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So Roy Hodgson did a wonderful job, Fernando Torres is still a hero and I don’t think anybody can deny that Paul Konchesky was the signing of the season. Or was it Christian Poulsen? Or Joe Cole? Now before you all boycott anything further that I write, or bombard TheMakéléléRole with angry, belligerent e-mails, I am, quite obviously, joking.
In truth, despite a 6th place finish and no European qualification for 2011/12, the end of the season was bathed in an optimistic glow for Liverpool fans. Hicks and Gillett gone, a seemingly trustworthy board in their place and King Kenny back at the helm of the ship he had longed to sail ever since he had left in February 1991.
Back in October, however, such an outcome had looked anything but possible. A 2-1 defeat to Blackpool had sent the club crashing into the bottom three and with the deadline for the repayment of the loan to RBS and Wachovia looming, the prospect of administration was becoming very real indeed.
With matters off the field feeling like they were stripping the club from our hands, we could hardly take solace in what was happening onthe field either. Not only had results been terrible but the football had been dreadful to watch.
It may seem slightly pretentious, but football clubs have philosophies, and Liverpool’s was built on the pass and move era of Shankly and Paisley. That style is the first thing looked for in a Liverpool manager, and to see Hodgson impose what were effectively ‘kick and rush’ tactics, sending long balls into the channels for Fernando Torres and David N’Gog to chase, was truly galling.
Even more so when we constantly had to listen to his stubborn insistence that his 36 years of management experience had served him well and he wasn’t going to change for anyone. I’m not suggesting that the Liverpool squad he had at his disposal was capable of playing like Barcelona, but Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger, Glen Johnson, Steven Gerrard, Maxi Rodríguez, Fernando Torres, they were far more capable than the rigid 4-4-2 into which they were forced.
In the end, Hodgson paid the price for his stubborn refusal to change to his surroundings. The ownership issue had long been sorted – Fenway Sports Group (then New England Sports Ventures) defeating Hicks and Gillett’s attempts to block the sale – by the time Hodgson was told his services were no longer required. A crowd of just 35,400 turned up for the New Year’s Day win over Bolton; the final straw a 3-1 embarrassment at Ewood Park. Just a few days later Hodgson left Melwood for the final time.
There was only ever going to be one man to replace him. The Kop had begun chanting Kenny Dalglish’s name only a few games into the season – leading perhaps to Hodgson’s biggest misjudgement, when he criticised the fans for the lack of the “famous Anfield support” – and only the King would do to rescue the club from its predicament.
Dalglish arrived too late to have an impact on the FA Cup defeat to Manchester United – and with the defeat to Ryan Giggs’ second minute penalty went another chance for our first trophy since 2006 – but it wasn’t long before the galvanising effect began. A defeat against Blackpool was followed up by a draw against Everton, but the first win came over Wolves and three more quickly followed.
All of a sudden Liverpool were playing the way that Liverpool were supposed to, and in the final weeks of the season some of the performances were a true joy to behold. The force of Dalglish’s personality and the willingness of the board to act quickly had even seen the club come out of the sale of Fernando Torres – unthinkable to most fans – smelling of roses and with a precociously talented Uruguayan ready to fill the hole in their hearts that the Spaniard had vacated.
That the Reds went into the final day of the season with even the barest sniff of European qualification was, quite frankly, an incredible achievement. They had shown top four form since Dalglish had taken over, with largely the same squad as Hodgson had guided to a stunning low of 19th place after the Merseyside derby defeat to Everton.
Of course, the expectation for the 2011/12 season, with the ink still wet on Dalglish’s new three year contract, will be sky high. Liverpool fans have a tendency to swing between feast and famine from week to week – some might characterise them as bipolar – but the optimism of a return to challenging for Champions League qualification is not misplaced.
With a good summer behind them, with the right signings brought in, Liverpool could once again be a force to be reckoned with rather than ridiculed.
Who: Stuart Edward Ripley
What: Flying Winger
Where: Middlesbrough, Blackburn, Southampton (Barnsley, Sheffield Wednesday, Bolton on loan)
“Night Mum, night Dad”, mumbled 5 year-old TMR as the door closed, before adding in a whisper, “Night Stewie”. And with that, little TMR, all bowl hair-cuts, pirate outfits and lisps, picked his nose, wiped the residue on the under-side of his bedside table, and drifted off to sleep…
This was ‘Stewie Wipley’:
There were many factors that co-operated like a regiment of Navy SEALS to infiltrate TMR’s brain and infect it with the ‘football bug’. Daddy TMR and older brother TMR were fanatics; there was always a ball around the house, blah blah blah. The real commander of this regiment was Stuart Ripley. Or rather, the Merlin football sticker depicting him that I owned – which can be seen above – and that was stuck to my bedside table (the upwards-facing side, obviously I didn’t stick it on the bottom with the…..ewwww). He was the first footballer that TheMakéléléRole ever knew and ever set eyes on and thus, by default, he was TMR’s favourite. Ironically it was the man who broke his Blackburn record signing fee, Alan Shearer, who later replaced him as TMR’s most cherished. Every night, we’d trade glances, two men who could not have been more opposite. He was incredibly fast; I could barely walk. He had an England cap; mine had Mickey Mouse on it. He loved Postman Pat; I was ‘Fireman Sam ‘till I die’. Yet this was the man who, through the medium of stickers, influenced TheMakéléléRole to the point where becoming ‘a student of the game’ seemed as logical as wiping the bogey on the bottom of the table. After all, what other options were there?!
On a more serious note, it was only when researching this article that my love for Stewie Ripley returned, and with it an admiration that stems not from his medal, caps and goals, but for his humility, honesty and sense of the real world which TMR can’t help but feel is lacking in many current England-capped, Premier League winning players (or as they’d prefer, ‘legends’, a word tossed around more than an Olympic stadium-related West Ham joke). This is a man who, having represented his country twice – for many the pinnacle of a successful playing career – freely admits that: “If I’m truthful and objective I didn’t deserve to be in the squad…I felt I got in the England squad on the back of Alan Shearer’s success at Blackburn that season. I wasn’t playing to a standard were I justified a place.”
Where to start? OBJECTIVE?! Maybe we’re looking in the wrong place, but TMR can’t think of another footballer who could deploy such a word with ease and nonchalance. But it’s also rare and refreshing to see someone so realistic about their ability. You wouldn’t see Rohan Ricketts admitting that, if he’s honest, with his career performances to date (albeit with some nasty injuries), the Oberliga Nord (IV) is about the right level for him. Moreover, he seemed to know exactly when it was time to retire, and made his decision without fuss (Fat Ronaldo, take note), saying about a match against Arsenal aged 34: “I always considered myself to be a quick player but that fixture was a defining moment for me. Early on, I went to challenge Thierry Henry, but he just dropped his shoulders, flew past me like a gazelle and was six yards up the pitch before I could blink. His phenomenal speed took my breath away. I ran after him but I felt like I had a fridge on my back. I’d played in the Premier League for 10 years and I’d never experienced that sort of blistering pace and turn before from any player. I was 34 and there comes a moment when you realise that you are unable to compete at that level. “
Now, TheMakéléléRole thinks he’s almost being a bit too modest. Ripley had blistering pace, a catalogue of viciously curling crosses and a Herculean work-rate. (Incidentally, was Hercules’ work-rate actually all that great? Anyone got a YouTube compilation?) He was certainly a more important member of Dalglish’s 94/95 Premier League winning Blackburn side than he gives himself credit for.
Frankly, TheMakéléléRole loves Stewie Ripley so much that, were he to have flitted about post-retirement, speaking between courses and telling old, exaggerated anecdotes about Shearer’s early-nights and Jason Wilcox’s party tricks, we would have forgiven him, listened and laughed repeatedly and then moved on to the cheese platter. However, we needn’t have underestimated him. For Stuart Ripley’s business cards do not say ‘Former footballer, available for anything, even Europa League on Five’. They say ‘Stuart Ripley, Solicitor’. That’s right; the former flying winger has turned his hand to law. What else did we expect?
There’s very little more that TheMakéléléRole can say. This was a footballer who had the decency to watch over a young boy each night, bogeys and all. Who had the tenacity to use what skills he did have, and carve a very successful career out of it. Who had the level-headedness never to let that success get to his head, and the sense to retire at the top. A man who now has the fight, the brain and, more impressively, the motivation to become an expert of law. Most of you will have already closed the tab by now, muttering ‘What will he tell us next? That Ripley graduated from the University of Central Lancashire in 2007, with a first class combined honours degree in Law and French? Pah!’
What a LEGEND. To quote a Scotsman who would have loved to have been on the end of your crosses, and who could probably use your solicitor’s skill: Take a bow, Stewie Ripley. And I mean that.