David Raven, Zak Whitbread, John Welsh, Darren Potter. Not exactly names that flow off the tongues of today’s Liverpool supporters, but all four started on the night that the Reds last faced Burnley – one of Rafa Benitez’s lowest points as Liverpool manager.
It was January 2005, and Liverpool would be European champions in four months time, but if you’d have told that to anyone at Turf Moor that night then you’d have been laughed out of Lancashire. Benitez maintains that he would have named a stronger line-up had his first ever FA Cup tie taken place on its original date in the first week of the new year – when heavy rain washed it out – but his weakened selection drew widespread condemnation and allegations that the manager, who’d been in England for just six months, had misunderstood the importance of the competition to the club and its supporters. The Reds were as awful as a team in which lone striker Florent Sinama-Pongolle is supported by Antonio Nunez would tend to be, and Djimi Traore’s comical own goal – a bizarre spinning backheeled effort from a Richard Chaplow cross – capped a 1-0 defeat and a new low point in Liverpool’s season. The Reds had lost at home to Manchester United three days earlier, and would lose dismally at a Peter Crouch-inspired Southampton four days later. The Premier League title was further away than ever.
Fast forward to the present day, and Benitez’s side looks far healthier by comparison as they prepare to welcome Burnley to Anfield tomorrow. None of the manager’s infamous line-up from 2005 will start the match – only Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher are still at the club – with Clarets goalkeeper Brian Jensen the only survivor from both sides who can call upon first hand experience of Traore’s terrible twirl. That Burnley are in the Premier League in the first place is nothing short of a minor miracle, for which gruff-voiced Scottish boss Owen Coyle has earned the enviable nickname of ‘The New Bill Shankly.’ Today’s football climate means that Coyle would need some kind of billionaire if he were to emulate Shankly in taking a team from the second tier all the way up to national domination, but his achievements in leading a town whose population could fit inside Old Trafford up to the bright lights of the country’s top division deserves recognition.
Liverpool supporters quite like Burnley at the moment. It was difficult to tell apart the laughter from the shock when the full-time score from their win over Manchester United was read out over the tannoy at Anfield after the 4-0 win over Stoke last month. Four days later they beat Everton as well – results that pleased Liverpool’s supporters, but will have left the players in no doubt of the tough task they’ll face on Saturday. The Reds have often slipped up against newly promoted sides at Anfield, drawing against Stoke, Hull and Birmingham in the last two seasons and generally dropping points at home to the lesser lights who are hard to break down. Man Utd’s form against the lower-ranked teams is what won them the league last season – United took just five points from the six clashes with the rest of the ‘big four’, but 70 points from a possible 72 against the bottom fourteen teams in the league – enough evidence to prove that Liverpool need to sharpen up their act against the teams that they are expected to beat comfortably.
The addition of Glen Johnson was seen by many as an attempt to put right these home discomforts. Johnson has been Liverpool’s best player in each of their four games this season – scoring two goals, making two others and fully justifying the expensive outlay on his services. When Liverpool are attacking he becomes an extra option on the right hand side, allowing Dirk Kuyt to head into the box and become a striker again. He’ll be important tomorrow simply for the added threat he provides down the flank, helping Liverpool get in behind opponents that, for all their hard work and attacking talent, are likely to get men behind the ball and stay there in the hope of pulling off another shock result like they did in 2005.
David Raven now plays for Carlisle United. Zak Whitbread is at Millwall, John Welsh signed for Tranmere in the summer and Darren Potter recently joined Sheffield Wednesday. All have carved out good Football League careers, but none of them will forget a cold night at Turf Moor four and a half years ago. Their predecessors are better prepared to avoid a similar fate, but Benitez knows from experience that Burnley can’t be taken lightly.
Liverpool Club Focus
The People of Thailand & Singapore vs. Xabi Alonso – July 29
Should nobody expect a Spanish acquisition? – August 5
High hopes – August 12
False start – August 18
Plenty of bets, but no slip – August 21
Three games, two defeats and one big problem – August 25
It gets no easier – August 27
Smells like team spirit – September 1
Babel crows for return to homeland – September 4
Into the Twilight Zone – September 8
Settling the score – September 11