By Rohan Kallicharan
Is the glorious history of Liverpool FC in reality an unnecessary burden?
I am unsure as to the exact origin of the phrase ‘burden of expectation’, but the theory is certainly not confined to our lifetime. As far back as the 18th Century, the French philosopher, Voltaire, alluded to it with his famous quote, “What a heavy burden is a name that has become famous too soon.”
He, alone, knows to whom he was referring, but it is much clearer that it can be applied to many in all walks of modern life, from the Sales Manager to the Teacher, or from the Doctor to the Sportsman. Did I say sportsman … perhaps I should have said sportsperson, although that debate can wait for another day (female readers can email the editor!)
The expectation on contemporary sporting icons is excessive. Some might say that the equally excessive salaries justify this. However, whilst the burden of fame and riches bring certain pressures, the burden of history evokes quite another. There are certain names and teams in sport that simply conjure up scenes and memories of glorious, historical feats. The New York Yankees, West Indies, Real Madrid are just examples of teams synonymous with sporting achievement. Taking the West Indies as a perfect example they dominated cricket for 2 decades, playing a brand of the game that was hitherto unseen, with names like Sobers, Richards, Marshall and Kallicharran permanently inscribed in the annals of cricketing folklore. They have been in seemingly spectacular decline for a period of close to 20 years, with even the great Brian Lara unable to revive a fallen giant. Yet, prior to every series or major tournament, West Indian supporters gather expectantly, some even optimistically, in a soon to be forlorn hope that this will be the time when history repeats itself. There have been isolated moments of glory, notably the spectacular defeat of England in the 2004 ICC Champions Trophy Final, but the simple truth is that they have not, for some time, had the talent or resources to compete with the best in the world.
In many respects, their fortunes reflect those of another sporting institution that is very close to my heart, Liverpool Football Club. During much of the same period that the West Indies were ruling the cricket world, so Liverpool dictated terms to all around them, both domestically and in Europe. Similarly, the decline in silverware begun in the early 1990s, and in much the same manner, there have still been some moments of glory along the way, notably the 2001 Treble and, of course, Istanbul. And whilst the West Indies may not have endured the shambolic tenure of Messrs Hicks and Gillett that has financially ruined Liverpool Football Club, they have not been without their share of incompetence in administration.
Much as I described the supporters of the Caribbean cricket team, Liverpool supporters have annually hoped for a return to the holy grail of the League Title, praying each year that this would be the squad that could challenge for the highest honours in the game. Of course, that hope has dissipated in recent years, as the bigger challenge has become some kind of financial stability, a future, an escape from the clutches of 2 American mercenaries who have absolutely no understanding or respect of the club’s history and heritage, and are interested only in using it as financial leverage to line their own pockets.
Against a backdrop of political and financial drama that would outshine Eastenders or Corrie with ease in the TV ratings, football has become secondary, an escape valve, and that in itself is a tragedy for the club and its supporters. Yet, the average supporter is no politician, and does not feel comfortable in such a role. Those of Liverpool, as described in previous posts, are mobilising and defending their club with the passion and verve that can be associated only with a club which has retained its roots in the community, and is fiercely proud of a 118 year history which has made it one of the most celebrated sporting institutions in the world.
That history is exactly the burden to which I referred earlier. Liverpool’s players are faced with the expectation of success, even against the boardroom and financial battles which have ravaged the club of its ability to compete at the ‘business end’ of the Premier League. The club’s fans are at their happiest talking about football, and that has been of little solace to them during the last 18 months. Rafael Benitez’s class of 2008/9 defied the odds to launch a title challenge, but since then, it has been a downward spiral. The question remains as to what expectations are realistic for Liverpool this season. Most supporters understand the title is a distant dream. Others seem to span a chasm that ranges from a Top 4 challenge, through a Cup Run, all the way through to a fight for survival. The one thing that Liverpudlians expect is a side that tries to play attractive football, and even that has been lacking in the early part of this season. Such is the uncertainty around the club, that nothing is impossible or preposterous. In simplistic terms, there are several squads in the league that match Liverpool in terms of talent in depth, and particularly in resources.
Over previous years I have always looked at Liverpool’s squad to see who might get into those of their rivals. Simply considering first team squads, there are not too many who would be automatic choices – Gerrard, Reina, Torres when fit, and Carragher. Raul Meireles is still new to the club as is Joe Cole. In such stark terms, it is easy to see why Liverpool are struggling to compete for even a Top Four finish this season, and this, combined with the financial and political crisis, and also the history of this great club, exaggerate the calamitous state in which it finds itself.
The future of England’s most successful club is on a knife edge, but history dictates that Liverpool Football Club challenges for the highest honours in the game. That history is indeed an unnecessary burden, but it gives hope to all Liverpool supporters of a Golden Sky at the End of Their Storm.