The last twelve months have seen your scribbler struggle to close the lid on a Pandora's Box of awfulness. Familial stresses and anxieties coupled with professional irritations have formed a kind of fug through which navigation has been a trial. I do not wish to come over as a drama queen but it is safe to say that were noted miserabilist, Charles Dickens, to have seen a a transcript of my recent life, he'd have rejected it as being a little too dark to be realistic.
Of course, when faced with a steady barrage of abhorrent reality, one must endeavour to count one's blessings, and the grimness of proceedings has been leavened somewhat by snatched joyful hours and wonderfully pleasurable interludes spent in the company of lovely people. As they have so often for me, the city of Liverpool and it's biggest football club, to whom this idiot's well-being is inextricably linked, have featured prominently in these memorable moments of reprieve.
However, when one is operating under a consistently high amount of stress, one can begin to question one's judgement. Reality becomes skewed and values seem altered. Allow me to illustrate. Normally a discerning purchaser of apparel, I found myself leaving a shop recently having bought a pair of corduroy pants. Yes, that's right. Corduroy pants. I am not yet sixty, dear reader, so needless to say, the pants were returned post haste and my sartorial equilibrium returned.
Even more disconcertingly, I have found myself consistently in agreement with the opinions of a man who was once the totemic embodiment of Mancunian bile. In his capacity as Sky Sports pundit, Gary Neville has exchanged the partisan rabble-rousing and Liverpool-baiting for an impression of a well balanced and insightful analyst of the modern game. Quite frankly, it's unsettling, and I have struggled to adapt.
Since Jamie Carragher has joined him on the satellite channel this season, the presence of his old antagonist has meant there has been a reassuring trail of evidence that Neville is still the truculent, bolshy Manc loyalist of old, but for the most part he has retained his surprising capacity for unbiased and insightful analysis. All of which preamble brings me to the key point of this piece -- Gary Neville doesn't think Liverpool can win the league but he does believe the Merseysiders have a real chance of Champions League football next season. Strange days, indeed, as a little-known Scouser once sang.
When asked about what has kept Liverpool placed above his beloved Mancunian chums to date, Neville unsurprisingly speaks about the remarkable duo of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, but in a display of evidence that he may actually be watching the game closer than some Liverpool fans I could mention, the England coach also cited the remarkable form and energy of Jordan Henderson. That he also name-checks Steven Gerrard is a less impressive feat of analysis.
"Obviously there's the front two," states Neville. "They're a threat in every single game and I think that they've benefited from good performances by Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard. They've got players who are rested. They're not in European competition (There it is! Let the hate flow through you, Gary...), which has given them the opportunity week-to-week to be able to plan for matches. But generally as well, there's been a gentle progression from last season and a manager in his second season moving forward, who's had time to work on his squad and his beliefs."
So far, this is hardly spirit-shocking stuff, albeit still jarring to hear positive sentiment towards Liverpool coming from the man who was once Alex Ferguson's most trusted dog of war for so many years. Yes, there is the expected condescension but nobody could argue with the ideas expressed. Neville, whose column on the Sky website credits him in a delightfully Alan Partridge fashion as "Football Expert," was even more interesting on the topic of where Liverpool might realistically expect to finish the campaign. Again, there is a trace of that patronising Manc superiority, but essentially, the man is talking sense.
"Liverpool are definitely top four contenders but I don't think they'll win the title," he offers. "I don't think they'll be able to progress that much this season but I think they've got a fantastic chance of getting towards that top four. If you think about where they were last season and the fact that they struggled to compete for a Champions League space, that would be progression for Liverpool this season."
Yes Gary, we mustn't have those uppity Scousers getting notions beyond their station! Title indeed! Again though, to be fair to the former Kop hate-figure, his take on what can be expected for Liverpool is probably spot-on. Even those of us who like to err on the side of positivity will admit that a title tilt may be a little fanciful, whilst even the more lugubrious of Reds supporters are beginning to believe that a seat at the top table of Europe may be regained sooner rather than later.
As we enter the weekend, friends, we reflect on what is a peculiar state of affairs. Roy Hodgson is genuinely the manager of England, Gary Neville is talking in a sensible fashion about Liverpool, who themselves sit above Manchester United in the Premier League. Everything you know is wrong. Embrace the madness.