The 2003-04 season had ground to a halt on Merseyside, as Houllier’s Liverpool breathed its last monotonous, mediocre breath. Unaware that an inspired Spanish successor would lead the club to the European crown twelve months later, I headed south for the final weekend of the French/Spanish leagues: Bordeaux V Togel Hongkong Monaco preceded by Athletic Bilbao V Atletico Madrid.
Monaco were European Cup finalists four days later, but the memory of that weekend is dominated by the performance of one man: Fernando Torres. Unfazed by the prospect of playing away from home, the 20-year-old captain won the game on his own, scoring all three Atletico goals.
When Fernando Torres signed for Liverpool three years later, memories of that Basque evening basking in the brilliance of El Nino came flooding back. A substantial fee was justified by an even more substantial return. £24m Torres went on to score 65 goals in 102 games for Liverpool.
Output aside, the cultural assimilation of Liverpool’s number nine was a process that began even before his famous signature graced a Liverpool contract. Rumours began to circulate about the club’s motto appearing on his armband in his final days at Madrid. This is Torres’ autobiographical account: “It happened in San Sebastian when I was playing for Atletico Madrid against Real Sociedad. I was battling with a defender, and the captain’s armband I was wearing came loose and fell open. As it hung from my arm, you could see the message written on the inside, in English.”
The resultant song in celebration of an overnight Liverpool hero almost wrote itself: “His armband proved he was a red, Torres, Torres. ‘You’ll never walk alone’ it said, Torres, Torres. We bought the lad from sunny Spain, he gets the ball he scores again, Fernando Torres Liverpool’s number nine.”
This was a period in which local social movements to ‘Keep Flags Scouse’, ‘Reclaim the Kop’ and reignite the ‘Spirit of Shankly’ saw a few thousand regularly vocal attendees move to the centre of the Kop. Disagreements over conditions and behaviours and the resultant friction between stewards and Kopites in Block 306 led to a refusal to ‘remain seated’ and instead – ‘bounce’. Predictably the animated chorus was instilled in the midst of the Torres song. “We’re gonna bounce in a minute” became a warm up, a reminder, a threat, an inspiration.
Paul Du Noyer notes that: “With its back-alley poverty and idolatrous passion for football Liverpool has been compared to South America.” Yet at no other European club would such adulation have been bestowed. Torres’ commitment to Liverpool was reinforced by his goals and his accolades. He claimed: “The Kop is magical and generous; it transmits a kind of positive energy that fills you with confidence. It never lets you down. It never leaves you.” His allegiance and performances were honoured in flags, songs and bounces.
It must be said that Torres’ reign as King of the Kop was subject to unfortunate timing. Poisonous foreign ownership, restrictive transfer policies and mismanagement on and off the field frustrated the man who fired Spain to European and World titles during his tenure at Liverpool. Club honours continued to elude him however, as Liverpool’s domestic and continental challenge faltered.
I pitied Torres, a forward of world renown, as seasons came and went without the addition of a striker or winger of any note. Talented but ill-fitting and unsettled players were rightly sold but wrongly replaced. With that in mind, many heartbroken Liverpudlians would have accepted Torres’ decision to move on to pastures new, under certain conditions.
The model for the legitimate leaving of Liverpool is represented by the departure of European champion Xavi Alonso. His lucrative arrival at Real Madrid in no way diminished his Anfield legacy. His consistently professional and respectful conduct and choice of subsequent employers mean that the related sentiments that echoed around Anfield are no less true today: “everyone wants to know – Alonso, Alonso, Alonso.” If El Nino had have chosen to leave for a non-English club in return for £50m, and said nice things about Liverpudlians in doing so, trophyless Torres would have been well remembered.
As anyone at Anfield would have admitted over the last three years, Torres deserves a stable club, an inspirational manager and a world class partner in crime. Yet after 1284 days at Liverpool, Torres chose the very day in which those elements were finally fused (infrastructural stability, legendary management and the signing of ‘the hand of the devil’ – Luis Suarez) to put in a transfer request.
In general terms I am an advocate of this process, as the transparency usually aids accountability. However, the circumstances surrounding Torres’ departure are difficult to support, unless of course you wear the blue of Chelsea, or Everton. I hear both sets of fans were singing about “Chelsea’s number nine” during the FA Cup tie at Goodison on Saturday. (I also hear Everton are delighted with their new Eastern European signing by the way. Ingrid will replace Maureen the cleaner who has reportedly received a shock promotion taking her to Asda).
When the request was made, Liverpool’s response was reflective of the ‘Liverpool Way’ of old. Dalglish was ultra impressive in his handling of potential Liverpool targets and departures. Whereas Spurs ‘gaffer’ ‘arry Redknapp seems happy to discuss any potential signing in the world to any journalist who will listen, the Liverpool equivalent chooses not to act like an ale house manager. Dalglish discourse is considered and humble, and it follows action rather than leads to it.
When King Kevin Keegan broke Liverpool hearts by quitting the European Champions in 1977, our response was to sign Dalglish, the greatest Liverpool player there will ever be. When Ian Rush was sold to Juventus in 1987, the replacements of John Barnes, John Aldridge, Peter Beardsley and Ray Houghton helped produce the 1988 team, one of the greatest Championship winning sides to have ever graced this city.
Keegan’s departure was inspired by a desire to play for a ‘bigger club’. Similarly, Fernando Torres’ opening words to Chelsea supporters was: “This is the target for every footballer, to try to play for one of the top clubs in the world. They [Chelsea] are one of the biggest teams in Europe and are always fighting for everything. It’s my dream to win the Champions League and I’m sure I can, playing for Chelsea.” The implications about Liverpool are not difficult to interpret.
If this is his objective however, it seems strange to move to a city that is yet to produce a single European Cup. In the day Torres left to increase his chances of winning the coveted prize, Paul Konchesky signed on loan for two-time winners Nottingham Forest. (Their supporters should brace themselves for some legendary performances on the field from Konchesky, and some notable pleasantries off it from his mum).
Torres’ decision to join Chelsea is undeniably a choice to play for a club that represents everything Liverpool do not. Whether El Nino has made an inspired or insane decision, time will tell. Yet given his insight into Liverpool culture, he will know full well that his words and actions have served to sever all ties with Anfield, in a way no player ever has – Michael Owen included. Torres’ five fingered salute at Old Trafford is consigned to history. He now represents a club with a zero on their Champions League badge.
In his autobiography Jamie Carragher discusses the “recent epic battles” between Liverpool and Chelsea, perceived to be “a clash between football tradition and the arrogant rich: While we celebrate our working class roots, the Londoners love nothing more than to wave £20 notes at our visiting fans. Their players are granted the luxury of behaving like celebrities and superstars. Ours are expected to abide by a different set of values – the Shankly laws – and to show humility in a city where being flash is frowned upon.” Torres’ Chelsea will play host to Liverpool on Sunday. Their recent acquisition will surely see a further demonstration of the philosophical gulf that exists between the clubs.
But with the visitors having sold the injury prone albeit world class crank, it is worth remembering that Ryan Babel slipped out the Anfield exit this week – yet even the physically challenged rapping addict of social networking had the decency to tweet these departing words: “There is no other club than Liverpool with the anthem ‘YNWA’ – Beautiful. Wanna thank ALL of you fans but the ones in particular who believed in me and supported me all those years. It’s definitely a shame it didn’t worked out for me and the club, but that’s how it is sometimes. I was blessed to work with one of the greatest football players and I learned a lot. I learn to love the LFC way, the city, the people and I made lots of friends in Liverpool.” Who ever thought a departing Babel would engender greater Scouse support than Torres?
It is also worth remembering that Liverpool will have two exciting attacking recruits to select from when we face Chelsea (fitness permitting). The purchase of Newcastle’s Andy Carroll joins Luis Suarez from Ajax in what could prove a very threatening Liverpool attack.
No man is bigger than a club like Liverpool. Torres was allowed to leave for Chelsea because he wanted to go there – but no position is more important than the manager, and at Liverpool – the future’s bright, the future’s Dalglish. In the meantime, I’m off to warm up the vocal chords for a good round of ‘Where’s your European Cups?’ I might leave the bouncing in the past though – where it and Torres belong.