(The FA Cup Final, featuring Chelsea and Liverpool, will be broadcast live in the U.S. on the Fox Soccer Channel, kickoff 12 noon, EST, Saturday May 5)
It was in an FA Cup match at Chelsea on Jan. 3, 1978, that I first watched my beloved Liverpool live in a stadium, rather than on TV. And a traumatic experience it was, not only because I was sitting among Chelsea fans who ceremonially burned a Liverpool scarf before kickoff (prompting me to hurriedly conceal my own), but because we were roundly thrashed, 4-2.
Liverpool, at the time, was the champion of England and Europe; Chelsea was hovering in the relegation zone. Yet our vaunted defense was humiliated by a bunch of Chelsea youngsters — Clive Walker, Tommy Langley, Steve Finnieston — no one had ever heard of. Kenny Dalglish, the Scottish striker who eventually became our “King Kenny,” labored mightily against the odds in the mud of Stamford Bridge, but it was not to be.
Some 30 years later, I sat in a Brooklyn pub reminiscing over that day with my friend Matthew, a lifelong Chelsea fan who had been at the opposite end of Stamford Bridge that January day in 1978. Now we were watching Chelsea’s Premier League visit to Anfield, which was a bad-tempered affair, with nine yellow cards handed out by the ref, and Chelsea grabbing a 1-1 draw thanks to a Frank Lampard penalty kick earned by a diving Florent Malouda. But the talking point, that Saturday, was the arrival of Liverpool’s potent new striker, Fernando Torres, who had scored a goal of exquisite quality, demonstrating the blistering pace and brilliant technique that would net him 81 goals in three and a half seasons for the Reds.
But by the time of that 2007 match, the tables had been turned. Our fans still sang that Chelsea had “no history,” but that was sour grapes; history didn’t matter as much as money did, and Chelsea was flush with it, having been acquired in the summer of 2003 by the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who proceeded to pump some $1.2 billion over the years into buying a team capable of dominating. They arrived at Anfield, that day in 2007, having won the title twice and finishing second once in the previous three seasons.
The needle between Liverpool and Chelsea clubs had become a tableaux of class warfare — and we all know which class is winning the war, eh? Liverpool fans desperately cling on to a sense of being a “people’s club,” epitomized by the social solidarity exhorted in our fabled anthem and the way the club honors its buried dead. No fixture engages those feelings as intensely as a clash with Chelsea, football’s consummate representative of the global 1% (at least until Manchester City challenged for that title).
“No disrespect to Chelsea, but their supporters aren’t like ours,” local-lad Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher once said. “In my opinion, clubs which have that traditional core of working-class fans are always going to be more passionate about football. They get involved in the game a lot more and create a much better atmosphere. I’m not trying to be disrespectful to them when I say that, I think it’s just a fact.”
Perhaps, but Carra ought to know that the “traditional core of working-class fans” can no longer afford to pay the $150 to get a ticket to a home game.
Thanks to Abramovich’s largesse — which has allowed Chelsea to not only spend a billion on players, but also a staggering $120 million on hiring and firing coaches over the past eight years (and that’s simply on signing or terminating contracts, it doesn’t include salaries) — the west Londoners have become one of the top teams in the Premiership. They’ve won the title three times since the oligarch first opened his checkbook, as well as endless cups, but to his immense frustration, they’ve never been able to win the Champion’s League. (Allow me a bitter cackle.) They’re always a contender; we haven’t been for years. Sure, we’ve won the league title 18 times, but the last time was 22 years ago.
Oh, and I forgot to mention, that Fernando Torres once so giddily beloved on Merseyside? Well, he plays for Chelsea now, lured away for $75 million. Liverpool had lost its way long before Torres walked, of course, and he had every reason to leave in search of the Champion’s League football he’d been promised; we just wish he hadn’t gone to Chelsea. That’s why Liverpool fans have had a season of unparalleled schadenfreude watching Torres struggle to make an impact, outshone and usually relegated to the subs bench by the old warhorse Didier Drogba, who has always terrified our defense, with good reason.
The reality is that we’re no longer peer competitors. Chelsea is having its worst season in years, languishing in sixth place after a disastrous experiment with young coach Andre Villas Boas; even then, however, it’s in the Champion’s League final against Bayern Munich on May 19, and could qualify for next season’s tournament by winning that game (in which case the fourth-place Premiership team would be bumped out). And while Chelsea’s squad needs rebuilding as the aging Jose Mourinho old guard remains the spine of the team, there’s little doubt that Abramovich will simply get out the checkbook again and buy the coach and players he needs to compete, next season, for the title.
Liverpool’s fortunes couldn’t have been more different. The club has essentially been on the skids since the end of the 2008-9 season, when an astonishing late run of form took us to second place. But years of underinvestment and owners who loaded the club with debt that limited the cash available to buy the players necessary to challenge for the title finally caught up, and the following season, we finished seventh, outside of the Champion’s League qualifying places (the top four places in the league). This has major implications for a club’s ability to compete financially. Our exile from the top tier could be a prolonged one. Indeed, last season Liverpool was sixth, and we’ll be lucky to finish this season in eighth place.
Money hasn’t been the only problem, however. When Liverpool’s current owners — the Fenway Sports Group that also owns the Boston Red Sox — took over in October 2010, they made substantial sums available. To date, it has invested some $160 million in new players; the problem is that most of it has been squandered on mediocre players. And that’s largely the fault of Kenny Dalglish (the same King Kenny I worshipped as a player) who was brought in as a caretaker coach when the owners fired the hapless Roy Hodgson (now England’s coach) and then made what I believe was a critical mistake in handing Dalglish a long-term contract. Unfortunately, it must be admitted that Dalglish is a hero of a different era, and the game has changed much since his last spell in coaching. He also appears to have an unfortunate preference for British players (a self-defeating bias if ever there was one!) and mediocre ones, at that. Liverpool fans morbidly debate which was the bigger waste of money — the $57 million paid to Newcastle for Andy Carroll, a ridiculous caricature of a 1970s-vintage big English center-forward, or the $32 million each spent on winger Stewart Downing, whose final ball is rarely what it ought to be, or headless-chicken midfielder Jordan Henderson.
Charlie Adam’s only saving grace is that he cost just $15 million, although he’s an unmistakable liability in the center of midfield where he’s routinely caught in possession and compensates by giving away fouls. The only new signings of any quality were left back Jose Enrique, veteran striker Craig Bellamy, and, of course, Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez.
Suarez, of course, is the source of a different kind of pain. He’s utterly brilliant, a fact of which he reminded us last week with a hat-trick at Norwich that included a 50-yard strike. Few defenders can cope with his trickery and guile in and around the area when he’s on song. But then there’s the racism issue: Suarez was banned for eight games after having admitted repeatedly using the N-word to abuse Manchester United defender Patrice Evra in some heated trash-talking at Anfield earlier this season. (Evra also said some pretty nasty things to Suarez, but those went unpunished.) Rather than draw a line under the incident and move on, Dalglish chose to publicly defend Suarez to the hilt, and insist that the Uruguayan was being victimized. And that only reinforced Suarez’s belief that he was the victim, rather than that he’d brought the ban upon himself. As a result, in a much publicized moment before the next United-Liverpool game, Suarez refused to shake Evra’s hand in the pregame lineup. And that compounded the problem. Eventually, it appears that the owners prevailed on Dalglish to rebuke Suarez and apologize. The owners had bought the club as a business venture and hoped to build its global brand; being cast as defenders of bigotry wasn’t going to help.
The Fenway group has watched Dalglish squander funds without achieving the key target of Champion’s League football. Dalglish insists that winning the FA Cup on Saturday will atone for a terrible season in the League, but that’s wishful thinking: No such palliative can disguise the fact that Liverpool is on the skids, and far from turning things around, Dalglish has deepened the hole in which it finds itself. Even if the FA Cup is added to the League Cup won earlier this season, it doesn’t change the fact that the 2011-12 season was Liverpool’s worst league performance in a half century. And in the finance-driven game of today, the only relevant metrics of success are performance in the league and the Champion’s League — fail in those and you’re on a downward spiral, as we are, with less money to buy players and less to offer those we’re trying to tempt or convince to stay. Torres, for example, left Atletico Madrid for Liverpool in order to play Champion’s League football; he left Anfield when it became clear to him that the club would not be buying the quality players necessary to get us back into that realm. He won’t be the last.
Chelsea must start as favorites for Saturday’s final: They’ve had plenty of problems of their own this season, and their squad is also in line for a major overhaul. The brutal reality, of course, is that Chelsea’s aging squad won a lot more than ours ever did, and their owner will spend whatever it takes to restore them to a position to challenge for the title next season. Chelsea captain John Terry — who faces a racism inquest of his own in the summer after allegedly abusing QPR defender Anton Ferdinand — will be doubly motivated to lift the cup on Saturday because a ban for an idiotic kneeing of Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez means he’ll miss his team’s Champion’s League final against Bayern Munich later this month. And when Terry is motivated, he has a habit of scoring when he comes forward for corners and free kicks.
One key question will be who leads Chelsea’s attack. Torres has lately found some of the form that has eluded him (nasty cackle) since leaving Anfield, but the fact that he started the past two league games while Drogba was rested suggests that the Ivorian will get the nod for Wembley. Always a scary prospect for Liverpool’s defense. I’m guessing there’ll be an attacking midfield trident of Ramires, Lampard and Mata behind him, with Mikel and Essien screening the defense, and freeing fullbacks Cole and Bosingwa to raid the flanks. (That leaves plenty of firepower on the bench, including Torres, Sturridge, Kalou and Malouda).
Our danger man, as ever, is Suarez, but the question facing Kenny will be who to play alongside him. His most effective option would be to put a trident of Bellamy, Gerrard and Kuyt behind the striker, and leave Carroll on the bench, along with Downing. Henderson and Spearing would share defensive duties in the midfield, again allowing fullbacks Glen Johnson and Enrique to bomb forward. And then there’s the Carra dilemma: The warhorse central defender represents so much of the spirit of the club, and yet he’s getting on a bit, and lacking that extra yard of pace — and Drogba is his least favorite opponent. Skrtel and Agger would do fine in the center of defense, but Kenny may be overcome by sentiment.
Chelsea have other things on their minds, and the FA Cup is something of a bauble compared to the silverware they typically chase, and will do again in Munich three weeks from now. A herculean effort and a few moments of genius from Suarez could give the game to Liverpool, but you wouldn’t want to bet too heavily on that outcome. Indeed, going into the game, a Liverpool victory seems about as likely as Chelsea’s did ahead of that chilly Saturday in January 1978. You never know.
If we do pull it off, for most long-time Reds, the joy will be short-lived as we look for a turnaround in our league fortunes. For Chelsea, by contrast, it’ll simply be a morale booster on their road to Munich.