When I look ahead to the 2012-13 Premier League season — which starts Saturday, if you can believe that — when I gaze into the swirling void of the future, and try to answer urgent questions like “How many points will Manchester City win by” and “Reading: ??” — when I think about the Premier League at all in terms other than Robin van Persie, nightclub groping incidents, and money, I see a darkness, and the name of the darkness is Liverpool.
Is it just me, or is Liverpool by far the most interesting club at the start of the new (profound apologies) campaign? The Premier League has settled, over the last 12 months or so, into a place where almost all the teams have fairly streamlined identities, like politicians or Simpsons characters; the roles they’re playing in the league’s imagination-opera are roles we all more or less know. Manchester City is so rich they’re listing numbers instead of names on the backs of their jerseys these days: Starting at left back, £22,000,000. Manchester United is old, storied, confused, and obsessed with the stock market, as if your grandpa, via some unfathomable Kafkaesque accident, woke up as a soccer team. Newcastle: Those cuddly overachievers, with their eyelashes and their Andy Carroll fixation.1 Arsenal with its youth vortex, Tottenham with its post-’Arry Lord of the Flies phase, etc.
Liverpool, though. What the hell is Liverpool? Other clubs have problems, workaday junk like “we only have one striker on the books” and “our manager sometimes refuses to sign players if he can’t buy them with S&H Green Stamps.”2 What Liverpool has, after finishing last season with its worst league position in 18 years,3 goes beyond problems and might not even involve them. Liverpool has existential weight.
Just to recap — I realize that for many of you this will be unnecessary, but we practice big-tent soccer journalism here at the Walt Disney Company — Liverpool was the greatest soccer club in heaven, earth, or hell during the peak-mustache era, racking up 11 league titles and four European Cups from circa Blue Öyster Cult through Dr. Feelgood. Their fans, during this same era, happened to become the victims and/or perpetrators of some of the worst tragedies in soccer history, including the Hillsborough4 and the Heysel Stadium5 disasters. They won more than anyone else; they also got all English clubs6 banned from European competition for five years, from 1985 to 1990. Everything about them, from their uniforms (“Red for danger, red for power,” as club legend Ian St. John once wrote) to their stadium (the “THIS IS ANFIELD” sign hung above the door leading out of the tunnel, just to remind opponents where they were) to their club song (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which if you think that sounds overwrought and insane now, just wait till you’ve heard it bellowed at full volume by 45,000 rabid Liverpool fans), was more dramatic, more histrionic, and more emotionally gigantic than anyone else.7
With the more or less simultaneous rise of the Premiership and Manchester United in the early 1990s, Liverpool lost its dominance8 but somehow not its late-Sopranos air of imploding grandeur and doom. Consider the team’s captain, Steven Gerrard, a local kid who happened to become a beloved star for his boyhood club. Good story, right? Gerrard’s career has also found the room to include: leading his team to a win in what might be the most thrilling Champions League final of all time, 2005 vs. Milan, when Liverpool came back from three goals down in the second half to win the European Cup on penalties; about 500 late, match-changing goals; a high-profile criminal trial stemming from the beating of a DJ who, allegedly, wouldn’t play a Phil Collins song at a club; captaining England at both the World Cup and the European Championships; and this one time when he hit a 10-year-old kid with his Bentley.9 You could barely make this stuff up, and that’s before you throw in the fact that the club is currently run by the Red Sox ownership group with LeBron James as a minority shareholder.10 Liverpool is a tidal wave of its own Liverpool-ness.
Which brings us to: This new season, the follow-up to last year’s disastrous (I’m sorry) campaign. Liverpool hasn’t won an English league title since 1989-90, but it’s usually in the running, a confident part of the Premier League’s old Big Four. There were moments as recently as three or four years ago — say, when the Reds ended Chelsea’s 86-game unbeaten streak in league games at Stamford Bridge — when they, not Chelsea or Arsenal, and certainly not Man City, seemed like the most plausible challengers to the Manchester United victory machine. Then Fernando Torres left. Then last year happened. Liverpool’s 2011-12 season was one of the craziest in the club’s crazy history. The team came completely unraveled in the Premier League, at one point losing three straight matches to QPR, Wigan, and Newcastle. They won the Carling Cup. They nearly won the FA Cup. They saw their best striker, the slithery Uruguayan controversialist Luis Suarez,11 banned for eight matches for racially abusing Manchester United’s Patrice Evra. (He denied it; no one knows.) End result: eighth-place finish in the league, many millions of pounds questionably spent, a minor trophy, and the sacking of manager-slash-club-icon Kenny Dalglish in favor of Brendan Rodgers, who performed awesome deeds at Swansea City but who has never managed a club with the inescapable psycho-baggage and global fan base of Liverpool.
It was a bad year — bad because the club lost, bad because the club embarrassed itself over the Suarez situation. But it was also bad in a less obvious way. Liverpool, historically the most important club in England, one of the eight or 10 essential football clubs in Europe, melted down in a humiliating fashion, and, outside Liverpool itself, it didn’t seem to matter that much. I mean, compared to, say, campaign finance reform, sure, the Merseyside freakout attracted its share of op-eds. Compared to the title race between the two Manchesters, though, or to the ongoing perma-crisis at Arsenal, Liverpool was a blip. If anything, the Suarez-Evra controversy seemed to overshadow the club itself, as if it could have happened anywhere and been taken the same way. Liverpool collapsed, and the Premier League and its fans were over on the other side of the mountains, not caring.
That’s not how this is supposed to work, to put it mildly. First of all, Liverpool isn’t supposed to collapse. They’re supposed to stand on the mile-high, hawk-haunted precipice just beside collapse, roaring “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and weeping their defiance. Second, when things happen at Liverpool, those things are supposed to command attention. “When France sneezes, Europe catches a cold,” Metternich said in the 19th century. Liverpool is supposed to be France in the soccer version of this analogy. They are supposed to bestride the soccer world like a colossus,12 not get bumped to page four because Man City found another billion dollars in a mattress.
So this season is going to be terrifically fascinating at Anfield. Liverpool doesn’t have the financial resources to compete with Manchester City or even Manchester United. (I’m pretty sure that a Liverpool IPO would be held on the Chicago beef-futures market at this point.) On the other hand, if they can’t at least threaten to win a Champions League place, I think they’ll be in actual danger of losing their identity. Already the club seems a little like an old-world also-ran, the quaint, antediluvian echo of a time before Abu Dhabi’s royal family got satellite TV. I don’t mean that Liverpool has to play in the Champions League to be Liverpool — this will be the club’s third straight season not playing in it — but that Liverpool on a normal scale is like a miniature version of itself.
Rodgers and the Fenway brain trust are in the midst of a medium-size squad makeover, having sold Craig Bellamy, Dirk Kuyt, Fabio Aurelio, Alberto Aquilani, and Maxi Rodríguez over the summer, with Carroll very likely to follow soon. Who’ll replace them? No one knows. So far the club has bought only Fabio Borini (£10 million, from Roma) and Joe Allen (£15 million, from Swansea), both players who’ve worked for Rodgers before. The squad is threadbare. The season starts Saturday. Liverpool’s first three home games are against Manchester City, Arsenal, and Manchester United. There are dark clouds towering on the horizon. There are crazed expectations. There is every opportunity to fail.
There is, in other words, a perfect chance for Liverpool to become Liverpool again. Here’s hoping they take it.