Finding Liverpool

By David Shams

“It doesnt matter where you’re from. What religion you are. What language you speak. If you’re a Liverpool fan, you’re a Scouser. All of us are Scousers,” Neil Atkinson bellowed. Atkinson is one of the main writers and producers behind The Anfield Wrap, a popular podcast following all things LFC.

He was speaking during The Anfield Wrap’s End of Season Party on May 11th at Mountford Hall on University of Liverpool’s campus.

For me, that moment had been nearly 14 years in the making.

My Liverpool fandom hasn’t been lifelong. Growing up in Kentucky, my siblings and I didn’t have much access to soccer on television. Our soccer coverage relied on infrequent subscriptions of Soccer America, the occasional promo magazines sent to our dad, and old recordings of matches from the ‘90 and ‘94 World Cups.

Having an immigrant father usually meant the team you followed was selected for you. Normally, it was passed down from generation to generation in the same way that each parent passes on their DNA. But my dad immigrated from Iran in 1964, before soccer became as popular as it is today.

The bottom line, we didn’t have much of a soccer culture growing up. Sure we played and sure we watched games. But “we didn’t,” as my dad likes to say, "know shit from shinola.” We had to make it up as we went along.

It wasn’t until the mid-90s that we were regularly exposed to club soccer. We knew it existed and we knew some of the major teams—AC Milan, Barcelona, Juventus, Manchester United, Liverpool. But we didn’t know much else.

Owing to that lack of ‘culture’ or pre-determined fandom, my brother and I never really settled on a single club to cheer for while we were growing up. We ended up cheering for specific players and watching games for the sake of watching games, to pick up on some sort of tactical innovations that we hadn’t been—and likely never would be—exposed to in Bardstown, KY.

We’d absorb every game possible. Record them, watch them again, dissect them in every way possible. But never once did we settle on a team to cheer for. Ajax, Juventus, and Barcelona all came close to capturing our undivided attention. Ajax won the first Champions League title we saw on television. Juventus won it the next year and made it to the finals in the next two seasons. Barcelona was televised more often as ESPN picked up La Liga and they had more of the players we tried to follow—Romario, Ronaldo, Ronald Koeman, Gheorghe Hagi, Hristo Stoichkov, Luis Enrique, etc.

I chalk all this up (our lack of support for a specific team) to irregular access to games on television and little to no coverage in whatever print media we had access to. Even with regular access to the internet, it was quite hard to know where to find updates on what was happening overseas.

At the turn of the century, though, as I was graduating from high school and heading off to play soccer at Union College in Barbourville, KY, I started to have a little bit more access. My teammates and I could watch games via satellite or pay per view cable channels. Teammates from Brazil came from different areas, so they had different teams they cheered for—Ponte Preta, Flamingo, Sao Paulo, Gremio, Cruzeiro. One from Scotland had played in the Glasgow Celtic youth system. A few of the Latinos were Real Madrid fans, which clashed with the fact I favored Barcelona.

Some of the American players were like me and didn’t have regular access growing up, so didn’t have a team they cheered for. Of the ones who did, they were usually Manchester United fans, owing primarily to that teams’s Treble in 1999. And being obstinate, I made up my mind I would never cheer for the Red Devils.

But, if anything, as opposed to finding a team to support I figured out which teams I wouldn’t be cheering for, and so, I continued following my favorite players—Thierry Henry, Claudio Reyna, Ronaldo, Steven Gerrard, Edgar Davids, Zinedine Zidane.

Even with satellites and pay per view, coverage in the US remained patchy, though. Meanwhile, the MLS continued struggling to improve quality wise. Add to that being in Kentucky where the soccer culture hadn’t fully developed, there still wasn’t massive pressure to pick a side. Rather, the excitement came with any game that would be televised, no matter the sides competing.

It was much of the same when I transferred to Murray State. Although, I would say the campus was a bit more diverse and had a strong international student community. Naturally, this meant there would be more interest in specific clubs. Some of my fraternity brothers were Liverpool fans, others were diehard supporters of Man U. They’d grown up in the St. Louis area, one of the US’s soccer hotbeds.

For some reason, I was still reluctant to go beyond cheering and following specific players. So much so, I had two Claudio Reyna jerseys from when he was at Man City—the horror. I’d tell myself, ‘It’s okay, you love the game, you don’t need to pick a team to cheer for.’

After I studied in Germany during the fall of 2003, I flirted with the idea of becoming an FC Bayern Fan since I went to their Champions League match against Glasgow Celtic. There was a little moment when I felt the same for Newcastle after spending a weekend there when I went to visit Durham University. And my appreciation for Ajax grew a little larger after I saw them play Feyenoord at the Amsterdam Arena. To be clear, I have a soft spot for all three sides. But nothing more grew from it.

A few years later though, I found my way to Liverpool.

It was May 2005, the school year had wrapped up and I would be home for a few weeks before returning to Murray for the summer classes I needed to graduate. I chalked up my fatigue to the tough semester I had just completed. But when it didn’t go away after a few days, I went to my primary care physician who ran a battery of tests to figure out if something more was at play.

Those tests came back with a troubling result. My platelet count, 11,000, was well below normal (150k-450k). I was rushed off to an oncologist for fear that whatever I had could be cancer related. He did a bone marrow biopsy, prescribed me with some steroids to increase the platelet count, and asked me to come back early the next week.

A few days later, the morning after hitting the driving range at a local golf course with a friend, I woke up with a paralyzing headache. My parents drove me back to the oncologist for some sort of emergency triage. For some reason, they sent me back home for 24 hours. And by the next day, when I went back in for my regularly scheduled appointment the pain hadn’t dissipated. In fact, it had only gotten worse.

The doctor admitted me to the hospital next door. They called in an infectious disease specialist, requested another battery of testing, and pumped me full of anti-viral drugs and pain killers. I was supposed to rest and not over exert myself. I wouldn’t have to worry about over exertion, as my headache had immobilized me. But rest would be far more difficult. Whatever drugs they had given me were doing a number on my dreams—think Twisted Metal but in real life.

My second day in the hospital wasn’t much better. But even though I couldn’t hold any food down, one thing was certain. I was going to must up all my strength to watch the Champions League Final that afternoon.

Since Ajax beat AC Milan in 1995, I had only missed on final—Juventus v Real Madrid in 1998.

“Mother,” I started, using the preferred, more formal title, “the Champions League Final is this afternoon, I’m going to watch it.”

She rolled her eyes, because she knew, despite my condition, this was a statement of intent not to be trifled with.

The final pitted Liverpool against AC Milan. If I’m honest, I didn’t think Liverpool stood any chance at winning. AC Milan had a squad filled to the brim with talent.

By halftime the score was 3-0 in favor of AC Milan. My gut told me I should turn it off and actually get some rest. But my soul, that little bit that had directed my lifelong love of the game told me Liverpool would offer up a rebuttal.

“Liverpool still has a chance,” I told my mom, “anything can happen.”

She had gently suggested that maybe I should forget about the game. My Jordanian nurse took one look at the scoreline, clicked his tongue, and agreed with my mom.

“No chance they come back from this. Maybe you should turn off the tv and rest,” he said.

I didn’t budge.From my hospital bed, fighting off fatigue and migraines, I witnessed the Miracle of Istanbul. All it took was six minutes.

Starting in the 54th minute, Steven Gerrard directed a looping header to the far post, fooling AC Milan’s goalkeeper. Two minutes later, Vladimir Šmicer took a speculative shot from 20-plus yards out that went through two defenders and narrowly missed his teammate Milos Baros before finding the back of the net. And four minutes after that, Xabi Alonso missed his penalty kick, but then buried the rebound to complete the comeback.

“Mother, I told you they’d do it,” I said faintly.

“I know, son,” she said, now sitting on the edge of her seat fully captivated by the comeback.

Liverpool fans the world over all know what happens next. LFC held on to beat AC Milan in a shootout winning their fifth Champions League/European Cup.

Captain Steven Gerrard lifting the Champions League trophy in Istanbul

Captain Steven Gerrard lifting the Champions League trophy in Istanbul

Within the next few days, I started to make my own comeback. The migraines subsided, my appetite returned (I’d lost nearly 20 pounds over a ten day period), and I was able to get out of bed and move around for extended periods of time.

As I’m sure most of you guessed early on, my primary care physician missed the signs suggesting I had Mononucleosis—fatigue, low platelet count, swollen lymph nodes, etc. When they prescribed steroids to increase the platelet count, the virus attacked the fluid around my spine and brain causing the headaches. The end diagnosis was Mono and viral meningitis.

I spent the rest of the summer recovering, which wasn’t terrible, but meant I would have to return to Murray for the fall in order to finish the classes I needed to graduate.

But my hospital stay, in all of its terribleness, led me to Liverpool. I will forever link the Miracle of Istanbul to my own comeback. And for that, I will always be a Kopite, a Red, a Liverpool fan, a Scouser.

David is the founder of DC Soccer Digest. He lives in Washington, DC. You can follow him on twitter at @ShamsWriter.

Can You Forgive My Hot Takes?

It’s highly likely I’ve been jinxing Liverpool all season.

Back in late August, while sitting in Brooklyn’s Monro Pub, a favorite haunt for Kopites in the Big Apple, I leaned into my wife. She’d joined me enthusiastically, just as I join her a handful of times each year at a few Sunday services.

This was my church, my religion, not that I’m well versed in the history of the famous club from Merseyside. I’m not going to remember games from the high times in the 70s and 80s. If I’m honest, I’m only a recent Kopite convert choosing the Temple of Anfield as the way I worship the beautiful game.

“This is the year we do it, Doc. We’re just that good,” I whispered, hoping that it wouldn’t be loud enough for the soccer gods to hear and then spin whatever machinations necessary to make it not come true.

At Christmas, in a text to a friend I said, “City dropping points to Palace and now Leicester makes this Liverpool’s to lose.”

He texted back something along the lines of “It’s still too early to tell.” Apparently, he wasn’t wrong.

When City managed to lose at St. James’ Park, almost a month after Liverpool lost that energy sapping match at the Etihad, there was a palpable sense that Liverpool just may pull it off after all. My friend and I had just decided to buy tickets for a trip across the pond to celebrate my 37th birthday and maybe even be present for the first top division title in 29 years. Understandably, I got caught up in the excitement.

Then a few weeks ago, bursting with hubris and a visceral hatred for the Mancunian Sky Blues (maybe visceral is too strong a word, but this is sports and we’re allowed a few outrageous sentiments), I tweeted out that we’d be celebrating a title after a win v. Huddersfield.

To be fair, I did add the hashtag for TooHotTuesday, but clearly it’s part of a long pattern of over-confidence.

And the coup de grace, the one that’s made me a bit more reticent for any future hot takes.

In a state of ceaseless optimism, I engaged in yet another crossing of the hot take line. This one predicted Barcelona, that ever dangerous side driven by arguably the greatest single player to ever grace a soccer pitch, would go down easily.

Again, I’d like to point to the hot take hashtag. That should have been enough for the great soccer puppet masters in the sky to not smite my hopes of a trophy this season. Apparently not.

But I’m not going to say all is lost or that there’s zero chance Liverpool hoists a trophy this year. What ever is left is but a glimmer, a thin sliver of light, a sniff or two of something delectable. If anyone can do it, it is Liverpool.

“We’ve been ying-yanging between two improbable championships,” Rob Gutmann from The Anfield Wrap said on the Post-Match Pint after Wednesday’s match against Barcelona. He’s not wrong. But at some point, we reach the end of the road and either the results we need will come or they won’t.

If someone had told us, though, at the beginning of the season Liverpool would be nearing 97 points by May 12th and in another Champions League Semifinals, we all would have thought that would have been enough for at least one trophy. Our enthusiasm—and let’s be honest, hubris—would have been understandable.

This season has been brilliant and while I’ll fully admit my hot takes were a bit premature (but isn’t that the point of hot takes?), I know that this campaign signals one important thing. It’s Liverpool’s shot across the bow of every damn club in the Premier League and Europe.

And next season, we go again.

With Three Games Left, the Season's not Over

By David Shams

The odds are long and the hope fading. Liverpool’s title challenge is nearing its end.

Manchester City has been chased, pressed, and harried at the top of the table much like the gegenpresse tactic Liverpool manger Jurgen Klopp has made famous. At one point, in early January, Liverpool had a chance to go up 11 points. It would have been an insurmountable lead, one that would have surely led to Liverpool’s first title in 29 years.

But they lost that game, and dropped points in a further four matches. Two 1-1 draws to Leicester City and West Ham and a pair of scoreless matches against two rivals—Everton and Manchester United. A win in any of those games and Liverpool would be at the top of the table, two points clear.

Hindsight’s 20-20, as they say. And looking back, trying to find what went wrong and when, is likely a futile endeavor. Maybe it was one of the three ties to Chelsea, Man City, or Arsenal in the first half of the season. Maybe it was that loss to Man City on Jan 4th. There’s no way to tell what doomed Liverpool’s season.

What the hell am I jabbering on about? I’m acting as if this season’s an utter failure. That there are little to no bright spots in the 10-month season.

As it stands Liverpool are on 88 points. And while it’s not guaranteed that they’ll win out, there’s a good chance our Reds will end the season with a points haul in the mid-90s. That points total wins them the title in every season except this one (I’m assuming City wins out as well) and last when Liverpool’s current title rivals hit the 100 points mark.

All we can ask for as fans, really, is that year-on-year the team makes improvements and there’s at least a good faith effort to challenge for a trophy or two. Keep us within a sniff or two of the trophy and we’ll be happy…at least for those of us who are rational. Get us close year-on-year and eventually we’ll hoist a title.

Klopp, FSG, and the club in general have gotten us to that point.

Last season we earned a spot in the Champions League final. This year we’re challenging for the first title in 29 years (sure there have been other challenges, but this one seemed all the more likely). We’re likely to end with a 22-point improvement from last season. And just maybe, there’ll be a return to European glory, as long as we get past Barcelona in that all important semi-final match up.

All is not lost, Liverpool fans. There’s still three games to go in the league—and at least two more in Europe. City have to win out…so do we.

We know the task at hand.

Win at home v Huddersfield today, then send all the positive vibes possible to the Burnley faithful at Turf Moor. Dominate the Camp Nou like we did in 2007, then win at St. James Park. Two days later, send our positive vibes to Leicester as they travel to the Etihad. Defend Anfield against the Catalans. And on that final game of the league season, scream our hearts out and pour every ounce of energy in to beating Wolves and hoping Brighton get a result at home.

These are simple things really. The sorts of things we should have been doing all along.

If you’re confused just listen to the chorus of You’ll Never Walk Alone: “Walk on, Walk on, With hope in your heart, And you’ll never walk alone.”

Up the Reds!

David is the founder of DC Soccer Digest. He lives in Washington, DC. You can follow him on twitter at @ShamsWriter.

Spurs Injuries Cause Problems for Poch

The situation looked grim for Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino. In the 86th minute, with the score in Sunday’s match versus London rival Fulham knotted at 1-1, one Tottenham’s key playmakers, Deli Alli, went down holding his hamstring.

In real time, the player left no doubt about the injury, pulling up lame then gingerly using the ad boards as a crutch to ease himself to the ground.

Luckily, for the North London side, a stoppage-time winner meant walking away with three points.

For most top six sides in the Premier League, an injury to a key player isn’t the end of the world. But for the Pochettino coached side, it meant missing yet another star going into a tough run of games, especially mid-February to early March.

Harry Kane is with an ankle injury and unlikely to return until the second leg Round of 16 tie away at Dortmund. Although, there are reports he may be back sooner.

And Son Heung-Min is out at least until next week while on International Duty with South Korea. Luckily, barring any injury in UAE at the Asia Cup, Son will return for the match Leicester City in February--maybe even sooner.

The problem isn’t just missing star players, but it’s also not having players who can fill in and be a stop gap. Moussa Sissoko, Lucas Moura, and Victor Wanyama have all been nursing injuries, but have returned to training this week. And with both Fernando Llorente and Vincent Janssen woefully out of form, there’s no wonder that the North London side’s manager is feeling a little pressure.

Any decision Pochettino takes will carry risks, however. Playing Llorente up top in Kane’s role runs is a gamble. As we saw against Fulham, Spurs lacked any real creative effort up top and the Spanish striker looked out of sorts. Janssen hasn’t played since August 2017 and won’t figure into Poch’s plans anyway. Sissoko, Moura, and Wanyama may not be fully fit, but will nonetheless be called on to play, running the risk of reinjury.

It’ll be too late for Thursday’s Carabao Cup match against Chelsea, but Poch could look to the transfer window--something Spurs didn’t do in the summer. But who would they pick up? Gonzalo Higuain, the player most similar to injured striker Harry Kane, is already on his way to Chelsea. Regardless, he wouldn’t want to simply be a role player after Kane returns.

And any transfer could upset team chemistry, which has seemed to be going well at the moment.  

My guess is that the Argentine manager chooses to stick it out. Seeing as Troy Parrot, the young 16-year-old Irish striker, trained today it looks like that’s the direction he’s going.

It certainly is a gamble, but that’s life in the Premier League’s top 6. There are certain risks each team has to take. Of course, you want to minimize exposure, but often there’s not much a team can do.


Turner Sports Takes Over Champions League Coverage

Last August, Turner Sports announced they would be taking over coverage of the UEFA Champions League from FOX Sports. They also have the rights to the Europa League. 

It was a surprising announcement to say the least. FOX had been the broadcasters since the 2009-10 season. And ESPN had the rights for at least 14 seasons prior to that.

For their coverage of the two European club competitions, Turner Sports is rolling out an 'over the top' (OTT) streaming service for the games not broadcast on one of their stations. Initially, there seemed to be some consideration for using TNT, TBS, and TruTV for the match days. Instead, it looks like TNT will air two games each day during the first round, while switching to one a day during the knock out phase. 

UEFA has decided to have two kickoff times for games on each match day--1pm and 3pm EST. Turner Sports will air one game from each start time on TNT. That means three games at each kick off time will not be covered on a normal cable channel. This is where the OTT streaming service will kick in. 

More than likely if you follow a big side like Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, or Real Madrid, you can go without having to access the stream service. It seems logical that barring some weird grouping situations or timing conflicts, those teams will always be selected for the normal cable service. 

Fans whose teams aren't getting coverage will be able to buy the streaming package for $2.99/game, $9.99/month, or $79.99 for the whole year. 

But, if your team is in the Europa League, like say Chelsea, well you should probably go ahead and invest in the full year package. Or at a minimum check think about how you're going to access the streaming option. Because, Turner Sports has decided to only offer the Europa League final on their cable station. All the other games will be on the OTT service. 

Turner has taken a page from NBC's book. Last season the Premier League broadcaster utilized a similar service for the games not being broadcast on their slate of cable channels. They, like Turner, felt there was value in offering up the option to watch under-represented sides via an OTT service. 

That said, there were significant complaints about strength and the actual value. For $50/season, the service was at best inconsistent and often completely shut down. Personally, I chose not to renew my subscription for this season. I'm also a Liverpool fan and feel like they're likely to be on the cable coverage anyway. 

The Atlanta based company has also sought to boost their soccer coverage credentials by signing some notable pundits. Kate Abdo will be the host for the pre-game, halftime, between-game, and post-game coverage (interestingly enough Turner has pitched this set up as four new shows, when really it's just the same sort of game coverage we've always had). Tim Howard and Steve Nash have signed on as analysts with Stuart Holden's name mentioned as another yet to be signed.

One step up from FOX's coverage will be that Turner will use the world broadcast instead of their own in studio commentators. Alexi Lalas haters can breathe a sigh of relief knowing they won't have to listen to his voice during a Champions League match. Plus, personally, it always sounds better to have the commentators inside the park giving us the play-by-play rather than sitting in a sound booth somewhere in Atlanta or LA. 

'Cord-cutters' should like this new option, too. It's one less thing to worry about, no more boxes or weird remotes. That said, if the streaming has half the problems of the NBC Gold, it won't be worth it. 

Turner Sports looks to be banking on a business theory called "the Long Tail." It was created by Chris Anderson, Editor-in-Chief at Wired Magazine. The idea is that while bigger market items will certainly make up a majority of your revenue, smaller market items if packaged correctly in non-traditional formats could eventually produce enough revenue to rival those of the bigger markets. In this case, Turner knows their money maker, right now at least, will be the coverage of the most popular teams on their main channel. But they're also banking on the longer term expansion of revenue from coverage of teams with the smaller fan bases. If those fans move towards the OTT service to watch their team's play, they could add to Turner's revenue. 

The other side of the coin, however, could be that those smaller fan groups switching to OTT would actually cause a noticeable decrease in viewership for the games on the regular cable coverage. That may lead to less advertising revenue for Turner.

It may not matter after all. The Champions League, and to an extent the Europa League, are fairly popular here in the US. I'm genuinely curious to see if this sort of service takes off or if it flounders. Will it lead to a weakening of the popularity of the Champions League in the US? Will the streaming service crash like NBC's did all too often last season? 

All I know is I'm ready for the season to start.