There’s a time for hard truths; acknowledging that the circumstances that you’re in simply aren’t working. And then there’s the time when you’ve gone as far as you can and you have to sit back and simply appreciate the effort that it took to get there, which is also a form of hard truth; that no matter how hard you try, things may just be beyond your control, but that doesn’t mean that the trying isn’t worthwhile. This is one of those times.
In truth, those times are the reality for every sports fan of any team that doesn’t win a title or a cup. Unless you’re out there on the field kicking or throwing a ball, nothing you do can help your team get over the barriers that may be the other team, the officials, the weather, or random chance. You just have to keep supporting them because it’s something that drives you and, hopefully, drives many of you, as a community. We are here now, as Liverpool fans, staring at that bleak reality that remains filled with potential and is the legacy of 100 hours of excitement over the past season and many more hours of anticipation and celebration. Our club may finish the season with 97 points, the third-highest total in the history of the top division, behind only the record set by Manchester City last year… and the second-highest total potentially recorded by Manchester City this year. We’re now staring at an 0-3 chasm against the greatest player to have ever played the game in the Champions League. That means that those hard truths are that, with perhaps the greatest side assembled in the 127 year history of our club, we may finish with nothing.
But there’s the real question: Is it ‘nothing’? When Jürgen Klopp arrived three-and-a-half years ago, his message was that the fans had to be an integral part of the club. He insisted that the support from the fans was essential to push the team back to the level it had once occupied, when Liverpool was a known force in England and in Europe. His message was: “We must turn from doubters into believers.” I don’t think there’s anyone that lacks the belief in the team’s ability to achieve anymore. With 12 more millimeters on Sadio Mané’s strike on January 7th, LFC is in control of the Premier League race. With a few inches to the left on James Milner’s and Mo Salah’s strikes yesterday, we go back to Anfield feeling better about our chances against Barcelona. This team can win things.
But we’ve come to the point where every effort that’s been made may not be enough. We may not win things this season and the question comes around to the nature of our belief: What do we believe in? Is LFC a presence in our lives solely when we win things? Or is it there because we simply enjoy the football that we see this side produce? Or is it those things and more; a bonding element that gives people a certain pride, a certain belief in something, even when we don’t win?
ESPN published a rather remarkable long-form piece on Liverpool and the late season stress of being so close to a pair of titles. I was impressed not only because I didn’t think ESPN actually did substantive written work anymore, but also because the writer took the time to examine what makes the club and the community around it unusual. Our re-founder, Bill Shankly, an avowed socialist, spoke often of Liverpool as “the people’s club.” Now, that can seem trite or clichéd, but I think it was an honest reflection on his part of what he felt the club was and needed to be to the port city where it was based. I remember being fascinated when I was a kid by the details of the social transformation in England and the resistance to Thatcherite economics and learning that Liverpool and LFC, in turn, embodied a lot of that struggle and social outlook. It seemed very natural to me, a Marxist since I was aware such thoughts could be had, that I’d be a fan of a team in a city such as this. I like my football the way I like my beer and my politics: red.
But there’s no doubt that I also became a fan because Liverpool was the team that I saw playing most often and, of course, the team that I saw winning most often. Liverpool won 10 league titles in the 14 years from 1976 to 1990. It’s been 29 years since then. Winning attracts fans. What happens when your team doesn’t win anything for 7 years and nothing substantive for 14? And what happens when they come close to doing so multiple times but fall just short? At that point, if they’re truly “your” team, you probably stick with them, right? Do you waver? Do you maybe not bother to watch some games? Does the belief dissipate? Or does that belief extend to something that club has assembled around them: a community, a group with a shared faith in and passion for something that might just be larger than just watching a bunch of people kicking a ball around, a group that feels like the idea of ‘Liverpool’ extends past just being entertained?
Despite the ease of communication and the understanding and awareness that have developed because of that communication, there’s a growing isolationism in society, where we’ve all become sequestered in our habits and our jobs and our interests; sectioned off from larger groups of people that gives us the sense of being surrounded and still being alone. This might be the element that Shankly thought of when he sent his boys out to play in front of The Kop, which was a conjoined, swaying sea of humanity that insisted on singing even when the music stopped. This is the idea that those men out on the field are us and we are them and believing in ourselves is the path forward to those victories. I know I’ve felt it in realms apart from football; having done so many things, none of which could be counted as a success. Looking at it from Klopp’s perspective, what was important was the doing, not the succeeding. It’s a difficult view to take, with society geared so often towards only appreciating the one who crosses the finish line first.
I’m not trying to assign deeper meaning or loftier status to football. It is just entertainment and was never intended to be anything else. Klopp has said as much, many times. I’m just trying to probe the idea that there is merit to what’s happening, even if the typical measure of athletic effort- winning titles, leagues, cups -doesn’t appear. The fact that Klopp and Michael Edwards have assembled such a side and are playing such good football lends weight to the idea that those successes will be coming. And now, on the precipice, is when one has to believe most: that we can win the next two games in the league, that we can perform another “European night” at Anfield, that the little things will break our way when we need them, and that there will be something great by which to remember this season.
But even without that, I think the message that the gaffer would agree with is that there’s something great by which to remember every season, because Liverpool was on the pitch and, more often than not, playing well when they were. We can remember Origi’s last second goal in the derby. We can remember Firmino’s one-eyed goal against PSG. We can remember the demolition of Arsenal. We can remember Shaqiri’s heroics against ManU. We can remember Salah’s sublime goal against Chelsea. All of these are things that make the season great. All of these are moments that we’ll remember for years when we think of Liverpool and this season, no matter how it ends. All of these are things that make me glad to have discovered this club 40 years ago and been able to see and hear and read about their exploits and know that I couldn’t be any less a fan because of who they are and what they’ve been; to me, to the community around them, to the game of football, and beyond. This is who they are. This is who we are. And these are the memories that we’ll all share, together, as Liverpool. YNWA.