Talk of the town

I’M not saying I’m a jinx but no sooner had I predicted that Liverpool would win the league last season than they started badly, never recovered and ended up dropping out of the top four.

And now, I find that I might have inadvertently foreshadowed their humiliating Carling Cup exit.

Regular readers will recall that as recently as two weeks ago the words ‘Northampton Town’ appeared in this very column.

Admittedly, it was not quite in the context of a cast-iron prediction that they would soon be inflicting a night of shame and misery on Liverpool but, still, how many times in recent years had you heard them mentioned at all before they turned up in Anfield on Wednesday night to bring the Premiership side to its knees?

In fact, probably the last time they’d impacted on the wider public consciousness was that long ago muddy day when George Best famously hit them for six in the FA Cup and, after that, they certainly didn’t re-enter mine until, more than a decade later, I found myself sitting down to do a lengthy interview with one Jack Charlton in the months leading up to Italia ‘90.

Wrapping up with a few standard pub questions, I asked him to name his favourite team of all time. Now, bear in mind that Big Jack wasn’t short of some weighty options: amongst others, he could have named his own Leeds team or his own World Cup-winning England or Brazil 1970 or the great Real Madrid side of the 1960s. So his answer came as something of a surprise.

“Northampton Town,” he declared, adding that they’d won the 1987 Fourth Division title with “a method”. And this method, he went on to explain, basically involved their ‘keeper giving his players 10 seconds to get the hell up the pitch before he launched a howitzer from the back.

That the method which so pleased Jack Charlton was subsequently found wanting at a higher level may be judged by the fact that Northampton promptly disappeared off the radar again and the only reason I mentioned them in a recent column was to illustrate how useful football had been in supplementing – well, okay then, replacing – my schooling as a nipper. In fact, as I explained, I could have chosen the industrial output of English cities as my ‘Mastermind’ specialist subject, just as long as the bould Magnus stuck to cities which had football clubs.

So, Sheffield United were called ‘The Blades’ because the city produced steel while Northampton Town rejoiced under the nickname ‘The Cobblers’ because the town was famous for its footwear, if not itsfootball. And then, barely 10 days after these prescient lines appeared, some five thousand ecstatic Northampton Town fans were singing in the rain at the Anfield Road end, serenading the drowned rat Reds with a song by one of their own as, to the tune of ‘Hey Jude’, they roared: “Na, na, na, na-na-na-na, Cobb-lers”.

Mind you, whether they were praising their own side or disparaging the opposition must remain a moot point.

Of course, Liverpool are not the first footballing giant – and won’t be the last – to have their ankles nipped by little ‘uns. It’s just that this Carling Cup shock could hardly have come at a worse time for a club already in crisis and now, it seems, in serious danger of going into freefall.

Only two seasons ago, Liverpool finished so strongly in the Premiership that many astute observers (and me) were tipping them to go one better last year. Admittedly, that was before Xavi Alonso left the building, his departure exposing a lack of quality cover which has since been exacerbated by the departure of Javier Mascherano.

With Fernando Torres lacking support (when he isn’t carrying a knock) and Steven Gerrard required to shoulder too much of the leadership burden, Liverpool now have all the appearance of an ordinary side trading chiefly on past reputation.

In fairness, Roy Hodgson has barely had time to get his feet under Rafa’s desk but, after revelling in his big-fish-in-a-small-pool role at Craven Cottage, it’s already looking like a case of sink or swim for the new man in the shark-infested waters of the Mersey.

Though perhaps he ought to be grateful for the distraction provided by reviled owners Hicks and Gillett.

Today, there will be a supporters’ protest after the final whistle in the match against Sunderland but it will be aimed at the Americans who have saddled the club with crippling debt rather than at the highly-paid manager and players who couldn’t get the better of League Two opposition.

As for ‘The Cobblers’, well, they’re planning a very different afternoon for their match at home to Bradford City.

Fans are being encouraged to get to Sixfields well before kick-off so that they can enjoy a taped montage of commentary highlights from Anfield and interviews with the players. Scarves for that game have already sold out but more are in production, as is a DVD as well as photos and prints signed by the players.

“The heroes of Anfield” are what the team is already being called. And how Anfield could do with a few of them just now.


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