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The Business of Football Kits: Sponsorships, Technology, Branding and Beyond

As we enter the final few months leading up to this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, the national teams taking part in the tournament have been unveiling their new kits to ride on the wave of growing interest in international football.

Brazil, England, Germany, Spain, Argentina and France have all released new kit designs for the summer, with various big-name sportswear companies and top international stars at the helm of high-profile launch events and flashy marketing campaigns. (The Mirror has a collection of some newly released kits here.)

As with most commercial activity in football, however, not all the recent kit launches have been met with universal acclaim: Ben Curtis’ article on the Mirror is a cynical rant at the hype machines that these events have become, while Lizzie Parry’s on the Daily Mail highlights just how expensive replica kits, launched over increasingly short time periods, have become.

In February, we explored the importance of stadiums in the overall commercial strategies of football clubs. As top-level football increasingly becomes big business and a huge revenue generator, let’s take a look at another money-spinning side to the sport: football kits.

 

Vincent Yu

 

Sponsorships

One of the first things that comes to mind when football kits are mentioned these days is the staggering amount of money they can generate for football clubs, both from the merchandising side and from the corporate sponsorship side.

While club merchandise is generally dependent on the popularity and on-pitch success of the clubs themselves—and the annual Deloitte Money League results generally attest to that—the larger context is the money that sportswear companies actually pay to be the official kit providers of football clubs.

In recent years, just in the Premier League, we’ve seen many instances of eye-watering commercial deals involving kit suppliers. Liverpool’s 2012 deal with Warrior Sports, the latter’s first foray into football, would, according to Andy Hunter of the Guardian, net the club at least £25 million a year.

Just this January, Arsenal announced they would be changing their kit maker from Nike to Puma, in a five-year deal reportedly worth more than £30 million a year, per the BBC. And, as ever when it comes to business deals, Manchester United shocked the world this March with their world-record 10-year deal with Nike, which, according to Simon Mullock of the Mirror, will see the Old Trafford club earn more than £60 million a year.

Besides contracts with sportswear makers, the other big player in the football kit boom is the corporate sponsorship deals that have taken center stage in recent years. This 2013 J.J. Colao article in Forbes listed Manchester United, Barcelona, FC Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Real Madrid as the biggest shirt sponsorship deals in the world.

Another interesting marketing tactic has been employed by Tottenham Hotspur this season, as they featured different sponsors on their shirts in different competitions, with Hewlett Packard their Premier League front and AIA their cup shirt partner. According to Kevin Palmer of ESPNFC, however, even Tottenham will revert to the traditional “principal partner” model at other big clubs, having agreed a lucrative £20 million-a-year deal with AIA for the next five years.

 

Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

 

Technology

But with all the money that goes into the kits, and their burgeoning price tags, do those who get to wear them actually benefit?

Specifically, do the footballers themselves get anything out of the constant kit changes, or are they just excuses to step in front of a camera for yet another photo shoot?

Just ask the Italian national team stars. According to the BBC, the high-tech football shirts they will be wearing at the World Cup this summer will be able to deliver massages during the game. The shirts contain a special tape that provides “micro-massages” for their wearers and “maximise muscle power” by allowing the body to recover from exertion more quickly.

Away from the luxury options provided to footballers these days, far more important is the shirts’ ability to keep their wearers warm in extreme cold temperatures. This article from PRNewswire.com lists a few examples of temperature-regulating technologies that are present in football shirts on the market.

Different sportswear manufacturers—the same who enter into the lucrative long-term contracts with football clubs and will rely on such technology to win such bids—integrate different functions into their shirts, but the underlying principles are the same: adding layers onto shirts that keep players comfortable, dry, warm or cool depending on the surrounding weather conditions.

With the digital space increasingly at the center of the football fan experience, besides featuring on shirts themselves, technology has also crept into the marketing side of football shirts and kit launches, so much so that organizing such events can be considered an industry in itself.

See, for example, this analysis on Liverpool’s new kit launch in 2012 on Dan McLaren’s TheUKSportsNetwork.com. Liverpool’s multichannel marketing and promotion strategy, across different social media platforms, was all about putting out a united front for the kit launch, which also had to match the club’s corporate branding.

But, as they’ve tended to do so in social media in general, Manchester City will take home the technology and marketing hybrid approach for football kits as well.

They’ve since switched to Nike as their main shirt sponsor, but City’s launch of their Umbro kits for the 2012/13 season, as covered here by SoccerBible.com, took fan engagement to a new level when they invited fans to decide how the new kit would be officially launched.

 

Ray Stubblebine

 

Branding

Using a new innovative campaign to bridge the marketing and technology worlds with branding in football was yet another Manchester City-affiliated project, New York City FC.

Since their official announcement in 2013, New York City FC have caught the attention with their cutting-edge digital-marketing campaigns despite the MLS outfit not yet officially competing in the U.S.’s highest-tier domestic football league.

NYCFC put their fans truly at the center of their business and branding strategy by inviting them to submit ideas for an official club crest, which was met with widespread acclaim and culminated in a win-win scenario where the club also got their hands on an excellent winner, shown here on the MLS official website.

An example of how the football kit itself has become more than just one of the components of a football club’s identity; it’s evolved into an integral part of the football club’s business strategy on the whole.

So eager have clubs and affiliated sponsors wanted to tap into their fanbase for merchandising dollars that they have begun creating hype cycles out of kit launches to boost profits and increase circulation among their followers—at the risk of straying into grey areas and stirring controversies.

In tandem with the ongoing, controversial narrative that football is becoming more and more middle- and upper-class and moving away from the traditional working-class fanbase that gave the sport its following and popularity, clubs and corporations have rushed into a branding frenzy and become eager to associate themselves as “premium” titles.

A major recent example was that of Adidas, who, according to Anna White of the Telegraph, may refuse to supply Sports Direct, one of the biggest sports retailers in the UK, with a variety of World Cup football kits due to concerns over its stores and customer service.

Said Adidas, “Like all manufacturers, we regularly review, season by season, where our products are distributed. We determine distribution channels for all products based on criteria such as in-store environment and customer service levels.”

In other words, sportswear manufacturers are eager for their football kits to be treated as premium consumer goods—indeed, the mooted £140 price tag for the new England kits by Nike almost automatically price themselves into that category—and they’re not afraid to incur the wrath of fans and middlemen retailers to achieve their commercial goals.

Charlie Crowhurst/Getty Images

 

Prior to the World Cup row, Adidas also landed themselves in hot water with Sports Direct over their treatment of Chelsea’s official club kit. In light of the public spat, Matt Scott of InsideWorldFootball.com put together an excellent and in-depth analysis of the changing role of the football kit itself.

Linking the state and rationale of Chelsea’s commercial and branding activities with the area’s wealthy and exclusive reputation, Scott consolidates a list of the London club’s highest-profile official sponsors, who all pride themselves on their elite stature within their respective industries.

The ever-changing face of the football kit, then, is not just an evolution of modern shirt design and an extension of clothing technology into sport, but is a reflection of a shift in the status of merchandise and football itself in the eyes of football clubs, manufacturers and sponsors.

And with seemingly unstoppable momentum behind money-spinning sponsorship deals, it seems that football kits will continue to be at the center of football’s paradigm shift. One only hopes that it doesn’t one day become only limited-edition items due to their exclusivity.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report.

Predicting Liverpool’s 14 Remaining Premier League Matches of the Season

After Liverpool’s frustrating draw against West Bromwich Albion last Sunday, the Reds now find themselves fourth in the Premier League table, with 47 points and a goal difference of +29 from 24 games.

An underwhelming January transfer window ultimately saw no new arrivals at Anfield, which means that Brendan Rodgers will be taking on his last 14 games of the season with the same squad he started it with, and with a few injuries currently on list.

But push on he and his charges must, starting with an important clash with Arsenal at home this Saturday.

And what lies ahead of the Reds for the rest of the season? Here’s a complete set of previews and predictions of all of Liverpool’s remaining 14 Premier League games of the 2013/14 season. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Liverpool’s remaining 14 Premier League fixtures are as follows:

Arsenal (H), Fulham (A), Swansea City (H), Southampton (A), Sunderland (H), Manchester United (A), Cardiff City (A), Tottenham Hotspur (H), West Ham United (A), Manchester City (H), Norwich City (A), Chelsea (H), Crystal Palace (A), Newcastle United (H)

February 8: Arsenal (Home)

February 8: Arsenal (Home)
Laurence Griffiths/Getty ImagesLiverpool’s last league win against Arsenal came in August 2012, and we’d have to go way back to March 2007 for the victory before that.

Suffice to say, then, that the Gunners have been a bit of a bogey team for the Reds in recent seasons.

The reverse fixture at the Emirates Stadium this season ended in a 2-0 win to Arsene Wenger’s men, as the visitors were quite comprehensively outplayed by a masterful midfield performance, with Aaron Ramsey at the heart of almost everything positive the home side had to offer.

Ramsey might not be able to make Saturday’s game in time due to injury, but in his place Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has blossomed in a central midfield role, while Jack Wilshere might also return.

Joe Allen’s anticipated return to Liverpool’s starting XI, however, will add some much-needed stability and balance to the Reds midfield. With Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez in ominous form and Liverpool’s fearsome home record this season, this looks likely to end in a home draw at Anfield on Saturday.

Prediction: 1-1 Draw

February 12: Fulham (Away)

Liverpool’s next midweek fixture comes a week from this Wednesday, when they travel to Craven Cottage to take on bottom-placed and relegation-threatened Fulham.

Rene Meulensteen deserves credit for addressing his side’s shortages and weaknesses in January, and in Lewis Holtby and Kostas Mitroglou he might just have found two players with the right quality to turn their season around.

But the Cottagers defence and midfield will be facing a Liverpool attack in buoyant mood and looking to consolidate their position in the league table.

Expect Liverpool to roll over Fulham for a clean and easy three points.

Prediction: 4-1 to Liverpool

February 23: Swansea City (Home)

February 23: Swansea City (Home)
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesBefore Swansea City got promoted to the Premier League for the first time for the 2011/12 season, Liverpool’s last encounter with the Swans was in 1990, when they dished out an 8-0 hammering in the FA Cup.

Since then, however, barring a 5-0 home win at the end of last season, things have been a lot closer between the two sides: In fact, that 5-0 win was Liverpool’s only victory in their last six meetings.

But this season, Swansea have dipped just ever so slightly. With just 24 points on board from 24 games so far and just two over third-from-bottom West Ham United, they lie perilously close to the relegation zone and look short of confidence.

If Michael Laudrup doesn’t turn it around soon, the result on February 23 will be closer to last year’s five-goal hammering than to last September’s 2-2 draw at the Liberty Stadium.

Prediction: 4-0 to Liverpool

March 1: Southampton (Away)

Since Mauricio Pochettino took the reins at Southampton, he’s played and beaten Liverpool twice in the league in the space of just over six months.

With the Saints’ brand of relentless, physical and energetic football, complete with a quick, strong and young midfield core, Pochettino’s side is one of the few teams in the Premier League equipped to exploit Liverpool’s relatively weak central spine.

March 1 looks to be just a few weeks too early for Lucas to make his return from injury, and while Daniel Agger and Mamadou Sakho will likely be available by then, Liverpool don’t look like ending their barren run against Southampton here.

Prediction: 2-1 to Southampton

March 10: Sunderland (Home)

March 10: Sunderland (Home)
Gareth Copley/Getty ImagesAt the time of writing, Sunderland’s 3-0 thrashing of Newcastle United in the recent Tyne-Wear derby is still vivid and fresh in the memory, an indication of how Gus Poyet has managed to improve the Black Cats.

Just a few months ago, Sunderland were languishing at the bottom of the Premier League in a mini-abyss, but now they’ve clawed and climbed their way back up the table to be level with Swansea on 24 points.

And Sunderland, with an in-form Adam Johnson looking to gatecrash the World Cup and a composed distributor of the ball in Ki Sung-Yueng, look very much like a potential banana-skin fixture for Liverpool on March 10.

Fabio Borini may be ineligible to play against his parent club as part of the loan regulations, but the home side may well be surprised by a sprightly Sunderland side.

Prediction: 2-2 Draw

March 16: Manchester United (Away)

A loss and a draw! Gasp—another mini-crisis developing at Anfield?

Bring on Old Trafford, a ground that Liverpool have historically struggled on, save for that famous 4-1 victory in March 2009.

But this season it’s a different Liverpool, and it’s an ever-so-slightly-different Manchester United side, who have drawn and lost as many matches at home as they have won (six).

As David Moyes struggles to string together a few decent results in succession for United and his defence continues to rotate due to injuries, this is a fixture that Liverpool could well come on top in—provided that they deal with the considerably talented attacking trio that is Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Juan Mata.

Prediction: 2-1 to Liverpool

March 22: Cardiff City (Away)

March 22: Cardiff City (Away)
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesIt’s not been an easy season for Cardiff City, and we foresee that, despite the best efforts of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the Bluebirds will still be mired in a tough relegation battle by the time March 22 rolls around.

Sure, they’ve added some notable names in January—Kenwyne Jones one of them—but as long as Liverpool keep quiet the counterattacking force that is Craig Noone, they should be relatively safe.

The famous Cardiff City Stadium atmosphere has intimidated many a Premier League team this season, but a Reds side looking to enforce their top-four credentials will turn in a display that keeps the critics at bay for another week.

Prediction: 3-1 to Liverpool

March 30: Tottenham Hotspur (Home)

Mention Tottenham Hotspur to any Liverpool fan, and he’ll fondly recall the 5-0 December thrashing at White Hart Lane.

That was one of those rare occasions where everything that could’ve gone wrong for a team did for Spurs, and everything that could’ve gone right for a team did for Liverpool.

Of course, then-Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas has since been relieved of his duties, and Tim Sherwood has lifted his Tottenham side to just three points behind the Reds at the time of writing.

But the adventurous style of play Sherwood has instilled in his team has led to such results as a 5-1 hammering at the hands of Manchester City.

Liverpool, with the league’s second-most potent strikeforce, could take advantage once again to send out a statement of intent, just as they did in the 4-0 Merseyside derby win over Everton in January.

Prediction: 4-1 to Liverpool

April 5: West Ham United (Away)

April 5: West Ham United (Away)
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesFast forward to April 5, though, and it could be an entirely different story.

Liverpool, so susceptible on set pieces this season, will be facing a menacing and aerially dominant duo in Andy Carroll and Kevin Nolan at Upton Park, and may well succumb to an incessant aerial bombarding.

Mamadou Sakho and Martin Skrtel will put up a good fight against Carroll and Co., but will it be enough against a famously stubborn Sam Allardyce team fighting against relegation?

Prediction: 2-1 to West Ham

April 12: Manchester City (Home)

Just as Southampton and Arsenal have appeared to be Liverpool’s bogey teams recently, so Liverpool have seemed to hold their own against Manchester City.

While City have rolled over many a Premier League side in recent years, before last December’s controversial 2-1 loss at the Etihad Stadium, City’s previous win came in January 2012, with three consecutive 2-2 draws sandwiched in between.

And playing at Anfield is very much a different prospect than the fortress that is the Etihad, despite City’s recent (at the time of writing) loss against Chelsea.

Liverpool’s attack will have plenty to ask of City’s defence, though it’ll also be a big ask of the Reds back line to deal with Sergio Aguero, Alvaro Negredo and Co.

Don’t be surprised if it’s yet another 2-2 draw here.

Prediction: 2-2 Draw

April 19: Norwich City (Away)

April 19: Norwich City (Away)
Jan Kruger/Getty ImagesA week after the City clash comes a trip to Carrow Road to take on Norwich City, who have once again flattered to deceive this season.

With just four wins out of 12 and an equal amount of goals scored and conceded (11) at home at the time of writing, the Canaries have had a tough time trying to get going this season, and they look to be fighting relegation right down to the wire.

By contrast, Liverpool will be looking for their first win in April to finish the season off strongly, and as they have done so often in recent seasons, will be in rampant mood against Norwich.

Don’t be surprised if Luis Suarez enjoys another one of his now-trademark hat tricks against his favorite opponents.

Prediction: 4-0 to Liverpool

April 26: Chelsea (Home)

Rounding off a relatively tough month of fixtures will be a home match against Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, who will be challenging near the top by the end of April.

Mourinho has traditionally enjoyed a stellar record against Liverpool in the Premier League, and the comprehensive manner of their 2-1 win at Stamford Bridge in December means that Chelsea will travel to Anfield as firm favorites.

Brendan Rodgers has yet to show that his tactical mastery is as accomplished as that of his mentor, though by April 26, unless he encounters any new injuries, he should finally have a fully fit squad at his disposal.

Factor in the Anfield atmosphere and Liverpool’s appetite for the game, and we could have a cracker on our hands.

Plus, surely it’s time for Fernando Torres to open his account against his old club?

Prediction: 1-1 Draw

May 3: Crystal Palace (Away)

May 3: Crystal Palace (Away)
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesLiverpool’s penultimate fixture for the 2013/14 Premier League campaign is a trip to Crystal Palace, where Tony Pulis has done a considerable job lifting the Eagles out of the relegation zone at the time of writing.

While he may yet lead Palace to Premier League safety this season, Liverpool represent a different prospect altogether.

Thomas Ince, on loan at Selhurst Park from Blackpool until the end of the season, will be eager to impress against his former club, but the Reds attack will surely have too much in their locker, even for a Pulis defence.

Prediction: 2-1 to Liverpool

May 11: Newcastle United (Home)

We’d need to travel as far back as 1994—more than 10 years ago by the time May 11 rolls around—for the last time Liverpool lost at home to Newcastle United in the league.

This matchup has thrown up plenty of no-holds-barred attacking football and goals galore down the years, and Liverpool’s last home game of the year looks to be no different.

The difference for Alan Pardew’s men? They don’t have Yohan Cabaye anymore: The French midfielder, who left for Paris Saint-Germain in January, has scored a few good goals against the Reds in recent seasons.

Does that give the license to Liverpool to end their season on a high at Anfield?

You bet.

Prediction: 5-1 to Liverpool

 

Conclusion: 75 Points, Just Enough for Fourth

Conclusion: 75 Points, Just Enough for Fourth
Alex Livesey/Getty Images

All the predictions above culminate in 28 additional points for Liverpool on top of their current haul of 47 at the time of writing, giving the Reds a season total of 75 points.

Would that be good enough to take Liverpool into the Champions League next season?

Well, as a reference, in the last five seasons, when the Reds have failed to finish in the top four, the points total for the fourth-placed team has fallen between 68 and 73.

Perhaps even in an extremely tight Premier League season, 75 points would do the business.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and the Premier League.

English Football Weekly: Week 15 Recap; Everton’s Revolution; Match-Fixing Scandal

EPL Week 15 recap: A weekend of upsets

Not that an impressive 2-0 home win would’ve been at all upsetting for Fulham, but was it Rene Meulensteen at work on Craven Cottage on Sunday, or was it just another case of the “new manager syndrome”? Only time will tell, but the confidence—even arrogance—in the way the Cottagers set up against Aston Villa will bode well for their fight to stay in the Premier League, and marked a huge contrast to the soulless, dithering squad in the final days of Martin Jol. Even Dimitar Berbatov turned up to play. He might not be accustomed to the wrong end of the table, but he’ll be important in Fulham’s resurgence—hopefully.

It’s been a while since the Britannia has been regarded a fortress the way it was when Tony Pulis first took Stoke up to the Premier League. Back then, there were Rory Delap’s long throws and other manners of rugby football play. Now, there’s the maverick flair of Marko Arnautovic, the cultured finishing of Stephen Ireland—and apparently also the magician’s touch from Oussama Assaidi. An example of Stoke’s resolve and fight towards a mid-table place? Or a public appeal from Jose Mourinho to Roman Abramovich to land them a striker in the class of Radamel Falcao? Either way, much work to be done still.

Alan Pardew tried to offer some solace in his interview after Newcastle’s first win at Old Trafford in 41 years, but his smug grin, which has been doing the rounds on Twitter, will say all there is about what’s going on at Manchester United—and to an extent at Newcastle as well. For while United toil in ninth place, some 13 points off leaders Arsenal and seemingly having lost that famous comeback spirit, Newcastle have defied critics, predictions and a barren summer transfer window to storm into seventh place, just three points behind City in fourth and four points ahead of United. What a strange season it’s been.

There to take advantage of the dropping of points by Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City were Liverpool, who overcame a sloppy own goal and a 10-minute resurgence from West Ham to secure a 4-1 win. It’s been a few seasons since the Reds have found themselves still right in the mix in December, but the hard part is coming. Three formidable opponents and competitors, all away from home, will be obstacles to Liverpool finishing in the top four by the end of December. They’ll be hoping that Cardiff at home next weekend will provide some much-needed breathing space. Spurs, City and Chelsea will not be easy.

 

Young Everton are here to stay

There was never a chance Arsenal-Everton would’ve escaped mention on a weekly wrap; it was too exciting and unpredictable (see: “the perfect advert for the Premier League”) to leave out. But while football fans were expecting Arsenal to reaffirm their title credentials at the Emirates, instead we’ve come out of the game with a renewed appreciation of Everton and Roberto Martinez.

The manner in which Everton took their game to Arsenal was as impressive as it was audacious—possibly even ill-advised prior to kickoff. After all, Liverpool, having had quite a decent run of results this season, went defensive at the Emirates and still got battered. Surely Everton would’ve set up to defend a bit more, especially with Gerard Deulofeu on the bench?

Wrong. The difference between the Merseysiders is that the Blues have a far more industrious, dynamic and well-balanced midfield in comparison to the Reds, and it showed. There was Ross Barkley, brash and confident, taking on the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Mikel Arteta and strengthening his claims for a place on the plane to Brazil next summer. There was James McCarthy, working so well with Gareth Barry as the central midfield duo and largely nullifying the hitherto potent and unstoppable Arsenal attacking line. And there was Bryan Oviedo, who had impressed with goals in consecutive matches (including a famous winner against United), bombing down the flanks to such good effect that he might just render Leighton Baines a bit less indispensable.

It was a result, and a performance, to confirm that Everton aren’t now fifth in the league because of a fluke. It’s the start of a youthful revolution shaped by a young manager with a vision. The critics still have their knives out, of course, what with two key players and a secret weapon (Romelu Lukaku, Barry and Deulofeu) on loan, but that’s a concern best left for the summer—if it’ll still exist at all. If Everton qualify for Europe, they’ll be able to bring in a few good ones yet.

 

Match-fixing: The elephant in the room

So it appears match-fixing has finally arrived on English shores. The recent reports linking the Sodje brothers and the likes of DJ Campbell will have presented a huge step back for English football and the FA.

£70,000 for a red card? £30,000 for a yellow? Surely players on such lucrative salaries in the English game won’t even bat an eyelid, and surely the competitiveness of the Premier League and the Championship means that sporting integrity and the chance of glory should by default render match-fixing a useless force in England? Why would a player on £50,000 a week sell out for that?

As easy as it is to criticize someone for holding the above beliefs, it is a true pity—but a real necessity—that match-fixing has been revealed to affect the English game, even at the top level. It’s a pity because all along it’s seemed that English football was too competitive, too pure and too exciting to even consider the existence of corruption and the evil influences of money. And for a long time, this image was sustained.

But now that this news has surfaced, it’s come as a huge smack in the face, and many a pundit, follower and fan will be smacking his head out of sheer frustration at his own ignorance. Because given the amount of money in the global game—an amount which will only rise with time—what could possibly have made England immune to corruption? Where there’s money, there’s corruption: It’s a sad fact of professional sports, and now it’s all coming to light.

What’s important now is not to hide and be embarrassed about match-fixing in England, but for the government, the police and the FA to join forces and crack down on the antagonists. Heavy punishments should be issued for those found guilty, and points should be deducted—with relegation implemented—for teams that have been complicit, if it emerges that any might have been.

It’ll be a long, hard journey and will require active policing—even racism has apparently resurfaced in recent years—but it’s the only course of action that makes sense.

 

This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

English Football Weekly: Week 9 Recap; Fergie’s Book; Grassroots Football

EPL Week 9 Recap: Suarez’s Hattrick, Torres’ Revival, Hart’s Blunder

Player of the weekend? Luis Suarez, without a doubt. Liverpool faced a West Brom team in good form and who had won their last three fixtures against the Reds, expecting a rough ride, but their “flipped midfield triangle” (in Rodgers jargon) worked a treat against the visitors. And with a trademark nutmeg and finish, a header Andy Carroll would’ve been proud of, and a predatory finish from a precise Steven Gerrard free kick, Suarez delivered a striker’s masterclass at Anfield on Saturday to blow the Baggies away. Daniel Sturridge’s fourth wasn’t too shabby either.

The original Liverpool striking hero is doing pretty well too. Fernando Torres has upped his game at Chelsea this season under strong competition from Samuel Eto’o (but not Demba Ba) and continued his resurgence with an all-action display against Manchester City. Sure, he delivered a now-trademark close-range miss, but he made up for it with an excellent turn of pace and strength to dispose of Gael Clichy to set up Andre Schurrle’s goal, and capitalized on City’s defensive mix-up to continue Jose Mourinho’s excellent record at Stamford Bridge.

But we also need to talk about Joe Hart. Wasn’t it just a couple of years ago that he was earmarked as the next best keeper in the world? It’s been an alarming drop in form in the past year or so, but never with as big an implication as now. Because last year City coasted to a runners-up place, and now Hart has continually dropped precious points this season, making him one of City’s biggest liabilities on the pitch. Which won’t help Manuel Pellegrini in what’s been a challenging first season in a club with the highest of expectations. January needs to come sharpish.

There was also Sunderland’s thrilling Tyne-Wear derby win over Newcastle on Sunday, in which Fabio Borini, on loan from Liverpool, scored an outstanding long-range strike to seal the points in Gus Poyet’s first home game with the Black Cats, who have quadrupled their points total for the season with the win. Southampton and Everton continued their excellent starts to the season with a pair of 2-0 wins, taking them to fifth and sixth in the table, in the process establishing themselves as strong challengers for the European places. A thrilling few months to come.

 

Fergie reminisces about a time gone by

A few months after Sir Alex Ferguson departed Old Trafford with the fondest adulations and fresh memories of all the right things he’s done in his 26 years as Manchester United boss, he comes out with a book that has it all—but will only be remembered for the wounds he’s opened up again, the fights he’s decided to pick even after retirement, and the dressing room secrets he wasn’t supposed to spill.

As a man management and motivator, Ferguson rarely got things wrong. He kept the spotlight firmly on himself and manipulated the media (and his rivals) to an extent that he enjoyed near totalitarian domination (and admiration) from everyone in football. To be sure, there’s plenty of the managerial insights in his autobiography that will be interesting add-ons to the interviews he’s done as a subject for publications focusing on management and success.

The cynical, petty and no-holds-barred side also shines through. We’d always looked forward to the relevations behind David Beckham and Roy Keane’s departure from Old Trafford, but never did we expect so much dirt to be aired. We’d always expected barbs at old rivals Liverpool and Rafa Benitez, but never did we think he’d call Steven Gerrard “not a top, top player.”

But in describing his managerial philosophy—that no one should be bigger than the manager at a football club, and once any player violated that rule, he was moved on—Ferguson also writes about an era that is fast slipping away. With the exception of Arsene Wenger, who enjoys near-total control at Arsenal, English football is moving into the 21st century of corporatism, with brands, reputations, marketing, profits and spectacle in mind.

The Manchester United after him was always going to be markedly different, whether David Moyes became the next manager or not. In time, Ferguson’s book may be seen as a time capsule of an obsolete style of football management.

 

England’s grassroots football needs more than just facilities

Last week, it was announced that the Premier League, UK government and Football Association committed £102m to improving grassroots football facilities, which, in light of the recent opening of St. George’s Park and the increased emphasis on youth development and organized football, was encouraging news to all involved in English football.

Whether this means the end of pick-up football in a neighboring park with shirts as goalposts is still up in the air—though I’d surely lament the loss of organic football centered on just having fun—but with the advent of organized football coaching for kids up and down the country, and all across the world, this is the next wave of grassroots football finally arriving on English shores.

But what England really needs is more than just facilities. They already have arguably the best in the world on that front, but it’s not translating into on-field successes. We’ll leave the debate on whether a strong Premier League and a strong English national team are mutually exclusive for later, but to really inspire a generation of outstanding young footballers, there needs to be a revamp in coaching, club academies and footballing culture across all levels.

It means youth coaches—the most important in a young footballer’s journey to the top—need to focus less on winning games and more on team play, passing, movement and flair. It means that kids need to be encouraged to take risks and try new moves. It means that kids need to have the right platforms and competitions to play in during their rise through the ranks. This could lead to a remodeling of the reserve system to inject, say, an Arsenal B in League One (though the U21 Premier League has been a major upgrade over the defunct reserve system), but should definitely lead to a cultural reformation that prizes improvisation, technique and creativity over the clichéd “heart and guts” that the English are now stereotyped for.

The coaching and the culture are at the center of grassroots football, not facilities. Brazil grew generation after generation of World Cup winners on the streets, not fancy million-pound youth academies.

 

This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

English Football Weekly: Arsenal and Liverpool Shine, Steve McClaren Returns, The New Manager Effect

EPL Week 6 Recap: Manchester? It’s all happening in London and Merseyside!

You’ve probably heard, but it wasn’t a great weekend for Mancunian football, especially with Manchesters United and City both losing games they were expected to win, and indeed should have won.

We’ll have more on the David Moyes effect later in this week’s column, but suffice it to say that without Robin van Persie, Wayne Rooney looks the Red Devils’ only hope of finding any match-winning inspiration these days. Rio Ferdinand was to blame for both of West Brom’s goals—and what fine goals they were from Morgan Amalfitano and Saido Berahino—but with Old Trafford’s invincible and indestructible aura at stake, Moyes opted for a League Cup lineup to rest players for their upcoming Champions League commitments. He’ll be hoping a limp 1-2 home loss won’t have affected those preparations.

If there were any consolation to be taken from Manuel Pellegrini, it would be that Manchester City actually played well at Villa Park, only to concede a third to the most hopeful of long punts from a goalkeeper and to come away with exactly zero points. Not an ideal Saturday for City, but they should take solace from the fact that they have kept up their performance levels, which somewhat justifies Pellegrini’s confidence in his side. 10 points from six matches—and seventh place—isn’t too bad, but the results and points must come if they are to re-up their title challenge.

Speaking of title challenge, let’s be honest: It’s been a downright impressive start to the campaign from Arsenal, who actually lost their first game of the season to Christian Benteke and Aston Villa (which wasn’t very impressive), but have won five straight games since. Perhaps Mesut Ozil’s arrival has really lifted the Emirates; perhaps it’s Olivier Giroud’s improved form and excellent movement to create space; perhaps it’s Aaron Ramsey rediscovering the sparkle that saw him labeled as one of the Premier League’s top rising talents before his horrendous injuries. Either way, when Santi Cazorla returns, this is one heck of a squad assembled by Arsene Wenger, and clinching a clean 2-0 victory at the Liberty Stadium provided ample proof.

Arsenal have dominated the headlines, but the other high-profile London clubs aren’t too far behind: In fact, Tottenham and Chelsea occupy third and fifth place in the table currently, and a thrilling encounter at White Hart Lane on Saturday showed just the abundance of talent currently in the English capital. For both teams, though, it seems that a top-quality, consistent striker is sorely needed: After a fine two-goal start, Roberto Soldado has vanished from Spurs’ overall play, and Fernando Torres followed up an encouragingly barnstorming performance with a needless red card. More to do then for the sparring Portuguese managers.

Let’s finish off the recap and top six watch with a tribute to the happenings and developments on Merseyside, where Liverpool bounced back with a fine 3-1 away victory at Sunderland, and Everton continued their unbeaten start with a 3-2 win against Newcastle. The Luis Suarez-Daniel Sturridge tandem is working well for Brendan Rodgers, and when Glen Johnson and Philippe Coutinho return (and SAS get back to full fitness), this new-look 3-4-1-2 Liverpool have potential in abundance. Everton aren’t too shabby either: A fine deadline day at Goodison Park (Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry) has added quality and experience to the squad, while Ross Barkley has continued his precocious form with dominating displays in midfield. Good times for Merseyside so far this season.

 

A challenging test for Steve McClaren

On September 30, it was confirmed that Steve McClaren, he of Middlesbrough and FC Twente fame—and England and Nottingham Forest infamy—would be making a return to football management, after his appointment as head coach at Derby County.

A subdued but sensible return for a coach formerly considered to be one of the country’s top talents, especially with his achievements at Middlesbrough in the early 2000s. Yes, that ill-fated spell as England manager ended with the image of “the wally with the brolly” seared into many fans’ minds forever, but even his Dutch-accented English couldn’t mask what was a successful first spell in charge of Eredivisie side FC Twente, whom he led to the league title and into the Champions League.

It’s been just three years since he was awarded the Rinus Michels Award for Dutch manager of the season, so it’s clear that McClaren still possesses the quality to possibly make it back to the Premier League yet. He deserves commendation for being the first Englishman to manage in the Bundesliga, and no doubt his connections with top-flight clubs and around Europe will aid his cause, if his board are prepared to back him. After a few challenging years, Derby will provide a stern test of his credentials, but don’t be surprised either if we see the Rams back in the top flight within the next few years.

 

What good (or bad) can a new manager do at a club?

As Paolo Di Canio proved last week, sometimes a manager can outlive his stay. But this season, there have been marked changes in the management of Premier League clubs, with contrasting fortunes—and most of them not so good. The effect a new manager can have at a club can be the subject of many hour-long debates, podcasts and talk shows, but let’s consider three contrasting cases already evident six games in.

The elephant in the room is of course David Moyes, who took the toughest job in English football in the toughest circumstances this summer. Make no mistake: Replacing Sir Alex Ferguson was always going to be a tall order—just finding that aura and presence in the dressing room and among rival clubs alone was a significant challenge—but this is a squad that, compared to United’s all-powerful team in the Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez and Edwin van der Sar era, was in need of major strengthening anyway. But Moyes’ recent public admissions have harked back to his Everton “everything against us” days and a far cry from the bullish Ferguson reign. If Moyes is still hanging on to a small-club mentality at Old Trafford, this won’t go well.

On the more borderline contentious side, there’s Mark Hughes at Stoke City, who has notably changed the Potters’ style from long-ball, “rugby”-like under Tony Pulis to predominantly possession-based and progressive. Has this worked? A quick glance at the Premier League table shows that Stoke are placed 15th in the league with seven points from six games, which would land them just outside the relegation places come next May. Early days, but this is an evolution that has already drawn criticism: There’s a line of thought that Hughes is trying to do too much with a limited squad. The saving grace is that with his experience and reputation in football, he could easily bring experience and quality to the Britannia in January. Erik Pieters, Marc Muniesa and Marko Arnautovic are but three reminders of the caliber of manager Stoke have.

Finally, we’ll end our case study with Roberto Martinez, who is in charge of a club that’s threatened to break into the European places but never strongly enough for the top six to consider as true rivals. Which is why Everton was granted two excellent Premier League players on loan on deadline day—Romelu Lukaku and Gareth Barry were presumably allowed to move to Goodison Park as they wouldn’t be strengthening a direct rival, but also because they wouldn’t have marched straight into the starting XI’s of any top six team. When Martinez was appointed in the summer, his latest project would either have ended underwhelmingly—like Wigan ultimately did with a team aspiring to play like Barcelona with Championship-level players—or in unexpected joy. So far, with a playing style considerably more aesthetically pleasing than Moyes’ last year, Martinez looks as if he’s confounding expectations: Everton are fourth and still unbeaten.

 

This piece was part of my weekly column on SWOL.co, where I take a look back at the weekend’s English Premier League and domestic cup action, related talking points and news surrounding English football at large.

English Football Weekly: Week 2 Recap; Fulham’s BT Outrage; Final Week of Transfers

EPL Week 2 Recap: Routines, Blanks and Upsets

Simply because the bore draw between Manchester United and Chelsea doesn’t really deserve center stage in any weekend roundup do we give it just that. But we should’ve known, for this was David Moyes’ first big game as United boss, and Jose Mourinho’s first in his second reign at Stamford Bridge. Mourinho’s team selection—a curious 4-6-0 with no Juan Mata or Fernando Torres—overshadowed the match itself, while Wayne Rooney’s performance overshadowed the teamsheets in turn. All the same, it will be seen as a point gained for Chelsea, and for United, an uncertain buildup to Liverpool this weekend.

Speaking of Liverpool, they’re one of two teams who still hold a 100% record this season. And we’re only two games in. This is a big deal at Anfield though: It’s been five seasons since they’ve won their first two league matches. Daniel Sturridge, just as he was against Stoke City last weekend, was the match-winner this time around at Villa Park, as Liverpool transitioned from a dominant possession-heavy side to a deep defensive shape against the young counterattacking pace and power of Aston Villa. Whisper it quietly—but could Kolo Toure and Simon Mignolet actually be upgrades on Jamie Carragher and Pepe Reina?

The other team is, of course, Tottenham Hotspur, and that’s not the only similarity: They’ve also only scored two goals in two matches, both from the same striker. Different from Sturridge’s two excellent match-winners, however, is that both of Spurs’ goals have come from the spot. Roberto Soldado has proven a reliable option from 12 yards, and the Mousa Dembele-Etienne Capoue-Paulinho midfield triumvirate looks formidable and indomitable. What Andre Villas-Boas has to solve now, given that Gareth Bale looks even closer to the exit, is finding that player to link the midfield play with Soldado. Erik Lamela will do just fine.

Swansea City got outplayed on the ball by a confident and powerful Spurs, but that wasn’t the only upset of the weekend. By now, you’ll have heard about newly-promoted Cardiff City’s famous 3-2 home win over big-spending Manchester City. Cue the headlines about money not being important and that football will still triumph at times. Of course, such headlines ignore the fact that Cardiff may still face a hard season ahead, and City will in all probability finish in the top two. Anyway. Manuel Pellegrini and Joe Hart have a lot of work to do—and who better to have scored the winner than ex-United man Frazier Campbell? Karma, eh?

Oh, Modern Football…

This season, followers and viewers of the Premier League in England will have another broadcaster to choose from: BT Sport have joined Sky in carrying PL coverage, and have already been competing to gain viewers with a variety of different features and attractions. (Brian Barwick has more on the Daily Mail.) Unfortunately, there are inevitable downsides to those fans who still decide to attend matches live—and as Fulham fans found out at Craven Cottage on Saturday against Arsenal, it might prove to be a long season in the stands. The reason? BT’s new cameras are quite blatantly blocking the view of season ticket holders.

Now, it’s all well and good to be advancing with the times when it comes to studio technology, and BT (and Sky) have done excellent work improving their coverage. But surely the core of football is the fans at the stadiums, and no amount of media rights or television deals should obscure this fact. It gets a bit tricky when older stadiums like Craven Cottage are involved, as they’ll likely require more intricate planning and reconstruction to allow for this type of equipment to be installed. But BT’s statement in response didn’t just lack class; it was a slap in the face to the match-going Fulham faithful.

“BT doesn’t decide where cameras are placed at Premier League football grounds, but we always try to minimize the impact of them for fans at the match. We’re sorry if any fans at Craven Cottage are upset by the camera position, but hope that thousands of Fulham and Arsenal supporters, who couldn’t make it to the match, enjoyed the game on BT Sport.” (Daily Mail) Given the choice, I suspect those supporters to plump for the insight and analyses of Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville—who are fast proving to be a star draw—than the monotonic commentary of Michael Owen. Just sayin’.

Loans at Anfield and Blockbusters at the Emirates

Rejoice, for it’s the last week of the summer transfer window! What’s been an interesting start to the season—with a new era of unpredictability across Premier League results, and with the enhanced coverage that has been introduced to TV audiences—has been obscured by the long-running sagas that have dominated the summer. When is Gareth Bale moving to Real Madrid? Wayne Rooney to Chelsea? Willian to Liverpool—sorry, Spurs—sorry, Chelsea? What’s Joe Kinnear doing to stop players arriving at Newcastle United? Is Arsene Wenger ever going to sign someone?

Quietly doing their work behind all the smoke and (lack of) fire are Liverpool, who are still doing this work now because their previous work to land Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Diego Costa and Willian failed. So it’s time to knuckle down and actually aim for realistic targets, which is why the rumors of Juan Mata making a move to Anfield have died down and those linking Victor Moses with the Reds have ramped up. Linked to Liverpool back in the Rafa Benitez days, Moses has fallen off his star at Chelsea, but still has loads of potential. Not a marquee signing for sure, but look at Toure and Mignolet for more reasons to believe in the “transfer committee.”

Over at the Emirates Stadium—where they’re reportedly smoking something—there finally seems to be some activity. Yes, that’s right, a “chief negotiator” has arrived at Arsenal’s London Headquarters to work on transfers, according to the Daily Mail, which makes you think why he didn’t do that a couple of months earlier, when he’d still have time to get signings in, you know, before the season actually started. Two seasons ago, that infamous loss to United prompted some frantic last-gasp transfer activity. The Gunners are being linked with Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria this week—but last time around, it was Andre Santos. Watch this space.

 

This piece was part of my English Football Weekly column for SWOL.co.

English Football Weekly: Style, Efficiency and Early Observations from Week One

City, United and Chelsea Turn on the Style

Manchester City might have been the latest to start their Premier League season, but by Monday night they were topping the table. Newcastle United have always been willing prey for City, but the manner of the 4-0 dismantling showed plenty of promise for season to come at the Etihad Stadium. Edin Dzeko, who didn’t end up on the scoresheet, was central to their attacks throughout, while Fernandinho and Jesus Navas made big impressions on their debuts. Manuel Pellegrini’s appointment raised expectations of adding a style element to City’s play, and if Monday’s result was anything to go by, City fans have a lot to look forward to this season.

Not that Manchester United were too far behind. David Moyes has had two competitive matches in charge, and both of them have been convincing wins. This latest result at the Liberty Stadium not only confirmed the sheer class of Robin van Persie, but also went about disappointing some critics who had been writing off Moyes’ chances at the reigning league champions (myself included). There are long ways to go yet, but Danny Welbeck doubled his league tally last season in one match on Saturday. In his cameo, however, new Swan Wilfried Bony showed enough to suggest that he, too, will be a force to reckoned with this season.

Save the biggest celebrations—certainly the biggest at a stadium on opening day—for Jose Mourinho’s return to Stamford Bridge. The Happy One was welcomed back in heroic fashion, and duly delivered a sublime display of attacking football in the first half, before Chelsea calmed down in the second. The trio of Eden Hazard, Oscar and Kevin de Bruyne were all over the pitch, interchanging play nicely with Fernando Torres, while Frank Lampard provided a timely reminder of his undeniable goal-scoring prowess. The football that Chelsea played in the first half was out of this world. Who would’ve thought that possible under Mourinho?

 

Three Points and Early Conclusions

Plenty of domination, possession, exciting attacking play and shots on goal, but Liverpool once again had a solitary goal to show for it. The difference: the winner was scored by a still-not-fully-fit Daniel Sturridge; a heroic double save was required at the death by their first first-choice keeper in eight seasons; and it was their first opening-day home win in 12 years. Results and points have always teetered on a fine edge for Liverpool, and a win to kick off the season bodes well for the future. Kolo Toure, Jordan Henderson and Iago Aspas impressed, and if Willian really does arrive at Anfield, this could be a forward line that oozes quality—and goals.

Tottenham Hotspur also endured a nervy afternoon at sprightly Crystal Palace. For Spurs fans, this was possibly a sign of things to come, if indeed Gareth Bale does depart White Hart Lane for pastures new, but there were signs of comfort as Paulinho, Nacer Chadli, Roberto Soldado and later Etienne Capoue all debuted to great effect. Unfortunately for the Eagles, their lack of Premier League-quality players was all too evident: Here, endeavor just wasn’t enough. As for Tottenham, this new forward line could do with a sprinkle of Bale’s quality, but they showed enough to suggest that life after Bale might not be too bad after all.

Even given Arsenal’s lack of transfer activity, the ease with which Aston Villa came away with all three points will have been alarming. Indeed, most forums exploded with the anti-board (and anti-Wenger) anger usually reserved for the likes of Rafa Benitez at Stamford Bridge, and the atmosphere at the Emirates Stadium has gotten all the more venomous. You get the feeling that this is a make-or-break season for the Gunners, and it might be too late even for that. As for Paul Lambert’s side though, they look young and irresistible, especially if Christian Benteke continues his imperious form. His penalty-taking, though, needs some work.

There were also wins for West Ham United, where Stewart Downing finally did something resembling decent wing work, Southampton, where Rickie Lambert followed up a debut England goal with a peerless penalty winner, and Fulham, who left the Stadium of Light with a good three points. Sunderland failed to capitalize on their dominance, while Cardiff City and West Bromwich Albion just didn’t have enough in the tank. As for the most entertaining encounter? A 2-2 draw between Everton and Norwich. Ricky van Wolfswinkel’s excellent debut was only one out of multiple encouraging signs of things to come at Carrow Road.

 

Latest Signings and Verdicts

As we enter the final two weeks of the transfer window, the rumors are really heating up. It’s well-known that Arsenal need to strengthen—badly—and in delaying their transfer activity to after their first loss, Arsene Wenger may well have to repeat his panic buy period of 2011. But there are other teams who still need to add. There’s Newcastle United, who haven’t really strengthened at all this summer, and Crystal Palace, who still lack the quality to compete in the Premier League, and Manchester United’s joint bid for Marouane Fellaini and Leighton Baines reflects the need to improve the overall squad still.

But there have also been some excellent business done in the past week. Hull City added two Tottenham midfielders in Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore, who should add class, composure and PL pedigree to the Tigers squad. Etienne Capoue to Spurs was a shrewd piece of business, while Pablo Osvaldo to Southampton has been a real statement of intent. But Darren Bent and Scott Parker to Fulham represent exactly the type of low-risk, high-possible-return transfers that the Premier League needs more of. These are two new arrivals who could slot in immediately at Craven Cottage—and become instant hits.

 

This piece was my second instalment of English Football Weekly for the 2013/14 season for SWOL.co.

Thanks, Steven Gerrard.

The title of this piece seems a bit premature, given that Steven Gerrard hasn’t ended his career, and a bit inappropriate, given that Liverpool just lost the FA Cup to Chelsea last night.

But rather than putting out a match reaction on the final itself, I thought a tribute to Steven Gerrard should be in order.

After all, he is the main reason I started following Liverpool in the first place, and the main reason I’ve stayed with the Reds all these years.

I’ll spare all the unnecessary obsessive touting of his skills, experience and superhuman feats, because everyone who knows football will know what a force of nature Gerrard has been for Liverpool, in the Premier League and in the Champions League.

I’d rather comment on the issue of loyalty.

Perhaps Gerrard is a soft-spoken guy. His interviews are normally quite bland, and while he affords a smile once in a while if an interviewer mentions the 2005 Champions League or a great goal he scored in a man-of-the-match performance, he often puts on a poker face in interviews even after the best of celebrations.

But seeing the unbridled joy he exhibits when he celebrates a win on the pitch, and having read his perhaps-too-hastily-published autobiography, we see that this guy is Liverpool through and through.

Set aside that public flirtation with Chelsea in 2005 that is still often reminisced upon (usually by supporters of other teams). To think that a young captain of 24, barely approaching his prime and with the world at his feet, shouldn’t be tempted by untold riches on offer and an ambitious team in the country’s capital is to be naive and utterly unrealistic about being a professional athlete. (In that respect, although my heart tells me to think otherwise, Fernando Torres’ departure for Chelsea made sense, especially considering the circumstances then. And the circumstances now.)

No, the fact that he chose to stay (where Michael Owen once left, remember) should speak volumes about this man’s integrity, commitment and loyalty.

And the fact that he still puts on the Liverpool shirt week in, week out (when his fitness allows) as often the only fighter on the pitch says everything we need to know about this man.

As a mere spectator (and one from an overseas armchair at that), I can’t even begin to count how many rebuilt teams he’s had to work through. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to win a Treble, then having to play with the likes of Salif Diao and El-Hadji Diouf. Then to win the European Cup and the FA Cup, and then to return to reality alongside Nabil El Zhar and Jermaine Pennant. And then to hit heady heights with Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres, only to wake up year after year to see their departures.

Then to wake up with the prospect of playing alongside Paul Konchesky, Christian Poulsen. And now Jay Spearing and Jordan Henderson.

For years, I tried to mirror that sort of unwavering loyalty by putting on my own #8 shirt whenever Liverpool had a game to play that day. And for an extended period of time, this coincided with a run of Champions League games in which Liverpool went unbeaten whenever I watched them live with my Gerrard top on.

Then that run finally came to an end – and when you’re working a full-time job like I am now, it’s hard to sport a Gerrard shirt on match-days. Times have changed.

Yesterday, I set aside all the presupposed characteristics of a working man and retrieved my Gerrard shirt from my shelves. And for a brief two hours last night, I returned to my heart-on-sleeve instincts, shouting my voice coarse for a team that has become part of my life, courtesy of a man who has made that much impact on it.

But the hard fact is that Liverpool are no longer what they used to be, and Gerrard is no longer what he used to be.

Still, until Andy Carroll came on and changed the game, Gerrard was the only person on the pitch to not be overawed by the occasion, to still put on the fight he’s done so often in his illustrious career.

Maybe, when he hit a Carroll knock-down into the stands, it was all too reflective of an erstwhile powerhouse whose finishing prowess have deteriorated to that extent.

But for the last 20 minutes of the game – even towards the last 5 – I was hoping, yearning, straining for that loose ball to fall to his feet outside the area, so he could, much like he did 6 years ago, be the hero again. So that Stevie G could once again save the day. So that his smile would be plastered across the front pages with the familiar Roy of the Rovers, Captain Fantastic, Super Stevie G headlines again.

Alas, it wasn’t to be.

And so, rather than the outright anger at Kenny Dalglish for his time-and-again incompetent tactical approach and personnel selection, rather than the outright depression that Liverpool couldn’t cap a terrible season with the scant consolation of a Cup Double, the overriding emotion I felt was the heartbrokenness that Liverpool have not done justice to the loyalty of their captain all these years.

I was told after I left the bar that the cameras showed a Steven Gerrard in tears.

I’m glad I didn’t witness it.

It might’ve been too much.