The pipes, the pipes are evidently calling the boy Sterling, but perhaps a read of “Men in White Suits” may convince young Raheem to go easy on the laughing gas, at least until his ‘advisers’ sweep the room for smartphones.
With Liverpool back at Wembley, yet convincing nobody they are making lasting progress, Simon Hughes’s new book reminds us how a group of footballers can be defined by a single image.
For the Anfield generation of Fowler, McManaman and Redknapp, it was the dazzling white Armani suits they wore in defeat to Manchester United in the 1996 FA Cup final. Underachievers. Wasters. Spice Boys.
“I can’t believe it was allowed to happen. It was a massive mistake and it gave the wrong impression, feeding a reputation that still follows all of those players around today,” writes Jamie Carragher in the book’s foreword.
Those were the heady, early days of ‘controvassy’, when the age-old business of shaming footballers was really only beginning to sort itself out into an industry. We can only imagine what might have replaced the white suits in our minds had there been smartphones loose on Merseyside.
Nearly 20 years on, a player can be defined every fortnight or so. “Raheem Sterling became the second-youngest player to appear for England at a World Cup. Twelve months on, Sterling’s career is a bit of a car crash,” wrote a senior English football journalist this week, of Liverpool’s €75 million-rated 20-year-old.
Judgment day, every day.
Of course, as fond as Raheem is of sucking smoke, his advisers will be just as busy blowing it. They could sell Raheem the warning that a frustrating Liverpool career might, one day, be defined by an image of him slumped, out of it, on a sofa. A laughing stock. Or they might sell him a solution. Leave Liverpool.
That is where Liverpool are now, and it is arguably a worse place than the men of 1996 brought them to, when the club was at least a glamourous destination for a young footballer on the way up, if only because Robbie Williams or Baby Spice might be on the team bus.
The White Suit Final was hardly Liverpool’s lowest ebb. As Carragher points out, the definitive soundbite of the era — Alex Ferguson’s greatest achievement was knocking Liverpool off their fucking perch — doesn’t ring true either. “Liverpool slipped away and United took advantage of the space at the top. Liverpool’s fall was self-inflicted,” argues Carragher.
It was left to the likes of Aston Villa and Norwich to contest the perch.
If anything, Liverpool were emerging from the doldrum years in 1996. In the book, Jamie Redknapp slips through the sliding doors where David James doesn’t fumble in front of Cantona.
“I honestly think we’d have gone on and dominated for a long time, like United did.”
As Redknapp and Jason McAteer point out, they barely wore the suits for 40 minutes and didn’t give them much thought. Did they affect the result? Free to spice up his customary Sky punditry, Redknapp analyses it differently. “You were shit, we were shit, you nicked it.”
Much of the fuss was snobbery, simultaneous media arousal and sniffiness about new Premier League wealth, emerging lad culture and footballers’ place in the new wave of ‘Cool Britannia’ celebrity?
Still, it was a Liverpool player — James — who lost focus when it mattered most.
And decades on, Liverpool are still talking ifs, maybes and nearlys.
So that final became an important signpost along the route of institutional decline.
It somehow became important to know just how Liverpool came to be wearing those suits, which is what Hughes attempts to find out, by interviewing 11 Liverpool figures from the 90s era.
James was the Armani model who organised it. As captain, Redknapp says Ian Rush should have vetoed it. Carragher swears he’d have stopped it if he was a senior player then. But nobody stepped up. Was David Moores’ lax stewardship the issue? Or Roy Evans’ live-and-let-live approach to management? Redknapp argues the players were responsible and dedicated, but admits they might have travelled less often to London night spots if Roy had asked them to stop.
But then Evans’ hands-off style was partly a relaxation of the Graeme Souness reign of terror. And it was Souness’s purge of old heads that left Rush and John Barnes as senior figures unlikely to ask too much of others.
Did the rot of indiscipline set in among the disaffected cast-offs of the Souness spell? Carragher remembers, as a teenager, watching as generous shortcuts couldn’t prevent Julian Dicks being lapped on circuits of the lengthy Melwood perimeter.
Nobody said anything. This is how it is, he thought.
One of the most thoughtful contributors is John Scales, who arrived from Wimbledon with the impression of Liverpool as a “sophisticated organisation underachieving but could get back to where it wanted to be”. Instead, he found a club “in a timewarp”. As United looked to the 21st century, Liverpool gazed into the past; for training regimes, commercial practices, tactics, diet, mentality.
“United had Alex Ferguson in charge, who instilled the discipline and focus that was needed to be successful.”
The fall might have been Liverpool’s, but someone else moved the perch out of reach.
“The next new generation is officially here,” confirmed CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz, after Jordan Spieth’s Augusta coronation, ushering out that interminable McIlroy age.
At least football has the patience to give us generations lasting at least five or six years.
It is hard to imagine Jordan Spieth getting out the old hubble-bubble hookah pipe. Or, if he did, it’s hard to imagine Jordan’s advisers letting it get out.
But I think we need have no worries on that score, for the time being. In fact, after a stunning four-day effort of masterful touch and supreme poise, it was notable — some would say annoying — how taken golf was with Spieth’s manners and general decorum.
So, as the Jordan river of compliments flowed, we tended to hear words like “wholesome”, “deferential”, “clean-cut”, “classy”, “respectful”, “gracious” as much as we did words like “brilliant” or “magnificent”.
All these things seem very important to the golf crowd, as if they are very short of these characteristics among the rest of the tour. “Just what golf needs,” was the verdict, in several quarters. As if golf is normally dealing with a bunch of animals.
You feel the people hailing Jordan as a breath of fresh air mightn’t be cut out for the Premier League.
Of course, what they really mean is; Jordan isn’t Tiger Woods. While being Tiger Woods proved lucrative, over the years, it seems not being Tiger Woods might be just as much of a cash cow, as they might call it.
“The golf gods were all high-fiving each other when they saw that,” marketing guru Matt Delzell told CNN, talking about Jordan hugging his mother and father, rather than ignoring the mother altogether in the traditional Tiger fashion.
Delzell wasn’t ready to wrap up the Rory generation just yet.
“I think it’s great for the game that you have a 25-year- old European stud and a 21-year old American stud.”
Language barrier perhaps, or maybe there is something here for the men in white suits.
An enduring scene from Eamon Dunphy’s book Rocky Road: Ireland visit Chile in 1974, despite Pinochet’s coup, and win 2-1. Afterwards, despite a looming curfew, several players join Irish missionaries for a party in Santiago’s poorest district where some of the dispossessed get a show many before them enjoyed; a few tunes on Ray’s banjo. RIP.
Standard conquering practice: first you take a country, then you transform its language. One of the Cork footballers talked about going through the phases in Croker last Sunday. The way Waterford are set up, expect Tipp to struggle at the breakdown and at ruck-time in Nowlan Park tomorrow.