The early rounds of the League Cup have built up something of a reputation for low attendances in recent years. With season ticket prices being the price that they are these days, the majority of people have to pick and choose what games they go to over and above their pre-allocated league fixtures, and the League Cup is usually somewhere near the bottom of the list of priorities, somewhere between the Johnstones Paint Trophy or Europa League Qualifying Round Qualifiers and pre-season friendlies against Greenland or Freddie Starr’s All-Starr XI. The modern football ground isn’t designed for such scenes. The brightness of the tip-up seats shows up the gaps in glorious technicolor, while the preponderence of steel and glass at most modern arenas makes the sound of the crowd echo jarringly if there are insufficient bodies present to soak it up.
How must it have felt to be a Liverpool supporter at Anfield this evening? At home against the lowest-ranked team left in the competition and in front of a crowd of just 22,577, this was the no-win match in excelsis. As it ticked over into extra-time, the boos from the supporters that were rattling around the ground like peas in a tin box were both amplified and diminished by the reverberation that accompanied them. Extra-time followed, and Northampton Town re-took the lead before David N’gog applied a sticking plaster to Liverpool’s fractured evening with four minutes to play of the second period. Any sense of relief that the red side of the city may have felt evaporated within minutes, as Northampton won the penalty shoot-out. As their five thousand supporters celebrated deleriously behind one goal, so the inquest into a match that shouldn’t have mattered – shouldn’t even have been an issue – began.
If Liverpool Football Club wanted a living, breathing, visual metaphor for the current condition of their club, they got it tonight. Perhaps this was the evening that the excuses ran out. The gap between the Premier League and League Two is almost indescribably huge now and, while this has obvious advantages for those in the top division, it also has one or two down-sides, not least of which is that there are no excuses for failure against smaller clubs any more. In previous years, Liverpool may have been able to get some traction from the fact that they played an under-strength team this evening, but it is an argument that loses almost all of its impact when we consider that even Liverpool’s under-strength team this evening contained five players that were at the World Cup this summer. The cost of the growth of the Premier League is that the light that shines upon it can be harsh and glaring and that it is easy for that light to fall on the unflattering side of the profile, if it exists.
For Roy Hodgson, such a result couldn’t become at a much worse time – as if losing at home to a team three divisions below you could ever come at anything other than a bad time. Since his appointment, it has felt as if Hodgson has been on probation with many Liverpool supporters, and now may be the point at which the relationship between him and the supporters could formally be described as “fractious”. It doesn’t seem likely, however, that he will be leaving the club in the near future. For one thing, the current power vacuum at the centre of Liverpool Football Club means that there may be question marks over who, if Hodgson were to be fired, would get to make the decision. Quite aside from that, Hodgson is eleven weeks into a three year contract. Can a club whose managing director stated this week that his club can “Just about… afford to meet” its obligations towards the cost of the loans secured against it afford the sort of severance package that such drastic action would require? And what other options would be available at this point in the season?
Yet the problem with Liverpool Football Club runs deeper than any of Hodgson’s perceived failings. Sunday’s defeat at Old Trafford was the last of a tricky start to the season which has seen them have to face up to Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United in their opening five Premier League matches. Their performances elsewhere, though, haven’t been outstanding and while their position a point above the relegation places feels like a false one, the colour is being sucked out of the face of the club at a rapid rate and, whilst upcoming home matches against Sunderland and Blackpool may provide them with some succour over the next couple of weeks, they then have to travel to Goodison Park to play Everton. Liverpool’s season will be made or broken by how they react to tonight’s result, but something within the club feels dislocated this evening, which doesn’t bode well for an instant bounce back in the direction of something approaching form. They can improve from where they are now. Of this much we can be reasonably certain. In order to do this, however, the playing side of the club needs an infrastructure upon which such improvement can be built, stability and confidence, all of which are missing from Anfield at present. As such, the next few weeks could be the most crucial in the recent history of Liverpool Football Club.
The final note on a dismal evening for Liverpool, however, should go their rain-swept conquerors, Northampton Town. Having fallen behind to an early goal, it would have been very easy for them to succumb to an inferiority complex and fold, but they remained composed and dragged themselves back into the match, seemingly by will-power alone. Indeed, with only a couple of minutes left to play and several of their players apparently flat out on their feet, they managed to come but one sensational defensive clearance from snatching the game in one hundred and twenty minutes. And after all that, they overcame not only a Premier League team in a penalty shoot-out, but Liverpool in a penalty shoot-out in front of the Kop. It was a performance that required a switch in the brains of the players to be tripped and for decades of mythology to be cast to one side, just for a few minutes. And they did it. For all the drama and crisis that seems to engulf Liverpool at the moment, Northampton Town’s moment in the sun should not be understated or cast to one side.