Before Christmas I went to Elland Road to watch Leeds take on Chelsea in the Capital One Cup and if such spume-flecked fury can be described as such, there was something almost poignant about the hostility the locals showed to their visitors. Back in the seventies the animosity between the two clubs was intense, reflected as much on the pitch as on the terraces: boy did those players hate each other. It was a clash of cultures as much as a reflection of the north/south divide. But it was also a rivalry stoked by this fact: both sides were pursuing the game’s big prizes. When they back then collided the consequences mattered.
Since the start of this century, the two clubs have gone in opposite directions. While Chelsea have been funded by the unfathomable pockets of their Russian benefactor and won every trophy available to them, the long-suffering and loyal Leeds supporters have watched their club brought close to the edge of extinction by a succession of dream chasers, asset strippers and false saviours. So far apart are the two clubs now - one European champions, the other marooned in the middle of the Championship with little prospect of imminent elevation - that when they met in December, for the locals the loathing was almost an act of nostalgia, a memory of the glorious past time when they were competing at the same level.
It would be ludicrous to suggest that the hatred spewing around Old Trafford on Sunday will be of similar hue. This will be a game that matters for both teams’ ambitions. Yet it has been a long time since Liverpool arrived at their fans' least favourite opposition ground in genuine contention for the same trophies as their hosts. The last occasion was in March 2009 in fact, when led by the best forward in Europe at the time (Fernando Torres: whatever happened to him?) they eviscerated the home defence, winning 4-1 in an encounter that featured the first and second teams in the Premier League. That day the stakes were as high as they can be.
It won't be like that on Sunday. Since then, Liverpool have been rarely near the summit. And this season they will travel down the M62 21 points behind the leaders United; that’s a point a game fewer they have accrued than the team their followers like to regard as their most significant rivals. Even a win on Sunday - and given the collision of United's flaky defence and the rampant, on form Luis Suarez such a result is more than possible - will barely change the relationship. Sure, it will bloody the nose of United’s championship ambition. But, fun as that may be, Liverpool followers want more than that. They want to support a team that once more is in there when titles are being decided.
So where exactly are Liverpool just over halfway through Brendan Rodgers’s first season in charge? Is there any hint of upward momentum? Will this be the last season in which they arrive at Old Trafford as an irrelevance in the title chase? Or is this merely the harbinger of continuing mediocrity?
Well, the main thing they are at the moment is inconsistent. And splendid one week, easily undone the next is no basis for a proper campaign. Rodgers knows that. He knows that a failure to string together a run of more than two victories is not good enough when set against the club’s illustrious past. As he also knows that his team is worryingly over-reliant on the brilliant Suarez in the collection of points.
But, look beyond the results and I think there is evidence everywhere that Rodgers is making progress towards the aim of making Liverpool proper contenders. His introduction of young players like Raheem Sterling is bound to bring inconsistency. As they gain more experience (and that can only be done by playing them regularly) that, however, will become less of an issue. There is, too, proof of the work he is doing on the training ground in the improvement of players like Stewart Downing.
Other managers might have simply dispensed with such a problem, blaming the previous administration for saddling them with such unwanted resources. But Rodgers has proven himself pragmatic enough to soldier on and try to get more. And to be fair to the player, Downing has clearly taken on board the advice. Daniel Sturridge too has arrived to give some forward support to Suarez. If Rodgers can make him half the player he himself appears to think he is, then this could prove some signing.
Because a stronger, deeper squad is what Rodgers needs more than anything. Whatever the jargon he might like to employ, the manager knows that fundamental truth about this simple game. It is that and only that which will have his club’s supporters turning up at Old Trafford able to sing about something other than the past.
- Sports & Recreation