With Liverpool set to enjoy Christmas Day at the top of the table, Daniel Rhodes ponders whether Reds fans can dare to dream yet...
"It's my dream; I hope to win the league and a big trophy with Liverpool." Luis Suarez 23/12/13
It's my dream too, Luis. I dream about it more than the rest of all my other dreams combined. It's a painful dream, which often turns into a nightmare and has to be erased from my memory for fear of men in white coats arriving, threatening to lock me up. Any dream, in and of itself, can be anything, and supporting the most successful club in English football should mean my imagination doesn't need to run wild to even consider it. It has nearly happened before (in my lifetime), when Rafa Benitez ignited the expectations for a couple of seasons, when the belief returned and the dream was very close to becoming reality, only to fall agonisingly short; but, since he left, the rational dreams have been a mix of domestic cup runs, and longing for a top-four challenge. Until this season...
Is it still too premature to dream about the league title, even though we sit top of the table at Christmas? Certainly not in Suarez's case; but I'm not Suarez, and if I tried to do some of the things he does on a football pitch, I'd be subbed off quicker than Ali Dia. But what does the past tell us about our realistic chances, bearing in mind the position we finished last season?
The context of impossibility
"It seems fair to say that traditionalists value league titles above all else. However, if you want to win the league, then you need to have been in the top four the season before. Barring a freakish outlier that has yet to appear, it remains essential.
It's a stepping stone that cannot be skipped over. Winning the League Cup means nothing the season after. However, being in the top four can lead to a virtuous circle.
Getting into the top four doesn't mean you will soon win the league, but you have to set up camp there first to stand a chance. In the Premier League's entire 21-year history, no-one has ever won the title when finishing lower than third the year before.
As outlined above, winning the league after finishing outside the top four has never happened in the Premier League era. Even when we consider the old first division, it was hardly a common occurrence for a team outside the top three in the previous season to improve so drastically that they managed to win the league the following season:
Aston Villa and Everton won the title in the '80s having finished 7th the season before. No-one has jumped from below 7th since 1978; no-one has jumped from below 3rd since 1992.
Derby County, in 1972, moved up from 9th to first, and Arsenal, in 1971, jumped from a lowly 12th to take the title. Most remarkably, Nottingham Forest finished "25th" - i.e. 3rd in the old second tier, behind 22 top-tier teams - before winning the title upon their first season back in the big time.
So, for the dream to come true, we need to emulate Everton's 1984-85 achievement, when they moved up from seventh place (after finishing on 62 points, 18 behind winners Liverpool), to clinch the title with a huge year-on-year improvement of 28 points to finish 13 points clear of, yes, Liverpool. Although, as a side note, only five teams (Liverpool 1905/06; Everton 31/32; Spurs 50/51; Ipswich 61/62 and Forest in 77/78) in the history of English football have been promoted one season from the old second division, only to go on and claim the title in their first season in the top flight.
At the beginning of the season, the bookmakers' odds on Liverpool ranged from 25-1 to 66-1, depending who you went to: in other words, a very long shot.
However, there is one positive statistic for teams who are top at Christmas:
Read that again, more than half the time, "we're gonna win the league... and are you gonna believe us?" No. No I'm not, because there is, perhaps, the most important caveat in this whole debate, and that is the competition that now exists within the top eight this season. It's ferocious. One or two defeats and you can drop out of the top four. Every team is capable of beating all the others. There are billionaire owners investing in £30m players to sit on the bench; world-class centre-backs that have captained Brazil who can't get a regular game; £100m squad rebuilding; exciting powerful strikers on loan at fellow rivals for the top-four places; club record signings from Real Madrid. The ballpark isn't the same anymore, and we must consider all these factors before getting excited.
Who deserves the praise?
The clichéd, oft-repeated answer is Luis Suarez; Liverpool are a one-man team, and without him we'd be lagging far, far behind. There is a grain of truth, of course, because any team in the world would improve with El Pistolero in their ranks, but the biggest question is: why is Suarez still a Liverpool player? And the answer has to be, John Henry. Further credit must go to our manager. We've never lost two games in a row under his tenure. Quite an achievement, especially when you consider the amount of goals we've scored while he's been our manager.
One thing is for sure with Rodgers, entertainment is guaranteed. But who is responsible for hiring Rodgers? Again, step forward our owners FSG and John Henry. Many observers said we needed to go for experience, we needed a manager with a successful, proven CV, and one who had worked at the highest level before; not FSG, though, they interviewed a number of young, up and coming managers, and plumped for Brendan Rodgers. He must have impressed them, like some of their appointments at the Boston Red Sox (who have won two 'league' titles in 10 years, after waiting 95 years), they seem to spot talent and ability before they become winners.
Finally, there was a quote from John Henry when he arrived:
"We regard our role as that of stewards for the club with a primary focus on returning the club to greatness on and off the field for the long-term.
"We are committed first and foremost to winning.
"We have a history of winning, and we want Liverpool supporters to know that this approach is what we intend to bring to this great club." (BBC Sport - October 2010)
I'd give up Christmas forever if the above words turn out to be prophetic. And, I'm fairly sure, it would allow the vast majority of Liverpool fans to stop dreaming of, and start enjoying, what for years was our trophy: the league title.
Happy festive period everybody, we're top of the league, and I'm not even dreaming.