Winner Takes All

imageIn late 1973 Red Star Belgrade came to Anfield in the European Cup (Champions League today) and ran the legs off Liverpool. Liverpool were one of the favourites, and couple of years later won the same European trophy twice back to back, besides winning the UEFA Cup twice in this period, and five League Championships in eight years and being runners-up in the remaining three. So no mugs.

Anfield must have been shocked. Absolutely, no argument about that. At the end of the match, the Kop (at the time, the most celebrated football crowd in the world, pre Heysel and Hillsborough), simply stood up and gave them a standing ovation, genuine and appreciative of the great skill of that Red Star team.

History records this particular Red Star Belgrade team was one of the great underachievers of club football. They were one of the best football teams in the world, but simply disappeared into the unknown. A later Red Star team won the European Cup in 1991, and that is what Red Star Belgrade is known for today. Like some other underachievers, namely Puskas Hungarians of 1954 and Tele Santana Brazilians of 1982, they won nothing and today, even very knowledgeable football fans do not know of them.

Who really remembers the 1970 South Africans? Except that they were one of the most magical cricket teams to exist. But they never won on the world stage, other than the 4-0 drubbing of Australia. Players like Barry Richards, Graeme Pollock and Mike Proctor were kings of their era.

This winner takes all mentality is a modern phenomenon. It has several aspects to it. Firstly, it expects that people win something to be acknowledged and become somebody. Secondly, the expectations and loyalty of supporters is also short and variable.

If, it’s a question of numbers and probabilities, one wonders how people will achieve acknowledgement in this world. Only 2 percent are outstanding in the Bell Curve. I am presuming title winners will come from within this 2 percent. So, what of the 98 per cent? Are they to be consigned to the scrap machine? Will these people live out an also-ran existence, because fortune did not smile on them?

The other point is of patience and loyalty. I read the Liverpool and Manchester United forums. In the old days, Shankly and Busby were given deep loyalty. When their teams were not doing well, the supporters never lost patience. Nowadays, Rogers, Moyes and Van Gaal, have had praise and then dung heaped on them. Sometimes this variability is week to week. A good performance and the manager is up in the sky; a bad performance and he is buried. The recent case of Mourinho is a stark reminder, ‘success is now measured in concrete returns – the trophies’.

There is a more obscure third matter, people my age will notice. In the past, there used to be a case for aesthetics in sports. Today it has been replaced by efficiency, because of the need to win. Guardiola, Benitez and Mourinho are all about this efficiency. Used to be that the luxury, skilful, maverick player would roam the park. They would deliver supreme beauty of skill, but were not too pushed about marking opposite players or getting back in position. Nevertheless, the joy of watching what they did with the ball was enough. Today these players have disappeared. Messi and Ronaldo, the most skilful players today, do not exercise their skills in matches as a Finney, Zico or Rivera (thats right, how many have heard these names, they were great, but never won a famous trophy). The same with a graceful batsman. They crunch the beauty out of his game and leave instead an efficient, slogging or boring run machine. One has to watch a free-wheeling Kanhai to understand what I mean. The joy of the visual has gone and the efficient deliverer has to perform on the stage.

Now just imagine this thinking spread across sports, art, literature and more. The flamboyant beauty of a Sobers innings, the risky manoeuvre of a Senna in F1, the audacious paint strokes of a Van Gogh, the long styled challenging writings of a Dickens. All these have disappeared and been replaced by efficiency, which cuts out risks and delivers results. Today, the winner takes all and so we also refine our lives accordingly. Imagine you advising your child to pursue a profession which is guaranteed good returns, shunning any particular artistic skills which may have been the real passion. Drabness starts to take over life.

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You Will Never Walk Alone (YNWA)

Liverpool-FC

 I don’t remember Gerry and the Pacemakers and was too young to remember when their song You Will Never Walk Alone became a chart topper in 1963. But this has turned out to be my most influencing piece of music. It has constantly rung in my head or been on my lips, since a fateful day in May 1971.

FA Cup final day 1971 will live in my memory for all the wrong reasons, but it also created a passion, which has been a constant these 42 years. A young remade Liverpool side, another Shankly team, out on the Wembley pitch in front of 100000. Facing it an Arsenal side, which under Bertie Mee, had already won the League Championship. They now stood at the doors of immortality, in the possibility of being the 4th team ever to do the double. A prize which eluded many great sides in the past. The FA Cup regularly inspires lady luck. Like an untouchable lover, she plays and flirts with the teams and so decides who to bless on the final day.  Hence, many a great team had come to Wembley and gone despondent, cursing their lack of luck. So the double just happened to be a prized goal, rarely achieved.

On the day, Liverpool just seemed to freeze…the Wembley fear…but a 100 degree temperature led to a sterile 0-0 at 90mins. Extra time and the game became dramatic. Heighway jinked in from the left and delivered what looked like a killer blow to Arsenal. But we reckoned without the change of fortunes. One of my most abiding nightmares, watching Charlie George lying in the grass celebrating a wonder goal late in the game, which Arsenal took in extra time 2-1. The comeback did Liverpool in and I sat despondent watching a young team sadly trudging away. My curse. I always have supported underdogs and in neutral situations always felt sympathy for losers. I felt as if something incomplete had occurred and there must be more to go.

The summer of 71 was eventful anyway. Laver lost at Wimbledon and so did Pakistan at Leeds to England. It seemed that the losing streak continued for all my favourites. Come new League season, I found I had a new passion. It had come late to me in the scheme of things, but did it arrive with a bang. My despondency at Liverpool’s loss converted to support for them and I became one of Anfield’s millions of legions of followers. And what a fateful time to enter the fray. I am convinced I brought them luck.

Down the years of the 70s and 80s it was like finding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. That same young team under Shanks and then new recruits under Paisley, later Fagan, Moran and finally King Kenny, poured rich rewards into my lap. Some 11 championships, several FA Cups and League Cups and above all 4 European Cups later one almost felt satiated. Liverpool became the premier football club in the world.

The memories are magic. Fairclough scoring a wonder goal vs St Etienne, Tommy Smith desperately rising above the Borussia Munchengladbach defence to head home, to take the European Cup in Rome, Souness lording it over the Anfield pitch, Grobbelaar dancing in the goal to save Roma penalties and deliver another European Cup in 1984, Rush scoring a triumphant goal vs Everton to win the double finally in 1986, that wonder performance vs Notts Forest which dealt a 5-0 blow in 1988, and above all King Kenny holding trophies aloft and grinning his grin.

Its not just one way memories only. Passion cannot be built on success alone. It comes as a package. It requires failures and heartbreaks too. So the awful day in 1985 at Heysel and another awful one in 1989 at Hillsborough, death dealt in multiples, and in footballing terms that terrible moment when Michael Thomas rushed across the Anfield pitch to score and take away the League Championship in the dying seconds of the season in 1989, when they were probably putting Liverpool colours onto the trophy. Such heart wrenching moments…but it just grounded Liverpool more into ones heart.

So to return to Gerry and the Pacemakers. They are long gone, but there one abiding memory resides on the Anfield terraces and wherever the supporters go. They reside in millions of hearts across the world, who lie dormant waiting for The Liverpool dream to come back once more. The feel is right and the door is opening once more. One just feels this is 1971 all over again.

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