“If you’re going to cover up the cracks at a football club, then doing it with silverware is a highly attractive option”, or so says the BBC’s Phil McNulty in his undecided evaluation of Liverpool’s season. A potential cup double, he concedes, might make it difficult to view the campaign as anything short of successful, but failing to beat Chelsea in the FA Cup final he warns, would inevitably draw a distinctly mediocre league performance into far sharper focus.
It is unfortunate that McNulty and so many others should feel this way, as it seems in a generation characterised by spoilt millionaire teenagers and footballing playboys, it is television rights and not trophies which quantify success. As such, amid a poor run of league form, Liverpool’s Carling Cup win in February has soon been forgotten and unless followed up by a second crown in May, it won’t even serve as adequate consolation to the avaricious demands of the commercialised modern fan.
Indeed, it seems we now live in an era where the Premier League represents the be all and end all of domestic competition, where cups can often be viewed as superfluous and a distraction from the pursuit of a higher league finish, which is more likely to yield greater financial rewards while also showcasing the depth and durability of your squad.
But is a fourth placed finish really more satisfying than the euphoria of a cup win? Should we really dismiss a trip to Wembley, and something that will live in far fonder memory than the humbling your team suffered at the hands of Milan?
This brings me neatly to Arsenal, who have not failed to finish in the top four in 16 successive seasons, but their trophy drought will now be extended into an eighth year. And while some may argue that the cup runs at Liverpool provide little more than a guise for deeper problems within the club’s infrastructure, can the same not be said for teams content to be consistently second, third or even fourth best? Sol Campbell certainly thinks so, and he points out that no one will remember “that season we finished fourth.”
Now I’ll admit, by their own illustrious standards, Liverpool’s mere top half finish may seem disappointing, but we should remember that this is still a team in transition, one built just last summer with plenty of years ahead of them, and their potential marketing tag as double cup winners is more than can be said of some of the teams currently chasing the top four.
As a Newcastle fan myself, I have watched their season with some ironic jealousy. While my team is poised to clinch coverage by Thursday night Channel 5 by virtue of our impending top six finish, I am made increasingly aware that Liverpool have already ensured the same and despite finishing lower than us, could do so with two trophies.
Even if we defy the odds and snatch fourth, I can’t help but wonder what I’d prefer – a Champions League campaign in which I have already consigned myself to the low expectations and enigma of the group stage, or a novelty cup win with Cisse scoring twice?
Liverpool’s season might not have been great, but it would be erroneous to suggest that it has been unproductive. For Dalglish, it is an opportunity to restate a belief that his rebuilding remains a work in progress, and with the possibility of following up the Carling Cup success with an FA Cup victory over Chelsea, we see tangible evidence for this theory.
Sure, the big money signings can be singled out for underperforming, but when I think about the origins of these players, I find myself asking if the scrutiny is entirely justified? Andy Carroll was signed following his goal scoring exploits largely in the Championship, while Jordan Henderson was young and inexperienced. Charlie Adam was prised from a side that suffered relegation and Stewart Downing, was Stewart Downing. Ultimately, if we consider the mediocrity couched in Liverpool’s squad this season, it seems if anything, they’ve exceeded expectations; and regardless of the FA Cup outcome, the campaign must be viewed as a success.