Monday, 23 May 2011

Liverpool FC: Looking Back on a Season of Ups and Downs, Is Sixth Really so Bad?

Sciott Heavey/Getty Images
(Bleacher Report) The 2011-12 season started off with great belief and great doubt all at the same time. The Rafael Benitez era had come to a close in a dismal fashion, as the Reds slumped to a 7th place finish after having finished 2nd the season before.

Roy Hodgson, after leading a mid-table Fulham team to the UEFA Europa League final, was installed as the new man at Anfield, but it was a signing that had no real fan belief behind him. Myself included had great respect for Hodgson for what he had achieved with Fulham, but wasn't so sure he was the man for the job.

It became even more apparent that the team was slipping, as more signings continued to come into the club that appeared not on the level needed for the Reds to continue to compete at a top four level. Joe Cole came in as a free transfer, Christian Poulsen and Paul Konchesky were looked at as unnecessary, but the loaning out of Emiliano Insua and Alberto Aquilani and the eventual sale of Javier Mascherano made it necessary to fill voids.

The eventual bright spots in the signings of the summer would be Raul Meireles and Jonjo Shelvey, though it wasn't Hodgson that they would shine under.

The first game of the season set the tone for how frustrating it would be, as Joe Cole was given a red card in his debut game as a Red against Arsenal, whom came back to take a draw from the home side in the second half. Little did Cole know but he would become the poster boy for Liverpool as the underperformer of the season.

Results continued to go against the Reds, and Javier Mascherano disrespected the club by refusing to play until he was sold to Barca, where he got little playing time might I add. But he did get a small piece of a La Liga title, and maybe a Champions League title that is yet to be decided.

The first bright patch of the season came from more controversy over ownership. As Tom Hicks and George Gillet had spiraled the club's financial situation out of control, the fans were at their wits end to the point of open protestation at any chance they could get. To the rescue of the club came a new set of American owners, Fenway Sports Group under the guidance John W. Henry.

FSG had a proven track of success in professional sports as they had resurrected the Boston Red Sox and led them to two World Series titles and a completely refurbished Fenway Park. If there were some owners that knew how to make a franchise successful from the ground up, it appeared that these guys knew their stuff.

After a knockout battle through the courts, it was finally settled in their favor, and Liverpool was in a new era of ownership.

However, the results didn't immediately carry over onto the pitch. As Hodgson's non-attacking style of sitting behind the ball was failing to make the grade, and Liverpool's stars were continuing to languish in limbo of inconsistency. Fernando Torres looked done, Steven Gerrard and Jaime Carragher were shadows of themselves, and the all-around feeling was despair despite the new ownership.

The Reds were stuck in the lower reaches propping up the table. A team of their class and history should never be there.

Despite some out-of-nowhere performances, such as the 2-0 victory over Chelsea at home, the Reds just weren't in the right place under Roy Hodgson. The new owners had seen enough by January, and with Kenny Dalglish in the wings,, there was only one choice to guide the team through to the end of the season.

The return of King Kenny to the managers post on January 8, 2011 was a blessing to fans and all alike as far as Liverpool was concerned. Hodgson is a great manager for a mid-level team but couldn't match his style to the desires of Liverpool.

The Reds were in 12th place as Kenny prepared to take over the day before a vital cup tie clash with Manchester United that would see Steven Gerrard see a red card in the first half. Eventually, Liverpool would crash out thanks to the poorly called penalty that sent the Skipper off.

Controversy continued as Torres was staying and going, staying and going. Finally, his true colors emerged as he left Liverpool for a £50 million transfer to Chelsea, to a "Bigger Club," and the funds would be used as the cash to acquire both Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll.

Kenny led the team back to their winning ways just days before the Torres debacle, bringing out the true class of Meireles. Meireles took off after his goals against Everton and Wolves, the latter of which Dalglish got his first victory as the first ever second term manager in Liverpool's histroy.

In true fashion, the drama of the EPL pitted the Reds against Torres' new Chelsea Blues in his first match of February. Four days earlier Luis Suarez had scored in his debut against Stoke City, and already, "El Pistelero," was trying to erase the memories of "El Nino."

Stamford Bridge was a cauldron of heated fans as Liverpool fans cat-called their former hero who had claimed he would always be a Red and had utterly disgraced his former team by claiming the Blues a bigger club. Meanwhile, Blues fans hung banners believing he was their newest savior.

The Reds would run out 0-1 winners thanks to Meireles, who was the inform man under Dalglish in his first months back in charge. Meireles scored five goals in a six game period.

Kenny's men would continue to climb up through mid-table mediocrity, and the rise of Meireles and youngster Martin Kelly would accompany the praise heaped onto Dalglish. Suarez adapted quicker than any would have imagined, and he would form a lethal attacking trio with Dirk Kuyt and Carroll once the three of them could all be on the pitch at once.

As the weeks and matches went by, the confidence was being restored in the players, the fans were reuniting behind Dalglish, and Jaime Carragher could not have summed up the affect of the care taker any better than with the words from an interview with the Guardian:

"He's brought the club together as one. The players and the supporters are all together. It wasn't like that at the start of the season, unfortunately for Roy. But I think Kenny coming in has galvanized the support behind the team again and obviously his record as a manager in the past is fantastic. He's one of the top managers around. He's won four championships."

Dalglish failed to keep the team in Europe, but given that he never had the opportunity to really manage any European games in his previous Liverpool tenure, it isn't a total bust, as he will get it right in time.

His valiant charge back to the top of the table was hampered more times than not by injury after injury, but he proved that he could use youth and any and all resources to get the job done, as more academy youngsters in Jay Spearing, John Flanagan, Jack Robinson, and Charlton Youth Jonjo Shelvey all played their roles for the new boss.

FSG awarded Dalglish his much deserved contract as they offered him a 3-year deal just weeks ago. The Reds were poised for another season in the Europa League after being counted out, but their final two games ended in disappointment, as two losses allowed Tottenham to grab fifth and keep the Reds in sixth.

In conclusion, despite the sixth place finish and no Europa League, I actually believe grew as a team this season. A lot of young players got time to develop, Lucas finally really came into his own and was perhaps the best player of the season for the Reds, and the fans are behind the owners and the manager again.

To me, the Reds are in a much better position for growth and development than they were last year, and I look forward to an exciting summer transfer season that may or may not be hampered by no European action. I believe the intent of the new owners and the new manager have the club in an enticing new position for players to get excited about.

Shelvey has voiced his belief that next year will be great in his latest interview with stating:

"I believe next season will be a big one for Liverpool. I think with the way we were ending the season, apart from our last two games, the fans have got to be very optimistic about the future."

Jaime Carragher also believes that no European action in the Europa League allows an easier path back to the Champions League next season:

"The main thing for us next season is getting back into the Champions League. Not being in Europe will give us a better chance of doing that. We want to get back in the top four and do well in the cups.

"Playing Thursdays and Sundays isn't ideal so there's a flip side to not being involved."

The players are ready for next season and so am I. Come on you Reds, YNWA!

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