Suarez it is that the other players are acting as if that they believe that he is the only one.

Reserves Let Down


No games won and no points on the table, this has been a dismal start to the season for Liverpool's reserves team.  Or, rather, that  would be conclusion if you fail to look at the most significant column, that for games played, the one that shows that this week's defeat at Newcastle was only their second game of the season.

Ten weeks into the 2011/12 season and they've played only two games.  It is a fact that is so astounding that it bears repeating.

If it weren't for the involvement in the NextGen series, these players would have spent virtually all of the past three months training.  This at a crucial stage of their career when they need games in order to progress.  It is a ridiculous and frustration situation, one that has been dragging on for a long number of years which would indicate a lack of desire to do anything to fix it.

Rather than fostered, players' development is being stunted.

The current bandwagon seems to dictates looking at Barcelona as the standard bearers for what is good about football.  This, therefore, might easily seem like a lazy comparison but it has to be pointed out that Barcelona and Real Madrid's second teams have played eight games and this despite their leagues staring almost a month after the English does.  Is there anyone willing to look and listen to this, though?

Why Walking Alone Is Not A Good Idea

A year after becoming the heroes who saved Liverpool from financial armageddon, Fenway Sports Group opted to to become the villains of the day. Not necessarily in the eyes of Liverpool fans but certainly in those of the rest of the football world. Sooner or later, one of the big clubs was going to start making noises about the splitting of television rights. That much has been inevitable ever since the Premier League's creation and the rapid commercialisation of the game that followed. The recent case where a pub landlady won the right to buy the sports service from another country's provider - and the possibility of a decrease in the overseas revenues that it threatens to bring about - simply accellerated this. Yet it is still disappointing that Liverpool were the ones to do so. There's no escaping that the club is being greedy, that it doesn't really care about the fate of the rest of English football and those are not the kind of principles you want your club to admit to. It is, undoubtedly, an egotistical stance. And inevitably there will be those who defend it. The belief that winning is the only thing that matters - regardless of how that win is achieved - is so prevalent that there will be those who will see this as a good team. Who cares if Bolton struggle as long as Liverpool get more money? What's most important is that there are the finances in place to buy more players because that is how you ensure that you're among the best. That is the sort of reaction that Ayre tried to encourage when mentioning the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid who have the power to negotiate their own deals and therefore the potential to earn more. Liverpool need to be in a position to make more money if it wants to compete with them. Of course, it is important to have a team that is capable of challenging. But this is not the way to go about it. Not least because Ayre's argument is actually flawed. His reasoning is that foreign fans only want to watch specific clubs. Well, as a foreign fan I don't agree. I want to see Liverpool on television every time they play, that much is obvious. But I also enjoy watching other teams play and in the model that Ayre is proposing the likelihood is that I won't be able to do that. What would happen is that the top six clubs would be able to negotiate their own deals whilst the rest negotiate a collective deal. So far, so good even if it will mean a smaller pot of revenue to be shared against the bulk of the teams making up the league. Yet what that would also mean is that in each country the rights to the Premiership would be split among two or more providers. Meaning that if I want to keep watching the number of games that I do today I would have to take out two or more subscriptions. Would that happen? Of course not: who would be willing to pay that much money? I'd either drop my interest or else look for cheaper alternatives like going to watch games at some pub or else turning to the internet. Eventually, the television channels will realise that there isn't enough money to be made out of such deals and back out of them. And the clubs pushing for such a model would find themselves with a dead goose and no golden eggs.

Sports Book Chat: Joe Fagan Biography Co-Author Mark Platt


Despite achieving an unprecedented treble in his first season in charge, Joe Fagan remains something of a marginalised figure in Liverpool's history.  For many his success was down to the team he inherited from Bob Paisley whereas his work in the backroom staff is often overlooked. 

A much more truthful picture of Fagan's role both as a coach and as a manager is presented by the recent biography titled Joe Fagan: A Reluctant Champion. We spoke to Mark Platt, one of the book's co-authors,about the story behind this book and the experience of writing it.

How was the idea to write this book born?  And how did you get involved?
The idea stems from a show I produced for LFC TV (my full-time job) about Joe back in 2007. It was called ‘No Ordinary Joe’ and during its production I got to know two of Joe’s sons Stephen and Michael. We got talking about the fact he was such an unsung figure and that there’d never been a book written about him. With the family’s blessing I then pressed ahead with putting this right. Not long afterwards I met Joe’s grandson Andrew, a journalist based in London. He too was planning on writing a similar book so we decided to work together.

What was your role in the writing of this book?
I probably did more of the research but the workload was split pretty evenly and together we carried out interviews with many of Joe’s ex-colleagues and former Liverpool players, and then pieced everything together.

What was the process like?  How long did it take to write and was it a difficult book to write?
I’d be lying if I said it was easy. With me based in Liverpool and Andrew in London it was difficult at times but we got together as often as we could and spoke regularly over the phone and via email. Writing a biography of a person who is no longer with us is always going to be a complex project, especially someone who before he became manager kept himself very much out of the public eye. Piecing together Joe’s early life was certainly a challenge because not much was known about him. His time at Liverpool was little easier as I like to think I have sufficient knowledge of this and there was no shortage of people who worked with him and for him willing to cooperate.

Why did you feel that it was important that there was a book about Joe Fagan?
Like I said earlier he was such an unsung figure but the role he played in Liverpool’s success of the sixties, seventies and eighties can never be underestimated. Everyone knows about Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley, there have been countless books written about these – and rightly so – but Joe’s role was just as important.

Did you yourself ever get to meet Joe? 
I did briefly. It was at Melwood one day back in the mid-1990s. I was working for a magazine called XTRA Time and I was at the training ground to interview one of the players when I spotted Joe. At the time I was also working on a feature about the treble-winning season, it must have been 1994 and the tenth anniversary, so I approached Joe and asked if I could interview him. He kindly declined the offer and typically said ‘thanks son but no-one will want to hear what I want to say, it’s the players you want to speak to, they were the ones who deserve the credit.’ While disappointed not to have got an interview with I totally respected his decision. He was such a private man and wanted to stay very much in the background.

A lot of research has evidently gone into it.  How was that?  Was it difficult to choose what to put in and what to leave out?
The research was extensive but it really was a labour of love and I enjoyed every minute of it. When I set out on the project I feared that there might not be enough material but I couldn’t have been more wrong. To be honest there wasn’t much stuff that had to be left out and I hope the readers agree that the end product is a very comprehensive overview of Joe’s life and career.

The diaries that Joe used to keep are at the heart of this book.  What did it feel like reading them?  Was it tough to choose what to leave out?
Yes, this is where we had to be a bit more selective about what to include and not to include. It was fascinating to flick through the diaries and it really gave you sense of what it must have been like to be in the bootroom all those years ago. The diaries provided Joe with a voice in the book and this helps us paint a much clearer picture of what must have been going through his mind, which I feel was vitally important to the book. The diaries aren’t reproduced in full as a lot of entries in them are quite repetitive when it come to training routines and tactics, but I’m sure his private thoughts on certain players, situations and matches will be of great interest to the fans.

What amazes me from the snippets that you've included in the book is how simple those diary entries were yet, at the same time, what depth of thought and analysis they contained.  It was as if he could take a complex issue and strip away the frills until the basic concept remained.  That for me is a true mark of genius.  Don't know if I've explained myself well enough and, at the same time, don't know whether you agree or not?
I totally agree. Where Joe and his bootroom colleagues were concerned simplicity was the key and this common sense approach to the day-to-day running of the football club was what made Liverpool so special.

Was there anything that surprised you as you were writing this?
I always knew Joe was a highly respected figure but from the interviews we carried out I’d say he was held in even greater esteem than I thought. Every person we approached to be interviewed about the book was more than willing to co-operate and no-one had a bad word to say about him.

Do you think that Joe is appreciated enough both by Liverpool supporters and by the general footballing world?
I’d say he’s appreciated by the Liverpool fans, hopefully even more so after they’ve read this book, but beyond the confines of Anfield I don’t think people know that much about him. Yes he guided Liverpool to the treble in 1984 but his stint in management was so short that football fans in general quickly forgot about him.

How gut wrenching was it to write the Heysel part?
I was only twelve in 1985 and watched it all unfold on TV. That was gut-wrenching at the time and writing the chapter on it brought everything flooding back. In fact, it hit home even more so. It was a tragedy that so easily could have been avoided. For the 39 people who lost their lives it was such a tragic and unnecessary waste of life and, of course, a sad, sad way for Joe to bow out of the game he loved.

What's next for you?
On a day-to-day basis I’ll carry on in my full-time job as a producer for LFC TV, the club’s television channel, but I’ve got plenty of ideas for future books and in my spare time at the moment I’m working on one with the original ‘Supersub’, Liverpool legend David Fairclough. It’s still early days on that so no news yet on when that will be published but hopefully it won’t be too long.

You can read our review of Joe Fagan: A Reluctant Champion here.  Mark Platt can be followed on Twitter as can, obviously, A Liverpool Thing.

A Reluctant Champion


Book Review: Joe Fagan - Reluctant Champion by Andrew Fagan and Mark Platt

There are two iconic images that seem to perfectly sum up Joe Fagan's time as Liverpool manager. The first has him lounging by a pool in front of two Italian carabinieri and the Champions Cup, won the night before, besides him.  The second, taken a year later, shows him distraught to the point that he can barely walk as Liverpool arrive at Speke airport from Heysel.

For many that was Joe Fagan: winner of a magnificent treble - that included beating Roma on their back yard in the Champions Cup final - but also the unlucky man who was Liverpool's manager on one of their darkest and most tragic nights.

Even when he was achieving what no other British manager had managed at the time - the treble - his success was often downplayed.  This was the
Continue reading "A Reluctant Champion"

A Reluctant Champion


Book Review: Joe Fagan - Reluctant Champion by Andrew Fagan and Mark Platt

There are two iconic images that seem to perfectly sum up Joe Fagan's time as Liverpool manager. The first has him lounging by a pool in front of two Italian carabinieri and the Champions Cup, won the night before, besides him.  The second, taken a year later, shows him distraught to the point that he can barely walk as Liverpool arrive at Speke airport from Heysel.

For many that was Joe Fagan: winner of a magnificent treble - that included beating Roma on their back yard in the Champions Cup final - but also the unlucky man who was Liverpool's manager on one of their darkest and most tragic nights.

Even when he was achieving what no other British manager had managed at the time - the treble - his success was often downplayed.  This was the team that Bob Paisley had built, one that knew how to play from memory: anyone could guide it to success.

It is this erroneous belief that has relegated Fagan to a mere footnote in the history of the English game when instead his should be a name mentioned alongside those of the greatest to ever manage the game.

Just how vital a role Fagan played in Liverpool's success over three decades emerges in his recently published biography written by LFC.tv writer Mark Platt and Joe's grandson Andrew.  Pieced together thanks to interviews to more than thirty former players and people with whom Joe worked who help add depth to the story, this book helps reveal an honourable man who was thoroughly in love with the game of football and with a brilliant talent for improving players.

A particularly revealing story is the one about his decision to take over from Bob Paisley as Liverpool manager.  What drove his wasn't the ambition to prove that he could to the job but rather the responsibility he felt towards the rest of the coaching staff.  If someone from outside came in the in all probability he would bring his own people in meaning lost jobs for those already at Liverpool.

Fagan wouldn't have that and neither did he want to put at risk all the good work that had been done at the club.  So he went for it.

Aiding him was his coaching diaries in which he jotted all that happened during games and training.  In his diaries, along the technical notes he puts in personal thoughts.

These end up being the most revealing part of the book. Fagan's writings are simple yet profound, showcasing the genius of a man who could distill any situation to the core issue and which made solving that problem all the easier.

It wasn't precisely the Moneyball strategy but it wasn't far off, either.  With Liverpool struggling to replace Graeme Souness,  Fagan opted to buy Kevin McDonald who bore little resemblance in his style of play to the club's former captain,  Yet Fagan had noticed the number of passes he delivered and saw that it was a talent from which it the whole team could benefit.

Ultimately McDonald never played that many games of Fagan who decided to retire at the end of his second season in charge.  We're never told why that was but the feeling is that he felt the pressure from having to tell players that they weren't in the tam

Whatever the reason Fagan certainly didn't deserve to bow out of football on that dark night in Belgium and the scenes he witnessed that night clearly left their mark on him.  What he does deserve is a book like this that helps minute the life of one of the game's greats.


Full Disclosure: a review copy of this book was provided by the publisher.

A Degree of Progress Will Be Enough: Liverpool FC 2011/12 Preview

When Paul Konchesky was sold to Leicester City earlier this summer, one of the strangest and most stressful periods of the past two decades in Liverpool’s history came to a close. Seen as the embodiment of the mediocrity that had somehow become the norm at the club, Konchesky’s departure was deemed as confirmation that the standards that had been allowed to drop were now being pushed upwards again.

For all the criticism that was directed his way – a lot of which, let’s be clear, were deserved – the dignity that the player himself displayed was laudable. He was man enough to admit that he hadn’t been good enough when Liverpool lost to a last minute goal at Tottenham, never reacted to the criticism (something that, sadly, his mother failed to emulate) and agreed to go down a division rather than stick around in Liverpool’s reserves for another season. Yet, likeable and honourable as he was, it is undeniable that Konchesky just wasn’t a good enough player for Liverpool – much like the man who had brought him there.

The basis that apparently underpinned Hodgson’s appointment – the nonsensical perceived need to go for an English manager – made him the best person for the job. Which is rather different than saying that he was the right man for it. Despite some exceptional achievements – taking Switzerland to the World Cup and leading Fulham to the Europa League final in particular – there was little in a career of over four decades to indicate that he could cope with a job which carries the expectations of the Liverpool job. His successes in Nordic countries were achieved thanks to the exploitation of those countries’ lack of tactical development whilst his time at Inter was seen significantly less favourably in Italy than it was in England. Most worrying was his failure at Blackburn, a club where he wasted a fortune and arguably set it on its way to relegation.

And, at times, that seemed to be Liverpool’s fate as well. Hodgson can point to a number of justifiable alibis for his failure: owners who were bleeding the club dry, players who wanted to leave and a botched transfer policy where the Managing Director seemed to have as much say (if not more) than the manager. Yet he was the man who set out his teams to play defensively at home, who bowed to Alex Ferguson when he criticised Torres, who considered anything more than a point away from home as ‘a bonus’ and who judged a defeat at Everton – when Liverpool were played off the park – as the best game his team had played.

As his team’s performances worsened and he became more defensive, Hodgson came out with a famous remark that whoever replaced him couldn’t do a better job and that there wasn’t a magic wand.

Only that it turned out that there was. Using largely the same squad, Kenny Dalglish managed to revive the club’s fortunes and produce some excellent football along the way. On his side he had not only the fans – who rightly revere the man – but also the club’s change of ownership that swept away much of the negativity around it. Still, to take the club from depressing talking of possible relegation to the verge of European qualification whilst trashing both Manchester sides and ruining Fernando Torres’ Chelsea debut along the way was nothing short of exceptional.

Inevitably, Dalglish was given the job on a permanent basis and now things could get trickier. Last season there was very little to lose and, consequently, almost no pressure. That will change this time round especially after having spent some £43 million on three players this summer.

There is also a degree of scepticism over the players on whom that money has been spent. Already, there was perplexity at the £35 million that Liverpool paid for Andy Carroll last January, especially given his off the pitch problems, but John W. Henry had already explained that fee as being down to Chelsea’s late bid to sign Fernando Torres. Yet Liverpool have followed it up by paying excessively for Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing, which puts both players in the firing line for criticism should either one of them fail to settle in immediately.

The amounts spent on those players has somewhat ridiculed the notion that Liverpool would going predominantly for players who represented good value for money; that they would be adopting what has lazily been tagged as the Moneyball approach. Yet, whilst it has been quoted often enough, little is yet understood about how this works. Sure enough, not overpaying for a player is a tenet but so is paying what is needed to fill the gaps, which is what Liverpool have done with the left-footed Downing. Equally it isn’t merely coincidental that all of these players are British, something that ensures that Liverpool will recover a good part of the fees paid should any one of these fail to live up to the hype. And that too is a ‘Moneyball’ consideration.

What is more interesting than the money paid is how Dalglish decides to line up his players. With so many central midfielders available – excluding the departing Alberto Aquilani and the immobile Cristian Poulsen, Liverpool have five who can justifiably expect to play fairly regularly – it seems improbable that they will adopt the 4-4-2 that Dalglish has traditionally employed. Much more likely is the 4-2-3-1 that mirrors the system that Liverpool have been implementing at an academy level for the past two years and which Dalglish knows fully well due to his involvement in the academy before he got his promotion.

This system should allow him to play Lucas alongside Charlie Adam in a withdrawn midfield position with the first primarily looking to defend and the other to create. It would also see Downing, Gerrard and Suarez working behind Carroll who will be the focus of attack. With Dirk Kuyt, Maxi Rodriguez, Jordan Henderson and Jay Spearing also available, Dalgish seems to have built a midfield in which every player has a good alternative.

If this is truly is the system to be adopted, then it will be an interesting experiment to watch. Even if it isn’t, however, Dalglish has the ability to innovate tactically so as to mould the team into playing as he wants it, something that he showed at times last year when Liverpool switched to three players at the back to deal with certain teams.

Part of that innovation could be down to Steve Clarke. Since he joined Dalglish last January, the profile of Mourinho’s former assistant has been steadily growing as has his influence. There’s nothing to indicate that he had anything to do with the removal of Sammy Lee from first team coach but it is telling that the man chosen to replace him was Kevin Keen, someone who Clarke clearly recommended, having played and worked with him at West Ham. With another of Mourinho’s former aides now in charge at Chelsea, it could be that Clarke is working his way into eventually being given the job at Anfield.

That, however, is something that at the moment seems to lie far ahead in the future. But, after a bleak couple of years, Liverpool’s future does indeed seem to be brightening up. Not least because the academy – which Rafa Benitez revolutionised in what could turn out to be his most important act as Liverpool manager – is suddenly churning out a number of talents. There were six Liverpool players in the England squad that took on the U17 World Cup in Mexico (plus another – Tom King – in the Australian team) and seven were called up for England’s U19 European Championship squad. More importantly, Dalglish has shown faith in Martin Kelly, John Flanagan, Jack Robinson and Jay Spearing with each one showing that they deserve it.

All of these positives raise expectations but, even so, going from sixth to fourth will require a significant effort. Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City should take three spots meaning that there’s one available for Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham. Even if Dalglish does manage to get the players that consolidate a defence which is lacking a left back and needs a commanding central defender, there still seems to be a work in progress feel about a squad that lacks the depth of quality of others. What could favour Liverpool is the absence of European football – that’s assuming that Tottenham pay any attention to the Europa League – whilst the Premier League experience of all of their major additions is another plus point.

Publicly, Dalglish has been very cautious not to put pressure on his players by setting any targets but this is not to mean that others won’t do so for him. Nor should it be read that he himself is lowering the standards because Dalglish knows more than anyone that the fans are aching for a league title and that is what, ultimately, he will be working towards. Not this season, though, where a degree of progress should be enough.

This article originally appeared as one of the Premier League previews on the excellent TwoHundredPercent football site.

You can follow A Liverpool Thing on twitter.

Setting the Philosophy

He might not appreciate it much as he starts looking for a new job but Sergio Batista's dismal failure as Argentina coach at the Copa America delivered a very important message.

In the run up to the competition, Batista had expressed his intention to impose Barcelona's tactical approach on his side.  And it seemed an understandable enough decision. Although, in Lionel Messi, Argentina have Barcelona's star player the forward has never managed to replicate his club form for his country.

The reason for that, Batista must have reasoned, was the way the team played and the best way to solve it was by getting that team to adopt the 4-3-3 system that Barcelona have used with so much success.

Batista might have argued that he wasn't expecting his central midfielders to perfectly mimic Xavi and Andres Iniesta but the way that Ever Banega and Esteban Cambiasso moved on the pitch hinted otherwise.  Yet, although both are excellent players, they failed to shape the game in the same manner as the Barca duo.

And therein lies the lesson.  Xavi and Iniesta have been playing in the same system, making the same sort of passes and looking for the same space to move into since they were eleven.  They've got a level of expertise that you can't simply transplant into a team, regardless of how good the players are.

There is another lesson to be had here, one of a more philosophical nature.  A club playing culture has to take that specific circumstances.  An English team can play in the same manner as a Spanish team for the simple reason that the weather is so different.  For the Spanish it makes sense to adopt a system where the ball does most of the running but for an English team, where the weather is much colder, running around is actually a way for players to warm up.

This is something that Pep Segura immediately understood when he was given the job of setting a strategic direction at Liverpool's academy.  His long history at Barcelona meant that he had a natural inclination for their 4-3-3 system.  Yet he realised that this would be hard to implement in England where the general style of play was much more physical than in Spain.

So instead he - along with the others at the academy - decided upon a 4-2-3-1 system that is a hybrid of Barcelona's but which also takes into consideration England's traditional favouring of the 4-4-2 and also the greater dynamism of English players.

In doing so he had confirmed what former Liverpool assistant manager Pako Ayesteran had said on Revista de La Liga earlier this year.  “Every success story leaves clues behind, but as well as identifying them, you also have to be able to adapt them to your own philosophy and culture. So right now, English football needs to be faithful to its own culture, whilst being recognising htat there are different ways of playing football.”

“The great thing about La Masia - the concept that I’d like to try and bring to Liverpool - is this. Barcelona’s La Masia represents the club’s policy," Segura said on the same show. For him "it’s a symbol of the club’s philosophy. When your policies keep changing when one day you say black, the next day white, then there will always be a problem in trying to establish a clearly defined concept of player development.”

That faith in one central ideology of how to play the game is at the heart of Barcelona's success.  It has taken years for that faith to prove to be worthwhile at Barcelona and, for all the upturn the immediate results, it will take a similar amount of time for it to be fully functional at Liverpool

Barca’s New Kind of Loan

Having talented players progress till they're good enough to play regular top level Premiership football is still an art that very few - if any - have perfected.  The traditional route of letting them develop in the reserves no longer seems to apply given the dilution of quality in this league whilst the more recent solution of having the players go out on loan is a bit hit and miss.

As discussed recently a better solution would be that of having an agreement with a number of clubs with a matching football philosophy and that can be trusted to develop these players well.

But Barcelona seem to have come across a solution that is an improvement on this variation.

That comes from the transfer that took Bojan Krkic to Roma.  Krkic has long been considered a great prospect but with the emergence of Pedro and the presence of David Villa Continue reading "Barca’s New Kind of Loan"

Barca’s New Kind of Loan

Having talented players progress till they're good enough to play regular top level Premiership football is still an art that very few - if any - have perfected.  The traditional route of letting them develop in the reserves no longer seems to apply given the dilution of quality in this league whilst the more recent solution of having the players go out on loan is a bit hit and miss.

As discussed recently a better solution would be that of having an agreement with a number of clubs with a matching football philosophy and that can be trusted to develop these players well.

But Barcelona seem to have come across a solution that is an improvement on this variation.

That comes from the transfer that took Bojan Krkic to Roma.  Krkic has long been considered a great prospect but with the emergence of Pedro and the presence of David Villa chances for him at the Nou Camp were limited. And there would have been even less chance of him getting to play with the arrival of Alexis Sanchez.

Barcelona could have sent him out on a season's loan but that would have solved very little: within twelve months they would be facing the same problem. Or they could hsve sold him, knowing fully well that they would be letting go a player with the potential to be great.

So they opted for a middle road. Krkic has gone to Roma for €12million with an agreement that Barcelona will buy him back in two years' time for €13million.

This is quite an intelligent move.  Barcelona are sending their player to a team with a coach - Luis Enrique - they know (and knows then) well. They know that he will get a lot of playing time in a tough league and with a side that will be pressing for the title. And they know that in two years they will get the player back at a time when presumably they would be looking to replace Villa. Even if Krkic doesn't develop, they will only be €1million out of pocket, a figure that they could easily recover by selling him. To boot,  Barcelona are getting a decent amount of money that will go towards boosting their Financial Fair Play status.

There are few clubs who have such a reputation so as to be able to set up such a deal and fewer players of such high potential that clubs would be willing to agree to the deal as Roma have.  Yet Barcelona have shown not only what is possible but also that you should be willing to redetermine the boundaries if you really want to develop a special talent.

Family Honouring Shankly’s Legacy

When talks were first being held for the formation of the supporter's union that eventually came to be known as Spirit of Shankly, it was to Karen Gill that they turned. From her, the grand daughter of Bill Shankly, they wanted confirmation that they could refer to the great man in the name of this union that was being set up to help save the club that he himself had transformed in the sixties.

When the reply was delivered, it didn't simply contain the confirmation they were looking for but also an inspirational message that gave the Shankly family's wholehearted support to the union. "My grandad had a dream for Liverpool Football Club and you are all helping to keep that dream alive," she wrote. "It's the people with dreams who achieve things in the end because they have a vision which drives them on. We know Bill Shankly 'made
Continue reading "Family Honouring Shankly’s Legacy"

Family Honouring Shankly’s Legacy

When talks were first being held for the formation of the supporter's union that eventually came to be known as Spirit of Shankly, it was to Karen Gill that they turned. From her, the grand daughter of Bill Shankly, they wanted confirmation that they could refer to the great man in the name of this union that was being set up to help save the club that he himself had transformed in the sixties.

When the reply was delivered, it didn't simply contain the confirmation they were looking for but also an inspirational message that gave the Shankly family's wholehearted support to the union. "My grandad had a dream for Liverpool Football Club and you are all helping to keep that dream alive," she wrote. "It's the people with dreams who achieve things in the end because they have a vision which drives them on. We know Bill Shankly 'made the people happy' but I know that you would have all made him happy were he alive to see this legendary support today."

As Brian Reade noted in his book an Epic Swindle, "Karen is a marvelous woman who has inherited many of her grandad's traits, not least his fight and his passion."

Considering the relationship that Shankly had with the fans, Karen's reaction was always something of a foregone conclusion. "They literally meant everything to him," she says when the question of what the fans meant to her grandfather is put to her. "The club and the fans were his life. No exaggeration."

"He’d be shocked and appalled at football today in general and he would be devastated
at the terrible damage that Hicks and Gillette did to his beloved club," she continues, looking back at the past three years. Yet it is also reasonable to assume that he, given his Socialist ideology, would have been immensely proud to see the fans working so hard together to get rid of those who were destroying the club.

Typically, Karen's favourite memory of here grandfather in a football context includes the fans. "I like all the stories about him taking time out to visit sick children at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital and I’ve had messages from adults who say they remember his kindness to them to this day."

As for Karen herself, what she remembers is a kindly and playful man. " I have many recollections of my grandfather. Firstly I spent most of my childhood with him. We would always eat together on a Sunday at his house or sometimes he would take us to a nice hotel in the centre of Liverpool for a special meal. My favourite times though were when he would take us to Anfield and we’d run around and sometimes get to sit on our favourite player’s knee!”
At the time, however, she didn't fully realise who he was and why he was so important."I always knew he was important as from an early age I saw that he was followed around by people wherever we would go. People were always coming up to him and talking football. Journalists were always on the phone to him etc. But it wasn’t until I came to Greece that I realised the extent to which he is admired, literally all over the world."

In time, this sparked off her desire to write a book about him with the result being the excellent The Real Bill Shankly that came out a couple of years back. "That was one of the best experiences of my life. I’d wanted to write a book about my granddad for a while but it was when I met the supporters from the official Liverpool Supporters Hellenic Branch that I realised that I should do it. I talked about the idea with Stephen Done (the curator of the Liverpool Museum) and he put me in touch with Ken Rogers from Trinity Mirror and he thought it was a great idea. I just wanted in some way to help keep my granddad’s memory alive"

If that was her aim, then she has done her job to perfection. Just as, with her determination and inspiration at the birth of SOS, she was more than honouring the legacy of her family's surname. Bill Shankly would most certainly have approved.

This article was originally published in Issue 8 of Well Red magazine.