Since mind games aren’t what they used to be, let’s give thanks for the ingredient that can make this title race great: Liverpool’s ‘12th Man’.
His reputation precedes him. The loudest. The best singer. Most intimidating. Most knowledgeable. Provider of top top bantz.
Able to suck the ball in, persuade the flag to stay down, get the referee pointing to the spot.
Fatalistic, romantic, melancholic, neurotic. And now watching on The Kop through his fingers. Or at home hiding behind the sofa.
Making this race a compelling psychodrama for everyone else.
Retired Cork footballer Colm O’Neill told us recently of team medic Dr Con Murphy’s half-time contribution to the 2010 All-Ireland final performance that had been paralysed by fear.
“We are not nervous,” roared Con before disappearing into a toilet to ventilate his own blind panic.
The Scousers, like the Cork crowd, fancy themselves as a people apart. A neglected yet blessed republic.
“There is a Scouse mentality,” Trent Alexander-Arnold told us this season. “There is a bit of aggression in there, controlled anger I would say. You’re brought up to win as a Scouser — you want to win everything.”
It wasn’t unlike Tracey Kennedy’s description of Corkness: “An insatiable desire for Cork to be the best at absolutely everything”.
But Cork anxiety is private business. To be explored behind closed dressing room doors. Not advertised for all to see.
This week, as Jurgen Klopp and the Liverpool players lined up in turn to tell us ‘we are not nervous’, there was a chippy edge to the denials, some of that controlled anger.
“Did anyone say City were nervous when they dropped points?” scoffed Andy Robertson. “Concerned at being top of the league in February? No, I am happy,” snapped James Milner, walking away from his tormentor.
Virgil Van Dijk make it clear the primary audience for this show of aggression was their own people.
“You get that (nervous) feeling from the crowd and I think it’s not really necessary at the moment.”
Steven Gerrard once mainlined the prevailing feeling from the Liverpool crowd. Before his very first game, he inhaled their worries.
“Nerves filled every part of my body. I could see the doubts on the fans’ faces as they watched me warm up. I could almost hear them say to each other, ‘Who’s this skinny little twat? Who the f***’s he? I hope he doesn’t come on.’ I was shitting myself.”
On those famous European nights, it was Stevie, more than anyone, in touch with their sense of destiny. Though right until the end he was slipping up on what Jamie Carragher has called the ‘eternal quest’.
“I don’t just think about winning the league once a day, but sometimes as many as half a dozen times in an afternoon,” Carragher wrote in his autobiography, Carra. “Every conversation I have with fans and friends covers the same territory. Winning the title has become Liverpool’s obsession, but whereas the supporters have their lifetimes to realise the ambition of seeing us reclaim the league, as a player I’m rapidly running out of opportunities.”
Carra and Stevie ran out of road and on Merseyside they know better than most how short life is. So every time they come close, the anxiety deepens.
“I first noticed it in the run-in to the 08/09 campaign,” wrote Red Trev on sbnation.com.
“We were in the hunt for the league, but the anxiety inside the ground was almost intolerable at times. Instead of giddy delight at challenging for the title, the feeling was one of fatalistic pessimism. Each dropped point or mistake on the pitch was greeted with despondent groaning.”
He has always been swift to insert themselves into the story, the 12th Man. His great idol, Rafa Benitez, learned to work with it and work around it.
“So often, the message you transmit to your players must be the opposite of that which they are feeling, of what the fans are thinking. If they are nervous, you must be confident.
“In a Champions League final, if you sense they are nervous, you can only try to exude an air of calm. That begins the night before, gathering the squad together at a hotel, so that they all sleep well, without distractions.”
That may be the one thing Jurgen Klopp doesn’t exude — an air of calm. This week we heard Adam Lallana admit, via Gareth Bale, that the players didn’t get a wink of sleep before last year’s Champions League final.
“We are fine. We are fine,” Klopp insisted this week, his version of Dr Con’s assurances, en route to the jacks.
But one theory growing legs with the 12th Man is that Liverpool’s season stalled the night they visited the Etihad with the handbrake on, showing fear for the first time this season.
But there are many theories, lots of them conspiracies. City grew the grass too long. Everton didn’t try. On the redandwhitekop forums this week, some even echoed Alex Ferguson’s old gripe that West Ham tried too hard.
So are they in meltdown? Is the 12th Man officially in ‘love it if we beat them now’ territory?
Liverpool haven’t lost in the league at Anfield since Crystal Palace visited in April, 2017. The best home record in Europe.
The Anfield Wrap website swears the 12th Man has since curbed his worst excesses.
“That day was also one of the last times Anfield let itself indulge in its own fatalism, believing everything that could go wrong would and becoming immersed in self doubt. There is no doubt this transcended onto the pitch. What has followed has been a joint enterprise, led by the players, to eradicate such collective pessimism and place the responsibility back on the crowd to get behind them.”
This week, Spion Kop, the group which organises the flags on the Kop, released a statement reminding the 12th Man of his responsibilities, and imploring him to just enjoy the ride.
Like Cork nine years ago, they may just have got a grip of themselves while matters are still in their own hands. You’d expect it to be loud and intimidating today, for Bournemouth.
Is a sense of calm what Klopp needs anyway, with Liverpool’s midfield, as opposed to one with the Silvas and De Bruyne?
In a campaign needing fresh momentum and a renewed sense of destiny, the widespread amusement at another Liverpool ‘bottle job’ may just have triggered the 12th Man’s defiance.
One of the most prominent flags on the Kop used to read ‘We’re not English, we are Scouse’.
On The Anfield Wrap this week, John Gibbons summoned the controlled aggression of the neglected but blessed republic.
“This should be our inspiration for the rest of the season. We shouldn’t be consumed by nerves or fear. Just how happy we will be, and how unhappy so many terrible people will be, if we do it.
“That is what Robertson and Milner are thinking when they are asked those questions. ‘Nerves? Concerned? I’ll show you, d***head’.
“Telling d***heads to f*** off is the Scousest activity I know. From the government, to the media to, well, the South in general.” Manchester, too.
Klopp can work with that.