Life

The Problem with Liverpool Winning the League Now

Losing to coronavirus would be the most Liverpool thing to happen to Liverpool.

by Oscar Rickett
07 May 2020, 8:15am

Photo: Allstar Picture Library Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Next Monday, a day after the government gives its updated lockdown guidance, Premier League clubs will meet to decide whether to restart the season. Twenty-five points clear at the top of the table, Liverpool will be hoping to find some way – any way – of finishing this season, but it's still far from clear what will happen, and the club's fans remain trapped in limbo.

It's a situation that evokes troubling memories and deep superstitions in fans. There's something about the possibility of losing out on a first league title in 30 years because of a global pandemic that feels very Liverpool Football Club. Like Rafa Benitez's "Facts" speech or Steven Gerrard's slip, being beaten to the top spot by something called Covid-19 combines just the right amount of tragedy and comedy.

Unlike Gerrard's infamous slip, this tumble into the coronavirus abyss is playing out slowly alongside the deadly pandemic, with the result still not clear. The league may be finished, or it may not. It's as if instead of taking a matter of seconds, Gerrard had received the pass in December, begun his fall in January, hit the ground in March and then, sometime in the summer, either seen the shot saved or the ball end up in the back of the Liverpool net.

I've been a Liverpool fan since just after that last title victory. This season, as we bulldozed our way towards the ultimate prize, I felt a mixture of elation, trepidation and anti-climax. When articles celebrating our inevitable triumph began to come out, I cursed their publication. If you're 2-0 up in the 90th minute, there's still plenty of time for a global pandemic to close the stadium down.

The strange thing to admit now, though, is that apart from feeling as though of course I always knew Liverpool would end up losing the league to a strain of virus that originated in an animal market in Wuhan, part of me actually prefers it this way. Like any fan, I'll be devastated if we are denied the league title we clearly deserve. But losing in extraordinary circumstances is what we've come to know and expect.

The Manchester clubs are the serial winners – the evil empires bankrolled by asset strippers and petro states. In my lifetime, both those teams – and, for a while, Chelsea – turned winning into a matter of relentless expectation, as if every trophy was just another sausage being spat off the production line.

What is perhaps more interesting is frustration. Not getting what you want. The pain and anger that come from missing out. If your every need is satisfied, you never grow up, you never find out what you really want. If following football is a displacement activity, something that provides us a space in which to feel a kaleidoscope of emotions intensely, to love and hate at the same time, then winning all the time is no use to us. If life is both hard and also full of joy, then being a football fan is at its best when that is reflected.

This ambivalence has only been intensified – and complicated – by the state of modern football. Major clubs are now glittering PR vehicles for the world's oligarchs, plutocrats and dictators. In this world, drinking deeply from the intoxicating draught that is the Premier League becomes at best an act that requires some basic moral consideration: does the time and money I put into this contribute to propping up a fundamentally rotten system? This is the case for Liverpool fans just as it is for fans of Manchester City or, now, Newcastle United. It is also something that, as the lifelong City fan David Conn described in his book Richer Than God, taints the eventual victory. Once money has taken over, pure joy is hard to locate.

On the pitch, supporting Liverpool in recent times has tended to be about being the dramatic losers rather than the dominant winners. There have been incredible highs – the Champions League victories of 2005 and 2019 – but they have tended to be followed by years of frustration. That seemed to be over, with last season's European glory rolling on into this season's domestic demolition.

Of course, fans of basically any club would probably say us Liverpool fans have been crying into our champagne and wiping away our tears with silken handkerchiefs – or at least those nice tissues with aloe vera in them. It's easy to get worked up about not winning England's most coveted football trophy when you've never known what it's like to spend years going to League Two games in which the definition of a sweeper keeper is someone who can hoof clear without it going out for a throw-in.

They could also say that this is typical Liverpool exceptionalism – after all, here is the club that’s come up with a new motto, "This means more," as if it's the only one with any real history and culture. It's not like I don't understand why a large part of the rest of the country will be laughing heartily if Liverpool loses out to coronavirus.

Our experiences condition us, though. Support becomes relative, so we come to want most dearly what is out of reach, and we come to know truly what is so special about the team we support. Having waited for so long, we now know that even if we do win the title, there will always be an asterisk beside it and that a team that was coming into its prime will have been held back in ways that may not become clear until next season or beyond.

Nevertheless, we have Jurgen Klopp and we have a brilliant young team that stands together. Klopp is a man who understands Liverpool – a place and a club proud of its socialism – and who signed a new contract as a gift to its people the day after a Conservative government was voted back in. While Benitez was stubborn and Rodgers vain, Klopp has a charisma that never seems to get old, a cartoon-like energy that lifts everyone around him. If this league victory finally comes, it will be him who we turn to, a source of strength and goodness in such uncertain times.

@oscarrickettnow

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