MADONNA was top of the charts with Vogue and Pepe Reina was a seven-year-old boy saving shots in his back garden the last time Liverpool were crowned league champions; but the Spaniard believes those halcyon days are destined to return eventually no matter what happens in the Premier League this weekend.
Manchester United can clinch their 11th title under Alex Ferguson – and their third in-a-row – if they at least draw against Arsenal at Old Trafford today while Liverpool can only hope to keep up the pressure by beating relegation-haunted West Bromwich Albion at The Hawthorns.
But even so Reina, the 26-year-old goalkeeper who this year became the quickest in Liverpool history to reach 100 clean sheets for the club, senses a real sea-change in English football.
He admits it is remarkable that 19 years on from May, 1990 – the last time the title came to Anfield – Madonna is still wearing short skirts and pumping out singles but Liverpool have forgotten what it’s like to be number one.
But there is a growing belief at Anfield that Liverpool’s time is about to come, no matter what happens in this final week of the 2008-9 campaign, and that Rafael Benitez’s long-term vision for the club will eventually return them to the top of the charts.
“We have to fight for the title until the last fixture, until mathematically it’s impossible for us,” said Reina.
“We know United need only a point and it’s disappointing because we’ve had a good season but it looks like it won’t happen for us. But even so I think the team is improving and we are a lot closer to the top teams than before.
“I think we have a winning mentality now and we are fighting for a chance for the title. We are still far away in terms of the most important thing which is to win it. So we have to keep working and keep improving – and I think we will.
“If we keep winning it could be the highest points total ever for Liverpool this year because with two games remaining we already have 80 points, so it’s better than before.
“The way we’re playing and the way we’re winning it’s a lot better than in the last few seasons. But apparently it’s not enough and we have to grow up a little bit more.
“I think we can do that. We have already a great number of good players in the squad and the spine of the team is very good. We just need two, three or four players who can step up the level for us and try to improve us for next year.”
For Reina, who arrived from Villarreal in 2005 just after Liverpool had been crowned European champions, the difference between England’s top two is small, and nothing that a spending spree cannot put right.
“We have to spend this summer,” he insisted. “The rest of the clubs will do as well and we have to compete with them. We have to buy players because we are so close.”
But where he really strikes a chord with the Liverpool faithful is in his assessment of the potential of the Anfield club should they finally end that 19-year wait to be champions.
“We have the history,” he insisted with the kind of zest and pride any Scouse schoolboy would be hard-pressed to out-do. “So of course the best and biggest club in England is Liverpool.
“Recently the results have shown Manchester as number one with the titles they have won. And of course, they have spent really amazing money. But for me the best team in England is still Liverpool.
“I think in terms of the club, of supporters, of tradition, of history, Liverpool is the biggest in the world. The challenge is to live up to that. We have to win games and we have to win the title. That’s the difficult part but we will try.
“The fans here make the club extra special, they are different – different class – from any others in the world and that’s why we all love Liverpool. When you play in front of the Kop and play at Anfield you realise it.”
Manager Benitez has clearly realised it, too, because his commitment to the club has been constant and his vision for the future remains intact after finally agreeing a new contract. And certainly his contribution to the club has been immense.
They used to call it the Rafalution when the Spaniard first arrived at Anfield and won the Champions League in his debut season, but in fact his reign has been more evolution than revolution since then.
Istanbul came quickly, perhaps too quickly, for the former Valencia coach and took him by surprise given the limitations of his squad at the time. But his goals for Liverpool have always been for the long term.
Liverpool’s delirious fans no doubt flew home from Turkey five years ago believing the league title would be next but Benitez knew challenging Manchester United and Chelsea’s grip on the Premier League would require some serious forward planning.
Not many managers are given the time to implement that kind of regime but the fact he has survived shows both the strength of his personality and the depth of his vision.
Over the ensuing years he has not only improved his squad, clinching the crucial signing of Fernando Torres in 2007, but has ruthlessly overhauled the training ground, the youth system and almost every aspect of life at the club.
“He has a view for the long-term, that was his idea from the start,” said Reina.
“He’s really happy at Anfield and he’s trying to build a long-term project. It’s time to get the results of that – and as soon as possible. Probably next season will be our season. That’s what we hope.
“But you know that the manager will not give up. He’s thick-headed in terms of being persistent and determined and working to do it all the time. He won’t quit Liverpool FC without winning the title. And even then I think he can be here a lot longer. His family is quite happy here, he loves the club and I think he will stay for a long time yet. He’s building the club, that’s his business.”
IN the short-term, of course, Liverpool are looking at this weekend as the one which could turn their dreams into reality and bring Benitez’s work to fruition; but it’s fair to say it will take a remarkable upset at Old Trafford and an equally unlikely set-back at Hull the following week for United to throw it all away.
And even then Liverpool would have to win their final two games, against West Brom tomorrow and home to Tottenham a week later, “It’s going to be tough because United need just a point but all we can do is win our games and keep waiting,” said Reina.
“We have to think about our own game and try to win because it’s not going to be easy this weekend.
“In West Brom we will play a team who is fighting for survival and who is improving. They play good football and we know that from the game at Anfield. They try to play on the ground, they are not a typical English team so they can hurt us. Also they have great experience in this situation because they have escaped before. But we have to win. We are the favourites and we’re playing for the title so we cannot afford anything less.
“As for United against Arsenal of course I will be calling Cesc Fabregas to ask for his help! He’s a fantastic player and perhaps he can do something special. But it’s still difficult. Man U playing at home have lost just once – against us. But if there is someone who can do it then it’s Arsenal because they play great football.
“If United get a point then it will be over and of course there will be disappointment. But all we can do is try to improve things in our own game for next season. And as a group we have to mainly try to improve at home because we have dropped too many points this season and that’s been the key.
“It’s painful when you realise you are only three points short in the league and then you see how many points we have dropped at home. This has been a season where we have taken so many points off the top three as well and that makes it harder to take. It’s not normal to drop that many points at Anfield.”
Those kind of inquests, however, are probably best left until the season is over and the Premier League trophy has found its home for the summer. The likelihood, of course, is that it will be nestling comfortably in the Old Trafford trophy cabinet, just as it has done for the last two years. But it doesn’t mean the dream at Anfield is over.
“It’s not a dream,” insisted Reina. “It’s a high probability that we will do it if not this year then in the next years. We will keep trying to improve, keep working and that’s the way we can make it come true. Our time is coming.”
It may have taken 19 years and United may still be hanging on but, just like Madonna, Liverpool could soon be back in vogue.