Neil Atkinson*, our old pal from The Anfield Wrap podcast and site, had to rise above a mountain of typos to make sense of Salut! Sunderland‘s questions ahead of SAFC’s visit to Liverpool on Saturday. Once he’d deciphered them, he came up with these thoughtful and entertaining responses, kindly predicting survival for Sunderland and offering a lyrical, Shankly-inspired appraisal of Jurgen Klopp’s needs …
Salut! Sunderland: I suppose you see our highly possible relegation as a disappointing loss of six points a season. Discuss our threatened demise …
Neil Atkinson: For the first time recently I think you may well get out of this. I don’t know what the long term plan is because I don’t think Allardyce is long term plan man. I think he is quite a difficult manager to read and Sunderland have this strange mismash squad.
But I like Sunderland. I like the North East and wish both sides were better and Middlesbrough were up because I do believe it is a proper football heartland. I know that sounds a cliché but it is one of those cliches because it is true.
Would we have been a lot better off with Jordan and Mignolet still in our team?
Jordan is immense. When he is fully fit he has been the business for us this season. Like too many of ours that hasn’t been often enough. Mignolet is a strange goalkeeper, in a very boring way. I’ve been thinking about it and I reckon if you look at successful goalkeepers for Liverpool or Manchester United you see that they are either ice-in-the-veins merchants or completely bananas. There isn’t much middle ground and Simon is in that middle ground.
What about you – hot and cold all season, great welcome for Klopp, lingering doubts. What do you make of Liverpool’s progress and how much/how long will it take to re-establish you as a serious force?
We will re-establish ourselves as a serious force very quickly but I don’t know when we will do it, if you see what I mean. We need to sign three very good players. We have everything else. There is an old Shankly quote that a football team is like a piano in that it takes eight men to move it and three to play it. Putting aside for a moment that Bill must have been to some bonkers three-man piano recitals, Liverpool currently have a squad of really good piano movers. Even someone like Coutinho is more of a midfielder than a forward as far as I am concerned.
Your thoughts on the decline of Sturbridge? And tell us how highly you rate Benteke.
Sturridge is such a shame. He is a brilliant pianist to extend the metaphor above. And he was going to become the main man. I think Liverpool have one eye on next season for him already.
I like Benteke, but again, he like most of our side, is a footballer who could really do with playing alongside someone like Daniel Sturridge to create space for him. He wants to drop in and play whereas Liverpool need a line leading number 9.
Compare and contrast: Liverpool squad of today vs the greats of the past. Who are the best you have ever seen – or wish you’d been around to see?
In terms of touch-the-sky brilliance, Luis Suarez is the best player I’ve ever seen with John Barnes a really close second. For consistent achievement then Steven Gerrard becomes the best – his level over 14 years of football with Liverpool is astounding.
I wish I’d seen all of them. We do an opening question on our show and once it was which Liverpool game do you wish you could have attended. I chose 18th April 1964 – Liverpool 5 Arsenal 0 which won us our first title under Shankly. 5-0 on the hour mark. Those lads. They could play. Imagine that last half an hour.
And who occupies the Rogues’ Gallery of past misspending?
Oh everyone. Transfers don’t work. Loads of them just don’t work. There is a human element everyone forgets I think. Some workplaces suit you. Some don’t. Carroll seems particularly daft from this remove, having just signed Suarez.
Your own highs, not just Istanbul, and lows of Liverpool support?
The 13/14 season under Rodgers was the greatest year of my life. The first half of the season watching some amazing football and then the second half when we went on that run. It was incredible.
The lows were Hicks, Gillett, Hodgson and so on. Also the ’96 Cup Final was just about the biggest kick in the teeth.
Do you welcome or resent the worldwide “brand” allegiance, necessarily including “fans” who could barely place Liverpool on the map?
Very much not. Not least because I think the majority of them can place Liverpool on a map because I think they support Liverpool for cultural reasons and not franchise reasons. What I mean here is that if you wanted to get into football or any point over the last 10 years then if you want to glory hunt, well you could do better. United, Chelsea, City and arguably Arsenal are all more attractive from that point of view. Yet overseas supporters still support Liverpool and choose to support Liverpool. For whatever reason, there’s now a more romantic under current and therefore I think people find more cultural affiliations that just the team.
Doing what I do, I’m lucky enough to meet a ton of people who visit Liverpool for the football and they are just so happy to be there. They throw themselves into the city, making coming a big weekend or whatever.
When we went to Australia we did a show and a thousand people turned up. We put Liverpool bands on. It was immense and afterwards an Australian asked about a bakery in Anfield which had crowdsourced the money to pay for an oven. He’d never been to Liverpool. He had no plans to. But he knew about this thing.
Where there is an issue is around pricing and access to Anfield and I will write more about that below, but even there I’ve seen overseas supporters be quite vocal around pricing. There is a group of German supporters who buy tickets and give them to a local supporters’ group to give to young people from Anfield. The world is a smaller place and for Liverpool this is a good thing.
Were you there when McAllister dived from the banks of the Wear into the penalty area at Sunderland, and got his spot kick from which you saved a point? Long time ago and everyone’s at it: should we now just accept cheating as part of the modern game?
I wasn’t there, but people have always cheated at football. I cheat at football when I play. I find every advantage I can and take it. If I’m playing five-a-side and there isn’t much time left and my side is ahead I will go into a tackle and the ball might “accidentally” go over the fence. Because I want to win.
It’s important to remember this, I think. There is an independent observer in the middle of the pitch, his job is to adjudicate difficult decisions. Some he will get wrong, most he will get right. Footballers will be on the ragged edge and they need adjudicating.
Were you surprised at how wretchedly we started the season and do you think big Sam can save us?
I was surprised but I think he can.
Took you long enough too be convinced by Jordan and you’re still unhappy with Mignolet. Is there anyone else at our place who would remotely interest you?
Best ref, worst ref in the Premier?
Clattsy the best.
Lee Mason the worst.
This season’s top four in order?
Spare no feelings. The bottom three?
18th – Norwich
19th – Swansea
20th – Villa
Think you will have just enough. Last game though.
What single step should be taken to improve the lot of ordinary fans?
Ticket prices and access. These are two different issues which are often conflated. Away supporters should be getting charged 20 quid. It would make very little difference.
But to come back to the earlier conversation, the main thing which needs to happen our end is increased capacities which solves any access issues and then costing issues. Different clubs have different problems though and it is something often forgotten. Everton sell half season tickets – Liverpool need another 20,000 seats, Arsenal is too corporate and an atmosphere killer, West Ham will be slashing ticket prices. And so on and so forth.
Will you be there? What will be the score?
Yes. 2-0 Liverpool
* Neil Atkinson on himself:
I present The Anfield Wrap. Please go to theanfieldwrap.com for all your Liverpool needs. [More detail from Neil’s Twitter account: ‘Present @theanfieldwrap and @theriderpodcast. Write and produce films with http://film1st.net.]
Interview: Colin Randall