Monday, 17 February 2020

Liverpool in the USA: The supporter groups creating slices of Anfield across America

You have to journey as far as Tennessee to find the secret to Liverpool’s success this season.

Late goals against Wolves, Monterrey, Crystal Palace, Aston Villa, Arsenal, Manchester United and Leicester have all proved decisive during the course of a remarkable campaign – and it turns out the Nashville Supporters Club is to thank. Jonathan Slape, president of the group, revealed a long-standing tradition: when the team needs to score late in the game, all of the assembled fans switch to drinking bottles of Budweiser. It’s inexplicable, but what Slape modestly calls the ‘fairly good success rate’ is beyond dispute.

It’s also good news for Budweiser, as the number of supporters packed into the Party Fowl chicken restaurant has been known to swell to as many as 600. This figure was for the Champions League final in 2019, while a solid average of between 70 and 80 people come along to support Liverpool every week.

Such quirks and traditions have been a common feature of the more than 30 accounts shared with me by presidents of Official Liverpool Supporters Clubs (OLSCs) across the USA. A 45-minute drive to Murfreesboro, the other official group in Tennessee, brings you to a long-established ritual of a shot of Jack Daniels Fire before every game. The group leader here, fittingly called JD, says that this has been going on since the very first time the club gathered to watch a game.

In Texas, a considerable road trip away, the members have to be even more creative with their drinking. Austin is six hours behind GMT, so the earliest kick-offs mean a 6:30AM start. Alcohol cannot be legally served at their usual (strictly Liverpool-only) pub at that time – so the fans bring beer to the parking garage across the street.

But life as a supporter in the USA isn’t all about the alcohol arrangements. Steven Wilson, the president of the Austin group, told me of the plans to bring The Anfield Wrap to Texas in March – the podcast and fanzine will be hosted by the Delaware group this year too. The Austin club also arranges for a Liverpool legend to visit annually: the likes of John Barnes and Alan Kennedy have come in the past. Additionally, Wilson has helped play host to a fan-fest in Texas, working alongside Liverpool and NBC, which was attended by more than 2000 registered supporters.

The founder and chairwoman of the Carlsbad, California branch, Amy Kate, is aiming to eventually hit even bigger heights. She is one of the founders and partners of KOPCON, a three-day event held in Las Vegas. It has a stated aim “to unite supporters all over North America for a great weekend of events, music, player meetings and drinks” – the previous iteration, held during the Champions League final, was a huge success.

Kansas City

The scale of the support so many miles away from Anfield is overwhelming. More than 50 supporter groups span 33 states, and those are just the official ones – the club has a waiting list of others seeking affiliation.

The reality of the numbers is astounding. The president of the Kansas City group, Kyle Miles, estimated 700 active members in the KC metro alone. For the Champions League final, this number swelled even further and The Dubliner had to turn people away due to reaching its fire code limit.

Kevin, from the Chicago group, shared a similar account. He said: “Our email list is about 2000. For big matches our 200-person bar is at capacity and we have overflow options – for really big matches there may be a line out the door before it opens.” Like Texas, Chicago has to cope with some 6:30 starts. Unlike Texas, average lows for this time of year are around -8 degrees Celsius. Even so, a reliable core of at least 30 – usually closer to 80 - make it to the bar for every match without fail: the passion and dedication of American fans should not be underestimated.

This goes beyond just cheering the team on during games, although they do plenty of that. The majority of official supporters clubs were eager to speak about their charity initiatives. Lots of worthwhile local causes are bolstered through the efforts of Liverpool fans – in Indianapolis, for example, the fans raise funds and hold warm clothes drives for homelessness relief organisation SOAR. Chairman Trey Higdon was so keen to share this with me that he interrupted his honeymoon to reply! Meanwhile, in New York, the oldest supporter group in the country works to raise money for the Father’s Heart Ministries hunger prevention programme.

Liverpool-based charities are also helped by a lot of the supporter groups. This in itself is fairly remarkable – this is a city thousands of miles from where these fans live, with a football club serving as their only connection to Merseyside, and yet the bond this creates is strong enough to prompt many American supporters to give generously to Liverpudlian causes. In Richmond, Virginia, there is a collection at every game: as well as raising money for a local foodbank and animal charity, donations are also directed to the North Liverpool Foodbank and Liverpool Dog Rescue. Last year, over $4000 was raised and split between these four charities.

The Liverpool family in Houston
Other OLSCs choose to work with the LFC Foundation, while in Columbus a group are planning to take part in a virtual 5k run in parallel to the Run for the 96 in Liverpool. The Kansas City group have partnered with Jamie Carragher’s 23 Foundation. In Des Moines, there have been auctions and raffles held for Sean Cox. Dunboyne is close to 200 miles from Liverpool, while Iowa is another 3800 miles further than that, and yet the unifying force of the club is strong enough to move people from Merseyside to the Midwest to raise money for a fellow fan in need. The Murfreesboro group encapsulate this unity with a touching tradition. President JD Deckard explained: “Each half-time, first-time visitors sign our banner. Once signed, you're no longer a visitor. You're family.”

The vocal minority who bemoan ‘tourist’ fans when some of these groups make their pilgrimages to Anfield would do well to remember that these people have quite literally been feeding the hungry of the city. Supporting abroad is inevitably a different experience to supporting as a local, but these people are by no means casual in their backing. Liverpool sucks people in, it shapes not only your view on football but your view on life – the reality of it is that the club truly is a family. Anyone who comes to Anfield should be treated as though they are being welcomed home.

Of course, this is literally true for some of the US-based fans. These are diverse communities, and many of the groups feature Liverpool locals who have since moved stateside. Glendon Hart, president of the Palm Beaches group in Florida, is originally from West Kirby. Bryn Griffiths, who founded the Chicago group before moving to Wisconsin and forming another one in Madison, was born to Liverpudlian parents. The chairman of the Houston club hails from Walton. Some sort of Scouse heritage is not a prerequisite for joining a supporter group, but these are by no means insular groups exclusive to American locals.

In fact, the welcoming nature of the official supporter groups is one of their key features. As well as the bands of regulars, they all play host to travelling fans to some degree. Two people from Shrewsbury showed up in Indiana, and were welcomed in to watch the FA Cup game. Nashville host a steady stream of tourists hoping to catch a Liverpool game while paying a visit to the home of country music. Palm Beaches’ Glendon Hart refers to ‘The International House of Liverpool’ – his Florida group often count South Africans, Australians, Finns, Swedes, Poles, Russians and Mexicans among their number. More people are always welcome: the Jersey Shore group estimates that match-day visitor figures are growing by about 10% every month, a trend of growth mirrored across the USA.

The experience that greets such visitors varies significantly from group to group. While there are plenty of similarities that run across all of the supporter clubs, each has its own unique identity. Time zones help to dictate the kind of matchday experience that can be expected - Al Rounds, chairman of the Portland group, said: “Since most of our games are fairly early we have a relaxed and family-friendly atmosphere”. ‘Fairly early’ is somewhat euphemistic – in Oregon, a significant number of matches kick-off at 4:30AM local time. Rounds is quick to note, however, that the biggest games more closely resemble ‘full-on rock concerts’.

This party feel is familiar to fans in Indianapolis and Des Moines, where the OLSCs have been known to set off pyrotechnics. The ‘Kansas City Kop’ has also certainly earned its nickname, with what Kyle Miles describes as ‘a special group’ regularly creating an atmosphere of which Anfield itself would be proud.

Things can get similarly raucous in Milwaukee, in the group known as the ‘Cream City Scousers’. Anthony Perez recounted his experience of the Champions League final: “The goal celebration for Salah’s penalty was unreal. Unlike anything Three Lions Pub had ever seen before. Unlike anything the entire block had seen before, as evidenced by a neighbour calling in a noise complaint. But June 1st 2019 was no day to quiet down.”

The earliest starts in Orange County, California are more likely to be accompanied by coffee and doughnuts than flares and noise complaints, but there is still a designated standing area in the pub known as the California Kop. David Jennings noted a particularly relaxed atmosphere in Long Beach, putting it succinctly: “It’s California, so a lot of people arrive last minute”. In many ways, this is the beauty of the supporter groups. Each and every member is there for the same reason, the same reason people congregate in Anfield so many thousands of miles away - but the shape the support takes is governed by the nature of the communities in which the fans meet.

The individuality of the groups is so significant that some of the OLSCs organise ‘away trips’ to fellow fan groups, allowing them to experience the support from another perspective. The Palm Beaches group took the inspiration to become official from a visit to Fort Lauderdale, while the Charlottesville and Richmond groups have organised coach trips to watch matches with one another on multiple occasions. Kansas City have made trips to Omaha and St Louis. This is one of the most vivid expressions of the camaraderie that exists, among the US fans in particular but also within the wider global Liverpool fanbase.

This, really, is the ultimate message to take away. Liverpool Football Club is the commonality that pulls together a vast diaspora of people, in so doing creating a community capable of acting as a genuine force for good. In the words of Craig McKnight, chair of the Cincinnati group: “That is the thing about this club as a whole, the world is brought together under a crest”. This unity also lends millions of voices to the choruses of You’ll Never Walk Alone sung in unison from Anfield to Albuquerque: on this wave of noise and support, Liverpool might just ride to the title.

Monday, 20 January 2020

Front threes, combined XIs and Manchester United’s quest for relevance

As a younger sibling, I can understand the plight of Manchester United. Though they were founded chronologically prior to Liverpool, they share many traits with a second child.

They lived for a long time in the shadows, watching on with begrudging respect tinged with envy as Liverpool conquered all before them. Even when the Red Devils’ time came, each accomplishment was tinged with the knowledge that it had all been done before – the benchmark had been set, and they were simply measuring up to these impossibly high expectations.

For a brief, ecstatic period, their star shone brightest: through decades of graft, they finally laid claim to the title of most successful club in England. The attention was theirs, they were the new benchmark. And then, just like that, they weren’t.

Like the kid from the state school who made it to Oxford then went back to live with his parents while his sister carved out a successful career – this is all hypothetical, of course – United fell swiftly from the perch they had spent years constructing. Already, the waters of their success have been muddied: Liverpool’s Champions League, Super Cup and Club World Cup titles have left them requiring snookers in the form of Community Shields to cling on to their claim of the biggest trophy haul.

More importantly, the shift in the trajectories of the two clubs has been seismic. Just as Liverpool’s ‘come back when you’ve won 18’ banner felt increasingly hollow up until the day the challenge was met, equally it seems inevitable that even United’s contrived trophy count including the showpiece season-opener will be surpassed sooner or later. For all the kid from Old Trafford may protest, the big brother is back on top.

This is not easy for them to take. As the derby approaches, historic clips have inevitably surfaced – videos such as Dirk Kuyt netting the exemplar poacher’s hattrick would once have been the hit of nostalgia Liverpool fans needed just to get through the weekend, but with only more success on the horizon they can look forward with confidence. For United, retreat into their past glories is the only place of safety remaining.

Some, though, choose to stand and stay swinging. This is where things get embarrassing. Again, it is hard not to feel sorry for them – all Liverpool fans of a certain vintage will remember the days of trying to sneak players into combined XIs in school debates, kidding themselves that the two clubs remained at least on a par. The truth of the matter, though, is that this season Liverpool’s own ‘combined eleven’ has a record points haul for this stage of a campaign. United are 5th, with a tally that could have seen them as low as 10th in previous years.

One of these teams is not like the other. Jurgen Klopp cannot yet be compared with Alex Ferguson, who it is far easier to praise now that he is not the cause of constant torment, but he has had a similarly transformative effect on his club. He has awoken the ‘sleeping giant’ – that comforting phrase that serves as a crutch to underperforming clubs – and restored them to the status of the greatest team in the world. There is no particular shame in the fact that Manchester United cannot match this: nobody can.

This comes as little solace, though, to the United fans – the rivalry is too deep, the habit of measuring up against Liverpool too ingrained.  The advancement into the latter stages of the Champions League, the unlikely survival of top four hopes: these will never wholly satisfy, not so long as the side from Anfield overshadow it all.

These frustrations have manifested themselves in the form of claims that United’s front three somehow eclipse Liverpool’s. Aided by social media accounts eager to cash in on the potential for engagement, statistics showing that the front three of Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah have been outscored by that of Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood and Anthony Martial have spread like wildfire.

The numbers are of course correct, but presented without context they are utterly meaningless. They cannot be separated from the positions of their respective teams – while United fans can clearly be pleased that their forwards have an eye for goal, they should have a closer look at the Samba d’Or holder and the previous two African Player of the Year winners before attempting to make favourable comparisons.

Truly world class forwards should be facilitators as well as goal-scorers. Goals win games, as those pushing hard for Rashford’s inclusion in Liverpool/United XIs will incessantly tell anyone prepared to listen, but it must be asked how the Old Trafford outfit have become so reliant on the front three. Naturally, some fingers must be pointed both at the quality behind them and at the manager. However, there is more to it than that.

Roberto Firmino can be found deep in midfield as often as he can be seen running off the shoulder of the last man. Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah are not averse to shifts as auxiliary full-backs, covering spaces left by the marauding runs of the two full-backs following a turnover of possession. The European and world champions operate as a unit, getting the best out of the team as a collective. This requires far more intelligence from the front three than lurking on the halfway line ready to break: it will be recalled that they played far more in this fashion two seasons ago, when Mohamed Salah broke the Premier League goal record.

If Liverpool wanted to limit themselves to counter-attacking raids, their front three could eclipse United’s numbers with ease. We have seen them do it. There is duly a whiff of desperation about the comparisons, which ultimately are merely a cry for relevance as the club slides towards the risk of obscurity.

That is not to diminish Rashford, Martial or Greenwood individually, all of whom look like reasonable talents. If United can hold on to them, they are in a far better position to claw their way back to the top than Liverpool found themselves in at their nadir. Perhaps, before too long – probably with a different manager at the helm – a reasonable debate can be had about who would get into a combined eleven. For now, though, the last cries of defiance in the face of a record-breaking Liverpool team ring empty.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Spurs 0-1 Liverpool: Player ratings

Alisson Becker
Liverpool had to work for it, but a 1-0 triumph against Spurs in the capital was enough to move them an astounding 16 points clear of second-placed Leicester City. It was a determined performance from front to back, and Klopp’s men weathered some second-half scares to emerge victorious. Everybody came out of the game with credit, but there were some standout performers. Here are the player ratings:

Alisson: 9
You know you’re having a good game for Liverpool when Gary Neville singles you out for praise. The Sky co-commentator pointed out that a string of ‘easy’ saves for the stopper were only made to look so simple by the Brazilian’s impeccable positioning. His handling was also faultless – as Spurs pushed for an equaliser late on, any fumble could have proved decisive. The distribution was as accurate as ever: very occasionally he picked a pass that put the defence under unnecessary pressure, but ultimately the whole defensive unit has trust in each other’s ball-playing abilities. An excellent performance.

Trent Alexander-Arnold: 8
Anyone still determined to place question marks over Alexander-Arnold’s defensive qualities would have been given pause for thought by his performance in this game. He marshalled Heung-min Son excellently for most of the match, stepping up to the plate when the South Korean began to push forward more in search of a goal. A recovery challenge that put him off when he was through on goal was the most eye-catching moment, although much of his best work was done in quietly shepherding the wide forward into safe positions. It wasn’t Trent’s best day going forward, but we saw the other side of his game.

Joe Gomez: 6
The first game since his return to the side where Gomez has looked a bit shaky, but ultimately he still played his part in keeping another clean sheet. Lucas Moura caused him problems early on, and he was forced into a professional foul on Son, but he coped well with the threat of a second yellow hanging over him for much of the match. A loose pass that nearly let Dele Alli in on the hour mark earned him a rollicking off Virgil van Dijk, but his partner was able to bail him out.

Virgil van Dijk: 9
Another colossal performance from the big Dutchman. He kept his head when everyone else started to look a little shaky, injecting the element of composure needed to weather the eventual Spurs storm. His big challenge to deny Alli was a decisive moment in the match.

Andy Robertson: 7
A bit rash from Robertson at times – he lunged into a couple of hefty challenges, and was probably fortunate to end the game without a booking. He supplied some good deliveries, though, and was largely effective defensively. Serge Aurier put in a quality cross from his flank late on which Giovani Lo Celso should have converted, but it would be harsh to attach too much blame to the Scotsman.

Jordan Henderson: 7
The captain looked a little vulnerable under an early high press from Tottenham’s front line, but as Liverpool seized control and Spurs settled back into a more familiar Mourinho shape he came into his own. He put in a great cross for van Dijk, although the Dutchman was narrowly offside. Minutes later, he put in a brave header which many would have shied away from – this allowed Salah to pick out Firmino, who scored the goal which proved to be the winner. He was arguably guilty of being a little negative when Tottenham continued to sit back at 1-0, but in the end a second goal did not prove necessary.

Gini Wijnaldum: 5
Not the best day at the office for the Dutchman. He was largely anonymous going forward, occasionally showing off his ability to glide effortlessly past players but mostly just serving as a conduit to receive and recycle passes. On another day, he would have had to take the blame for an equaliser – it was he who was robbed by Lo Celso with fifteen minutes to go, forcing Alexander-Arnold to intervene and unsettle Son. He came into his own more in the final few minutes, where his continued energy was impressive and allowed Liverpool to escape out of their own half.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (subbed for Lallana, 61’): 7
The former Arsenal man looked like he was enjoying himself against Spurs, constantly providing progression from the middle of the park. This came at the cost of a few stray passes, but he regularly looked likely to make things happen in the first half. His driving runs were too much for a distinctly underwhelming Tottenham midfield. A quieter second half, withdrawn on the hour mark for Lallana.

Sadio Mane (subbed for Origi, 81): 8
This one may seem a little generous, but Mane put in an excellent all-round performance. In the first half he was a live wire, exploiting the inexperience of Japhet Tanganga and causing him real problems. He also picked some intelligent passes infield when others would have favoured the overlap, exploiting the lightweight Spurs midfield. He did not make the most of a difficult chance on 35 minutes, volleying into the ground and over, but took up all the right positions. In the second half he was less active going forward – he still forced a good save out of Paulo Gazzaniga from a header, but his most notable work was in his tracking back. He was regularly found deep in his own half supplying an extra body as Mourinho finally pushed men forward, so it was something of a surprise when Klopp replaced him with Origi.

Roberto Firmino: 8
A typical Firmino performance. He showed off some great feet, supplied a finish and routinely harried the Spurs back line. A remarkable turn early on was one that will make highlights reels, although he probably should have finished past Tanganga on the line. He got his revenge on the youngster in the 37th minute, completely selling him with a delicious feint before firing beyond the goalkeeper. A couple of flicks to teammates didn’t come off, but there was a merciful reduction in the misplaced simple passes that have crept into his game recently.

Mohamed Salah: 8 (subbed for Shaqiri, 90’)
Yes, it’s parity for all of the front three. It was a great collective performance from them: they all put in the defensive yards, while putting together some attacking combinations that were at times as intricate and fluid as we have seen from them. While Firmino got the goal, it could have been any of them – Salah had to overcome the attentions of Davinson Sanchez, who was usually quick to push out to him, but his tricky play in tight areas created more space for Mane in particular. He also bested the Colombian centre-half sometimes; he could not quite find a final finish of his own, but claimed the assist for the goal.

Lallana – 6
Origi and Shaqiri – N/A

Saturday, 21 December 2019

Liverpool, champions of the world

World champions: Liverpool lift the Club World Cup (BBC screenshot)

They did it the hard way, but after 120 minutes of hard work Liverpool were crowned world champions in Doha. A stubborn Flamengo side and some questionable officiating were ultimately not enough to thwart one of the greatest club sides ever assembled, who further secured their legacy by adding another trophy to an ever-expanding collection.

The Premier League leaders were made to fight for it, but they have shown time and time again that they are more than willing to do so. The official status as the best on the planet is really only telling people what they already knew: this team is something special.

The victory delivers the first Club World Cup in Liverpool’s storied history. Anfield has seen some great sides over the years, but now for the first time they can sing of ‘the best football team in the world’ backed up by silverware.

They should have been 1-0 up within the opening minute. A simple chip over the top found Roberto Firmino clear of the back line, but he could not cope with an awkward bounce and fired over the top under pressure from the recovering centre-half. The early barrage did not relent, as Liverpool continued to exploit the space in behind – minutes later Klopp’s side were in again, this time with Salah, but Naby Keita also struck over from the Egyptian’s pull-back.

Memories of the 2005 final were conjured up as the minutes ticked by without a goal. The champions of Europe continued to dominate, but rather than a Rogerio Ceni masterclass it was profligate finishing keeping the scores level. There was some solace in the fact that Gabriel ‘Gabigol’ Barbosa was being completely stifled, but with red shirts flooding forward routinely there were creeping fears that one counter-attack could make things extremely uncomfortable.

These doubts were hardly assuaged by two near-misses from Bruno Henrique, who repeatedly found joy down Trent Alexander-Arnold’s flank. One of these opportunities came from a poor piece of distribution from Alisson, providing a stark demonstration of how one lapse in concentration could swing the game. Indeed, as the half progressed the Brazilian side started to move into the ascendency – a wildly skewed clearance from the usually imperious Virgil van Dijk summed up the loss of composure.

A series of soft free-kicks given by the referee did not help Liverpool’s attempts to regain their early rhythm, but the officials cannot be blamed for the sloppy passes and naïve defending that dogged Liverpool’s game throughout much of the first period. Flamengo looked sharper and hungrier: their semi-final did take place earlier, but excuses and mitigation is not what wins teams the title of world champions. This was a long way from Liverpool at its devastating best.

A strong start to the second half was needed. The Premier League leaders obliged, but in a cruel reflection of the first half Firmino once again failed to convert from close range. This time he was tantalisingly close, crashing his strike against the inside of the post and away. The challenge lay in sustaining the pressure – Salah flashed one wide moments later, offering more encouragement to those who had travelled from Merseyside.

Instead of the breakthrough, there came a creeping sense of déjà vu. Following the two big chances for Liverpool to take the lead, Flamengo found their feet – it was only a good Alisson save that prevented Gabigol from opening the scoring. This earned the former Internacional stopper even more jeers from the numerous fans who had made the pilgrimage from Rio de Janeiro.

The hour mark came and went without a goal. Extra-time would not have been high on Klopp’s Christmas list, with the festive schedule already packed – the German was visibly frustrated on the touchline as his side toiled. Nonetheless, an extra thirty minutes looked increasingly likely as both sides struggled to create. The problems were intensified by a nasty injury to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, forced off after a hefty blow to his ankle.

Captain Jordan Henderson nearly averted the extra period with a lovely strike from long distance, but he was denied hero status by a smart diving save. It then looked as though Salah would be handed the chance to win it from the spot after Mane broke clear and went down under the challenge from Rafinha. However, a lengthy VAR check - purportedly over whether the incident occurred inside or outside the box - somehow contrived to give no foul at all. The match continued into extra time.

By this point proceedings were threatening to descend into farce, as the Brazilians tried everything to hold on. The theatrics and gamesmanship, present throughout the 90 minutes, were turned up to a new level: the highlight was undoubtedly Gabigol departing on a stretcher with cramp.

But this Liverpool side did not lift the European Cup and reach the summit of the Premier League without being able to fight to the bitter end. In the 99th minute, the deadlock was finally broken. Fittingly, it was Firmino who found the net at the third time of asking. Mane played him through after a defence-splitting pass from Henderson, and he showed the composure to sit the goalkeeper down and fire it into the unguarded net.

The rest of the match passed as an exercise in game management. Liverpool showed the maturity that has been their biggest area of improvement in recent seasons, keeping chances to a minimum. Even the best sides are subject to some jitters in the last minutes of a final, and hearts were in mouths when Lincoln skied a chance from a great position, but Klopp’s side saw it out to earn the crown of world champions.

It was not the finest game that this team of stars has played, but it was perhaps the most fitting way to reach the top of the world. There is class and brilliance, but there is resilience and guile in equal measure. It is this which separates them from even the great sides of old, none of whom ever triumphed on this stage: it may well be the same qualities which see the Premier League drought ended come the end of the season.

Friday, 13 December 2019

A-Z of the 2000s: Fernando Torres

This piece was originally published as part of a series on These Football Times:

A young Torres at Atletico

Few names evoke the first footballing decade of the millennium more than Fernando Torres. He fits the 2000s brief irresistibly, graduating to Atletico Madrid’s first team in 2001 and peaking at Anfield prior to his 2011 departure. His subsequent move to Chelsea, short-lived stint at AC Milan, emotional return to Atletico and intriguing swansong in Japan are more than mere footnotes in his remarkable career, but history will remember Torres as the dominant forward he was in the 2000s.

Torres is nicknamed El Nino: The Kid. Now 35, his retirement announced, the epithet remains – he is immortalised as the fresh-faced talent who made his way through the Atletico Madrid youth system. Born in Fuenlabrada, Torres made the short journey into the capital in 1995 having scored fifty-five league goals for youth side Rayo 13. He had no hesitation when Atletico came calling, having been imbibed with his grandfather’s love for the Rojiblancos.

Success in the academy followed, and it became increasingly clear to the club that they might have somebody special on their hands. It was of course not yet known that he would go on to define an era, but those who make it their business to do so were certainly keeping a watchful eye on his progress. Just a year after joining Atletico he was the subject of a failed raid by their city rivals, Real Madrid. In 1998, he triumphed in the prestigious Nike Cup, and was subsequently voted the best player in Europe in his age group – the Spaniard is separated from Cristiano Ronaldo by less than a year, but it was not the Sporting Lisbon talent who was making the biggest waves.

As a result of his ever-rising stock, Torres had a release clause set at three million euros before he had even turned sixteen. This was included in his first professional contract, signed in 1999. The age of El Nino was about to dawn.

It was apparent by the turn of the century that Torres was ready to move on from youth football. A cracked shinbone briefly halted his meteoric rise, but he was nonetheless handed his senior club debut before the end of the 2000/01 season amidst a clamour amongst fans to see the boy who had been setting the academy alight. He showed no signs of slowing down: his first senior goal followed just a week after his first appearance. Anyone who had not been paying him attention was forced to do so in the summer of 2001 - Torres travelled to the u16s European Championships with Spain, where it became abundantly clear that The Kid had grown up. He departed a victor, having scored a tournament-high seven goals, including the winning strike in the final against France. Unsurprisingly, he was named as the best player of the tournament.

He returned to the Estadio Vicente Calderon as a bona fide member of the first-team setup. His goal output finally took something of a dip, the first indication that Torres might actually be human, but the six league goals paint an incomplete picture. The integration into the senior side was a relatively smooth one: he featured 36 times on the way to Atletico’s return to La Liga. His first goal, against Levante, was a vivid indication that Torres’ talents translated to the senior tier; an audacious lob from the edge of the box gave fans a taste of the brilliance to which they would grow accustomed. Atletico Madrid were promoted as champions.

Torres duly arrived in La Liga in the summer of 2002 having established himself as a mainstay in Atletico Madrid’s starting eleven. The goals that had briefly been in short supply came flooding back: El Nino netted thirteen times in the Spanish top flight, making him the club’s top scorer and helping to guide Atletico to an 11th-place finish. By the end of the next campaign, he was the third-top scorer in the whole league – his contributions dragged the Rojiblancos to an impressive 7th place. Still a teenager, he was rewarded with the captain’s armband.

This was not the Atletico Madrid that modern fans would recognise. Torres was made captain of a ship in disarray, and year after year was called upon to steady it. The club’s own sporting director, Jesús García Pitarch, admitted shortly before the striker departed that it was “ridiculous” that he was still there. There was an undeniable truth in this, and it was hardly surprising that Torres began to grow weary with carrying his boyhood club: he contributed the most goals in 2004/5, just as he had done in the preceding two campaigns. And then he did the same the next season. And the next. In total, by the summer of 2007, he had amassed 75 goals in 173 top flight games and almost single-handedly kept Atletico in La Liga. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the club would never have grown into the powerhouse it is today were it not for the contributions of Fernando Torres.

The favourite son could not stay at home forever. Torres had been repeatedly linked with a move to England from almost as soon as he reached Atletico’s first team, but until this point the captaincy had weighed heavily enough on him to keep him anchored. It was the words written on the inside of that armband that ultimately provided the clue to his next destination: You’ll Never Walk Alone.

Torres trains for Liverpool
In fact, the link to Liverpool was little more than incidental – Torres and a group of friends had simply liked the motto when they heard it and chosen to adopt it as their own, and while the forward was unwilling to get the sentiment tattooed, he chose to carry it with him in another form. Nobody was even meant to see it, but the armband came loose one game. From this moment the move seemed almost like fate.

On a more mundane level, it was Rafael Benitez rather than ethereal forces that brought Torres to Merseyside. The manager broke Liverpool’s transfer record to unite with his fellow Spaniard, reportedly agreeing to a fee in the region of £25 million. Any doubters were quickly silenced: El Nino, now in his floppy-haired phase, was reaching his purest form.

No longer tasked with carrying the entire hopes of a football club, Torres played with a newfound freedom at Liverpool. Equally, Steven Gerrard was palpably relieved at having someone with whom he could share his own burden – the two struck up an immediate chemistry. Torres was suddenly receiving the kind of service he had never before experienced, and he thrived off it. It only took until his home debut to get off the mark: Chelsea got their first glimpse of a man who would go on to torment them, who they could only eventually stop by buying him. Gerrard picked him out, he breezed beyond Tal Ben Haim and slotted it away. Simple. Ruthless.

Torres continued in this vein throughout the campaign. Beyond the adoring walls of the Calderon there had always been lingering doubts in Spain about whether he really had the clinical touch required of an elite striker, but for those keeping an eye on his progress in England these concerns were being emphatically allayed. Torres plundered 24 league goals in his debut season, chipping in with four assists for good measure. He also contributed a hattrick in his only League Cup appearance, and notched six goals on the way to the Champions League semi-finals. The sheer variety of these goals was almost as impressive as the number - he was already achieving the kind of hero status he had earned at Atletico.

The ultimate vindication came at Euro 2008. The countrymen who had questioned him, had viewed him as a fun but frustrating forward, bowed down in adulation as he scored the goal that crowned the start of Spain’s international dominance. As Jens Lehman came rushing out he could only watch on in horror as Torres stole in before him, easing Phillip Lahm away before producing a deft chip into the corner for the only goal of the final. The strength, the composure, the delicacy: only occasionally does a forward boast such a complete skill set, and one who can excel in all these qualities at the biggest moments is rarer still.

Torres duly returned to Liverpool as a European champion, having finally earned universal recognition as one of the game’s best strikers. The Anfield crowd were well and truly besotted – nobody ever thought that there could one day be a number 9 to surpass Robbie Fowler, a man so good he was simply nicknamed ‘God’, but this felt like the second coming. In his first game back, he fired one in from well outside the box. After an injury-enforced interlude, he returned to sink Everton with a brace in the Merseyside derby. Scousers were growing their hair out. A proliferation of dogs named ‘Nando’ could be found throughout the city. He was the focus of a Nike advert that encapsulated the extent to which he had captured Liverpool hearts and minds. This was someone special, and everyone watching him knew it.

Sadly, the injuries were soon to start mounting up. His hamstring issue recurred and proved troublesome for much of the 2008/09 campaign, such that he only managed 24 appearances in the league. He still found time to score a decisive brace against Chelsea, and produce an iconic ‘five times’ celebration after scoring in a 4-1 victory over Manchester United, but as the decade came to a close it began to become apparent that Torres was slowly descending from his dizzying peak.

Even injury-plagued, though, he was able to make the PFA Team of the Year for a second consecutive season. In the last match of the campaign he made it fifty Liverpool goals in all competitions since joining, a landmark reached even more quickly than Fowler had managed. He marked the occasion with a bullet header, generating improbable power from an awkward position to send the ball flying into the top corner. Head, feet, it did not matter: when he made it to the pitch, he would take his chances.

Eighteen league goals followed in 2009/10: this was once again a return of almost a goal a game, as the season would ultimately end for Torres in April after a knee issue required surgery. By this point Liverpool were descending into farce on par with the sort that Torres had left behind at Atletico, and he once again found himself a shining light in a team largely bereft of direction. He had left his homeland craving titles, and they were looking ever more distant.

An eventual move was thus almost inevitable, although this did not prevent the manner of the departure breaking Liverpool hearts. Chelsea parted with £50 million to acquire their old foe on a dramatic January deadline day in 2011, but in truth the London club never really received the world-beater they thought they had signed. It was little surprise that Torres’ body began to betray him after close to a decade of carrying his sides: the signs had been there while he was still at Liverpool, and it was only ever a shadow of El Nino that pulled on a Chelsea shirt.

He did at least gain the titles that had for so long eluded him – personal triumph was traded for European glory. These accolades were no less than his career warranted, even if he was not pivotal in guiding Chelsea to the successes. Factoring in later silverware from his return to Atletico, his honours list is now an extensive one: Champions League winner, two-time Europa League champion and FA Cup victor reads very nicely alongside the title of European and World champion.

It is the period where his domestic trophy cabinet remained barren, however, for which he will principally be remembered. The Torres of the 2000s may not always have been blessed with world class teammates, but he was good enough to win the hearts of two cities - and eventually a nation.  

Friday, 1 November 2019

Liverpool 5-5 Arsenal (5-4 on penalties)

Curtis Jones celebrates his moment
of Kop glory (Source:

A youthful-looking Liverpool team produced a hugely entertaining and faintly ridiculous tie against a typically chaotic Arsenal, eventually emerging victorious on penalties after 18-year-old Curtis Jones kept his nerve from the spot.

Both defences looked out of their depth in a remarkably open encounter
that at times looked set to threaten Arsenal’s own record for the number of goals in a League Cup game. Klopp’s side could at least plead their extreme youth in mitigation, but their opponents will be scrambling for excuses after being matched step for step by an outrageously determined home side, who sent the game to penalties with a last-gasp Divock Origi equaliser.

The casual observer would have been forgiven for mistaking this for an exhibition match, but in fact there was a place in the quarter-finals at stake. Nonetheless the Liverpool manager turned to his youngsters, a tactic to which supporters have grown accustomed in this competition. There was a debut for Welsh defender Neco Williams, who was joined in defence by 17-year-old summer acquisition Sepp van den Berg.

The deadlock was broken after just six minutes in remarkably straightforward fashion. A simple ball from Williams took Joe Willock out of the equation entirely, leaving Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in acres of space. Sead Kolasinac scrambled across towards the former Arsenal man, but this just left more room in the middle: Shkodran Mustafi produced a desperate dive to try and deny the waiting Rhian Brewster, but could only succeed in turning the ball into his own net.

It was Arsenal rather than the hosts that looked like the side lacking experience in these opening exchanges. Unai Emery’s side left gaping holes when pressed by Liverpool’s hungry attack. They were in again minutes later when Adam Lallana carved open the defence with a lofted pass – only a poor touch from Oxlade-Chamberlain prevented a second goal.

The visitors, however, struck next. The first signs of naivety in the Liverpool back line were exploited, as they remained far too static and allowed Lucas Torreira to ghost in and score after a fine Caoimhín Kelleher save. Replays showed that the Uruguayan was in fact offside, but there was no VAR in operation to bail out the shoddy defensive work.

The goal allowed Arsenal to grow in confidence, and as increasing pressure was applied to Liverpool’s defence the inexperience became more and more apparent. Gabriel Martinelli turned the game on its head in the 26th minute, making it 2-1 after Kelleher could only palm the ball into his path. There was again too much passivity among the ranks as the initial square pass came in, and the Irish stopper should have done better when van den Berg deflected the ball towards him.

It was 3-1 by the 36th minute.  Another individual error was punished by an increasingly ruthless Arsenal side – 16-year-old Harvey Elliott, who became the second-youngest player ever to start for Liverpool in last round’s victory over MK Dons, played a blind pass that Ainsley Maitland-Niles cut out easily. It was then a simple task of passing across the box to Martinelli, who was on hand to tap in his second of the game.

Roles were reversed in the 42nd minute, when Martinelli clipped Elliott while back defending a corner. The youngster is obviously raw, but showed his talent with a clever change of pace to win the penalty, which James Milner converted without fuss.

There was still time for glorious chances to be spurned by both Martinelli and Divock Origi in a frenetic end to the first half.

The break did little to calm things down. Brewster nearly nicked in behind Mustafi minutes after the restart before Bukayo Saka got in a couple of sighters for Arsenal. In the 54th minute the away side made it 4-2, in a moment of contrasting fortunes for two of the more experienced players: James Milner produced an uncharacteristically loose pass inside his own box, and Mesut Ozil kept the ball in play with a delightful flick. This allowed Maitland-Niles to convert into an empty net, Kelleher having been left in no-man’s land by the initial misplaced ball.

In any other game that might have settled it, but in a match where defences were well and truly second-best there were more twists to come. Less than five minutes had passed before Oxlade-Chamberlain reduced the deficit once more, producing a stunning swerving strike to beat Emiliano Martinez. The ball sat up invitingly and he met it emphatically on the bounce to put one over on his old club.

With 61 minutes on the clock Divock Origi stepped up to level the game. He produced a wonderful Cruyff turn to beat his man before firing beyond Martinez in front of The Kop. This was met with a huge roar from a crowd that seemed almost as bemused as they were impressed: it was a rare outing for the chaotically high-pressing but wide-open Liverpool that has been largely banished at senior level since the arrivals of Virgil van Dijk and Fabinho.

The competition for goal of the game intensified further when Willock got involved in the 70th minute. He was left with too much space on the edge of the box and clattered the ball into the top corner beyond a helpless Kelleher, changing the complexion of the game once more.

This looked to have finally clinched it, but there was yet more madness to come. Origi added to his impressively growing collection of iconic moments, meeting a great cross from Williams to acrobatically convert a dramatic 94th-minute equaliser.

This sent it to penalties. There were remarkably few nerves on display given the youth of the players stepping up on both sides, and ultimately the only slip-up came from one of the more senior squad members. Dani Ceballos, a second-half substitute for Arsenal, saw his effort turned away by Kelleher in a moment that the keeper is bound to savour for a long time. Academy product Curtis Jones then made indelible memories of his own, wrapping things up by netting the winning penalty into the corner.

It is hard to draw any meaningful conclusions from such an utterly absurd game, but it was fitting that on a night when VAR was conspicuous by its absence we witnessed footballing entertainment in its purest form.

Thursday, 26 September 2019

When Ireland Played as One

To this day, England’s record victory stands at 13-0. The rout was achieved in February 1882, against an opponent playing its first ever international fixture: The Irish National Football Team. Even following the division of Ireland in 1920, this united team would continue in some guise for another three decades.

The pre-partition side was only the fourth ever national team to be formed, following in the wake of England, Scotland and Wales. The fledgling state of the international scene meant that opponents were limited, with Ireland exclusively competing against the Home Nations for the majority of its existence. The game was also still in its infancy domestically, particularly when compared with the flourishing leagues of England and Scotland, so the national side had to be creative.

A recreation ground in County Cork, circa 1900

Ireland turned to youth. Following the 13-0 drubbing in their first match, the team got off the mark in their next fixture against Wales courtesy of a player who remains the youngest ever goal-scorer for an Irish side of any description. Samuel Johnston bagged an equaliser at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground at the age of just 15 years and 160 days: in the intervening 137 years of international football, there have only been two younger goal-scorers.

The goal did not prove significant in the context of the match, as Wales went on to win 7-1, but this innovative spirit would eventually prompt a change in Ireland’s fortunes. They had to endure a galling run of 14 defeats and a draw, including a demolition in the inaugural British Home Championships in 1884, but this was a team still finding its feet. The first win finally came in 1887, with a 4-1 triumph over Wales in Belfast. Within the next few years, and at the 13th attempt, Ireland avoided defeat to England for the first time. In a bid to build on this burgeoning success, the Irish National side took a bold step.

In 1897, for the first time ever, a coach took charge of a national team. Ireland turned to Billy Crone, a former defender who had played twelve times for the national side in its earliest days, to oversee a meeting with England. It did not pay immediate dividends, with Ireland suffering a 6-0 defeat, but in the next game Crone presided over a 4-3 triumph against Wales. A defeat to Scotland followed, meaning the national side once again propped up the Home Championship standings, but the appointment of a national manager some fifty-seven years before England or Scotland followed suit undoubtedly contributed to the Irish National Team becoming more competitive.

Further radical steps followed. In 1899, the IFA lifted the restriction on selecting players not based in the domestic leagues, thus opening up a wider talent pool for selection. Just four years later, they had broken the duopoly on the British Home Championship: up to this point only England and Scotland had triumphed, but with a manager and English-based players at their disposal the Irish were able to force a three-way tie. Much of this can of course be attributed to the lack of a goal difference rule at the time, but it was nevertheless still a notable achievement.

The pinnacle of the Irish National Football Team, however, came eleven years later. In the last British Home Championships before the First World War, Ireland – managed by Hugh McAteer - upset the odds to win the tournament outright. England, who they had only defeated for the first time the previous year, were brushed aside 3-0. A brace from Billy Gillespie then secured a 2-1 win over Wales: this would not have been possible prior to the IFA reforms at the turn of the century, with Gillespie playing his club football in England for Sheffield United. A 1-1 draw with Scotland then confirmed Ireland’s status as champions, something that would have been unthinkable just a few years previously.

It was a cruel twist of fate that this would be Ireland’s last international fixture for five years. The outbreak of war undid much of the national team’s progress, and in the Home Championships immediately following the end of the conflict they finished bottom. They suffered the same fate in the 1919-20 iteration of the competition, despite only falling to one defeat: this would be the last time a sole and undisputed all-Ireland side would compete together.

1920 saw the passing of The Government of Ireland Act. This followed bitter fighting between the British and the Irish Republican forces in the south – while the legislation initially saw both parts of the island remain under British control, republicans had already gone about establishing a parliament and assembling a functioning state. The Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1921 duly provided for the official establishment of the Irish Free State. In fact, Northern Ireland were included in this arrangement, but were provided with an opt-out: this they exercised, and in 1922 Ireland became an island divided.

Almost in parallel to the political developments, the FAI emerged as football’s governing body in the south a year prior to the split becoming official. It had gained official recognition as the association representing the Free State by 1923; the sectarian divisions that pervaded so many aspects of life in Ireland had reached football, and there was now a team for the north and a team for the south. 

Even so, there was far from complete segregation in the early years of the competing federations. Players would routinely play for both national sides: the IFA in particular continued to select on an all-Ireland basis, and there was generally little reluctance from those in the Republic to accept a call-up. This was starkly highlighted in September 1946, when England played both teams in the same week: the IFA ignored a request to only pick players from its own jurisdiction, and two men consequently featured against the English in both fixtures in the space of three days.

This willingness to turn out for both national sides was a rare display of unity at a time when cultural divisions were generally only deepening. It showed, perhaps, that at a human level there were far more similarities than differences amongst the people of the island of Ireland. Nonetheless, from a purely sporting perspective, the situation was unsustainable. 1949/50 saw both sides enter qualifying for the World Cup: The Republic played in a group with Sweden and Finland, while Northern Ireland sought to gain qualification through the Home Championship. Ultimately neither country made it to Brazil, so the two teams did not meet, but the same players representing multiple countries in a single World Cup campaign was obviously problematic.

It was clear that such a situation could cause far more major problems in the future. Furthermore, the IFA’s repeated selection of what was essentially a continuation of the all-Ireland team engendered resentment from the FAI, if not the players – they questioned why it should be Northern Ireland who carried the gauntlet for the whole island. A rule was duly introduced by the Republic that effectively prohibited players from turning out for the IFA-run side, and with this the all-Ireland side truly came to an end.

The elusive question of Irish identity would of course go on to cause far deeper divisions, and it was to produce one more problem in the footballing context. In the years following the split, both national teams competed under the name Ireland – when players were moving freely between the two this was an oddity more than a significant issue, but with the two teams entering the same tournaments with different players at their disposal it became imperative to differentiate them.

FIFA’s solution was to prohibit either team from calling themselves Ireland. Both nations objected, but perhaps surprisingly it was Northern Ireland who most stubbornly clung to the name. Again, that both countries felt so fiercely Irish is evidence of a common thread transcending all of the various differences: as late as the 1970s the North continued to defy FIFA through use of the name Ireland on match programmes and other official literature. This decade saw a significant shift, however, and the IFA abruptly shed the ‘Ireland’ moniker. Save for Northern Ireland’s vaguely reminiscent emblem, the last vestiges of the all-Ireland team were gone.

Both sides have gone on to experience their own various highs and lows as independent footballing nations, but always the nagging question remains of what could be achieved if they were to unite. The political question remains fraught, but sport has a unique way of bridging the gaps: if the early days of the all-Irish IFA team did not prove this, the current rugby union setup certainly does. The time may not be right for such a move, and ultimately it is something that can only be achieved with a significant appetite from both of the national associations, but 106 years on from Ireland’s last tournament triumph in the Home Championships it certainly provides something to think about.