x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A red-letter day on the Kop

In 2002, Valencia were coached by Rafael Benitez. Drawn in the same Champions League group, they played Liverpool off the park at the Mestalla.

Valencia return to Liverpool after breaking their fans' hearts at Mestalla Stadium, in a 2002 Champions League game. Pierre-Philippe Marcou / AFP
Valencia return to Liverpool after breaking their fans' hearts at Mestalla Stadium, in a 2002 Champions League game. Pierre-Philippe Marcou / AFP

Ahead of Liverpool's game against Valencia tomorrow, Dileep Premachandran visits Anfield to relive club's legacy

John, who takes me to Liverpool's Anfield ground, is an Everton fan, one disgruntled by "all the money that's ruining the game".

He remembers the good old days, a quarter of a century ago, when the two Merseyside clubs contested an FA Cup final at Wembley and had strong claims to being the strongest sides in Europe, but those times are long gone.

Light rain falls and the sky is slate grey, but a few dozen fans are still queuing up inside the Shankly Gates to buy tickets to tomorrow's pre-season friendly against Valencia.

A German couple, their baby asleep in a pram, wait patiently, and tell me that they became fans during the years when Dietmar Hamann brought composure and nous to Liverpool's midfield.

The Valencia game truly marks the end of an era. In 2002, Los Che were coached by Rafael Benitez. Drawn in the same Champions League group, they played Liverpool off the park at the Mestalla, combining pace and power with slick passing.

Ruben Baraja's energy and Pablo Aimar's quicksilver skills inspired a 2-0 win, and it was more of the same when they came to Anfield and won courtesy a goal from Francisco Rufete, a Benitez signing from Malaga.

Liverpool had won a treble of cup competitions less than 18 months earlier, but the Valencia embarrassment showed just how far they had to go to catch up with Europe's elite.

Those two nights turned out to be instrumental in the decision to hire a disgruntled Benitez in the summer of 2004, right after he had won the Primera Liga-Uefa Cup double.

After two Champions League finals in his first three years with Liverpool, the Benitez stock went the way of the global markets. Valencia also fell from grace, hopelessly mired in debt and forced to sell most of their best players.

Nearly a decade on from that Champions League meeting, both teams are back where they started, with memories of the glory years - Valencia made the final of Europe's premier competition in 2000 and 2001 - fast fading.

The mood around Anfield is one of cautious optimism. Liverpool have not been stingy with their cash in this transfer window, paying over the odds for the likes of Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing, but Manchester City's acquisition of Sergio Aguero for a reported £38 million (Dh228m) puts their spending into perspective.

"A lot of these new owners seem a bit trigger-happy, don't they?" says John.

"But to be fair to Liverpool's new owners, they're nothing like the previous ones. They really were a pair of buffoons."

A little boy in a Barcelona shirt with Messi printed on the back poses for a picture next to the Bill Shankly statue.

I ask the father how he feels about that. He just shrugs his shoulders. Right now, Liverpool don't have a player who can captivate young kids the way the Argentine does.

But there is hope yet. One of the staff inside the club store tells me that the fastest moving shirt, apart from Steven Gerrard's No 8, is the No 7 now worn by Luis Suarez.

The Uruguayan was in sensational form during the recent Copa America, and the locals here fervently hope that he will eventually exert the sort of influence associated with the greatest No 7 in Liverpool's history.

Kenny Dalglish is back in charge, nearly two decades after the abdication that broke thousands of hearts. Most of the positive vibes are tied in with that.

Even John, who would like nothing better than to see the Reds in a relegation dogfight, admits: "He's a gent, and one of the best players I ever saw."

Inside the stadium, as tour groups experience what it feels like to stand on the Kop, much of the discussion centres around Gerrard, and the groin infection that will see him miss the start of the season.

Citing sources "close to the club", a couple of locals insist that he is finished, that the Henderson capture is a sign that the Anfield faithful will not be seeing much more of the man whose tireless running and versatility had so much to do with the Miracle of Istanbul.

The lack of European football is a big blow for the local economy - "Every hotel room in the city's sold out when Liverpool play, and all the taxis get plenty of business," says John - and fans of both Red and Blue persuasions are now debating the possibility of a new shared stadium, like the San Siro in Milan. Mark, who has been a season-ticket holder at Goodison Park for 28 years, says he will not return until Bill Kenwright has sold the club.

"I don't know how much longer David Moyes will stay if he has no money to spend," he says.

Back in School Lane, there is an exhibition of photographs by Steve Hale from the Shankly and Bob Paisley eras. The old-timers walking through get misty-eyed. The younger ones look a bit quizzical, especially when they see seven men crammed into what was once the Boot Room. "You can't buy our history," repeat the greybeards. The youngsters will hope, though, that John W Henry and friends are securing a better future.

 

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