Liverpool 2 Newcastle 2 – Saturday 23 April 2016 3pm
I’ll start by admitting I’m an unashamed fan of Scousers.
There are so many parallels between our regions: our demented obsession with football, and of course our predilection to a ‘couple’ of drinks here and there. Throw in a now mutual love affair with the Spaniard currently occupying our dugout and you could pretty much guarantee a good time to be had by Geordies and locals alike in sunny Scouseland on Saturday.
Sunshine or not, however, this particular jaunt to the North West was still darkened by that ever-present shadow of relegation. With neither of our trapdoor rivals playing, an enormous 3 points and potential psychological boost were up for grabs.
It’s fair to say Anfield hasn’t been the happiest of black and white hunting grounds in recent times; our failure to record a league win in over 20 years in front of the Kop was well documented in the pre-match build up.
In any ‘normal’ season – whatever that means – or indeed under the previous Head Coach, I’d expect a big fat nothing from this fixture. Regardless of the calibre or form of whichever Reds eleven we’ve come up against over the years, it seems to be a victory they’ve been able to stroll to time and time again, where the first goal we let in signals the end of the contest. It’s Newcastle United at home – no sweat will be broken.
The build up to this one felt different, though. Not just because we’re – as the Sky Sports cliche-spouters like to remind everyone on constant loop, ‘fighting for our lives’ – but because in just 6 weeks, Benitez has already instilled a resistance and backbone to a collection of terminal surrenderers.
Has the points return been what we needed it to be? Sadly and most likely not. But the gutless collapse at Southampton – the like of which we became numb to and almost expectant of under Pardew, Carver and McClaren – was one too many for Rafa. You just don’t perform like that – not on his watch. Walls were punched, hard truths served up and undroppables relegated to the bench.
Since then, we’ve worked twice as hard, been harder to beat and at least looked like we’ll make a fist of this battle until the final day. Don’t forget, this is broadly the same bunch that have sleep-walked to defeat after defeat for years now. Six weeks is all this man has needed to stir some resolve, character and discernible tactics. Under Rafa, even away from home, at a ground we never turn up to, under desperate pressure for points – we have a chance.
So, it was in buoyant mood that I made my way to Liverpool on Saturday morning. The train journey was not without a friendly chorus of boos from a group of Scousers who clocked my stripes, or an impassioned declaration from the train guard that ‘we’d be fine with Rafa, he’ll see us right’. This was a recurring theme all day – I simply lost count of the amount of strangers who proactively came up to me and my Dad to tell us how much they hope we stay up and that they’re cheering for us. It genuinely was everywhere we went.
I’m not sure the Mackems or Norwich fans would benefit from the same goodwill if they rolled into town, and it certainly boosted the increasingly hyper pre-match atmosphere.
There were little touches like that all day. In the absolutely packed and deafening Arkles pub right next to the ground, there were framed tributes to Liam Sweeney and John Alder on all of the walls. Scousers and Geordies were booming the Rafa La Bamba song on repeat the entire time we were in there – seriously, it’s been two days now and I can’t get the bloody thing out of my head. The staff serving the thousands of pints no doubt consumed in the away end were all wearing ‘When the Mags go marching in’ t-shirts.
After awful grounds like Watford that won’t even serve you a pint, these are the type of things that make you want to come back. They definitely work on sentimental softies like me, anyway, so maybe they just have a better understanding of their audience than most!
High spirits indeed, and unsurprising team news following the cracking performance against City a few days earlier. Even falling spectacularly on my arse in a pool full of lager in my haste to make kick off couldn’t dampen the mood (Scouse hospitality seemingly doesn’t extend to the stewards refraining from a rousing ‘YOU FELL OVER!!’, which given the acrobatics and undoubted comedy attempt to save myself, I’m very much willing to excuse).
And then the first half happened.
There’s really no football to write about here from a Newcastle perspective. After Long had one in the back of the net after four minutes at St Mary’s, the game plan was surely to start quickly and ensure we were still in it at half time. Incredibly, we couldn’t even make it to 70 seconds on the board this week. Nice enough turn and finish from Sturridge at the Kop end, but our back four looked like they were still in the changing room and practically from kick off, we’d given ourselves a mountain to climb.
Whether this knocked the stuffing out of them or that persistent travel sickness was already once more ailing the troops, the first 45 were as bad as anything we’ve seen this season. Papiss huffed and puffed on his own with a giant chasm between himself and the midfield (surely not aided by instant ‘MITRO’ chants from our lot whenever he made a mistake?) and to say we lacked a threat would be exceedingly kind.
In short, it was dreadful, worrying, confusing, beyond disappointing. Everything in the last fortnight suggested this could be our lifeline, our shock result and foundation to pull off the impossible. When Lallana unleashed the second into the top corner after around half an hour, a bad day threatened to become another Anfield sickener.
Naturally slightly winded by such an early setback, it didn’t take long for the away following to regroup and redouble their efforts. The support was on the whole, absolutely outstanding on Saturday.With the home crowd oddly reserved, our 3,000 strong choir never wavered and despite the ominous half time score, the slightest chink of hope remained; it can’t get any worse and if anyone can turn this around…
Rafa’s half time wizardry paid off almost immediately; it always felt like our right hand side would be the best platform from which to get anything worthwhile into Cisse, and who else but big Vurnon found himself ahead of Townsend and Sissoko to whip in an inviting ball that was all too difficult for the panicky Mignolet and which Papiss got his head on. I will happily admit I have absolutely lambasted our diminutive Dutchman all year – and I maintain he’s been roundly atrocious – but at right-back, he looks composed and competent and his first time cross from Sissoko’s touch was a belter.
Sensing something of a comeback could well be on, we suddenly had all the impetus, belief and purpose that we’d all hoped to see from the get-go and the noise from the Anfield Road end swelled and swelled. Seriously, I’ve never known our fans to consistently chant the manager’s name for bordering on 90 minutes. We just cannot let this be a 10-game anomaly. The signs from the boss indicate that the feeling may just be mutual, but that’s to discuss another day.
Back to Saturday, and with his name still thundering out and his cajoling, inspiring presence on the sideline, up popped Colback to hammer home – via Lovren, cheers for that – sparking utter pandemonium among the black and whites. Just ridiculous.
There was a little boy in front of me at his first away match with his parents, and his little shining eyes and flushed cheeks after we equalised just reminded me what it’s all about. This felt like supporting a proper club for a minute, where you don’t just lie down and die, there’s no monotonous gloom every week, and the manager has an actual plan for when things don’t start well. It felt great.
Three points would have felt even better, but given the circumstances and a couple of scares from the home side pressing the winner, I was more than happy to hear the final whistle go.
A precious point snatched from what seemed certain, and likely fatal defeat meant the post-match mood was one approaching giddy defiance and renwed belief. Over many, MANY drinks afterwards – including yet another La Bamba moment on a bus into town with which several locals joined in – it was concluded that if we’re going down, at least we’re finally going down fighting.
I’m taking my lead from Rafa for the next three weeks. Just play our games, give it everything, let others get on with their business. And if the worst should happen, which it still may, I’ll feel a lot better about navigating the long road back with a certain Spaniard at the helm.
1, 2, 3, 4, Raaaaaaafa Beniiiitez….
Here are the stats from BBC Sport:
Liverpool 2 Newcastle 2
Liverpool: Sturridge 2, Lallana 30
Newcastle: Cisse 48, Colback 66
Possession was Newcastle 33% Liverpool 67%
Total shots were Newcastle 6 and Liverpool 13
Shots on target were Newcastle 3 and Liverpool 4
Corners were Newcastle 4 and Liverpool 5
Team: Darlow, Anita, Lascelles, Mbemba, Dummett, Townsend, Tiote (Shelvey 83), Colback, Sissoko, Perez (Wijnaldum 46) , Cisse (Mitrovic 75)
Unused Subs: Woodman, Saivet, de Jong, Shelvey
Ref: Andre Marriner