As Charlie Adam snatched the ball off Lucas Leiva, fast-waddled forwards and hammered the ball into the corner of the net to put Stoke 4-0 up against their team, Liverpool fans would have been forgiven for thinking that if last season was all about "daring to dream", this season has been all about "daring to watch the screen". With their attack toothless and their defence barely able to stand up, the 6-1 mauling was Liverpool's worst since 1963. It's also a performance that marks yet another new low in a period that has seen plenty of them and one that intensifies questions that were already being asked of their manager, his transfer policy and the running of the club.
In recent years, finishing second has always been a sign of trouble ahead, so really we should have seen it coming. In the summer of 2002, having secured a distant second place, Gerard Houllier went looking for the "final piece of the jigsaw" to turn his team into genuine contenders and came back with Bruno Cheyrou, El Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao, who would only complete a jigsaw if your idea of doing that was picking the jigsaw up and throwing it in a river. A few years later, after Rafa Benitez's team finished second, Xabi Alonso left, no money was spent and Liverpool lurched to seventh place. That season, I swear I remember watching Sotirios Kyrgiakos play in midfield.
Now, Liverpool have been flogged into sixth place and face a battle to keep Raheem Sterling, called "the best young player in Europe" by manager Brendan Rodgers at the end of last season. Since then, the club has been too slow to offer better terms and, sensing Liverpool's vulnerability and mindful of the tactics Suarez used to secure a better deal and then a move away, Sterling's representatives have played a public game of chicken with the club.
Believing that the sanctity of their beloved LFC was at stake, ex-players have spoken out against Sterling and his agent, trotting out their own versions of that cliché: nobody's bigger than Liverpool. Jamie Carragher, Liverpool's ever-faithful dog, said that the idea of a young player like Sterling "taking on" his former club annoyed him "to the pit of my stomach". The wagons circled and John Aldridge, Graeme Souness, Mark Lawrenson and John Barnes added to the chorus of disapproval. Agent Aidy Ward wasn't having any of it, telling the Evening Standard that he "didn't care" about Liverpool or its image, before calling Carragher an "irrelevant" "knob".
In the midst of this, Liverpool's end-of-season awards ceremony took place. Thinking about it now, the ceremony appears to have been a precursor to the slaughter at Stoke, a corporate version of a severe on-pitch beating, its unsettled, faux glamorous desperation encapsulating the hopelessness of the modern condition just as well as any Raymond Carver short story. Hosted by Colin Murray and Claire Rourke, the whole thing bore an uncanny resemblance to the Scientology awards ceremony footage that was leaked online. Sterling won Liverpool's young player of the year award and was booed by some of the audience. This footage of Philippe Coutinho receiving the player's player of the year award from Steven Gerrard shows how oddly depressing it was.
Everyone has their own table, just like at the Oscars, uplifting muzak plays as little Phil comes up to get his award, just like at the Oscars, and he is greeted by a bunch of men in tuxedos and suits, just like at the Oscars. Except these men are Colin Murray, some corporate suit and the club's legendary captain, who is about to fuck off to America. Phil stumbles out a few words about how "special" it is, Alberto Moreno gawps at him and then, 45 seconds in, Rodgers appears on the screen, clapping robotically, a blank look of gut-wrenchingly repressed misery etched onto his face, the words "Don't cry Brendan, you promised yourself you wouldn't cry" repeating endlessly inside his head.
This misery is hardly surprising and since the defeat to Stoke it has been laid bare for all to see. Rodgers finds himself having to fight for his job and fight for a club whose owners thought they could find a shortcut to success by buying young players on the cheap and turning them into champions. The problem is that you can buy players for tomorrow but tomorrow may never come. Sterling, bought by a previous manager under a previous regime, has looked around, seen which way the wind is blowing and decided that, even though he's only 20, he wants to leave. In deciding this, he's shown everyone up: the club's administrators for not sorting his contract out earlier, the manager for presiding over a team that's gone backwards this season, the owners for wanting to cut corners and ex-pros for blindly toeing the party line.
FSG have started to look more and more like FFSG in recent months. Over the past season, supporters' groups have become increasingly agitated by a directionless club administration that has presided over ever-increasing ticket prices, the failure to negotiate deals for a string of players and the prioritising of corporate tie-ins (Dunkin' Donuts, anyone?) over contract and transfer negotiations. There seems to be a lack of footballing savvy in the Liverpool boardroom. A couple of years ago, I saw FSG chief John Henry having dinner with ex-Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein, a football executive with a wealth of experience and a proven track record. Today, a number of influential supporters see Ian Ayre, Liverpool's current chief executive, as a clueless liability whose job is only safe because he is a puppet of the owners in Boston. They also don't like him because he's a portly middle-aged guy who rides a Harley and thinks he's the big man: he was heard boasting about securing the signature of Alexis Sanchez before Sanchez went ahead and joined Arsenal. Ayre and Mike Gordon, an American baseball man and FSG executive who " runs Liverpool" and will be conducting Brendan Rodgers' end-of-season review, seem to be overseeing a system designed to place the owners' profit first at every juncture.
But despite all this, ex-pros like Carragher will come out and stand like Roman centurions at the side of the club, defending its position no matter what because when they defend Liverpool, they defend an idea of community, of establishment, of their own rose-tinted memories, of Shankly and socialism. Those romantic traditions don't seem to be valued in the boardroom, though, so when Carragher says that Sterling taking on the club enrages him, he's really just saying that a young worker should just shut up and accept his lot in life.
In the end, almost every club is a selling club and Liverpool don't win enough to make them part of the elite band who aren't. Without any real leadership in the boardroom, Rodgers is left with this harsh reality. If the club can't replace him with someone as exceptionally talented as Jurgen Klopp then, 6-1 defeat or not, there isn't any point replacing him, because Liverpool is a fish that has rotted from the head and that head is the corporate leadership, not the manager.
As it is, the Northern Irishman could find himself sacrificed, meaning that apart from Peter Crouch rising like an oversized salmon to score Stoke's sixth goal, one of his last memories of his time at Liverpool will be of gazing miserably into the LFCTV camera at the end of season awards ceremony, Jose Enrique staring open-mouthed at his iPhone behind him, happily adding to his Instagram.
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