Liverpool: Symptom, Symbol, and Fantasy
This time it will take more than equine placenta to deliver a proper prognosis.
Liverpool is tangled in the loosening ends of its tradition. It’s hard to believe, despite the lengthy and cacophonous unraveling, which has cruelly dovetailed with Manchester United threatening to surpass them as most storied. The squad is strained by want-aways and a thin bench. The manager, Roy Hodgson, was appointed in the summer based on forty years of domestic and continental experience, which found a successful synthesis in Fulham, first by avoiding relegation and then two years later by reaching the Europa League final. With this résumé, the first task is to stabilize the club—hoist it on his shoulders and take a measured approach on all fronts.
There is also the persona. Mr. Hodgson looks old-fashioned, but cool—more a great uncle than grandfather. His paternalism is authoritative and comforting. He’d be great company on holidays—gregarious and engaging even after the big dinner, telling tipsy-length stories and occasionally offering prescriptive suggestions for one’s life.
Opinions on his appointment generally split when it comes to his managerial role. One position argues that Hodgson is a great choice to bring calm and begin the retrofit. The other argues that he will not bring about Liverpool’s restoration, which is the only objective. Stability will be an inevitable result of the highest aim. Considering the state of things, this is blind zeal, which means there are big blind spots too.
The strength of the institution and the immovable necessity of Liverpool circumscribed by its supporters, constitutes a belief to be envied, except when it’s delusional. The inevitable return to the top has included calls for the new owner to be a multi-billionaire—Chinese, Middle Eastern, American, Russian, sovereign-owned doesn’t matter. Someone like Roman Abramovich or better. Despising the current American ownership has led to what sounds like welcoming a Manchester City-like takeover.
This is a strange flexing of muscle. What does this rescue fantasy say about the strategic return to the top? Come save us with your billions because we are Liverpool inadvertently says much about the sense of abjection.
Hodgson’s purpose may be so tightly fitted to stability that the attribute becomes a potential failure. Toss in the disadvantaged timing of his hire by owners who will almost certainly sell the club. Hicks and Gillette reflected their panic by installing calm, and possibly passed on all the traits of a lame duck. A new manager often follows new ownership.
The elements for a short tenure are there. However Hodgson’s role is determined, the priority is to buy time as much as to stabilize the club until sold to a solvent entity bringing immediate financial security. If Liverpool has a distinguished new fan base this season it’s the anxious bank creditor.
At best, expectations will be met or exceeded and Hodgson will have secured a conditional future. At worst, he is a tourniquet.
The image of stability is also projected outward to supporters and media. Of the many sedimented layers of anxiety, Hodgson has to offer at least phyllo-layers of hope—just enough for media and the angry and despairing supporter to grip. Media coverage continues to highlight the meltdown and coagulation on and off the field. Hardly a day passes without out seeing the photographs of Tom Hicks and George Gillette’s performance as enshrouded, true supporters in articles detailing their transgressions. Each subsequent time one encounters the image, their smiles look more sinister.
Then there is Steven Gerrard’s on-field grimace-face. Over the last year, his expression looks increasingly like he is suffering from brighter and brighter sun in his eyes. Or, there is Javier Mascherano’s petulance—valuable when contained in the role of an imposing defensive midfielder— has soured into infantile tantrum. Then, this weekend, after David N’gog’s goal, a camera cut to Hodgson captured the man searching for any remaining bit of fingernail to chew. This last image is the most foreboding.
Kickoff—Liverpool could have crumbled under the weight of their problems. The initial moment of a defining season sent all pressure into bottleneck. It almost seemed possible that the house of cards would catch the wind off the opening whistle.
But Liverpool was up for the game. With an empathic, but tense home crowd behind them, the game could have been a temporary release and therapy, an aroma that takes them back to the happy place. The sensory experience would be restorative as it amplified through the tunnel as the team took the field.
Yet the fact remains that the only issue solved by opening day was the appointment of a new manager, a sliver of optimism to put the summer behind them. A tie would preserve an edge on the pinky finger for later scratching in the ear—the survival of another week. A win could sustain core beliefs of the easily excitable during power struggles and back room negotiations.
Liverpool played fairly well, and probably should have won the game. Joe Cole’s sending-off didn’t have a bearing on the match’s quality or outcome, but a three-game ban is a soluble stain on what stands as on-field proof of Liverpool’s enduring power to allure top players. It’s easy to see the red card as portentous and another symptom of decline.
Pepe Reina’s mistake, which allowed Arsenal to equalize in the 90th minute, was called a “howler” by many, and it may qualify as one as much as it may be over-reach. Howlers come out of nowhere. They are inexplicable. They are very specific to a moment made up of an unpredictable confluence of variables, some from beyond the three dimensions. By contrast, every expression of Liverpool’s dysfunction is systemic and predictable. Reina is solely responsible for the goal, but when a howler comes to mind in August 2010, it is Rob Greene’s at the World Cup.
Marouane Chamakh’s header-ish shot ricocheted off the post. The rebound didn’t have a lot of pace, but it can’t be easy controlling a rebound off a curved post while wheeling around out of the sun (Reina doesn’t have hair and doesn’t wear a cap). Off his hands, the ball bounced back into the goal. Calling it a howler tries to make the whole crazy Liverpool crisis crazier than you think, because it’s getting crazier all the time. It is hardly necessary to have another sign that the rot is everywhere. It’s already classical drama and crazy crisis. Nothing about it is prophetic.
The Cassandras, ignored because everyone sees what they do, have returned to belting out Anfield anthems. They swing from the storm to the golden sky and back. But the October 6th payment deadline to the Bank of Scotland is quickly approaching, and with default unimaginable, one can fall back into disbelief, which is how one feels seeing a holwer or recognizing a mistake’s inescapable connection to remarkable circumstances.