Tuesday, 27 September 2016

So Far, Sehr Gut

We’re only six matches into Jurgen Klopp’s first full season in charge at Anfield and already there’s a buzz, a murmur, a fever, an expectation around the place.  We’ve been here before, of course.  For those of us who were there at start of Paisley’s reign it’s easy to forget there is a whole generation of Liverpool fans who have only known cup success, albeit as many trophies as Arsenal since 1990.

Klopp arrived at Liverpool on a metaphorical donkey with many keen to hand him their bread and fish in the hope he could work a miracle.  After the initial euphoria of wins at Chelsea and Man City came the pathetic Sunday lunchtime fare served up at Vicarage Road.  That game was a huge slap in the face of reality as we all struggled to resign ourselves to the fact this squad just wasn’t good enough.  We were in tenth place when he joined and only managed to move up two places by the end of the season.  There were two cup finals to look back on, but still no silverware.  After forty-five minutes in Basel, Liverpool were 1-0 up and well in control against Sevilla.  Twenty-five minutes later and the dream was over. 

At the end of the season there was great expectation the new campaign would bring more hope.  Personally I was a little disappointed with the transfer window.  I had doubts about Mane and Wijnaldum and wasn’t convinced we’d moved enough players on.  It has taken just a few games for those fears to be completely allayed.  .

The transformation has been huge.  Already we’re playing some of the most exciting football this side of Beardsley, Barnes and Aldridge. 

The mention of those three is what has prompted me to write this.  I have wonderful memories of the Dalglish’s 86-91 team with the years between 87-89 seeing us play some of the best football I’ve ever seen.  Paisley’s late 70’s side was the most efficient and fully deserved the title “the red machine”.  Effective, efficient and almost impossible to stop.  But that late 80’s side played the more exciting football, in my opinion.  Not better or worse, just different.

Watching some of those matches again you can be forgiven for forgetting what a complete force they were in attack.  Not a wave, more a tsunami.  There were players attacking from everywhere.  Because of the attacking instincts of the midfield Rush and Aldridge played a different role.  Unlike every other striker around then they would drop off and create space for Houghton, Whelan and McMahon to burst into.  Added to that there was Barnes and Beardsley who also attacked from deep.

Watching Liverpool so far this season reminds me of this team.  We attack from all areas.  Henderson, Wijnaldum and Coutinho along with Lallana, Firmino, Sturridge and Mane.  Add to that Clyne and Milner attacking down the flanks and you get the feeling opposition teams must struggle to work out where the next attack is coming from.  Joel Matip also appears to want to bomb forward in a way Alan Hansen used to.  Chelsea discovered how all-consuming this is and how difficult it is to repel. 

They hunt in packs, they press with ferocious authority and they pass the ball with an alacrity which makes you wish the ability to pause live football was not just for those watching tv. 

Henderson’s wonder strike at Stamford Bridge has also added a further facet.  If you defend deep in the hope of smothering the attacks then this will leave space for someone like Henderson or Coutinho to fire one from long range.

To make up for the lack of big signings Jurgen Klopp has improved a number of players to give us the effect of new introductions.  Milner has been moved to left-back to solve the problem of the madness that is Alberto Moreno.  He has been immense this season.  Always a hard worker, Milner can cross a ball as well as anyone and his ability to understand midfield play has enabled him to support that part of the play with more intelligence than most full-backs.  Clyne on the other flank also offers a great attacking threat which is currently more potent than any other full-back in the country.  The difference between him and Kyle Walker is his willingness to take players on.  This was fully evident to all except the England manager in the summer, it seems.  The current national boss would do well to consider both Liverpool full-backs for his qualification campaign too.

Time could well serve to consider Klopp’s conversion of Milner into a left-back as incisive and forward thinking as Paisley’s conversion of Ray Kennedy from attack to midfield.  Kennedy became one of the most revered players of his generation throughout Europe.  Whether Milner will reach those heights remains to be seen but his value to this team already this season is almost impossible to calculate.

Mane has really impressed me.  Always busy, quick feet and constantly scurrying in a manner Suarez used to.  He doesn’t have the skill and nous of the Uruguayan but this team seems more suited to his style than where he moved from.  The same can be said for Wijnaldum.  He seemed lost at Newcastle and lacking the stomach for the fight, but under Klopp he now has a purpose, a role and is flourishing under it.

Another improvement Klopp has brought is to bring competition for the goalkeeping position.  He bought Loris Karius from his old club, Mainz, but he unfortunately picked up an injury during pre-season.  We were then back to Mignolet for the start of the season.  He can be categorised as ‘decent’ rather than ‘outstanding’.  More a shot-stopper than a modern day keeper and although we’ve had shot stoppers before such as Clemence, Grobbelaar and Reina, Mignolet just doesn’t command his area in the way those three did.  We have also missed Reina’s ability to put us on the attack as soon as he picked up the ball.  But Mignolet now knows he has to fight for his place and that can only be healthy for the team.  The same for Emre Can who increasingly looks as if he could be as important to the team as a Gerrard, a Molby or a Souness.  But injury has seen him have to fight for his way back in and with standards already being set incoming players soon know what level of play is expected of them.

Jordan Henderson is another player who is really flourishing under Klopp.  Now club captain his role in the middle of the park seems to really suit him.  His passing is improving and he isn’t afraid to have a shot, as Chelsea found out, and he also seems to be benefiting from the players around him.  Watching him this season I can’t help but still feel a tinge of regret that Steven Gerrard wasn’t a few years younger.  He’d love playing in this team and he’d definitely love playing under this manager.  But there you are.

It is early days but the performance against Hull City this weekend certainly soothed some people’s fears we can often perform well against the big clubs but come unstuck against sides we really should be putting away with ease.  There’s an enjoyment in the football the players are exhibiting and they seem to have completely have bought into it, in a way mirrored at Man City.

I thought Klopp’s reaction to the Hull game was very poignant.  He could be seen on eighty minutes clearly reminding the players there were ten minutes still to go and he was visibly frustrated the performance had dropped.  He confirmed his frustration after the match and I was taken by the intensity and attention to detail from our boss.

If Man City continue in their current form, along with one or two other clubs, then goal difference could well be a factor come May.  Far better to go into the final game of the season knowing a win could secure the title rather than find three points is not enough as we’d need to win by seven or eight goals to stand a chance.

I realise Liverpool fans won’t want Ferguson’s name mentioned in an article such as this, but it was something he was intently aware of during United’s title years, as he would often lambast the players during the season to keep going and try and get that extra goal.  In 2012 they lost out on goal difference to City by eight goals.  Surely they could’ve found an extra eight goals from their thirty-eight matches?

You get the impression Klopp will never let his players rest on their laurels.  That is one of the major factors which makes him a perfect fit for this club.  It has all the hallmarks of the belief system so strongly instilled in the club by Shankly, Paisley, Fagan, Moran, Evans and Dalglish.

For now, things feel good. In a way similar to the heady days of 2013-14 we now look forward to every match in the belief of being entertained in a way we all feel football should do.  Clearly nothing has been achieved yet and we are barely into the new season but what is sport if you cannot dream?

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Malcolm MacDonald Scores Five Goals - Ee-ay, ee-ay-oh

“I don’t want you here. I wouldn’t have picked you, but the media has made it impossible so here you are.  If you don’t score in this match I won’t be picking you again”

Malcolm MacDonald, for some, was the archetypal English centre-forward.  Big, strong, and good in the air.  Unlike other “big number nines” he was extremely quick on the ground as viewers of the iconic 1970’s Superstars series will confirm.
He first began his career at Fulham, the club he was born just down the road from.  He was one of the kids who used to hang around the ground looking for autographs from players such as Bobby Robson.  It was Robson who signed him at Craven Cottage.  He moved to Luton Town in 1969 and then onto Newastle United in the summer of 1971.  That season he scored twenty-three goals as Newcastle finished mid-table.  He endeared himself to the home supporters by scoring a hat-trick against Liverpool on his home debut.

January 1972 saw him win England honours for the first time as he was picked for the under-23 side which took on Wales at Swindon.  He lined up alongside Mick Channon, Phil Parkes, Colin Todd, Ray Kennedy and Tony Currie.  He opened the scoring too, in a 2-0 victory.  Two further appearances against Scotland and East Germany were enough to persuade Alf Ramsey to add him to the full squad for the British Home International Championships.  The now defunct competition was between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and took place during May at the end of every season.  Each team played each other once to determine the British champions, with England versus Scotland always being the final fixture.  
Ramsey put MacDonald straight into the starting line-up as England took on Wales at Ninian Park, Cardiff.  England had just been knocked out of the European Championships losing the two-legged Quarter-Final to the eventual winners, West Germany.  MacDonald lined up alongside players such as Gordon Banks, Bobby Moore, Colin Bell, Emlyn Hughes, Norman Hunter and Rodney Marsh.  Hughes, Marsh and Bell scored in a 3-0 win.  A surprise defeat at Wembley to Northern Ireland when future Arsenal manager, and the man who would sign MacDonald to the club, Terry Neill scored the only goal of the game, was then forgotten about when Alan Ball did likewise in a 1-0 win at Hampden against Scotland.
MacDonald seemed to have done enough to impress England’s World Cup winning manager and when he scored a hat-trick against Wales for the under-23’s in November.  But England had plenty of strikers to choose from then with Allan Clarke, Martin Chivers, Mick Channon and Joe Royle being selected ahead of Supermac.  MaDonald didn’t put on another England shirt until he lined up in Moscow for a friendly against Soviet Union where Bobby Moore equalled Bobby Charlton’s appearances world record.  England had just lost a crucial World Cup qualifier in Poland just four days before and were pleased to bounce back with a 2-1 win.
That June appearance was his only cap in 1973 but the summer of 1974 saw him have another run in the team.  England had just suffered the ignominy of failing to qualify for the 1974 World Cup and then lost at home to Italy when Fabio Capello scored.  In April MacDonald was selected for the friendly in Lisbon against Portugal.  Playing up front alongside Mick Channon he was unable to get his first full international goal as the game ended 0-0.  Soon after that Alf Ramsey was sacked.
Ramsey had been a fan of MacDonald and had spoken to him encouraging him to remain patient but assuring him he had a place at this level.
Joe Mercer was the stop-gap caretaker manager for the Home Internationals and ignored MacDonald for the wins over Wales and Northern Ireland but brought him on as a sub for Frank Worthington at Hampden Park where England lost 0-2.  A month later MacDonald was again a replacement for Worthington and goals from Keegan and Channon helped England to a 2-2 draw in Yugoslavia.  Then Don Revie was named as new England manager.
MacDonald never knew why Revie didn’t like him but wondered if it was because he often scored against Leeds when Revie was in charge.
He wasn’t called up for the first two games of Revie’s reign but got the call when World Champions West Germany were to visit Wembley.  MacDonald was in the middle of another twenty-goal season but when he reported for duty he was greeted by the England manager with a terse
“I don’t want you here. I wouldn’t have picked you, but the media has made it impossible so here you are.  If you don’t score in this match I won’t be picking you again”
Not known for his Shanklyesque powers of motivation so MacDonald had every reason to believe Revie was serious.  Lining up alongside Channon and Keegan, MacDonald finally broke his duck midway through the second half. Mick Channon took a quick free-kick on the right wing to Alan Ball and his accurate cross to the far post saw MacDonald head the ball home for his first ever England goal in his eighth appearance.  A 2-0 win had everyone smiling.  But in the dressing room afterwards, if Supermac was to imagine his manager’s sullen exterior was to be relaxed, he was disappointed.  Revie came in and shook all the players by the hand but when he came to MacDonald he completely blanked him and walked out.
A month later and Cyprus came to Wembley for the European Championship qualifiers.  When MacDonald met up with the squad again he was greeted with the same ‘welcome’ from his manager.
“I don’t want you here. I wouldn’t have picked you, but again the media has made it impossible so here you are.  If you don’t score in this match I won’t be picking you again”.
During the build up to the game Revie was similarly cold towards the Newcastle striker who was convinced he was like this rather than Revie trying some reverse psychology on him.  The day before the match MacDonald was so bothered by this treatment he spoke to the captain, Alan Ball and explained how things were.  Initially Bally dismissed it but when MacDonald told him about Revie’s behaviour in the dressing room afterwards he decided this was not on.  So Ball gathered Colin Bell, Alan Hudson and Kevin Keegan and explained how they were going to make sure MacDonald scored.  Ball said the record number of goals scored in one match for England was five, with Willie Hall in 1938 being the last player to do it.  But no player had done it in a competitive match.  So the plan was to make sure Malcolm beat the record and scored six goals.  MacDonald was stunned at the camaraderie but excited at what the team might be able to create for him.
Just two minutes into the game and Kevin Keegan was brought down on the left wing.  Alan Hudson took the free-kick and MacDonald got his head to the ball just ahead of Dave Watson and England were 1-0 up.  One.   

During the celebration Ball came up to MacDonald and reminded him that was goal number one and five more to go.  Ten minutes before half-time and Colin Bell burst forward to the right edge of the area but his ball into the box missed everyone.  Keegan picked it up on the left, turned a defender and pulled it back from the bye-line where MacDonald scuffed his shot but with enough power to beat the keeper.  Two
Just before the break MacDonald hit a shot against the post and could easily have a first half hat-trick.  2-0 at the break and it wasn’t long before they added to their tally in the second half.  Paul Madeley brought the ball into the Cypriot half and exchanged passes with Bell before floating a ball to the far post where Keegan nodded it down for MacDonald to complete his hat-trick.  Three

Revie then shuffled his pack but instead of taking off MacDonald he chose to take off Channon and replace him with QPR’s Dave Thomas.  Commentator David Coleman informed viewers how Thomas was “one of the best crossers of a ball in the First Division” and immediately we had evidence of this as Ball played him in down the right and his cross to the edge of the six-yard area was powered home by the head of MacDonald.  Four.

Again Ball can be seen encouraging MacDonald to keep going with thirty-five minutes still on the clock.
Within minutes England had the ball in the net again but this was ruled out as Beattie was adjudged to have kicked the ball out of the keeper’s hands after chesting it down in the area.  The challenge was enough to force the visitors to bring on a substitute keeper.  With just three minutes remaining Thomas played a one-two with Ball on the right and his cross into the six-yard box was headed in by MacDonald and he’d become the first England player to score five goals in a competitive international and the first since the War to do it in any match.  Five.
MacDonald did get the ball in the net after his fourth goal but it was ruled out for offside.  He was ecstatic with his performance and especially grateful to Keegan and Ball who’d played such a part in the success.  At the end of the game the electronic scoreboard at Wembley flashed up
“Congratulations – Supermac 5 Cyprus 0”
As MacDonald was leaving the pitch he saw Revie over by the touchline, head down and he shouted over to him 
“Read that and weep, you bastard. Read that and weep”

But Revie didn’t hear him and as everyone was high on the euphoria of it all the manager repeated his performance in the dressing room by not even shaking hands with a player who’d scored five goals in one game.  The only time the manager spoke to the player the whole country was talking about was when he ordered him out of the bath to speak to the press.  
Later in his autobiography MacDonald would explain how the press seemed strangely cool towards him afterwards and he couldn’t understand why.  Back then players or their agents received £25 for post-match interviews and a year later when MacDonald met the BBC football producer and gently suggested his agent hadn’t received the fee, he was abruptly told Revie had demanded £200.  It appeared this was raised via a collection from some of the production staff, camera, sound and lighting engineers and yet Revie had trousered the lot.
MacDonald kept his place in the team for the return against Cyprus where Keegan scored the only goal of the game and then in the goalless draw in Belfast against Northern Ireland.  But he was dropped for the Wales and Scotland matches as his replacement, David Johnson scored in both games.
Supermac would win just three more caps with just two more starting appearances as his international career ended in Lisbon in November 1975.  Six goals from fourteen appearances was a decent return but he only scored in two games and after the Cyprus success he never played at Wembley for England again.  Revie certainly wasn’t interested in him despite his big money move (£333,333) to Arsenal in 1976.

A serious knee injury forced the early termination of MacDonald’s playing career at the age of 29 in 1979 and although he perhaps didn’t achieve the success at international level that his fame at club level suggested, he can at least claim a record which may stand for a while yet.