Leeds robbed of epic return
IT is a real tragedy that Anfield will be empty for the visit of Leeds United on the opening day of the new Premier League season.
Having waited so long to get back into the top flight, the battle between the winners of the old Second Division title and the Premier League champions on the opening weekend of the campaign would have been a sensational occasion at the most atmospheric ground in English football.
Leeds would have brought vocal and passionate travelling support, and the Liverpool faithful would have been screaming from the rooftops as their idols start the defence of a title the club waited so long to win.
This would have been great theatre to watch, but instead we will get a game played in front of empty stands in a stadium echoing with the sounds of players shouting at each other. What a shame.
Liverpool versus Leeds will still be the best fixture from the opening weekend of the new season, but this vile Covid-19 virus has taken away another glorious sporting occasion in a year when it just continues to steal so much from our lives.
Hopefully, normality can resume sooner rather than later.
The bigger picture has to be that we should all be pleased to see Leeds United back where they belong after too many years in the wilderness.
They have a huge fan base in England and Ireland, wonderful traditions and, when I was growing up they were the best team in the land, as they flexed their muscles with a great team inspired by Billy Bremner.
My old Ireland manager Jack Charlton was a key member of a great side that featured legends such as Johnny Giles, Bremner, Norman Hunter and Allan Clarke.
For those not old enough to remember, let me tell you they were a hell of a team. Bill Shankly’s Liverpool locked horns with Leeds in some epic battles.
The fight for power at the top of English football featured those two teams in the late 1970s. It will be great to see them back in the big-time under a fine manager in Marcelo Bielsa.
The issue of empty stadiums will continue to be a factor for the opening few games of the season at the very least – and, in my view, Liverpool could be the team who suffer the most.
Jurgen Klopp’s team were not at their best as they returned from the lockdown period.
While it was easy to put that down to the fact that the title was as good as won and their focus was affected, we don’t know whether the absence of fans was also a factor in that dip in performance.
While Manchester City struggle to get any kind of atmosphere at the Etihad Stadium at the best of times, Anfield is a cauldron like no other in world football and the empty stands have taken away Liverpool’s 12th man.
We all saw that Amazon documentary when City manager Pep Guardiola admitted he was terrified of Liverpool and, especially, Anfield.
He is not alone in that assessment. The great Lionel Messi and Bar- celona highlighted how the best of teams can crumble when they were swept up in the Anfield whirlpool in last season’s amazing Champions League semi-final.
That atmosphere will be lacking for home games against Leeds and Arsenal in the first month of the season.
You could argue that the absence of supporters might help Liverpool as they avoid getting abused by Everton fans in the fifth round of Premier League fixtures, but I have always been of the opinion that abuse from the stands is the ultimate motivational tool.
If rival fans started chanting at me or my team-mates when I was on the field, it used to make me even more determined to stick one in the back of the net.
Yet, we are all being forced to watch a diluted version of football right now.
The Champions League final will be played in front of empty stands tonight and we saw the same with the FA Cup final and the finale to the Premier League season – it’s not the sport as we know and love it.
While we are all grateful to have some football back in our lives, it won’t be back for real until the fans can sit in the seats that have passed through their family for generations.
We all wait for the moment when The Kop and the great stadiums of England are rocking again.
I still felt a tingle of excitement when the fixture list for the new season was released on Thursday, but it will be football without the X-Factor for now.
Also, it is now evident that this upcoming season is going to be a pretty serious test for all teams when you see the schedule designed to try to fit everything into a campaign that should have begun at the start of August.
Teams will be playing games every few days, week after week, and that will stretch squads to breaking point.
It will mean managers need to have a good pool of players to select from as the long winter months are bound to see injuries play a part in the title story.
With so many games to cram into a shorter season that needs to be finished before next summer’s delayed Euro 2020 finals, you can see the top teams playing reserve and youth teams in the Carabao Cup and even the FA Cup, as they are forced to prioritise the Premier League and European competitions.
The chaos of the back end of last season could return to haunt us if there are any more disruptions due to a spike in the virus as the winter months kick-in, but let’s hope those nightmares are behind us and we can get back to our lives as we knew them.
In a way, the return of fans to football stadiums will be evidence that we are taking a few steps in the right direction. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait for too long for that to happen.