You don’t need a long memory to realize the Liverpool team that will step onto the temporary grass pitch at Rogers Centre Saturday isn’t exactly what fans have come to expect.
Many of the 34,000 who have bought tickets ranging from $49 to $159 to watch one of the world’s most legendary sporting institutions – and Toronto FC – will be understandably disappointed to see that the likes of England internationals Steven Gerrard, Andy Carroll and Glen Johnson, along with new signing Fabio Borini of Italy, will not be pulling on the famous red shirt.
But even if they weren’t sidelined by a FIFA statute that requires a mandatory four-week vacation from the last time those players kicked a ball at Euro 2012, the current edition of the team could only manage an eighth-place finish in the Premier League last season.
That might be good enough for the likes of Fulham, West Brom and Swansea, but it doesn’t fly with the 18-time English champions, and manager Kenny Dalglish paid for the club’s worst league campaign in 18 years with his job.
Former Swansea manager Brendan Rodgers is the latest man tasked with bringing the glory days back to Merseyside, and while the Reds may have fallen behind the likes of the two Manchester clubs, United and City, in the English pecking order, high expectations will still be the order of the day.
“And they should be,” said Reds legend Steve Nicol, who played 14 seasons for the club. “The No. 1 priority, handed down from [legendary manager Bill] Shankly on the first day of the season: ‘Our aim is to win the title. Forget everything else. Forget Europe, forget the cups. Our priority is to win the league title.’ ”
That’s clearly a sentiment felt by the Fenway Sports Group, owner of both Liverpool and the Boston Red Sox, who gave Dalglish his marching orders despite guiding the club to League Cup success and an appearance in the FA Cup final. With Champions League money understandably vital to teams these days – Chelsea made $73.1-million (U.S.) last year in winning the tournament – the need for a top-four finish in England has never been more important.
How times have changed. In Liverpool’s heyday it was first or nothing, and even then it came with a condition.
“We went into training on the Monday after the season was over,” Nicol said of winning the league in 1984. “[Former manager Joe Fagan] had the shoebox, he gave you your medal, shook your hand, ‘Well done, son,’ and that was it. No fanfare, no bus trips for that one or anything. Just, ‘Well done, there you go, and by the way, you better make sure we do it again next year.’ ”
But then winning was never a problem for Liverpool in those days. Between the ’70s and ’80s, the Reds won a combined 11 league titles and four European Cups, setting the benchmark for clubs both in the U.K. and abroad. So how did the aura of invincibility fade and make way for Manchester United’s dominance of the past 20 years?
“I think Hillsborough had a huge impact on the club,” said Nicol, talking about the 1989 stadium tragedy that claimed the lives of 96 fans. “For everybody connected, from the tea ladies, the directors to the players and coaches, everything was about the first team on a Saturday. That changed for a few years at Liverpool and I think for the players that were there, it did kind of knock a bit out of us. There was definitely a hangover. Even though we won the league the following season, the team wasn’t half of what it was. There was something missing.”
A series of bad signings and less-than-ideal managerial appointments followed, and despite the memorable Champions League success of 2005, Liverpool have yet to return to the winner’s circle in the Premier League.
Still, though he isn’t sold on the Moneyball concepts espoused by FSG owner John Henry – “You have to have people who know a football player when they see one” – the Boston-based Nicol is confident that they are the right people to restore Liverpool’s lustre.
“I’ve been here 12 years and I’ve seen the Red Sox for 12 years and what’s happened with them,” said the former New England Revolution manager. “[FSG has] done a great job and that’s what we’re hoping they’ll do with Liverpool.
“The Red Sox hadn’t won a title for 100 years and they brought it, so unfortunately for Liverpool we’re in the similar situation – where’s the next championship coming from? – and I’d like to think they can do the right things and make the right moves in order to achieve that.”