Season interrupted as football loses meaning – Liverpool FC 1988/89 – Liverpool FC

As ITV continues to air the emotional docu-drama, Anne – the story of Anne Williams’ heroic fight for truth and justice for her son Kevin, who was unlawfully killed at Hillsborough in 1989 – Jeff Goulding takes a look at the second half of 1988/89 in the concluding part of this two-part series.

As we bid farewell to 1988 and moved into 1989, January welcomed us with dreary warm and wet arms, Cliff Richard had been knocked from the top spot in the UK singles charts and was replaced with the equally cringe-worthy (from my point of view), Especially for You by Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue, Amadeus premiered on the BBC, and Liverpool were preparing to travel to Old Trafford for an encounter with Alex Ferguson’s 9th-placed Manchester United.

Liverpool’s recent form against United would hardly have inspired confidence, and the news that Ian Rush would miss the game with a groin injury didn’t help either. John Aldridge for once had a poor game and would be described in one match report as “virtually anonymous.” What followed was the stuff of dreams for the home crowd and nightmares for the travelling red contingent.

After a first half in which Liverpool huffed and puffed but ultimately failed to blow United’s house down, the match exploded into life in the 70th minute.

With Peter Beardsley the provider, John Barnes opened the scoring for Liverpool and sent the away fans wild. The Guardian recorded the strike with little fanfare, suggesting that it merely angered United and “hastened Liverpool’s demise.” It’s difficult to argue, as, within seven minutes of going in front, the Reds were 3-1 down. The architect of this remarkable turnaround was a 20-year-old Russell Beardsmore, who had a hand in all of United’s goals and scored the third himself.

Liverpool were down and out and there was no way back in what was a miserable display. It was to be a tough trip back home to Merseyside for the travelling Kop. Dalglish’s side had slumped back into fifth place, United were just a point behind in sixth. More worryingly, though, they were now nine points behind Arsenal and Norwich who were vying for top spot.

 

Not champion quality

Aerial pictures of homecoming victory parade for Liverpool FC players, after winning the FA Cup Final, pictured 21st May 1989. (PA / Alamy)

When I reflect on that season from a purely footballing perspective, something that is almost impossible to do given the long dark shadow cast over it by Hillsborough, my feelings inevitably centre on the gut-wrenching agony of surrendering the title to Arsenal in the dying moments of the last game of the season at Anfield, and on the ensuing pain and despair that accompanied that failure.

However, I realise now that from the perspective of January 1989, after that miserable defeat to United on New Year’s day, that the Reds had almost no right to be within seconds of a historic second league and cup double-double in the first place.

After 19 games, Liverpool had won seven, drawn seven and lost five. They had managed a little over a goal a game and were woefully inconsistent. Their league season should have been given a standing count.

Instead, a run of 11 wins and two draws from January to April saw Liverpool claim top spot in the table. They had tightened up at the back, the return of Bruce Grobbelaar from a long layoff due to illness, and Aldridge’s 10 goals in 13 games had dragged them to the summit on goal difference.

During this spell, the Reds had progressed with ease in the FA Cup, dispatching of Carlisle and Millwall.

February saw the launch of Sky Television and the huge controversy surrounding the publication of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Liverpool faced Hull City in the FA Cup fifth round at Boothferry Park. They took the lead through John Barnes but went in at halftime 2-1 down. A second-half brace from Aldridge saw them through and a home tie against Brentford was the reward.

 

Life felt good…

With Liverpool now genuine title contenders after a miserable start to the season, and within one game of another FA Cup semi-final, all seemed right with the world.

In Scotland, the introduction of the Poll Tax, a year earlier than in England, a huge campaign of non-payment was a mere precursor to what would follow in 1990 when the tax was rolled out south of the border. In Liverpool and around the country, communities watched the tactics of Scots non-payers with interest and continued to organise their streets and housing estates into “anti-poll tax unions.”

Steve McMahon, Liverpool - Peter Robinson/EMPICS Sport

The Reds dispatched Brentford with ease with goals from Steve McMahon, Barnes and a brace from Beardsley. All that stood in the way of another trip to the capital was a semi-final clash with Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough.

With Liverpool now firing on all cylinders in the league, it looked increasingly like I might get my red victory on the football field, and with Thatcher’s grip on power looking increasingly precarious thanks to her ill-fated poll tax, that red victory on the streets seemed possible too. Life actually felt good, I remember.

The semi-final was set to take place on April 15, when an exodus of thousands of Liverpool fans would depart the city en-route to Sheffield, dreaming of glory and a place in the final. They would be joined by many more travelling from all parts of the UK.

The Bangles were number one in the singles charts, with Eternal Flame, a song that would grow in significance in the months ahead for Liverpool and their supporters. It was a glorious sunny spring day, perfect for football.

 

Turning down a ticket

Four days earlier, Liverpool had beaten Milwall 2-1 at The Den thanks to goals from Barnes and Aldridge. However, all eyes were now on the semi-final and inevitably the search for tickets. I desperately wanted to go, but cash was a huge issue for me at the time. I was unemployed and I knew that I probably couldn’t afford a semi-final outing and a trip to Wembley too. Still when the suggestion of a ticket being available came my way, the temptation to go for it was overwhelming.

I never asked whose ticket it was, the conversation went along the lines of so-and-so (I can’t remember the name) “reckons they can get you a ticket no problem, if you want one, face-value like. Do you want one?”

I agonised over it, knowing that if I didn’t make my mind up soon, it’d be gone anyway. In the end, I said no. I couldn’t afford it, I was skint. I have no idea who took the ticket, though I came close to asking a number of times since. I probably wouldn’t have known them personally anyway, I just hope that whoever it was, they got home safe and that they’re doing okay now.

A number of my mates did go, and again I am lucky in that I didn’t lose anyone at Hillsborough.

I can remember the day vividly, the build-up, the anticipation and the excitement. Then came a growing sense of horror as scenes on the telly showed images of crowds on the pitch and people being dragged from an awful crush on the central pens.

Overlayed on the imagery is the sound of the BBC reporter telling us (wrongly) how ticketless fans had forced their way into the ground and caused a crush, and my heart sunk. This was of course a horrendous lie started by Match Commander, Peter Duckenfield, and unwittingly spread through FA officials and media outlets, before the police admitted later that it was they who had opened the gates to the Leppings Lane end themselves, allowing fans to suge through and be funnelled directly into an unguarded tunnel leading to the already overcrowded central pen. The Taylor report and subsequent Hillsborough Independent Panel established that Liverpool fans played no part in the cause of the disaster.

Hillsborough, 1989, referee Ray Lewis (Image: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo)

I watched in amazement at first, then in utter horror. I had mates at the game. I couldn’t call them, there were no mobile phones in 1989. I wouldn’t know if they were safe or not for hours.

 

Horror and waiting

The game was now abandoned, and the scenes on television were growing ever more insane and incomprehensible. I was numb and decided to turn it off and go to see my then-girlfriend at her mother’s house. I think, as I left the house, I remember the voice on the telly saying that there had been fatalities. I couldn’t believe it. By the time I reached my destination the number of dead had already reached double figures.

We sat in silence, absorbing the news as it unfolded, unable to believe our eyes and ears. Then, the questions came flooding in, what about this person, or that person? Do you know what part of the ground they were in? Between us we knew several people at the game.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Friday, April 15, 2011: Floral tributes left at the eternal flame at the Memorial Service to remember the 96 victims of the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster in 1989. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

I would later find out that one mate, Les, ended up in hospital in Sheffield, he was safe but had been badly crushed and temporarily lost sensation down one side of his body. Physically he made a great recovery but I know he struggled with that day for many years after. We’re not in touch now, I hope he’s alright.

Another lad I knew, Billy, was in the pens. I don’t know which one, because he wouldn’t speak about it afterwards. I remember calling the information line the BBC had put up on the screen several times, only to encounter an engaged tone. Eventually, around midnight, I caved in to my anxiety and called his mum’s house number. I knew she’d be waiting for a call from her son, so had resisted potentially disappointing her with the sound of my voice, if she hadn’t heard from him yet.

When she answered the phone I could have cried, and I suspect she could have too. Her voice sounded weak, tired and faltering. She had picked up the receiver so quickly, it was obvious she had been sat by the phone waiting, hoping for a sign that her son was okay. “Oh, hiya, Jeff,” she said, clearly devastated, “no, I’ve not heard from Bill yet. I’ll tell him to call when he gets home. Thanks for calling, love.” I hung up quickly, feeling so guilty for troubling her and went to bed.

Billy phoned me the next day. He sounded different though, quiet where he used to speak loudly and enthusiastically, of so much so that I struggle to understand him. This time his voice was subdued and he would only say that he was “okay” and that he had made it home in the early hours of the morning. He wouldn’t talk about it at all after that, and I never pushed him. He eventually seemed to return to his old self and got a job down south. We would lose touch over the years, but I still wonder how he is doing now.

Another mate, Ste, made it out of the crush unharmed. However, two other lads, who were in different parts of the ground spent agonising moments looking for him on the pitch, expecting to find him lying injured or worse. They have since described their utter sense of joy and relief when they finally found him alive and seemingly without so much as a scratch on him.

 

Dark times

This was the darkest of times and it felt like the bottom of our world had fallen out. I attended Anfield in the days afterwards. It just seemed like the only place I wanted to be.

I’m not religious and the place had been like a cathedral to me my whole life. When I got there, it was like a shrine. The Shankly Gates were festooned with scarves, not just Liverpool ones, but Everton ones too, and the scarves and shirts of many other clubs. Messages of support and sympathy had been scrawled in black ink on many of them, and handwritten notes, poems had been attached to the railings.

April 17, 1989, floral tributes in front of the Kop - Hillsborough disaster (Picture by: Peter Kemp / AP/Press Association Images)

Inside, the pitch was like nothing I had ever seen. The flowers, teddy bears and other assorted tributes had filled the goalmouth and were now creeping across the turf reaching the halfway line. We paraded silently around the edge of the playing surface in single file, taking in this huge outpouring of humanity and warmth and barely able to comprehend what we were seeing.

I remember Liverpool took some stick in some quarters for the way it mourned the disaster at the time, but years later this form of tribute was embraced after the death of Princess Diana. What had been described as “cloying sentimentality” by some, in the aftermath of Hillsborough was apparently okay for the death of a Royal. That people should be allowed to grieve however they see fit, free from the commentary of others, whether they are a football fan or a supporter of the aristocracy, shouldn’t be a controversial viewpoint. Seems it was in 1989.

I climbed onto the Kop and saw names scratched into the paintwork in the crowd barriers, it seemed like these were spots previously taken up by the lost and fallen, though I can’t be sure. Again, scarves were tied around the metal structures and notes and poems had been left on the steps. The tears flowed, but in those moments, it felt like we were not alone.

 

THE LIES

Then came an avalanche of lies and slurs. It hit us like a tonne of bricks and though I should have expected it, it was surprising to me both in terms of the scale of the deceit and the ferocity of it.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, August 13, 2011: The Hillsborough Justic Campaign shop on Walton Breck Road, organising a renewed campaign to boycott the Sun newspaper, before a Premiership match at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Many newspapers ran awful images on their front pages, of people fighting for their lives behind fences, their faces pressed against the steel, fighting for their lives. The s*n was not the only rag to repeat the lies cooked up by South Yorkshire Police and parrotted enthusiastically by Tory MPs, but it was by far the worse purveyor of sick smears.

Under the now infamous front-page banner headline, THE TRUTH, the paper falsely claimed that Liverpool fans had hindered police efforts to save stricken supporters, pickpocketed the dead and urinated on officers as they tried to resuscitate the injured and the dying.

Lurid claims of drunken fans forcing their way into the ground without tickets, and making lewd remarks about injured female supporters filled column inches and sadly too many people were taken in by it, despite the disaster being broadcast live on the nation’s screens and there being not a shred of video evidence to support these allegations.

The lies hurt us deeply, they continue to fester like a running sore to this day. Every time they are repeated by rival fans at a football match today, I’m struck by how easy it was for the establishment to switch the blame and focus attention away from their failings, and how despite numerous inquiries and reports placing the blame squarely on the police, how persistent and effective those lies were.

Aside from the personal hurt, the smears would do real damage to the campaign for truth and justice, and this was their most powerful effect. I have no doubt that justice and maybe even closure could have eventually been found, had the State simply held up its hands and accepted its responsibility. That was simply too much to expect of a pathological system hellbent on protecting itself at all costs, and I’m not sure much has changed since.

 

Football irrelevance

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, football seemed irrelevant. There was even talk of the season being cancelled, or at least the FA Cup.

Some speculated that Liverpool may play no further part. Nobody could have blamed the management, staff or players if they had simply decided that they no longer wanted to indulge in something as trivial as football. After all, they had spent the days and weeks after the tragedy attending funerals, visiting the injured in hospital and acting as grief counsellors without any training.

In an act of solidarity that will never be forgotten, the City of Glasgow opened its arms to Liverpool, and Celtic hosted a friendly match on April 30; 15 days after the events at Hillsborough. Many Liverpool players were said to be sceptical about playing, while some may have understandably been eager to try and get back to some sense of normality.

The game finished 4-0 to Liverpool, but the result was meaningless. What mattered is that the people of Glasgow had thrown their arms around Liverpool and that the players now believed they could go again.

The Reds resumed playing football and competed in both league and cup competitions. I don’t recall anybody I knew thinking it was wrong, though understandably some will have. I was glad they were going to carry on, but I don’t think my heart was truly in it.

 

Derby Thanks

Fittingly, Liverpool’s first league game was a 0-0 draw against Everton at Goodison Park. This was a derby day like no other. There was none of the noise and raucous atmosphere in the pubs and streets before the game, going felt like a duty rather than the joyous occasion filled with excitement and nerves it usually was. The cover of the matchday programme simply showed a photo of the Shankly Gates adorned with red and blue scarves.

Liverpool supporters paraded a banner in front of the Everton supporters, which said “THE KOP THANKS YOU ALL. WE NEVER WALKED ALONE,” and it was received with huge applause by the Blues. The minutes’ silence was impeccably observed also.

For all the rancour and bitterness of today’s derby, there was none of that back then. Everton and their supporters were magnificent over Hillsborough, and for the overwhelming majority of them, they still are. Their solidarity as Scousers wasn’t unexpected then but it was a huge help. It continues to be so now.

The game finished 0-0 and, if it mattered to anyone, that meant that the destiny of the league title was no longer in Liverpool’s hands. The Reds were five points behind Arsenal with a game in hand. If the Gunners won all of their games, they would be champions whatever Liverpool did.

Four days later, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest would once again attempt to battle it out for a place in the FA Cup Final. The tie had now been moved to Old Trafford. Liverpool won the game 3-1, thanks to a brace from Aldridge and an own goal from Forest’s Brian Laws. That meant the Reds would meet Everton at Wembley, with another league and cup double at stake for the Reds.

In the run-up to the final, Liverpool retook top spot and were a point clear of Arsenal in second place, thanks to victories over Forest, Wimbledon and QPR. Their remaining two games were at Anfield, against West Ham, and the Gunners. The title was in our own hands again, but first there was an all-Merseyside FA Cup Final to take care of.

 

Wembley awaits

I had no desire to go to Wembley. Football had lost its joy and I couldn’t face the hunt for tickets and the journey down there. It just didn’t feel the same.

The houses in our road were still decked out in colours, as they always had been on cup final day. Some red, some blue, some half red and half blue. The game was a great one, and as it unfolded I could feel that old sense of excitement and nervousness returning. It was like a festival of football and the stands at Wembley looked amazing, a kaleidoscope of red and blue, just as they had in ’84 and ’86.

Liverpool's John Barnes (left) celebrates the winning goal with Ian Rush (right) 1989 FA Cup final, Wembley (PA Images)

No one expected Everton to lie down, this was a derby after all, and there was a trophy on offer. I knew they would give us a game, and they duly obliged. In the end, the Reds emerged triumphant, winning the tie 3-2 after extra time. It felt great, and it felt right that we had played our neighbours in the final.

Now it was back to the small matter of the league campaign. West Ham were comfortably beaten 5-1 in a victory that put the Reds on the brink of the title. Goal difference was now a crucial factor though. Arsenal had drawn their game, which meant Liverpool were three points clear. If they avoided defeat, they would be champions. They could even lose 1-0 and still retain their crown.

 

The title decider

I was on the Kop that night and would witness the most painful defeat of my young life.

Arsenal took the lead in the 52nd minute, but with nails bitten down to the bone and nerves shredded, the Reds seemed to have hung on for a result that would seal a historic double, double.

With seconds remaining, Michael Thomas – a future Red – would break my heart and those of every Liverpool fan, scoring a goal that would clinch the title for the Londoners at Anfield.

Michael Thomas, Arsenal, Anfield, 1989 ( Paul Marriott/Press Association Images)

The pain felt immense, and tears rolled down my cheeks as I climbed the steps to the back of the Kop and left the ground. It wasn’t that I felt that we deserved to win the league or anything like that. It wasn’t even the last gasp nature of the loss, although that stung. I think it was more of a final straw, a last kick in the guts from a season that now seemed utterly bereft of even a meagre sliver of joy. Everyone associated with the club was suffering that night.

Steve McMahon would have this to say: “It hurts me. It hurts me. It hurts me so much. It was just unreal. It just flashed before you, the goal. It was like ‘Nah, is this really happening?”

The agony of that night and that game would eventually subside. Today it induces no more than a mild shudder and a half-smile, half-grimace whenever I recall it. It’s a story I tell my son.

However, the wounds left after the events of April 15, 1989 have never healed, they are as raw today as they have ever been. I’m reminded of that each time I read about or watch television programmes, like the magnificent Anne. In those moments I am instantly transported back in time and the tears flow again.

For others of course, the pain is far worse. I have no idea how they endure it. They are an example to us all, the best of us. For them and us, 1989 will always be the season without end.

Justice for the 97, Justice for All.

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Liverpool request Arsenal postponement and confirm training cancelled – Liverpool FC

Liverpool have confirmed that they have formally requested a postponement of Thursday’s League Cup semi-final first-leg at Arsenal due to new covid cases.

The Reds, already without Roberto Firmino, Alisson and Joel Matip – plus manager Jurgen Klopp – discovered a number of new cases on Tuesday.

Some reports earlier on Tuesday had suggested that all the club’s goalkeepers have tested positive, which is likely a reason for postponing the match.

When the club revealed that Klopp had tested positive, they added that “three backroom staff members” had also returned positive results.

Goalkeeper coaches John Achterberg, Claudio Taffarel and Jack Robinson were all missing from the trip to Chelsea, with under-23s’ goalkeeper coach Mark Morris instead in attendance at Stamford Bridge.

Liverpool FC statement:

Liverpool Football Club can confirm an application has been submitted for the postponement of Thursday’s Carabao Cup semi-final, first-leg tie with Arsenal due to an escalating number of suspected positive COVID-19 cases and player availability.

The Reds have formally requested to the EFL that the fixture is rescheduled after further suspected positive tests were registered among players and staff, allied to other factors impacting selection, including illness and injury.

In response, the club halted preparations at the AXA Training Centre, meaning Tuesday’s first-team training session was cancelled.

Among the considerations which led to today’s application to the EFL is the need for travelling supporters to be given as much notice as possible of any potential postponement.

With no prospect of the current situation improving ahead of Thursday’s fixture and the potential for it to worsen, the club considers it both prudent and reasonable to ask for the fixture to be rescheduled.

Liverpool FC will offer a further update on the application process, as well as the resumption of training, in due course.

Given that new cases would require seven days isolation, you can assume that Liverpool will also request Sunday’s FA Cup third-round tie against Shrewsbury Town at Anfield be postponed also.

Liverpool are also without Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Naby Keita due to the AFCON, plus Thiago, Harvey Elliott, Takumi Minamino, Divock Origi and Nat Phillips due to injuries.

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Liverpool’s ruthless consistency – what happened? – Liverpool FC

Liverpool’s reputation as “Mentality Monsters” has evaporated during an increasingly frustrating season, with old habits coming back to bite them hard.

The Reds are the Premier League‘s great entertainers again – what a shame.

The weekend thriller at Chelsea can be added to similarly frenetic outings against Brentford, West Ham and Tottenham this season, as their title hopes lie somewhere between hanging by a thread and moribund.

While the watching neutrals are certainly getting their money’s worth, these are concerning times from a Liverpool perspective.

 

Return of 2017/18 Liverpool

LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, December 19, 2021: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp reacts during the FA Premier League match between Tottenham Hotspur FC and Liverpool FC at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Klopp’s first few years as Reds manager saw huge progress made, but there were shortcomings throughout the team.

For every 4-3 and 5-1 win – Man City and Brighton were dispatched of by those scorelines – there were sloppy 3-3 draws against Watford and Sevilla, not to mention an abject 4-1 loss at Spurs.

Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino wreaked havoc in attack, but a limp midfield and a shaky back-line collapsed too often.

Unfortunately, this is a theme that has returned at times this season and it looks to have cost Liverpool a genuine title challenge by early January.

The draw at Chelsea was the Reds’ sixth in the league already in 2021/22 – 12 goals have been conceded in them – and on five of those occasions, they have blown leads to eventually drop points.

Klopp’s team have won 12 out of 17 matches after going in front, while Man City have prevailed on all 17 occasions, which speaks volumes.

Liverpool’s points dropped from winning positions:

2017/18 – 14
2018/19 – 6
2019/20 – 5
2020/21 – 12
2021/22 – 10 (so far)

At 2-0 up at Stamford Bridge, Liverpool never looked remotely secure and exactly the same applied when they got themselves into winning positions against Brentford, Brighton and Spurs.

It is a far cry from the peak level of this great side, when only five points were dropped after leading in the entire 2019/20 campaign – both when the title had already been won.

 

Title-winning perfection

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, July 22, 2020: Liverpool’s captain Jordan Henderson performs his traditional shuffle before lifting the Premier League trophy during the trophy presentation as the Reds are crowned Champions after the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Chelsea FC at Anfield. The game was played behind closed doors due to the UK government’s social distancing laws during the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Liverpool were always going to have to perform to a near-perfect standard in order to get the better of City and they produced remarkable form over the course of 2018/19 and 2019/20.

During that period, the Reds amassed a freakish tally of 196 points – City got 179 in that time.

The only defeat in 2018/19 came at City, when Pep Guardiola’s side won the title by a point, but Liverpool’s efforts would have brought them glory in all but one of the other seasons in Premier League history.

The following year, the Merseysiders went up a further notch, dropping just two points in their opening 27 league matches and winning the league by 18 points.

Despite Liverpool’s all-conquering brilliance, they didn’t cruise through every game, though, as their elite mentality came to the fore.

BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - Saturday, November 2, 2019: Liverpool's Sadio Mané scores the winning second goal in injury time during the FA Premier League match between Aston Villa FC and Liverpool FC at Villa Park. Liverpool won 2-1. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Thirteen of the Reds’ 38 league games were won by a one-goal margin, with victories away to the likes of Sheffield United, Aston Villa and Crystal Palace all hard-earned.

In comparison, Liverpool have only won by one goal twice in the league this season – back-to-back triumphs against Wolves and Villa last month.

In moments of adversity, whether that be through needing a last-gasp winner or defending a lead late on, the Reds’ class of 2019/20 stood tall, battling their way through fixture after fixture.

Now, they shrink in stature and resemble the pre-Virgil van Dijk era at Anfield.

The truly great sides win matches in undeserved fashion – look at City away to Arsenal last weekend – and Liverpool’s title-winners were the poster boys for that.

 

What’s the problem?

The one word that stands out when discussing Liverpool’s worrying dropoff is control.

During that unrivalled two-year spell of Klopp’s reign, the Reds were often in complete command of matches, dominating possession and squeezing the life out of teams.

In Alisson, Van Dijk and Fabinho, Liverpool signed three players who forged the best spine in world football, making them an unbreachable prospect.

There were rarely moments of sheer panic during games and Klopp’s notorious high line was played to perfection, as the entire unit system worked in unison.

What we have seen this season pales in comparison, with Liverpool going from being a perfectly well-oiled machine to one capable of flying off the tracks at any moment.

The midfield has a lot to answer for unless Fabinho and Thiago both start, far too often losing control of occasions and not pressing the ball, allowing the high line to become a weakness.

WOLVERHAMPTON, ENGLAND - Saturday, December 4, 2021: Liverpool's captain Jordan Henderson during the FA Premier League match between Wolverhampton Wanderers FC and Liverpool FC at Molineux Stadium. Liverpool won 1-0. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Jordan Henderson has dropped off alarmingly in a defensive sense this season, looking every bit his 31 years.

The captain is averaging just one tackle per game in the league, whereas he enjoyed a tally of 2.1 in 2019/20, perhaps highlighting a dip in intensity.

As pointed out by the Telegraph, Henderson ranks highest in terms of pressures in 2021/22, but even he is 30th in the overall Premier League standings.

While far more blameless than some of those around them, Alisson, Van Dijk and Fabinho haven’t been at their world-beating 2019/20 levels enough either.

Alisson has made errors or failed to keep out saveable shots against West Ham, Spurs and Leicester, Van Dijk has looked something close to a mere mortal after serious injury, and Fabinho often looks leggy after injury or illness.

If that trio slip slightly below their prime level, the difference is going to show.

 

Changes required

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - Tuesday, December 28, 2021: Liverpool's manager Jürgen Klopp waves to the travelling supporters after the FA Premier League match between Leicester City FC and Liverpool FC at the King Power Stadium. Leicester City won 1-0. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The truth may simply be that this Liverpool team has passed its absolute peak, with too many players either in their 30s or hurtling towards that milestone.

The midfield is in desperate need of freshening up this summer, with Henderson and James Milner ageing and Thiago, Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain far too injury-prone.

Some will point to the emergence of Harvey Elliott and Curtis Jones, but neither have turned 21 yet and have to be managed intelligently.

Gini Wijnaldum may have had his detractors, strangely, but his availability was priceless, not to mention his physicality and pressing ability. He has been a great loss.

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - Tuesday, December 28, 2021: Liverpool's Sadio Mané during the FA Premier League match between Leicester City FC and Liverpool FC at the King Power Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

A younger attacking option also has to come in, with Mane and Firmino not the players they were, as Klopp looks to create another great side and gradually move on some of the older guard.

Whether or not the manager has that in him remains to be seen, but the flaws in his current outfit have been laid bare too often to suggest it is just a blip.

Liverpool are still a top-class side and they should believe they can win the Champions League, so it is important that they aren’t suddenly treated as mediocre.

They just aren’t an all-time-great English side anymore and those wonderful memories of non-stop wins, clean sheets and peerless showings are a thing of the past.

It is all far more 2017/18 than 2019/20 these days, which makes for great entertainment but far too few ruthlessly efficient wins.

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Liverpool confirm 2nd transfer in a day as long-serving defender leaves – Liverpool FC

Livingston have made their first January signing after recruiting defender Morgan Boyes from Liverpool.

The 20-year-old left-sided centre-back moves to the Tony Macaroni Arena initially on an 18-month contract, with the Lions having the option to extend his deal to the summer of 2024.

Boyes made two appearances for Liverpool’s first team in cup competitions in the 2019/20 campaign but, after spending the first half of this season on loan at Fleetwood, he has left Anfield in search of more regular game-time.

Livingston manager David Martindale believes the youngster, who has been capped by Wales at under-19 and under-21 level, is equipped to go straight into his team and make an impact.

He told the Lions’ website: “I am delighted to get the signature of Morgan who had a lot of offers down south. Our relationship with Liverpool has really helped in getting Morgan up here to Livingston.

“He is a young player with a massive amount of development and potential still to come and I believe we will be very good for one another.

“I spoke to various members of staff at Liverpool and Fleetwood and everyone spoke very highly of him and his potential. I’m looking forward to working with him and seeing him up-close in training.

“Morgan is at a great age and at an age that we have found historically hard to recruit for. Finding players capable of playing first-team football at a young age in the Scottish Premiership is extremely hard but I do believe we have found this with Morgan.”

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Covid outbreak concerns & first departures confirmed – Liverpool FC Roundup – Liverpool FC

Covid continues to cause havoc in the schedule with Liverpool’s trip to Arsenal now in doubt after further cases, while the first outgoing of the window was confirmed.

 

Arsenal semi-final in doubt due to COVID-19

There are serious doubts over Liverpool’s ability to fulfil Thursday’s fixture after further positive Covid cases within the first-team squad.

Training was cancelled on Tuesday but Kirkby remained open after what is a potential outbreak, although at the time of writing there has been ‘no formal application’ to postpone the game.

Liverpool would need to show they are not capable of naming 13 outfield players and a goalkeeper should they wish to ask for a postponement.

Jurgen Klopp, Alisson, Roberto Firmino and Joel Matip are all currently isolating after testing positive and will do so until Friday at the earliest for the Brazilian pair.

And should the first leg of the semi-final be off, the FA Cup tie against Shrewsbury on Sunday will also certainly be in doubt.

When there is further news on the matter, This Is Anfield will be sure to keep you in the know.

 

First winter outgoing for Liverpool

  • Tony Gallacher is the first to depart the club this month and has left on a permanent deal after four years at Anfield, soon followed by Morgan Boyes

 

Latest Liverpool FC news

LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, January 2, 2022: Liverpool's Mohamed Salah during the FA Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC at Stamford Bridge. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

  • Naby Keita is the latest to be linked to LaLiga, this time Barcelona are the club – who “are back as big players…”
  • Salah, Mane and Keita have only just left but the question on everyone’s lips is when will they return!

 

Latest Premier League chat

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Saturday, August 28, 2021: Chelsea's Romelu Lukaku during the FA Premier League match between Liverpool FC and Chelsea FC at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

  • Southampton are to see Sport Republic, backed by Serb media mogul Dragan Solak, take a 80 percent stake in the club in a £100 million deal. Liverpool academy 2.0 to be back in business?

 

Tweet of the day and match of the night

Never say never…

It’s slim pickings tonight but if you want to hunt for EFL Trophy action then go right ahead, otherwise, it may be time to pick out a movie you’ve been eyeing up!

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When Salah, Mane & Keita could return from AFCON – earliest and latest dates – Liverpool FC

Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Naby Keita have now left Liverpool for the Africa Cup of Nations, with the trio all due to miss at least four games for their club.

The hours after Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Chelsea saw the Reds’ African trio take separate flights to Cameroon, to join training camps with their national teams.

Mane reported to the Senegal squad alongside Edouard Mendy, while Salah flew with Aston Villa forward Trezeguet and Keita made his way to Guinea’s base alone.

They left with the blessing of Jurgen Klopp, his staff and their team-mates, with Pepijn Lijnders telling them to “become even bigger legends” in pursuit of the trophy.

But it remains a big blow to Liverpool, who will be without Salah, Mane and Keita for four games at the least.

So when could they return to Merseyside?

 

Earliest – January 19/20

YEKATERINBURG, RUSSIA - JUNE 24, 2018: Senegal's Sadio Mane celebrates scoring in a 2018 FIFA World Cup Group H match against Japan at Yekaterinburg Arena. Sergei Bobylev/TASS

At the very least, all three of Liverpool’s AFCON representatives will take part in three group games, with Mane and Keita pitted against each other in Group B.

Salah’s Egypt will play Nigeria, Sudan and Guinea-Bisseau, while Senegal and Guinea are due to face off against Zimbabwe and Malawi.

There is, of course, a chance that none of Egypt, Senegal or Guinea make it out of their groups – though it is unlikely – and in this event they could be back in Liverpool before the end of the January.

Senegal and Guinea will round off the group stage on January 18, and if either are knocked out they would be able to return on January 19.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s final game of Group D is against Sudan on the evening of January 19, which in theory could see Salah then fly back to England the following day.

That could, in turn, allow them to be involved against Crystal Palace on January 23.

 

Knockout stages

Naby Deco Keita of Guinea during the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations match between Nigeria and Guinea at the Alexandria Stadium, Alexandria on the 26 June 2019 ©Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix

It is likely that all three of Liverpool’s African internationals progress to the knockout stages, however, which would mean they miss the Palace game.

Here are the earliest return dates if Egypt, Senegal or Guinea are knocked out at these stages:

  • Last 16 – January 24-27
  • Quarter-finals – January 30-31
  • Semi-finals – February 3-4

All of these dates land in the Premier League‘s winter break, with Liverpool not back in action until February 10 at home to Leicester.

 

Latest – February 7

SAINT PETERSBURG, RUSSIA - Tuesday, June 19, 2018: Egypt's Mohamed Salah during the FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 Group A match between Russia and Egypt at the Saint Petersburg Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Once progress from the group stage is secured, there is little difference for Liverpool when it comes to return dates for Salah, Mane and Keita due to the winter break.

An earlier return would be beneficial in terms of training, but with the final to take place on February 6, there would be ample time to report back for the Leicester clash regardless.

However, there is a chance Klopp affords his AFCON internationals more time off to recover following their exploits in Cameroon.

If that is the case, involvement in the trip to Burnley on February 13 may be more realistic.

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Arsenal semi-final in doubt as Liverpool suffer further Covid cases – Liverpool FC

Liverpool are reported to have cancelled their training session two days before the League Cup semi-final first leg against Arsenal, due to further concerns over COVID-19.

The Reds are due to head to the Emirates for the first leg of their semi-final on Thursday night, but that is now in doubt according to the Merseyside press.

Jurgen Klopp is already in isolation along with Alisson, Joel Matip and Roberto Firmino, with Pepijn Lijnders standing in for the manager for Sunday’s 2-2 draw with Chelsea.

It is far from ideal for Liverpool, but there had been no suggestion that the club would push for the postponement of that Premier League game.

However, according to The Athletic‘s James Pearce among others, there are now fears the League Cup tie will be called off.

Pearce reports that there have been “further positive COVID-19 tests” within the first-team squad, with a scheduled training session having been cancelled on Tuesday.

Rumours that Kirkby has been closed are as yet unfounded, though, and Pearce adds that “no formal application has been put in to postpone the game.”

“As it stands the match remains on,” he writes, “although it is believed discussions have taken place between Liverpool and the EFL.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - Sunday, January 2, 2022: Liverpool's goalkeeping coach Mark Morris (C) with goalkeepers Marcelo Pitaluga (L) and Adrián San Miguel del Castillo (R) during the FA Premier League match between Chelsea FC and Liverpool FC at Stamford Bridge. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Along with Klopp, three staff members tested positive ahead of the trip to Stamford Bridge, and with under-23s goalkeeping coach Mark Morris taking sessions, it could be deduced that any of John Achterberg, Claudio Taffarel and Jack Robinson could be affected.

There are rumours that as many as 14 positive tests emerged on Tuesday morning, which would almost certainly lead to the semi-final being postponed.

That is as yet unconfirmed, and as it stands Lijnders is due to speak to the media on Wednesday morning in his pre-match press conference.

If the Arsenal game is off, the visit of Shrewsbury in the FA Cup on Sunday will almost certainly be postponed too.

Where these cup games would fit into the calendar is unclear, with Liverpool also required to reschedule their home clash with Leeds in the league.

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Garth Crooks explains controversial Mo Salah omission in strange “selfish” claim – Liverpool FC

After leaving Mohamed Salah out of his Team of the Year and receiving backlash for it, Garth Crooks has labelled the No. 11 “selfish” and to blame for Sadio Mane‘s decline.

If there is one rule in the English football media, it is to never take Garth Crooks’ opinion seriously.

But upon the release of the BBC Sport pundit’s Team of the Year for 2021, many supporters were baffled by his omission of Salah.

That is the Salah who led the Premier League for both goals and assists across the calendar year, and is widely considered the best player in the world on current form.

Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden and Michail Antonio were Crooks’ preferred front three, with fans criticising him as a “brainless moron” and “the very worst pundit out there.”

Now, he has responded to the controversy over his Team of the Year, as he included Salah in his latest Team of the Week following a spectacular goal against Chelsea.

“I heard my non-selection of Mohamed Salah in my team of the year got one or two a little hot under the collar,” Crooks wrote.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Wednesday, December 1, 2021: Liverpool's Mohamed Salah celebrates after scoring the second goal during the FA Premier League match between Everton FC and Liverpool FC, the 239th Merseyside Derby, at Goodison Park. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

“Well, I make no apologies for that. Salah made my team of the season but crudely chased the Golden Boot award.

“His selfishness had a negative effect on Sadio Mane in particular and, in my view, had an adverse effect on Liverpool’s campaign last season – a point I made at the time.

“This season Salah looks like a team player again and his goals are coming naturally.

“He is no longer looking for cheap penalties and is back to the player he was the season Liverpool won the title, and that’s why he makes my team of the week.”

That’s right.

Mo Salah and Sadio Mane celebrate (Image: Action Images via Reuters/Lee Smith)

Salah was at fault for Mane’s downturn in form and having spent a year attempting to con referees into awarding penalties, he is now focused on playing the right way again.

It makes complete sense, and Crooks should be forgiven for leaving Liverpool’s No. 11 out of his Team of the Year at the expense of Saka, Foden and Antonio.

Thankfully, now Salah is “back to the player he was,” Mane is also firing on all cylinders, no longer burdened by the selfish forward alongside him.

Oh, wait…

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Fans question latest dubious Man City sponsorship – “English football is dead” – Liverpool FC

With Man City announcing a new sponsorship deal with the Abu Dhabi government, fans across the Premier League have questioned the legitimacy of their arrangement.

City are owned by the Abu Dhabi United Group, which is led by Sheikh Mansour, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family and deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates.

The Premier League champions have already seen a host of sponsorship deals agreed with brands in Abu Dhabi, including shirt sponsor Etihad Airways and official partners the Etisalat Group and Visit Abu Dhabi.

It is widely suspected that those deals are inflated by City’s close ties to the UAE, and this has come into light again following a new deal confirmed on Tuesday.

Emirates Palace, owned by the Abu Dhabi government, are now their Official Luxury Hotel Partner – or whatever that means – and fans have responded with scepticism.

Many took to social media on the announcement of the deal to note its convenience for a club that is already enjoying the benefits of a financial gulf.

 

Liverpool fans were among the most critical…

 

But fans of other clubs also joined in…

 

Including City supporters…


Journalist Tariq Panja, who regularly writes on the business of football and Premier League regulations, asked whether it would be the “first chance for new related party regulations to be tested.”

In December, the English top flight confirmed that they would require clubs to submit any sponsorship proposal worth over £1 million to them to determine whether it was to an ‘associated party’ transaction.

That City have already confirmed the Emirates Palace as a new partner suggests that the Premier League consider the deal legitimate.

But given their history – with an investigation into FFP breaches ongoing – there is every reason to suspect otherwise of the reigning champions.

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Youngster hails “incredible education” at Liverpool after sealing transfer – Liverpool FC

St Johnstone have signed Liverpool left-back Tony Gallacher on a two-and-a-half-year contract.

The 22-year-old broke into the Falkirk first team as a teenager and then moved to Anfield for a six-figure transfer fee in 2018.

He spent part of last season on loan at Toronto FC and, after being unable to force his way into Jurgen Klopp’s plans, has now left Liverpool on a permanent basis to join Saints on a deal until summer 2024.

Gallacher, who made one appearance for the Reds in 2019, told the Perth club’s website: “I’m really excited about my move to St Johnstone and can’t wait to get started.

“I had a great time at Liverpool and I’d like to thank everyone there for looking after me and helping me to improve as a footballer and teach me so many good habits.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, September 19, 2021: Liverpool's Tony Gallacher during the Premier League 2 Division 1 match between Liverpool FC Under-23's and Leeds United AFC Under-23's at the Liverpool Academy. Leeds United won 4-0. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

“I feel very lucky to have been part of a massive football club with so many wonderful professionals and people. It was an incredible education.

“But I felt the time was right to look for first-team football and an exciting opportunity presented itself at St Johnstone.

“Having been out on loan at Toronto, I enjoyed my time there and it made me want more and more first-team football.

“It’s now up to me to show everyone at St Johnstone that I’m good enough to play regular first-team football and that’s what I plan to do.

“My preference is to play on the left-hand side as I feel I have good energy to get up and down and can deliver crosses into the box. I also enjoy the defensive side of the game.”

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - Friday, July 24, 2015: Liverpool's Daniel Cleary in action against a Malaysia XI during a friendly match at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium on day twelve of the club's preseason tour. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Saints are currently bottom of the cinch Premiership.

They have already added Irish defender Daniel Cleary (also ex-Liverpool, pictured above) to their squad this month while also signing midfielder Ali Crawford on a permanent contract.

Gallacher continued: “My immediate aim is to work hard and integrate with the group. Team spirit is so important and I know it’s a really good squad at St Johnstone.

“There will be a feeling of positivity going into the second half of the season. We then need to take that into games and we will.

“It’s vital to win games of football and I am confident we will do that to move away from the bottom end of the table.”

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