Liverpool at a historical crossroads

BY Jamie Trecker • February 1, 2011

Sunday morning, Liverpool and Chelsea will butt heads at Stamford Bridge in the 'Game Before the Game.'

The first came in 1985, when Liverpool fans clashed with Juventus fans prior to the European Cup final at Belgium’s Heysel stadium. Under the pressure, a concrete wall collapsed, killing 39 and injuring 600 others. At the time, English football hooligans -- while by no means unique to England -- were among the most feared scourges of the game, and the incident is considered one of the darkest days in European soccer history.

Officially, blame for the incident was placed squarely on Liverpool fans, who were seen breaching the fence that separated them from their Italian counterparts. A number of Liverpool fans were prosecuted for manslaughter, and UEFA’s position on the matter was clear: They banned all English teams from European competition for an “indefinite period,” and added extra penalties to Liverpool.

Subsequent reports were more nuanced, with both the size of the stadium and inadequate policing being called into question. Ultimately, English sides were locked out of Europe for five years, and Liverpool served an extra year of what was to be a three-years additional ban.

The second tragedy remains one of the most explosive issues in English football history, a stadium crush that many Liverpool fans feel has never been adequately explained. The Hillsborough disaster was the deadliest football-related incident in English football history, with 96 Liverpool fans killed in a stadium crush.

The disaster became a rallying point for major changes at football grounds across England, with the official inquiry into the disaster blaming both the existence of perimeter fencing and inadequate policing. To this day, Liverpool fans have argued that the South Yorkshire police force are responsible for the deaths of their compatriots.

The disaster led to lasting changes in how football matches are staged. Gone are the all-standing sections of stadiums that once were an exclusively male preserve. In their place have come grand all-seaters that more closely resemble our modern NFL palaces than the charming but dilapidated grounds of old.

Liverpool’s current reputation rests on its players. They have World Cup winning 'keeper Pepe Reina, England stars Steven Gerrard and Joe Cole, Uruguay’s Luis Suarez and Portugal’s Raul Meireles.

Unfortunately, this season has also seen Liverpool lose ten games, eight of them away from the friendly confines of Anfield. That record cost Roy Hodgson his job as manager last month, with Liverpool legend Kenny Dalglish stepping into the hot seat.

Yet the club’s problems are deeper than one man can solve in a year. After a near-bankruptcy, Liverpool was sold by the Bank of Scotland in October to Red Sox owner John Henry and his NESV group following the disastrous tenure of American Tom Hicks and Canadian George Gillett, Jr. That duo is widely blamed by fans for decimating the club’s books and making unwise purchases in the transfer market. The fact is that Liverpool needs a rebuild sooner rather than later in any case. They took big steps -- or big gambles -- to that effect in the last few days.

No matter what happens, Liverpool has its fans and its rich history, invaluable in this day of foreign ownership and international attention. And no one doubts that the team that once fielded Ian Rush, Michael Owen, Dalglish and Bruce Grobbelaar will be back sooner than later.

Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for covering the UEFA Champions League and European football.

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