Friday, 1 August 2014

My favourite Liverpool XI

As a Liverpool supporter, it’s hard to summon up any resentment toward Luis Suarez, even though he’s now decided to pursue his career in Spain.  Kenny Dalglish signed the controversial striker from Ajax for £22.8 million, back in January 2011, and the club recouped about £75 million through this summer’s transfer to Barcelona. 

In the intervening three and a half seasons, Suarez scored almost 70 goals, most of them sublime, becoming, in the process, arguably the greatest player to pull on the red shirt.  He didn’t spoil his relationship with Liverpool fans by joining another Premier League club and, as well as enough money to buy a large part of Southampton’s squad, he left memories which will fuel many decades of pub-bore conversations.

He’ll always be one of my favourite players, unless he does something utterly daft, like signing for Man United, and his departure got me thinking about who else might make up a completely subjectively picked XI of crowd favourites, from across the years. 

I’ve compiled my personal selection, below.  Just to emphasise, this is not an attempt to pick the best possible team out of the many talented footballers who have represented Liverpool.  It is simply a list of the players who I enjoyed watching most, or for whom I have the greatest affection. 

It is slanted unashamedly toward players I can remember clearly, rather than those who won the most medals.  It doesn’t contain anyone who played before the late 1980s, most of the team were at their peak from the mid-90s onwards and it doesn’t include Michael Owen. 

The XI isn’t chosen for tactical balance either, although it is arranged roughly in the 4-4-2 formation, without any wing-backs or ‘false 9s’, because that is the way in which The Almighty intended football to be played.
 
GOALKEEPER

Let’s be honest, even when Liverpool dominated Europe, goalkeeper was never a particularly easy position to fill.  Bruce Grobbelaar provided the archetype of the eccentric, erratic ‘custodian’ beloved of journalists in Shoot magazine.  Every now and again he would make a particularly outrageous error and get replaced, for a game or two, by Mike Hooper, who was less extravagant, less unpredictable and also had much less talent.

Liverpool has had some solid goalkeepers since those days.  Brad Friedel was not known for conspicuous mistakes and Pepe Reina had a number of flawless years, before errors began to creep into his performances.  Nevertheless, there have also been a series of less convincing players in this position.  David James, who explained one howler with reference to late night video-game sessions, Sander Westerveld, Chris Kirkland and Pegguy Arphexad.

My choice is in the Grobbelaar / James / (Mingolet?) tradition of unpredictable Liverpool goalkeepers.  Jerzy Dudek became immortal after his wobbly legged performance during the 2005 Champions League final.  The Pole was also a talented keeper, who, at 41 and having retired, is probably still better than his execrable countryman Artur Boruc.

Jerzy Dudek just pips Jose Reina for my no.1 jersey.

RIGHT BACK

No, Glen Johnson is not a contender.  The two possible choices who just bubbled under were Steve Finnan, a reliable southern Irish full-back, and Marcus Babbel, whose solid defending and attacking forays were important assets to Liverpool, before he contracted a rare illness, which forced him to miss an entire season and join Blackburn Rovers.

My selection also suffered a shortened career.

Rob Jones was a classic, old school Liverpool buy, signing from Crewe Alexandra before becoming the best player, in his position, in the league.  By all accounts he was no intellectual, acquiring the nickname ‘Trigger’, which British footballers bestow habitually on their less academic colleagues.  However there was nothing dim about his defending.  In his first Liverpool match he neutralised the young Ryan Giggs. 

Jones was eventually released, due to persistent injury problems, which prevented him from fulfilling his potential and being recognised as one of Liverpool’s greatest ever defenders.

LEFT BACK

The left side of defence has been another problem position for Liverpool over many years.  Last season Aly Cissokho was drafted in on loan to provide cover for Jose Enrique and soon became one of the most heavily criticised players in the squad.  Enrique’s injury meant that John Flanagan, who is naturally right footed, also deputised at left-back. 

My choice for this position is Jean Arne Riise (oooh aaah).  The marauding Norwegian had a vicious left foot, which made him a potent attacking threat for Liverpool.  His shots, free-kicks and corners were a vital part of the team’s armoury for most of the previous decade.
 
Unfortunately Riise’s Liverpool career ended sadly, with an own goal helping Chelsea to win the Champions League semi-final in 2008.  He was sold to AS Roma in the summer, following that incident.  I still believe that the transfer was too hasty.  He returned subsequently to the Premier League, with Fulham, and became one of the strongest players in their side.

CENTRE-BACKS

I have only hazy childhood memories of Alan Hansen and Mark Lawrenson, so my two centre-backs were very easy to pick.  Jamie Carragher developed from a raw youth, who was once sent off for throwing a coin into the crowd at Arsenal, and became Liverpool’s most reliable defender. 

Without his heroics in the 2005 Champions League campaign, Liverpool would not have been champions of Europe.  Indeed, with Steven Gerrard, Carragher was the beating Scouse heart of the squad for a number of years.  He now forms part of Sky Sport’s much celebrated analysis team, with an old adversary, Gary Neville.

My second central-defender is Sami Hyppia.  Liverpool invested £2.9 million in the Finn and it proved to be one of the most successful pieces of business which the club transacted in modern times.  Hyppia spent 10 years at Liverpool and was a classy fixture in the centre of defence, as well as a source of headed goals at the other end of the pitch. 

CENTRAL MIDFIELDERS

The first part of the central midfield pairing is also easy to select.  On many occasions Steven Gerrard picked Liverpool up by the scruff of the neck and carried the team to victory, practically by himself.  Most famously, the captain inspired a comeback against AC Milan in the Champions League final.

Gerrard’s thrusting runs have been a feature of Liverpool’s play since the 1990s, although Brendan Rodgers asked him to play deeper last season.  Some supporters questioned his ability to operate in the new role initially, but he soon won them over.    

His severest critics (who support rival clubs and are jealous) will say that he hasn’t reproduced his club form for England, particularly at major tournaments.  Frankly, who cares?  They’ also claim that he gives the ball away too frequently, attempting ambitious long-range passes, rather than keeping it simple.  These are the type of people who understand football chiefly by playing Football Manager on their PCs or reading statistics provided by Opta.  Anyone with any feeling for the game knows that Gerrard is a genuine match-winner, which is a priceless commodity on the football field. 

It’s more difficult to select a partner for Steven, in midfield.  There are a lot of candidates, none more impressive than Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, who formed part of what Liverpool supporters described as ‘the best midfield in the world’, a number of years ago. 

If I had a substitutes’ bench those two would certainly be on it, but I’ve plumped for another ‘character’, the German-Scouser, Didi Hamann.  He may have liked a cigarette (reputedly) and a drink with his great mates Stevie and Jamie, but he was a classy midfielder in his own right and a World Cup finalist.        

Let’s not forget, either, that he watched the first half of the 2005 Champions League final from the bench, and joined the action at half-time, just as the famous come-back got underway.

LEFT WING

I’ve delved further into the past to select my left winger.  That’s because, as a child, the player who made most impression on me was John Barnes.  He wasn’t the slimmest forward on the park, but he glided past defenders with consummate ease.  As a result, when I kicked a ball around the garden, providing my own commentary, I was most often John Barnes, masterminding an unlikely 5-4 defeat of Manchester United in the FA Cup final.

Even as he became older, slower and chunkier, throughout the 1990s, Barnes’ class was apparent.  He was deployed less frequently on the wing, but he had the deft touch and intelligence to find space infield, on a pitch filled with younger, faster and less injury-prone players.  “He’s beaten one, two, three defenders.  Johhny Barnes scores an incredible goal and Liverpool have won The World Club Cup for the tenth time!”  *wheels away from 7’ by 3’ goal and capers across the garden, jumping and punching the air*

RIGHT WING

The ‘Spice Boys’ era at Liverpool became notorious during the 1996 FA Cup final.  After prancing around the playing surface in flashy white suits, prior to kick off, the team capitulated to bitter rivals, Manchester United, conceding a late goal, scored by Eric Cantona.  Horrendous memories.

However the team also contained some bright, young English talent.  Steve McManaman was synonymous with that side and he was also one of its most impressive stars.

Like Barnes, McManaman practised the old-fashioned art of dribbling with rare skill.  He could look lanky and ungainly, but his close control was exceptional and he often made defenders appear very silly.  As a result he was one of the Premier League’s most feared creative players in the early to mid 90s, even though, ultimately, he didn’t win enough medals at Liverpool.

STRIKERS

So who should play up front with Suarez?

I’ve ruled out Ian Rush for two reasons.  Firstly, I do not remember well his initial, highly successful spell at Liverpool, when he was the most prolific finisher in the Football League.  Secondly, I do remember clearly his less lethal period, after he’d come back from Juventus.  Rush was certainly still a top class striker, but he competed with John Aldridge and others for a starting place and he struggled with injury.

Aldridge was another great goalscorer, but he was also one of Jack Charlton’s leading ‘Plastic Paddies’ and he has talked some nonsense about international football over the years.  

I would have liked to find space for Peter Beardsley, whom I remember most fondly taking apart Nottingham Forest on a couple of occasions and starring in Liverpool’s 9-0 demolition of Crystal Palace.  However, no XI of 'fan favourites' would be complete without the man Liverpool supporters nicknamed ‘God’.

Robbie Fowler had barely started his career at Anfield when he scored 5 goals in a 5-0 League Cup victory against Fulham.  He averaged more than a goal every two games during his first spell at Liverpool and was a key part of Gerard Houllier’s famous ‘treble’ team, which won the FA, League and UEFA Cups in 2001.

Simply, he was a player whose positioning and instinct for scoring goals were unmatched by any other centre-forward.  
              
A recap:
1.       Dudek
2.     R Jones
3.      Riise
4.      Hyppia
5.       /23  Carragher
6.       Hamann
7.       McManaman
8.       Steven Gerrard
9.      Fowler
10.   Suarez
11.   Barnes

So that’s my (completely subjective) favourite 11.  Please feel free to comment, criticise or share your own selection.  

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