There are very few of us who, at the start of the football season, would have predicted that on April 7th, with five games to play, Liverpool would be top of the Barclays Premier League. But that is precisely where they sit; knowing that victory in their remaining fixtures will see them claim their first league title since the 1989/1990 season.
Finally, a sense of belief is starting to engulf Anfield. Not even a Roberto Martinez-inspired Everton – enjoying a fine campaign themselves – or a desperately poor Manchester United team have managed to register on the Kop’s radar. This is thanks to a frighteningly potent attack that has seen them sweep aside teams of proven quality, both home and away, with consummate ease.
A number of factors have been cited for the dramatic turnaround, which is as steep in ascent as their fierce rivals’ decline. However, for me, one man has been the focal point for this rise and he doesn’t hail from Uruguay, but Carnlough in Northern Ireland.
So how has Brendan Rodgers done it?
There can be no argument that the biggest turning point was his stance over Arsenal’s courting of their prized asset Luis Suarez. Rodgers and the Liverpool hierarchy were adamant that the team they were building around the mercurial South American could seriously challenge for a Champions League spot. In fairness to the often derided Suarez, since his desires to move on were rebuffed, he’s knuckled down, scored and assisted goals for fun and is firm favourite to scoop the PFA Player of the Season Award. This season has seen little in the way of controversy for him either and that sparks a theme across the Liverpool dressing room.
Raheem Sterling, a figure often falsely linked to possessing a family bordering on Von Trapp size, is another who has hugely benefited from Rodgers’ impressive man management. He enjoyed a promising start to last season, earning him his first senior cap against Sweden. But his form dramatically tailed off.
This season, however, sees the emergence of Sterling mark two and it looks like it is here to stay. The youngster has been integral to the Anfield club’s form and has been used as an impact substitute on occasions as the strength in depth of the side now seems more in line with a top four club. In his own words in a recent interview, Sterling is also shaking his ‘bad boy image’; another aspect surely owed largely to Rodgers. The ‘holistic approach’ (infamously coined by Manchester City in the wake of Roberto Mancini’s sacking) appears to be no myth across the M62. To improve the man on the field, you need to improve the man off the field; an ethos that has to be admired.
Daniel Sturridge and Steven Gerrard are another two revelling in Rodgers’ management style. Sturridge has been accused of stalling given his obvious natural talent, yet this seems merely due to being played out of position for much of his Chelsea career. The man they let go in January last year currently has more league goals this season than Chelsea’s much-maligned strike force put together. His consistent displays leading the line for Liverpool this season have proved, to anyone who needed proof, that he is a number 9 of the highest order. He speaks well and openly in interviews and his growth both on and off the field have been so genuine that it is now borderline unfathomable to imagine England’s starting line-up, in their opening Euro 2014 fixture, not involving him.
Gerrard is another who has often been a victim of his own versatility; covering a number of positions and resulting in harshly critiqued England performances. Rodger’s decision to play him as his ‘quarter back’ this year has proved a masterstroke. While the legs may be on the wane ever so slightly, the man’s eyes for a raking pass certainly are not. With an extra second on the ball in his deeper-lying role and an abundance of skill, pace and creativity ahead of him, Gerrard is thriving. Not many neutrals would begrudge him of the league winners’ medal that his career deserves.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography may well have just been the best thing that could have happened to Liverpool this season. While Gerrard was labelled as ‘not a top, top player’, another who came in for criticism was Jordan Henderson. It’s never easy being a young Englishman arriving to a top club with a heavy price tag and it looked to weigh even heavier on Henderson’s shoulders in his early Liverpool days. However, a warning from Rodgers that he would need to fight for his Anfield future coupled with Sir Alex’s comments seem to have done the trick. He now looks a shoe-in for the England squad this summer and may even force his way in to the starting XI alongside his club captain.
Liverpool’s destiny is ultimately in its own hands. But even if they fall short, people must appreciate the tremendous season they have had. The expansive and British-based core of the team has seen them win over many pundits and fans alike as their dream becomes more tangible every week that goes by. I must admit, Liverpool have often done little to endear themselves to me. However, (and I’ll try to avoid Kevin Keegan comparisons in saying so), I would love it if they brought home the Premier League for the first time. I’m sure many other neutrals feel the same. If only Roy Hodgson could take a leaf out of Mr Rodgers’ extensive book for this summer and give youthful exuberance a chance in Brazil.