Even as Liverpool climbed back up the table, it was far easier to find reasons why they couldn't win the title. Their nearest competitors had more depth and experience. Liverpool's defence was leakier than a colander. The worst a league winning side has finished the year before is third—and even that's only happened four times in the Premier League era. Johnson's reply amounts to pointing at the scoreboard.
"Any team that is top of the league at this stage deserves to be there," said Johnson. "This is a difficult league with a lot of tough games but I think we can stay there. This is a fantastic club. Everyone involved here loves it and wants to win the league badly. We want to get the club back to where it should be. But being top now is only significant if we stay there. Forget the league table, just win at Upton Park."
Liverpool, of course, may not win the title, and with more points available to Manchester City they will for many remain second favourites at least in the immediate future. That they lead the league with only six games to go, though, is itself a stunning achievement given the club finished last season seventh. And it wasn't some one-season dip in form—they finished eighth, sixth, and seventh before that.
Now that they are at the top of the pack, some point to the lack of European football as way of explaining away their sudden, unprecedented rise. Yet its unprecedented nature is all the answer needed: if a lack of European football is key to an outsider's title challenge, surely Liverpool wouldn't be in line to become the first club that finished lower than third the year before to win the Premier League.
One could understand if all of that added up to a bit of excitement and nerves, and for most of the club's fans that may well be the case. Johnson, though, while confident in Liverpool's ability to handle any opponent, is keeping his focus on just the next match as the players stick to the one cup final at a time approach that has seen them claw their way back to first with less than two months to go.
"I’m sure everyone is looking forward to those big home games against Manchester City and Chelsea," said the fullback, "but we have to take care of West Ham first, otherwise those games might not be as relevant. We have to make sure we win our next game. We all know what’s expected of us and we’re all confident. After we've played West Ham, we'll worry about the next one."
And then the next one and the next one and the next one. It all sounds a little dull and workmanlike, but it's been key to Liverpool having won eight in a row and having earned 35 of a possible 39 points so far in 2014. It's been key to why Liverpool, with a thin squad and at times porous defence and after four years in the wilderness of mid-table, are in a position to make history if they win the league.
In 21 previous seasons, the winner has finished first or second the previous year on 17 occasions. All the way back to its very first season, when First Division runners up Manchester United captured the first Premier League title, a side that finished top two the year before has won it all more than 80% of the time. On the remaining four occasions, the team that finished third has pulled off a relative upset.
A club that finished fourth or worse has never won the Premier League. It's simply not how things work in England's top flight. Liverpool would be the first—and from seventh no less. They just have to keep their nerve while, as cliche as it always sounds, taking things one game at a time. No matter what happens, though, it's been quite a ride. And with six games to go, the title runs through Anfield.
"At the moment, teams definitely can't be looking forward to coming to Anfield," Johnson said. "Three years ago, people were not so worried. But I think we're getting it back to the name and the place that people see Anfield as. It's what we've been doing all season."