Of course, the season actually began on August 15th with our first Premier League match at home to Arsenal, and we’re already three games into it. Or did it really begin back on July 29th with our first-leg Europa League qualifier away to Macedonian side FK Rabotnicki? Either way, the action already completed might be considered as just a few opening scenes while the stage is still being set for the main acts of the season to come.
One of the reasons that I say the season is really beginning now, instead of weeks ago, is simply that we weren’t really into the Europa League until we had successfully completed the qualifying rounds. Also, we had the handicap of not having all of our World Cup players available until just before the start of the Premier League season, which meant that we had to make do with a mostly reserve team side for the first few competitive matches.
Another reason for the thought that the season hadn’t yet begun was that we were still in the process of finding new players before the transfer window closed at the end of August. We already had one new player on the way before the end of last season – Milan Jovanovich who was recruited on a free transfer by Rafa Benitez. It was now up to new manager Roy Hodgson to assess the squad and determine who he would want to stay and who would he be willing to part with.
Roy is no slouch when it comes to assessing players, and when you look back at his record in Sweden, Finland, Denmark and with the Swiss national side among others, a pattern emerges that shows he manages to get the best out of the players he has rather than spending big in the transfer market. Of course we also know how he managed to get Fulham to the Europa League final last season, which illustrates his ability to use his players wisely against supposedly superior opposition. One of the first comments that I made when he was announced as our new manager was that I wondered if he already had his eye on a number of lower priced but highly capable players that he was thinking of bringing to Fulham, which he would now be hoping to bring to Liverpool. That may turn out to be a necessary talent for a new Liverpool manager, with full knowledge that there would be limited funds available for transfers into the club.
The first major signing for Roy was Joe Cole on a free transfer. That signing caused a few ruffled feathers among some pundits, especially when Joe made all the right comments about wanting to come to the best and biggest club in the world. We already knew that, but it was a shock to many that he chose us over several other clubs that would have been thrilled to have him in their squads. Christian Poulsen was recruited from Juventus, which is really no great surprise as Roy knew him well from their time at Copenhagen. Meanwhile, Fabio Aurelio was still training with the squad even though he had been released at the end of last season, and when Roy found out that he had not yet found a new club he offered him a contract to stay. That was a good move, as it’s not only another free signing, but also obviously brings in a proven left-sided player with plenty of experience with Liverpool. Roy also looked toward the future and signed a few promising young players, such as 18 year old defender Danny Wilson from Rangers, and 18 year old midfielder Jonjo Shelvey from Charlton Athletic.
A few players were effectively told they could leave the club, but with no immediate takers they were instead sent out on loan. Aquilani returned to Italy with Juventus, Degen went off to Germany, Insua to Turkey, and El Zhar to Greece. If any of those players now prove themselves capable of playing well and not getting injured, we have the option of bringing them back at the end of the season. Alternatively, they may be sold on to other clubs, allowing money to be available for bringing in other players.
As the transfer deadline approached, there were more rumours than could possibly be followed with any measure of intelligence. One of the more reliable was that we were looking very closely at a couple of players at PSV Eindhoven – Swedish striker (or sometimes midfielder) Ola Toivonen, and Mexican left-back Carlos Salcido. Both of these players were initially of great interest, to the extent that Kenny Dalglish was sent over to Holland to watch them both in action. A week or so later, it was rumoured that Salcido was on his way to Fulham rather than Liverpool, and Roy then made the statement that even though we wanted to sign a striker, he had no interest in Toivonen. He explained his reasoning simply that we have enough players already capable of playing a role that Toivonen plays, i.e. as a supporting striker, and that what we really need is a lone striker, i.e. a player more of the Torres style.
As for the need for a left-back (with Insua out on loan, and injury prone Aurelio the only other experienced player available), it was clear that we were still looking for a new player to fill that role. Paul Konchesky’s name came up, to the surprise of many, but it was soon clear that the wheels were already in motion for this deal to be made. The best person to make that decision was Roy himself, and in spite of a lot of criticism similar to “If this is the best we can do then we’re really in trouble”, it must be said that nobody can make the judgement as to who is the better player besides a manager who has worked with him for the past 3 years. Roy knows exactly what he’s getting with Konchesky, and given the chance to sign Salcido from PSV he chose instead to bring Konchesky to Anfield and let Salcido go to Fulham. Surely Roy can see something that most of the rest of us don’t, and has a plan in place for how he’ll get Konchesky to fit into the back line with the others. Let’s not forget also that Paul Konchesky has plenty of Premier League experience, and is also one more English player to make up the numbers required under the new UEFA rules. The only negative that I can see in the deal is the loss of Lauri Dalle Valle, who was a promising young player who may have turned out to be that second striker that we need. But that would be a long way off in the future, and we have to be more concerned with the present needs for now.
The biggest name to be brought in at the last minute before the closing of the transfer window was 27 year old Portuguese international Raul Meireles from FC Porto. He comes with a wealth of experience at the highest level (150 or so appearances for his club, and 39 international caps) and is a proven winner with four consecutive Portuguese League Champions medals, and three Portuguese Cup winners’ medals during his ten years with Porto. He was previously linked with a move to Chelsea, but instead signed for Liverpool. He hasn’t played for us yet, and I’m really looking forward to seeing him in action soon. One more player to mention is goalkeeper Brad Jones, who was on Middlesbrough’s books since 2001 but was out on loan with various clubs for several seasons before becoming established as their first choice a couple of seasons ago. He’s Australian by birth and has represented their national team, but qualifies as “home grown” under the new Premier League rules.
The full squad is now in place, and we have a mix of talent, with a good cross-section of youth versus experience, and I personally would say that we have a better side now than we had last year. A few players will have to prove themselves this season, and that includes Lucas Leiva, David N’Gog, and Ryan Babel. They certainly have their critics, but we should remember that they are still relatively young and still learning, and I’d be happy to see those critics eat their words before the season is over. We also have a few younger players with the chance to break through into the first team as regulars. Martin Kelly has looked good as a full-back on either side whenever he’s had the chance, and could be used often as a substitute as well as in cup matches. He’s only 20, so he can look forward to a bright future if he plays well when called upon. Danny Pacheco and Danny Ayala are both in a similar position, with good showings in the reserves and a few appearances with the first team already. We also have a few starlets from the 2007 FA Youth Cup winning side ready to show what they can do, such as Stephen Darby, Jay Spearing, and Nathan Eccleston. Similarly for these players, they have to be ready to prove themselves capable when presented with the opportunity. It would be great to see some of them coming through and challenging for first team places, which if nothing else would keep the regulars on their toes knowing that there’s someone waiting for the chance to take their place.
It’s only the middle of September, but it seems like months since the season got under way with that first Europa League qualifier. In fact it really is months ago since Roy’s first competitive match in charge, away in Skopje against FK Rabotnicki back in July. That first Europa League two-leg qualifier was followed by another round of qualifying, this time against Turkish side Trabzonspor, which then allowed us to enter the group stage which begins this coming week (Thursday, September 19th) at home to Steaua Bucharest. After that, we have plenty more European matches to look forward to, with further matches against Napoli, and Utrecht. Hopefully we’ll succeed in the group and then go on to the knock-out rounds in February, with the real possibility of another European Final next May – in Dublin.
There’s no rest for the wicked, so the saying goes, and there’s also no rest for clubs that want success. That includes us of course, and so we hope that the upcoming first match in our quest for an eighth League Cup will begin successfully with a win at home to Northampton Town on September 22nd.
In between those two Europa League and Carling Cup matches, there’s also the small matter of a trip to Old Trafford, which is never easy but then never too dull either. As I said just a while ago, there’s no peace and no rest for us for a while yet to come. In fact, we have to hope that we won’t be resting too much until we end the season in May next year. Our aim for this season has to be to get back into the top four. Winning the league in Roy’s first season is a dream that is most likely out of reach, but it shouldn’t be abandoned for lack of trying. We don’t give up easily; in fact we just don’t give up. That wouldn’t be part of The Liverpool Way, and wouldn’t be acceptable to Roy, the players, or any of us. Besides a top-four finish, it would be nice to win a trophy of some sort this season. It’s been a few years since we won one (FA Cup in 2006), and Roy has a tough act to follow with several managers before him winning trophies in their first year in charge (Fagan 1984, Dalglish 1986, Souness 1992, Evans 1995, Benitez 2005).
Whatever happens, it’s sure to be an interesting season. We know it’s going to be a tough slog at times, and we can expect many ups and downs along the way. But, at the end of it all, we want to be able to hold our heads up proudly and say, “We are Liverpool FC, and We’re Back!”