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Liverpool fail to bring a legend back to life

Simon BarnesDecember 10, 2014
Steven Gerrard reflects on what might have been against Basel as they exit the Champions League © Getty Images

It's generally assumed that professional athletes go out there and do their stuff, and the rest of us - commentators, pundits, writers and spectators - try and impose a meaningful pattern. Players are in thrall to sport while the rest of us are in thrall to legend. Founding principle of sports journalism: don't print the fact, print the legend.

Questions are always asked about the inner meaning of matches and incidents and upcoming fixtures and they're always batted away: all we're concerned with is getting out on the pitch and showing what we can do, history means nothing to us, it's not a revenge match or a grudge match, there's no feud, it's just 90 minutes, eleven men against eleven and we take each match as it comes. Football, even more than most sports, likes to pretend that it is determinedly unromantic. And it's nothing of the kind.

Football brought us Liverpool against Basel on Tuesday and showed that it's more obsessed with its own romanticism than the most fanciful of writers. Ten years ago, Liverpool needed to beat Olympiakos by two goals to advance to the knock-out stages of the Champions League. They were a goal down and heading for failure when Steven Gerrard took control. It was a pattern that was repeated the same season in the Champions League Final, which Liverpool won after going 3-0 down.

Gerrard was selected to start this match in the No.10 role: an open invitation to do that 2004 thing all over again

On Tuesday, Liverpool needed to beat Basel to qualify, so naturally all the talk was about the chances of reprising the legend of 10 years back: one in which a team was driven forward by the implacable nature of one remarkable footballer, and how his will prevailed that night because he wouldn't accept reality.

These days Gerrard is beginning his years of decline, playing cameos and no longer a guaranteed starter. But he was selected to start this match in the No.10 role: an open invitation to do that 2004 thing all over again. Don't pick the fact: pick the legend.

And it nearly worked. Though not exactly in the way that Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, necessarily hoped. The on-pitch deference to Gerrard the legend was quite extraordinary. On two occasions in the first half, first Raheem Sterling and then Rickie Lambert passed to Gerrard, inviting him to shoot when they were better placed. Don't pass to the fact: pass to the legend.

Was it part of the plan to let Basel score? Perhaps it was even part of the plan that Basel should dominate the first half, so that Liverpool looked exactly what they are: a team of the second rank struggling to maintain that status, and out of their depth at this level of competition.

The decision not to give Gerrard a penalty was 'made by a referee unsporting enough to put football ahead of folklore' © Getty Images

You need a bit of adversity for Gerrard to find his best: that's a crucial part of the legend. So no doubt it was part of the master-plan to get a player sent off, as well: Lazar Markovic left the pitch as punishment for the football crime of naiveté.

And it was a little after this that the match shifted radically, as if the players had suddenly remembered that they had duties beyond football. There was a legend out there that needed nurturing: like one of those prophecies that ancient heroes are doomed to fulfil.

Penalty! Gerrard went down in the box but no, the goalkeeper had got to the ball first, and the correct decision was made by Bjorn Kuipers, a referee unsporting enough to put football ahead of folklore. But that's when the evening spun out of control.

Football can do this in a manner few other sports can. Suddenly a fit of madness will sweep across an entire match, blasting away every vestige of control away from the managers. In these enthralling passages you often find a single player making the decisive contribution. Sometimes it's a brilliant young player who makes his mark for the first time; sometimes it's an old stager who seizes his one moment of glory; most often of all it's a player renowned for fantastic deeds who adds another great day to his curriculum legendae.

And so inevitably, Liverpool won a free-kick in a dangerous position, and inevitably, Gerrard took it, and - apparently as inevitably as the fall of Troy - the ball swerved like hunting sparrowhawk into the goal. It was his 100th goal at Anfield: well, it would be, wouldn't it?

In the febrile atmosphere of the last few minutes - nine of them plus four of stoppage time - there was a madness set loose across proceedings, one in which anything could have happened, and you were somehow surprised when at the end of it all Gerrard had not, in fact, completed a hat-trick and that Liverpool had not, in fact, won the day and qualified for the last 16, and Liverpool had not, in fact, set out on the road that would lead to a victory in the final as improbable and as inevitable as that of 2005.

Tuesday night's match was more than football believing its own mythology. It was football doing all it could to bring a legend back to life. Gerrard volleyed over in the 90th minute and it seemed odd that this difficult chance failed to go screaming into the goal rather than the stands.

Football is uncontrollable. The managers who earn the top dollars are those who can get closer than most to controlling the uncontrollable. But they're never really on top of the job: they're just the best cat-shepherds available. The best of them actually accept that: the classic example is the improbable fightback of Manchester United in the Champions League Final of 1999.

Sir Alex Ferguson's response to this - "Football. Bloody hell!" -has itself become legendary. It acknowledges that the greatest thing in football is that which lies beyond the control of manager or for that matter, players. Football flirted with such an outcome last night - more than flirted, went into some heavy petting. But for once, the meeting of fact and legend was not consummated.

So today we have to print the fact.


© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

Writer Bio

Simon Barnes was Chief Sports Writer at The Times and UK Sports Columnist of the Year in 2001 and 2007. He writes about a wide variety of sports for, as well as and ESPNcricinfo. He has written more than 20 books including The Meaning of Sport and three novels. On Twitter he is @simonbarneswild

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