Yossi Benayoun ruined my life. That may seem like an obscene over-dramatisation, but since the most tragic of fans often use football as a metaphor for real life, I'm going to stick by that claim in the spirit of this post, and explain why. And you'll have to forgive my rare venture into the first-person, but pre-season does funny things to a man.
In years to come, Yossi Benayoun will go down as one of many recent talented yet trophy-less entries into the Liverpool encylopedia of players past and present, with the stand-out moment in his 134-game Anfield career being a winning goal against Real Madrid in the Bernebeu on 25th February 2009. In that respect, he's earned a small place in our history. Harmless.
However, it was another of the Israeli's 29 Liverpool goals, five weeks later, which would change my relationship with the club permanently.
All Liverpool fans face daily reminders of our 22-year (and counting) wait for a league title, by fans of other clubs, the press, but mostly from ourselves. With United relentlessly charging towards our precious 18, and with Hicks & Gillett preparing a fire sale to clear their debts, 08-09 felt like our last realistic chance of returning to our perch, even if only briefly.
As usual, the season was a pukey ride, against the backdrop of anti-owner protests, which fans of other certain troubled clubs should note, continued consistently despite good on-field results. Unlike many of the false dawns over the last two decades, we were still in with a great shout when spring came, thanks to having lost just two matches all season. We had the players; Reina, Carragher, Mascherano, Alonso, Gerrard, Torres, with a tactical genius at the helm who installed an air of calm and self-belief in the squad that enabled it to handle the heavyweight Champions League occasions, and the domestic form was starting to follow.
Traditionally, March signals the start of United's late charge, stringing together wins regardless of performance levels, while the competition wilts under the pressure and surrenders meekly before things get too exciting. This season was shaping up differently. United had endured an uncertain defence to their title, and Ronaldo's goals had opened up only a slender lead, looking over their shoulders at what they knew was a superior machine, ready to put an end to their domination, painstakingly prior to reaching its ultimate aim.
'Rafa's rant' is a phrase which seems to bring with it ridicule and negativity, though one of the 'facts' is that after Benitez read from his script, United got stage fright and began to choke.
A showdown at Old Trafford couldn't have come at a better time. Benitez and Liverpool quietly knew we'd gained a psychological edge, and although almost certainly out of contention if we lost, knew that such speculative pessimism was worthless. We were just too good. We showed mercy on United, inflicting a 4-1 crushing that flattered the hosts. A week later, we stuck five past Aston Villa without shifting to third gear, and United were stuffed at Fulham, in a game controlled by Danny Murphy, to add an extra sweetener. The wait was going to be worth it.
4th April 2009 - 17:30 - Fulham v Liverpool. Putney Stand, block P5, row 4, seat 117. Here lies...
If Liverpool could succeed where United had collapsed a week before, we would go top of the league before United played Villa the following day. There was no chance Fulham would break us down, we just had to make sure that, unlike when we'd met at Anfield earlier in the season, that we squeezed the ball over the line just one more time, by whatever means, and the sense was it would be our title to lose.
93 long, painful minutes of sheer insufferable hell. For the first 45, we were magnificent in our build-up and luckless in front of goal. Skrtel glanced a header onto the bar, before Alonso hit the same spot of the woodwork with a crisp volley. Torres ran clear after a typically penetrative link-up with Gerrard, and I could feel the wave of fans behind me, ready to mob the Spaniard as the ball crawled towards the corner before turning like a Shane Warne leg-break and clipping the foot of the post. I'd barely removed the hands from in front of my eyes before Andrea Dossena's diving header walloped off the bar.
From chaos to catastrophe, the second half was even tougher to take, as the chances became less frequent and the energy and vibrancy of the first began to dissipate, though we never once resorted to desperation football. All season, we'd found ways to win games in the same infuriating ways United had managed over the Premier League years. We just needed one more moment of magic or maddening fortune. The 4th official lifted his board to signal the start of a four-minute-long end of the world. Three minutes went by and the dream was slipping away.
What happened next makes the spine tingle and heart sink in equal measure.
Watching the action unfold at the far end from the front rows of Craven Cottage's away stand wasn't easy, squinting, trying to decipher the angles and distances, never quite knowing if Gerrard was within shooting range or if the play was opening up for Torres. Last chance. Ryan Babel cut inside from the left and we didn't know whether to scream for him to shoot, or implore him to pass - and in the end he predictably did neither of note. I'm still not sure how, but the ball was deflected into the path of Yossi Benayoun on the right side of the area. It was impossible to know how tight the angle was, but it was clear he was going to shoot. He had no choice, this was it, now or never. As City fans will testify after watching Aguero stepping into a similar position back in May, everything happens in slow motion. The ball flew across Schwarzer's dive, but it felt like an age waiting to see if the inside-net of the left-hand post would ripple.
Next thing I know, friends cling to my legs as I balanced on the back of the creaking seats, conducting the crowd through an absurd collection of words that I never thought I'd utter even in my wildest dreams, let alone bellow with 3,000 others:
"We're gonna win the league, we're gonna win the league. And now you're gonna believe us, and now you're gonna believe us, and now you're gonna believe us. We're gonna win the league."
The celebrations carried on long after the final whistle but I could've stayed all night. This was the moment to be able to say "I was there," We'd make it mathematically safe soon enough, but it would always be Craven Cottage where we won it. Fans from the 70s would recall the comeback at Molineux, and in the 80s, Kenny's winner at Stamford Bridge, and now I was living those video clips in an appropriately old-fashioned stand. The consensus on leaving the ground was simple - it doesn't get any better than that. That should've been the moment...
What happened in the weeks after Yossi's goal, i still can't fathom. United were fluffing it again against Villa, before the distinctly average Federico Macheda scored an inexplicable goal to rescue them, and did so again the following week when a wayward shot struck him and spun into the Sunderland net. When Spurs took a 2-0 lead at Old Trafford a couple of weeks later, surely the game was up this time? But as so often, what the footballing Lord giveth, Howard Webb taketh away. Its quite some effort to become less reliable than an Aston Villa outfit, but Spurs managed it once Webb manufactured a United penalty out of a clean challenge from Gomes on Carrick. The 5-2 win would be enough to galvanise United to the finish line, leaving Liverpool far and away the best team in the league in almost every statistical column, but with no trophy to show for it. Teams have bottled huge leads, such as Newcastle in 96 or United themselves last season, but this was worse. We were the better team, and hit top form at the right time, and we had celebrated a moment where it felt as if the weight of history was about to shift as United faltered and floundered. Macheda didn't even play enough games to get his hands on a winners' medal, and United are still struggling to give him away today. His face haunts me, but I'm still blaming Yossi.
Throughout that season, some had hope, while others even dared to believe, but Yossi gave us a deadly mixture of both, and the hangover has lingered ever since. 18 months later, the club was utterly unrecognisable. Purslow, Hodgson, Poulsen, Konchesky. A manager who dragged us into a relegation battle, then lamented the presence of a club legend in the stands, and blamed fans for a lack of support for the shambles they sat through.
I say 'they', because I haven't been to a Liverpool match since 4th April 09. I was never an every week match-goer but I've turned down plenty of tickets since then that I'd have snapped up in seasons past. My mind occasionally drifts back to row 4 seat 117 and I conveniently forget the context within which those Craven Cottage celebrations sit and just remember the sheer mayhem that followed Benayoun's wonder strike, and wonder if it will ever get as good as that again. And if so, can I trust that Howard Webb won't come along and destroy it? That's when it seems like Liverpool and I need our space.
At first the hangover masqueraded itself as a boycott due to the club's ownership situation, but even long after H&G's departure, with Kenny in charge and the enjoyable end to 10-11, or the cup finals the following year, the motivation still hasn't fully returned. I get the occasional itch go back to Anfield, but rather to pay my respects to the past than to celebrate the present. I still love the club, but we don't really romance each other anymore, as I watch from the safe distance of the pub stool.
The brief renaissance under Kenny, who began repairing the wreckage of the Hodgson months, was tragically short, as he was discarded by the second American regime without a moment's thought for what he means to the club and to its fans. But now with Brendan in charge, promising his unique 'Rodgeball' tiki-taka, there seems to be some cautious hope around again. Though, mercilessly, we're still a million miles away from the torture of another Yossi moment, and that's probably for the best.