It was when the first beach ball bounced down from the Kop that everyone seemed to have got the message – enough is enough. After weeks of being ridiculed, torn apart and told about the dim, almost post-apocalyptic near-future of the club, it was time to remind everyone of what Liverpool FC is all about. The dozens of inflatable balls that found their way from the Reds supporters onto the pitch before kick off against Manchester United carried the humble, self-deprecating, typically Liverpudlian message that the supporters had seen the funny side of that goal at Sunderland and were ready to move on. Thankfully, so too were the players.
Maybe the modern, pampered Premier League footballer can employ people to turn their clocks back for them, but when Liverpool’s players woke up on Sunday morning having adjusted their timepieces the night before, they hadn’t just gone back an hour – they’d gone back six months. This was the Liverpool of the tail end of last season. Snarling, in your face – they never allowed Manchester United time on the ball in areas where the visitors could hurt them. Gone were the frustrations, anxiety and limitations of recent weeks, all of them replaced by a desire, passion and will-to-win that transmitted from the Anfield stands.
On an afternoon when leaders were needed, Jamie Carragher, Javier Mascherano, Lucas and Dirk Kuyt stood up for their side, battling manfully and adding a steel to the style that was so typically provided by the half-fit Fernando Torres. David Ngog’s stoppage time clincher was the release for all of the melancholy and misery surrounding the club – supporters roared more in relief than celebration. The young Ngog’s almost child-like innocence when celebrating his goal acted as a reminder of the big pressures placed upon young shoulders in recent weeks. That Pepe Reina was the first man to congratulate him showed just how much effort the shattered outfield players had put in. Carragher grew in stature once he took possession of Steven Gerrard’s armband. Immense not just in his own game but in the organisation of others, the Reds defender was first to every ball in and around his penalty area – kicking, heading and clearing anything or anyone that came near him. Perhaps he was fortunate to escape with just a booking for the tussle with Michael Owen – who he can now just about keep up with – late on, but with Owen trundling away from goal and the nearby, much quicker Glen Johnson in the vicinity, the decision was understandable. Even if Carragher had seen red, there was little to suggest that a visiting team who had failed to seriously trouble Pepe Reina in 80 minutes would do so in the final ten (or 15), just because Liverpool had a man less. If Owen was the day’s pantomime villain, then the immobile Dimitar Berbatov was its jester.
For the hero, look no further than Torres. Patched up to play his part in one of the biggest games of this or any a season, roughed up by the likes of Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic – surely his, and Liverpool’s favourite opponent – in the first half, but psyched up by a desire to arrest the recent run of poor form, Torres took a while to get into this game, but provided its one moment of true quality to put the Reds on the road to recovery. The hapless Rio Ferdinand will be seeing the brilliant forward in his nightmares.
It is, after all is said and done, just three points for Liverpool, but the identity of their opponents makes it seem like much more than that. The Reds just needed to beat someone, anyone, to halt their alarming decline, but a win over their biggest rivals will restore the confidence levels that had been severely lacking. Suddenly the 10 point deficit from United that the Reds were told they’d be facing has become just four. How the ‘crisis-hit’ club that they’ve enjoyed mocking has been allowed to get so close to the champions is surely a cause for concern at Old Trafford. The brave faces that they’ve been putting on in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo may just be starting to slip, as nobody in black – bar the adequate Antonio Valencia – threatened to get in behind the Reds defence.
But United’s worries are of no concern to Liverpool. Only the most business-minded or cold-hearted of football followers would suggest it, but maybe the victory wasn’t the best thing to happen to the Reds at the weekend, as Managing Director Christian Purslow confirmed that there would be much needed new investment in the club “in the next six months.” That can wait, however, as can any more uncomfortable questions about the club’s management and ownership. Right now there’s glory to be basked in – and how everyone at Liverpool has missed it.