By John Dutton
I was lucky enough to be in the Toronto crowd on Saturday and take part in the rousing rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone that cranked the emotions higher on a hot Canadian weekend in July. But what to make of Brendan Rodgers’ first game in charge of Liverpool? I’m sure a lot of readers watched the match live, saw highlights or read Jonathan Carroll’s Red Letter summary, so there’s little point rehashing the details.
The 11 half-time substitutions made it more like two 45-minute matches — the archetypal “game of two halves”. When you include the fact that the stadium roof closed early in the second half, the whole thing was a slightly surreal experience. I sat a couple of seats away from the lovely Julie who works for LFC. Having never been to a North American sports event in her life, she was amazed at the difference in atmosphere from an English soccer match. She couldn’t believe the number of fans who showed up late, left their seats during the game and, when they were seated, often paid little attention to the on-field action. I explained that this wasn’t just because we were watching an exhibition game. I’ve seen the same behavior at MLB, NHL and MLS matches. It’s as though North American sports fans are vegetarians, while their European counterparts love red meat…
This is a difficult phenomenon to convey to someone who hasn’t attended a Premier League match. Even during the most dull 0-0 draw, even if the spectators are frozen and wet, even if the home team is losing 5-0, the fans tend to stay and watch intently. When things are going well, the roar of the crowd sends shivers down the spine. All this occurs naturally, without cheerleading or music during every break in play. In fact, you could argue that artificial methods for involving the crowd are counter-productive. It’s almost as though they create a kind of filter. Or perhaps it’s just that European (and South American) soccer is more akin to a religion than entertainment. The stands and terraces of Victorian England were where the working men went to pray for victory and worship their heroes on a Saturday afternoon and the attitude still persists. Is it any coincidence that Robbie Fowler’s nickname is “God”?
Okay, enough theorizing and speculation, the Toronto match was never going to go down in history. It did provide a few glimpses of a bright future for the Reds. Sterling, Sama, Suso, Morgan and Robinson have less than 10 first-team appearances between them, but all all knocking hard on Brendan Rodgers’ door. Pacheco, Enrique, Aquilani and Shelvey also livened things up, while Jones, Skrtel, Carra and Wisdom looked solid at the back.
The biggest disappointment for me was the booing of Joe Cole when he fluffed a cross and free kick as the clock ticked down. The guy is coming off a great season in France and looked sharp on the right side of the midfield, so to turn on him at the end of the club’s first pre-season match was ridiculous. There’s nothing wrong with spontaneous groaning or making negative comments to the fans around you, but the Toronto boo-boys were simply being counter-productive. I was arguing for patience this season in my last post, and John W. Henry said something similar this week, but I’m worried that a “we want it now” attitude will prevail.
The main plus from the Toronto game was the 12th substitution: the return to action of Lucas. His case is instructive where patience is concerned. Not just the fact that he has personally had to overcome a long-term injury with its accompanying frustrations, but that his progress over the last three years has taught me something: don’t judge too quickly. He was the one player towards the end of Rafa Benitez’s reign that I was convinced would never make it at Liverpool. I just couldn’t figure out what the manager saw in him. He couldn’t tackle, couldn’t pass, couldn’t score. But the Liverpool staff knew what they were doing, because he’s now the best defensive midfielder in England and there isn’t a single Reds fan who would swap him for anyone.
I’m well aware that Cole is nearing the end of his top-level career, while Lucas was just starting out, but there’s a lesson to be learned, and the fans who booed Cole in Toronto should take heed: patience is a virtue.