To begin, an acknowledgement that this piece will be more than a little indulgent, as your shell-shocked scribe reels around in stunned confusion at the fact that today marks his fortieth birthday. Safe in the knowledge that half of you will have scarpered at this point, I can feel a degree of comfort in expressing, to a trusted cohort, the less than lucid thoughts that are floating around a mind that still believes it is twenty one and about to be assailed by grey matter-murdering, cheap, Friday night booze. Stupid brain -- the booze will be expensive tonight, as others will be buying.
Sometimes I wonder if people who have begun supporting Liverpool in recent years are made of sterner stuff than I, for latterly, the success which was once synonymous with the club has been in sparse supply. As a nipper, I gorged on victory after victory, trophy after trophy, as Liverpool bestrode Europe, the undoubted supreme force in club football. It was a relentless celebratory parade created by the resplendent talents of some of history's finest footballers.
I'm not old enough to remember Shankly except as an ever-present feeling, a kind of force that benignly haunted the Liverpool of my youth. Bob Paisley, our most decorated manager laid his hands on three European Cups as I grew up. Three. The first was lifted by Emlyn Hughes in Rome in 1977, the second was delivered by the only hero I've ever had, Kenny Dalglish, when I was but a wee five year old pup. My dad is a Manchester United fan and we had no TV so that one nearly passed me by too -- but I saw the papers. I stared at the famous trophy, I was rendered awestruck by that iconic image of Kenny's glorious, dinked winner, and I was hooked.
By the time 1981 rolled around, I was ready and I celebrated the victory in Paris with all the enthusiasm you might expect of an eight year old, whose team were the undisputed masters of the football universe. I got my first scarf from assiduously saved pennies, a scarf I still own, and wore it proudly again in 1984 when Liverpool beat Roma in their own back yard to win a fourth European Cup in seven years. All the while, domestic honours piled high and it would be fair to say that by the time the 1985 European Cup final rolled around at Heysel Stadium, I had known only unconfined joy as a Redman.
Heysel changed everything. The horrific tragedy put football into perspective for me. Following the senseless loss of thirty nine lives, the world of English domestic football changed. The ban on English clubs forced a kind of fevered introspection and the football fan was perceived by those in authority as a nuisance, a headache, to be treated with disdain.
Kenny Dalglish was appointed player/manager in 1985 and it proved to be an inspired piece of boot-room promotion. Between '85 and '91 Dalglish led Liverpool to three titles and two FA cups. It was, in many ways, the period of my supporting life in which I was happiest, as John Barnes, Peter Beardsley and John Aldridge played some of the most beautiful football I've ever seen. The 5-0 destruction of Nottingham Forest in 1988 remains the finest performance I've ever seen live but when Dalglish scored the winner against Chelsea in '86, to seal the club's first Double, I knew quietly, that it would never get better for me as a Liverpool supporter. It was Roy of the Rovers, writ large. Perfection.
This beauty was marred by the most horrible of tragedies in 1989 at Hillsborough. It's been my great honour and privilege to meet and converse with many who were present or who lost loved ones on the day. It needs no words from me to point out the compounded tragedy and injustice inherent in the fact that Hillsborough happened when I was sixteen and that today, on my fortieth birthday, I can still not say that justice and truth have been properly delivered for the ninety six who perished and the families and friends that survived them. That process, only recently, has begun to gather momentum. We must hope for a swift resolution from this point, in order that some modicum of peace and closure can be afforded to the families.
After Dalglish's departure came the wilderness years. Graeme Souness and then Roy Evans failed to prevent Liverpool from drifting away from the summit of football. Dalglish retired a champion. That last title he won was also the last time the club has been the the champions of England. Twenty three long years ago. Souness, with his awful signings catastrophic media dalliances and belligerent attitude was an unmitigated disaster in my eyes and Evans, despite his boot-room credentials and despite building some lovely sides in the mid-nineties, never had the ruthlessness of a champion. Champions do not employ Neil bloody Ruddock.
Gerard Houllier restored a little pride and reminded us fans what victory was like in the 'Treble' season of 2000/2001. The Frenchman instilled a discipline and rigour into the team and with the precocious talent of Michael Owen at his disposal, he formed a decent side which played highly effective counter-attacking football. Houllier also signed three of my all-time favourite Liverpool players, in Gary McAllister, Sami Hyypia and Jari Litmanen -- ah, Jari, what a maestro. In 2002, only a narrow defeat by Bayer Leverkusen, ironically Hyppia's current charges, denied Houllier's men a spot in the last four of the Champions League.
Nobody needs reminding of the Rafa Benitez years. The victory in Istanbul was invaluable for so many reasons and it is the main reason, amongst many, why Liverpool fans will always hold the Spaniard in the highest esteem. At the time some of us said it would be remembered as a golden era of European stature and domestic strength. Sadly, that assessment has since been proven true as the club endured the spirit-crushing disentanglement with Hicks and Gillett, the soul-sapping tenure of Roy Hodgson and the ill-starred return of The King.
As the crazy-train of transfer time trundles along over the next couple of months, I will look forward, as I always do, to the new campaign, with the hope that has ever-characterised my time as a Redman. It's this club, you see. It engenders that belief. No matter how much I bleat or moan, no matter what depths my cynicism reaches, I am still, as each campaign begins, the kid staring at the shiny trophy and wanting to be part of that magic. I always will be.