Triumph and tears.

Liverpool City. Had everything. Goals, sunshine, vitriol, clangers, minimal Yaya. Premier-quality cheating. It was splattered with incidents and raw with that uncomfortable mix of poignancy and venom. My response is loaded and maybe lumpen in the way of the match. It’s bullet-pointed again – immediate.

• I’m fascinated and appalled by Suarez to the point where I don’t really want to go there… and yet must. But not first. But been thinking about the man a fair bit. He’s plainly dysfunctional – yeh, I think that’s the word. Dysfunctional.
• Happier thoughts… Sterling’s opening goal. Was this so brilliant that it confirmed him as an England World Cup starter? Was that composure evidence of such fabulous growth in his game that he must leap to the front of the wide player’s queue? Many would think so. I’ve been and remain just a tad concerned that he may in that real moment – the bona fide competitive international game – shrink back into Walcott/Lennon(?)/Ox(?) mode. He has something of the junior flyer about him that concerns me but he was certainly influential in this the biggest game of the Premiership season so far. We know he would run at people in the World Cup but would he do it with real belief or would he be as inconsistent and ultimately wasteful as the eight zillion other Boy Wonders who have disappointed in recent times?
• Whatever, Sterling will go to Brazil (now) and he will probably (now) be ahead of the fella who’s got closest in the last season or two to delivering – Townsend. Once there I hope Sterling/Townsend will be encouraged to both hug the touchlines and dart central. In other words get involved/get plenty of precious touches/be influential.
• Sturridge will of course also travel. But which Sturridge? The sullen, frankly greedy geezer who makes too many bad football choices (because he’s greedy) or the unplayably good finisher who finishes so devastatingly often because… he’s greedy (for it?) Today he was ordinary – as he has been for the last month. Saving it up for Italy, hopefully.
• Incidentally I squirmed a little when I saw that bloke Clattenberg centre-stage today. He’s a little greedy for it too, is he not?
• Inevitably, there were ‘decisions.’ Clattenberg appeared to be avoiding making positive calls until the relative safety of the final few minutes, where he felt able to dismiss Henderson for his tired (o je-sus I can’t get… there) lunge. Marginal in the sense that there was no spite in the challenge but Henderson did jump in there with studs high. So red.
• Prior to this – count ‘em? – there were any number of appeals for pens, all turned away. Suarez, Silva and Zabaleta all ‘made the most’ of things. Suarez fell most obviously into the Shameful Outrage category and therefore he gets no sympathy from me for later incidents that may in isolation have been judged in his favour. I know that ain’t logical but a) that’s how us humans work –Clattenburg too? And b) the Uruguayan should have been red-carded for his most nauseatingly OTT effort.
• I do wonder if Suarez – who presumably believes himself innocent(?) – might think ‘bugger this feragameasoldiers lichke’ and actually go to Real, where he may think there is less outrage to contend with. (Plusses/minuses; La Liga refs and defences are even worse but things feel less judgemental.)
• I would miss ar Luis – about as much as Sturridge would, I reckon – though less than Liverpool FC. The number 7 is one of the best forwards in world footie… but one of the worst humans. He made the game ungovernable.
• Okay. I exaggerate.
• Final word. He’s magic but his ‘antics’ are a total, total disgrace. I think there is again a case for retrospective punishment or would be if the machinery was in place. (See ‘The Campaign for Gentlemanly Conduct’ vols 1-265).
• The game though; Liverpool were magnificent and irresistible again for most of the first half, playing both with authority and composure and also swiftly counterattacking. They mix it up; chase and run as well as pass all around. Generally though, they play with pace… and this feels threatening, especially with that crowd on board.
• That crowd by the way bore and bears them on, towards what Stevie G will no doubt privately be calling the title they deserve – they being the players, the club and supporters live and sadly departed. The skipper rightly gathered his men to collectivise spirits for the final push. They were told in no uncertain terms that there must be no ‘fucking slips’. The implications – powerful and maybe contradictory ones – being that the title belongs to them but they must battle invincibly to the fateful end.
• How wonderful that sport can be so huge.
• There are almost unbearably rich and tender emotions around the Hillsborough thing. The tragedy itself, the awful nature of events, plus the additional, cruel travesties which may yet transform how the majority of the (tabloid-reading?) public view our allegedly world-class police. There is much bitterness in this beautiful charge towards destiny.
• City came back. Silva suddenly flowered as Liverpool sat off. I lost a few friends on twitter by suggesting that the Reds wilted under the first meaningful pressure for 20 years – somewhat uncalled for perhaps but the point remains. The bitter enemy Manchester United have had to carry the burden of being title favourites and the team everyone wants to beat for an age. Liverpool dealt rather poorly with the rising threat to their first Premier League crown. City deserved to draw level and looked more likely to win it.
• Then, 80-odd minutes in, just about the finest defender in the league – Kompany – ballsed things up completely and Coutinho scored against the run of play.
• The rest was run-of-the-mill agony. For everyone.
• The roar at the final peep from Mr Clattenburg carried with it both triumph… and tears.

Manchester United versus Liverpool.

Wafting innocently past – as ya do – or engrossed within, or focussing determinedly in non-tribal civility upon The Media pre- the Utd-Liverpool mash-up, the full range of disappointments coalesce, do they not? Because even decent papers – of which, I assume many of us might argue, there are few – have felt the need to head pieces with a quote or some inference that adds to the bitterness. Something from Ferguson or Carragher, generally, which steps across that line from the fair to the fiery or inflammatory. So that for example one particular longish interview with Carragher, in which (actually) he reinforced the impression that he is a decent bloke and a proper club man, was inevitably titled ‘glad City won the title not United’ (or similar). In other words, the most corrosive, albeit apparently relatively innocently delivered comments led.

I am not so naive so as to be surprised by this, but as the thrust of that interview was surely contradicted by the flashing neon, I am, as I say, disappointed. On one of the few occasions where there appeared a real danger of helpfully level-headed conversations being aired, the Flogging Papers Reflex usurped.

Ferguson meanwhile, if quoted at all accurately – which I imagine he was – has peed his petrol on the fire again. Foolishly, but to a chorus of approval from many fans, whose bitterness rivals his own. Sir Alex is often respected for his ‘knowing exactly what he’s doing’ness, his skill at manipulating both the press and the psyche of his opposite number within the dug-out. It is thought that he is both brilliant and cynical; oh, and a skilled psychoanalyst too; aah, and a dockyard bruiser (too.) Sometimes there’s maybe no harm in admiring his cunning at this stuff, enjoying – however vicariously – the real dockerness of it all, or maybe just the conflicted feelings aroused in us un-dockers over the gritty Scot’s absurd genius-nutter confluence, as it patently strikes a blow at the sopping, public school-educated landlubbing heart of this privileged nation. We get that; or like we would if we didn’t have to rush Ffion to cello.

In fact (more broadly) these weirdly sporadic, often brutally revealing upwellings of insight into gaffers/other personalities in the game are an essential part of its appeal, surely? As one who spends a good deal of his waking hours juggling or clowning in the Banter Circus, I in no way mean to suggest that a colourless Footie would be a better Footie; no way Jose. The mad (or preferably just daft) abrasiveness and pingpong passionata of it all is life-givingly essential. And rivalry feeds the adrenalin. But the machismo, the poison, the dancing with violence thing is unhelpful. And so without liposucting away the necessary spikiness in favour of some All New All Smooth Beauty, I again ask for a certain intelligence and yes, a certain responsibility to hold up its head. Especially around games like this – Manchester United versus Liverool. Might we see that restraint, that awareness, on the pitch, I wonder?

A few hours later and… amazingly, pretty much, we did. Here’s how it seemed to me…

Fergie, typically and to his credit, has his positive head on – Wellbeck and van Persie both start up front. Liverpool, understandably, go with a Suarez solo. Post kick-off, the belligerent terraces are, unusually, not reflected on the park, in a period of relatively quiet earlydoorsness. But this is significantly undermined when following a sharp period of pass-and-move from United, centre back Agger offers that critical yard of space in the box. The result? A pinpoint cut-back from Evra and a simple though well-executed side-foot home from a noticeably pumped Dutchman. Rodgers – having lectured endlessly surely on the need to deny, deny, deny – will have hated that roominess SO MUCH.  United, meanwhile, have started.

They have that zesty fearlessness thing going. Welbeck, in particular, is all over the place (in a good way) but …doink the pause button, peeps. Some ten minutes after van Persie’s goal, whilst the effectively self-injured Young was being attended to… STOP.  Linger awhile and reach for the notepad.  For you will no doubt be fascinated to see (and record?) van Persie fully engaged in mentoring the junior strikemeister on their movements. (Young had followed through somewhat on Agger and finished up crocked. Welbeck got thirty seconds S Level Tactical Wotsits from the senior partner.  Probably at a fairly punitive hourly rate – but worth it nontheless.)

Within minutes United really might have scored four. Firstly Allen gifted Welbeck a decent chance, then Cleverley flashed a sweet left foot volley narrowly wide. In the 35th minute Welbeck again seems in but blazes over – again on his weaker side. Liverpool are open and looking vulnerable, with Suarez and Gerrard at this stage invisible. Ferdinand, as so often when United are cruising, is composure personified.

United’s defence mind, had barely been troubled. Though set up to dominate possession – or at least prevent domination of the ball by United – Liverpool made errors or allowed United to play through or round them. Lucas and Allen and Gerrard even, were rarely seen. Given that Fergie’s lot have been unconvincing to say the least, defensively, Rodgers must have been as frustrated as Suarez at the way the game was going.  But at least we had a game. A football match had broken out, with barely a moment of controversy, as half-time approached.

In the 44th minute a further goal seemed inevitable as firstly van Persie back-heeled, then the onrushing Kagawa approached the empty net. Johnson blocked the United man in the moment of his notchingment – acceptably, I think – with Reina desperately sprawling to recover and limbs generally a-flailing. Should the slightly indulgent flick from van Persie have counted, Sky would still be talking about it now, but as it didn’t, United fans will no doubt be addressing the way the Liverpool fullback ‘got across’ their midfielder to prevent the goal. Kagawa, in fact, spent much of his allotted time on the turf – not through chronic simulation but rather because he is perhaps a tad light-weight for this particular fixture(?) (Discuss?) The Japanese was rightly subbed for the more durable Jones later.

For the ‘pool, it was only really as halftime approached that Gerrard got a meaningful touch. Suarez flitted in and out – mainly out… of touch. At the whistle the suspicion was that Ferguson would be happy with the level of control, but slightly concerned that his side hadn’t – as they really might have done – put this game to bed.

Changes at the break; Sturridge on for Lucas; Valencia on for the injured Young.

Sturridge, looking focussed and mobile, swiftly earns space out front but baulks, wrongly, at taking on an ambitious shot. Credit to Rodgers though – he has made something of a positive move here – withdrawing the defensive-minded Lucas (and therefore taking something of a ‘risk’) but, in fact, loosening up, or even liberating his team’s attacking instincts. So this game does begin to emerge as a good one… a more dynamic one… and, critically, a contest. Suarez, visibly lifted by the brightness of Sturridge, plays Wisdom in but the young man is found utterly wanting in the composure dept. United respond through Evra, who delivers a stunning long ball centre-left, only to see Welbeck clumsily brought down. There’s the predictable baying for a Red, but ref Howard Webb correctly raises the yellow for Skrtel. Van Persie takes the free kick.

He coaxes it beautifully into the far post area, where Evra rises unchallenged to nod it home, via Vidic. If Rodgers was angry before, this one will have him ger-nashing; it’s far too easy. Is that game over already?

Asit’appens – no. In an increasingly watchable game Sturridge profits from a decent De Gea save, knocking in with Rafael caught on his heels. It feels like a fair reflection now, as the addition of Sturridge is proving central to the improvement in Liverpool and the match. The combination of this dual strike force for the away side and the psychology (dare I say it?) around that, plus the questions over Vidic’s pace/movement/agility mean that Liverpool go streaking past seeming like they may have a threat into that Properly Threatening state. Gerrard has settled into it. Suarez buzzes. United give the ball away more – or see it less. There is that frisson.

Because it’s no longer working for United. Welbeck by now has looked hugely willing and more; but the more we see the more the suspicion grows that he is not, in fact a natural goalscorer. (And I say this in full knowledge of the fact that Gary Neville, with some justification, named him Man of the Match!) Hence the game is still alive. Danny boy seems to have arrived at the stage where some debilitating self-awareness has kicked in… and has stopped thinking about shooting/scoring etc etc. And so have United. Their threat, remarkably, has dried. Again, we could credit Rodgers and Liverpool for this.

Necessarily the eye reverts to Vidic and the now less imperious Ferdinand. And Rafael’s top-notch chest-trap… followed by a miserably casual pass. And Kagawa, rightly, is replaced by Jones and similarly, Vidic by Smalling. The thing is taking a breather as we all take stock. There is space for the idlest of idle thoughts. Would it be career-killingly awful if Sir Alex withdrew the plainly confidence-deficient Valencia, so soon after putting him on? Where has Carrick/the rest of the midfield gone? How long is it now since United played any co-ordinated footie (answer; ’bout tenty minutes.) All that stuff you get into when things have changed so much you have no idea what might happen. Meanwhile Liverpool are coming back, right back into it.

On 84 minutes the chance you feel is coming Sturridge’s way arrives. But on his wrong side… and he fluffs it by clumsily hoisting it over. United splutter back to life and Johnson is fortunate to avoid a second yellow for clawing at Valencia. The home side though are unmistakably holding on, rather than strutting home. To the point where if we forget a couple of those early half-chances, we might feel a 2-2 is about right; whatever that means.

There is a lovely moment when an exhausted Welbeck, after an unrewarding slalom down the left in which William Hill no doubt laid odds on him finishing in a crumpled heap, finishes in a crumpled heap – but smiling. Smiling at Sturridge, his England mate, who had tracked back to monitor things and then offer marks out of ten for crumpled heapdom, presumably. Whilst I confess that this was the only smile I saw during the match – and therefore it can hardly be said to characterise the occasion – this was a game of football, a sporting contest, not a war. This matters. I really am pleased to report that there was virtually no malice or controversy in the game. Which United won, 2-1.

 

By the way, I wrote a book. UNWEIGHTED- the bowlingatvincent compendium. Out on amazon ebooks.

amzn.to/SSc9To should take you there from Twitter.