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There Are Games I Remember: An Unexpected European Comeback

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010 by Paul Grech

The decade had begun with Liverpool as champions. It was, admittedly, an ageing side but for the previous two decades Liverpool had carried out such transitions silently with new players being brought slowly in. And it would have been the same this time round as well if Graeme Souness had been of a more patient nature.

Instead, the Scot who had taken over after Kenny Dalglish's resignation concluded that the time had come to revolutionise the side. Souness decided - wrongly, as it turned out - that Peter Beardsley, Steve Staunton and Steve McMahon were no longer good enough. To replace them he went for the likes of Paul Stewart and Michael Thomas, big money transfers who wouldn't have come anywhere near to playing for any Liverpool side of the previous three decades.


The result of his ripping up the previously succesful side coupled with a series of injuries that many blamed on his coaching regime soon started to show. Going into this UEFA Cup game Liverpool had won only two of their previous eleven games, a negative run the likes of which the club had not witnessed since Bill Shankly had led the club back to the First Division thirty years earlier. One of those games had been the away leg in France where Liverpool had been completely outclassed and somewhat lucky to lose by just two goals.

Confidence that the result could be overturned wasn't high and Anfield wasn't even half full as a result. After all, Liverpool had never managed to overturn a two leg result before (although the strength of the previous sides meant that they rarely found themselves finding such a deficit) so what hope was there for this hapless side? That the limit of four foreign players had forced Souness to field a number of young players - Mike Marsh, for instance, started the game at right-back - further strengthened the belief that this was an impossible task.

For all the negativity, however, the atmosphere inside of Anfield more than matched that of other famous European nights. An early Jan Molby penalty helped fuel the hope among the supporters that they were about to witness something special and by half-time the aggregate score stood at two-all after Marsh had headed in a corner.

Auxerre had caused some worries early on and Bruce Grobbelaar had to pull off a good save midway through the first half. In the second, however, they were nowhere to be seen as Liverpool created one chance after another. Extra-time looked to be on the way when, seven minutes from time, Molby played one of his usual defence splitting passes into the path of Mark Walters (pictured) who took the ball between two defenders and then slotted it past the keeper to mark an amazing come-back.

For Walters this was about as good as it was going to get. A decent player who would have done quite well elsewhere in the English first division and indeed had been brilliant at Rangers, the fact was that Liverpool didn't need him given that there was John Barnes filling his favoured position on the right hand side of midfield. Indeed, the fear that he had been brought in to get rid of Barnes made fans wary whilst his middle name of Everton didn't help in the popularity scale.

It was also going to get much worse for Liverpool. There were no more heroics in the next round of the UEFA Cup when Genoa won both in Italy (2-0) and at Anfield (2-1) whilst Souness' horrendous transfer dealings irriversibly weakened the team. But on that night against Auxerre it looked as if it was the Liverpool of old playing out there on the pitch. Sadly, it was to be a rare bright spot in a decade that was to be the worst in Liverpool's modern history.

UEFA Cup second round 2nd leg (November 6 1991)
Liverpool 3 Auxerre 0
Liverpool go through 3-2 on aggregate


The Lad Can Play: Andre Wisdom

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Monday, June 14, 2010 by Paul Grech

One of the most common pitfalls of youth football lies in the over-reliance on players who have developed physically at a faster rate than the rest of their peers. Stick a big lad up front, another one at the back and you are guaranteed that your side will over-power most of the teams it comes across.

In such teams, it is inevitable that the tall players will look as if they're the special ones. That, however, will only be the case until the rest catch up with them. Once size is no longer an advantage, their superiority vanishes and their lack of skill - often a by-product of such systems that favour brawn over brains - will kill off their progress.

It is why there is so much importance being placed on letting children develop their technical abilities before anything else: it is only once there is a good foundation in place that one can really start to talk about tactics and positions on the pitch. In reality, there isn't a fixed point during a player's development where the focus should shift away from his technique.

Many of those who watched Andre Wisdom at the recent European Under 17 championships were impressed by the confidence with which the central defender played with the ball at his feet. Rather than simply lumping it forward or passing it to the nearest midfielder, Wisdom often moved out of defence with the ball at his feet something that added a different dimension to the side.

Wisdom has always been that sort of defender but these past twelve months have seen a significant development in that part of his game. And it hasn't been accidental. Indeed, for most of the academy season, Wisdom played more often on the right hand side or the centre of midfield than he did at the heart of defence. It was a good move for there were few doubts that, physically, he could more than handle himself at the back. After all, this was a player who had played against players two years his senior in the previous year's run to the final of the FA Youth Cup. The risk was that Wisdom would end up relying too much on his strength and speed to get out of trouble which is why playing in midfield was so important: it allowed him to develop a different side of his game but also one that gave him a better perspective of what happens higher up the pitch. That he never looked out of position was simply an added bonus.

Indeed, it is hard not to be excited with a player like Wisdom. For he is someone who, on the face of it, he has all the ingredients needed to become a huge player. He not only has raw athleticism - pace and physical strength - in abbundance but also knows how to read the game, is very vocal, tactically is very aware and can pick a pass or two.

There is, of course, much that needs to be done. It remains to be seen, for instance, how he reacts when faced by strikers who are as strong - if not stronger - than he is. Or far more experienced and ready to pounce on the little mistakes that remain in his game. But the way he reacted to scoring an own-goal in the final of the European championships was highly indicative: whereas others might have had their confidence shot, Wisdom simply stepped up a gear and went on to score the equaliser. With an attitude like that on top of everything that he has going for him, it is hard to see him failing.


Greatness Does Not Depend on World Cup

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Friday, June 11, 2010 by Paul Grech

Nowadays, the World Cup is being billed as the event that no one can miss, least of all the players where the pressure to get to play at this stage is today at such a level that not doing so risks getting billed as a failure. Yet a player's greatness is not measured by their appearances in a tournament that comes around every four years.  Indeed some of Liverpool's finest players never managed to play in the World Cup

Billy Liddell
As with many other great players in the club's history, Liddell was Scottish. Liddell was, by all account a fantastic striker who should have graced the World Cup. But, despite playing twenty eight times for Scotland - quite a number considering not only that national teams didn't play as many games back then and that the war robbed him of seven years of his career - Scotland didn't qualify for the 1950 World Cup (or, rather, they withdrew) when Liddell was still at his peak whilst he wasn't chosen for the 1954 competition.

Ian Rush
Looking back, it seems incredible that Wales never got to a major championship even when they could count not only on Ian Rush - perhaps the finest striker of his era - but also others of the quality of Neville Southall, Kevin Ratcliffe and Mark Hughes. Unfortunately, they never did make it denying Rush from the ability to show his worth on the highest stage.

Bruce Grobbelaar
As someone who had served in the Rhodesian army, it took a long time for Grobbelaar to become a fixture for the national team of the country of his birth, Zimbabwe. Indeed, it was only when his career was winding down that he got the opportunity to do so. Despite having some good players in the side, notably Peter Ndlovu, Zimbabwe never really managed to maintain a serious challenge to gain qualification.

Sami Hyypia

With hindsight, it was gravely unfounded, but at the time the reasons for the doubts surrounding the purchase of Sami Hyypia were justifiable. After all, not only was he coming from a team no one had heard of (Willem II) but he was also Finnish. And who had ever heard of any half decent Finnish players (Jari Litmannen excepted)? Yet Hyypia turned out to be one of the finest players ever to play for the club although not even he could elevate his nation to make it to the World Cup

Steve Heighway
Heighway was such a brilliant winger that his name is still sung at Anfield today. Sadly for him (well, as far as international football is concerned) he also happened to be Irish in the pre-Jack Charlton days when qualification to major tournaments was still little more than a dream.

Tommy Smith
Much like Jamie Carragher a couple of decades later, Smith was never much appreciated outside of Anfield. Indeed, for a player who won so much both domestically and on the international stage and was such an influential figure for such a long time, he deserved much more attention from his national team. Yet that wasn't forthcoming and Smith only earned one cap.

Ian St. John
These days, St. John comes across as a somewhat vitriolic figure who isn't very keen on foreign managers. His criticism of Gerard Houllier first and more recently of Rafael Benitez has somewhat soured his reputation but this was one of the key players on whom Bill Shankly based his revolution, turning Liverpool from a mid-table Second Division side to English champions in the space of three seasons. Yet, despite a wealth of talent, the Scottish sides of St. John's era found it hard to qualify for the World Cup.

Alan Kennedy
Looking back, it looks astounding that a left back who won so many titles with Liverpool never really made the grade with England but that's what happened with Kennedy. Kenny Sansom was the favoured left-back when he was playing and seeing that he had a fantastic record of never missing games with injuries, opportunities for Kennedy were limited so that he played only twice for England and never in the World Cup.

Emlyn Hughes
Having made his breakthrough for Liverpool, Emlyn Hughes was chosen in the England squad that made it to the World Cup in 1970 but never got to play in what was to be the final hurrah for Alf Ramsey's team. That was to be as close as he would get because England failed to qualify for the next two competitions (1974 and 1978).

Terry McDermott
His story is, in a way, similar to that of Emlyn Huges in that McDermott was a member in the English squad for the 1982 World Cup but couldn't get a look-in in a midfield where Bryan Robson and Peter Reid were the preferred partnership. It reinforces the view that McDermott, a vital member in Liverpool's all-conquering side, was one of the most under-rated players of his generation.

Since the home nations only started paying any attention to the World Cup in the second half of last century, no Liverpool players from the pre-war era have been considered.


What Not To Do With Your Money: Buy a Liverpool Kit

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Monday, June 07, 2010 by Paul Grech

Whether you thought it was right or wrong, there is one undeniable benefit in the removal of Rafael Benitez which is that there is no longer a smokescreen behind which the club's owners can hide.  Over the coming months their failure to properly invest in the club is going to become increasingly clear whilst, at the same time, their inflated asking price seems to be driving away anyone who wants to take over.


This means that it is up to the fans to ensure that they sell up as soon as possible   That is something that has been on the agenda for the past two years without them putting much urgency on the process.  Indeed, it was an ultimatum by the banks that actually forced them to put the club for sale and, even so, if they don't put forward a realistic asking price no one is going to buy regardless of how much the fans clamour.

The fact is that no matter how many protests Liverpool fans organise, they will not take any notice: they live too far away for that to happen.  What they do listen to is the clink of the cash registers and it is here that they have to be hit.

There has been something of an unofficial boycott of club merchandise for quite some time now but there is now the need to step things up.  And the first place to start is with the new kit: simply don't buy it.  Low sales will not only hit the club's finances - and therefore Hicks' and Gillett's hold on the club - but it will also send messages to Adidas and Standard Chartered, both of whom just signed multi-million deals with the club so probably won't be too happy if certain targets are not met.

Of course, fans will be fans and many feel the need to show their support to Liverpool FC through what they wear.  The good thing is that there are plenty of alternatives out there.  Last week, Spirit of Shankly announced that they had for sale a series of shirts with the profit made going back to support their campaigns.  These shirts seem to have been quite a hit since they are now suspending the sales "due to unexpected and unprecedented exceptional demand".  Similarly, the people behind the RAWK forum have produced a Save LFC shirt the profits from which will be used to fund their campaigns.

If you want something classier, then there is the recently produced Liverpool ElevensXI shirt which lists Liverpool's finest ever eleven players.  For more of a choice, there is no better place than Sam Dodds.  Indeed, the unofficial shirts sold by this Swedish branch of the Liverpool Supporters Club are something of a personal favourite.  They might be a bit pricey but there is no denying the quality of their design as well as of the shirts themselves.  One thing about Sam Dodds, however, is that you have to avoid the official merchandise that they also sell on there.

If enough people refrain from buying the new kits, if enough people stop giving money to the club then rest assured that the message will get through.

A Liverpool Thing receives no commission from the sales of these unofficial shirts.


Will the real Milan Jovanovic please stand up?

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Tuesday, June 01, 2010 by Paul Grech

Article submitted by James Appell

Uncertainty is currently the watchword at Anfield. Question marks remain over the financial future of Liverpool, with owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett keen to offload the club but thus far failing to find serious buyers. Similarly, after this season’s disappointments on the pitch, the position of manager Rafa Benitez has come under scrutiny.

How fitting, then, that one of the club’s first signings of the summer is also something of a mystery to many football followers in the UK. When Liverpool announced back in February that Standard Liège striker Milan Jovanovic would be joining on a free transfer after the 2010 World Cup, reactions were perhaps less “wow” and more “who?”.

In the months since the English media have attempted – in many cases very ably – to provide Liverpool fans with an insight into the player’s talents. Belgian Footballer of the Year in 2008, Belgian Golden Shoe winner in 2009 and top scorer for Serbia as they qualified for South Africa, Jovanovic’s recent achievements are worthy of acclaim. Those who suggest that trophies in Belgium prove nothing as far as Premier League quality is concerned forget the performances of Marouane Fellaini and Vincent Kompany since their arrival in England.

Jovanovic also leaves Liège to the acclaim of the Standard’s fans and the Belgian press – so much so, indeed, that Belgian novelist Étienne Éthaire has published a book, Jovanovic, La vie en rouche, in praise of the striker’s exploits. “Without Jovanovic, would Standard have been champions in 2008 and 2009?” asks Éthaire in the book’s introduction. “I think not.”

So far, so good then.

There are a couple of potential black marks on his record. Jovanovic is by all accounts a rather controversial character. Dressing-room bust-ups and a willingness to mark himself out from the crowd (he was the only Standard player to publicly speak out against Axel Witsel after his horror challenge on Marcin Wasilewski in August 2009) suggest a man who is prepared to go it alone.

Moreover, no sooner had Jovanovic rubber-stamped his move to Liverpool than he went and spoiled it all – largely unnoticed at Anfield – by immediately touting himself for a move to Greece. “The Greeks and the Serbs get on well,” he told Het Nieuwsblad in March. “I’m thinking about returning to Greece when I’m 31 or 32. Olympiakos or Panathinaikos will certainly give me a contract.”

But the obvious question marks over Jovanovic’s suitability at Liverpool concern one particular period in his career, which has yet to be explored by the vast majority of analyses. Between 2003 and 2006 the Serb spent a season in Ukraine with Shakhtar Donetsk and two at Russian Premier League side Lokomotiv Moscow. In those three seasons he made a total of nine league appearances, scoring just once. What should we make of these ‘lost’ years of Jovanovic’s career?

It ought to be said that a transfer to Eastern Europe, even given Jovanovic’s Slavic roots and the linguistic similarities of Serbian, Ukrainian and Russian, is no easy move. Just ask Birmingham’s Garry O’Connor, who endured a single torrid season as Jovanovic’s replacement at Lokomotiv Moscow in 2006/07.

Then there were the injuries. One in particular, sustained just after having made his debut for Shakhtar, kept him sidelined for nearly a year. Likewise having signed for Lokomotiv, he missed pre-season after sustaining an Achilles injury and thereafter struggled to get into the side. On the treatment for the latter injury Jovanovic commented in an interview for Russian newspaper Sport Express: “The first time, the doctor pressed down on my Achilles with such force that my scream could be heard all along Kutuzovsky Prospekt [a street in Moscow].”

But then, as these interview comments perhaps suggest, Jovanovic is also rather an interesting character. In a frank interview in Russia in 2005 the player admitted that football was less a way of earning money for him, and more a “method of self-expression”.

“I earn money through my businesses. Football is for my soul,” he explained. “In brief, my business is connected with property and the sale of automobiles.” He then smilingly asked the interviewer if he wanted to buy a car, as Jovanovic would be happy to give him a 20% discount.

While such a sense of humour – never mind the option for discounted cars – might go down well on Merseyside, in Russia Jovanovic’s comments were met with scepticism, particularly given how few times he had appeared on the pitch. The rumour, perhaps uncharitably, was that Jovanovic had no reason to be fit and motivated to play football, as he could rely on earnings from his businesses for financial support.

Safe to say that his departure to Standard Liège in the summer of 2006 was met with sighs of relief around Moscow.

Now, though, with his exploits for Standard and his transfer to Anfield hitting the headlines, those in Russia and Ukraine can only rub their eyes in disbelief at the transformation of a man who seemed neither fit nor able enough to make it ‘big’ only five years ago.

The question remains – scorer or sulk: who is the real Milan Jovanovic? Either way, we’ll find out in the coming season.

James Appell writes about Russian football on his own blog, The Cynical Challenge. He can be followed on Twitter.