Monday, October 17, 2011

Gerrard Confident Of Top-Four Challenge

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard believes the club are in a good position to challenge to regain Champions League status.

A summer of significant recruitment has added strength and depth to a squad which was lacking in a number of areas over the last couple of seasons.

Kenny Dalglish's side may have lost twice already this campaign - at Stoke and Tottenham - but a 1-1 draw at home to Manchester United at the weekend has given Gerrard, who made his first start in seven months at Anfield on Saturday, renewed confidence about the future.

The England midfielder scored a free-kick and had it not been for the brilliance of United goalkeeper David de Gea both Dirk Kuyt and Jordan Henderson could have scored late winners in a match the home side probably just edged.

"We've got to put it into perspective. We were playing probably the best side in the league," said Gerrard.

"It goes to show how far this team and this squad has come that we're disappointed not to have taken maximum points off Manchester United.

"We stood up to the test and we've proved we're up there as good as the best in the league.

"We are really confident we can push on from this game now and put in a real good fight for the top four."

Gerrard believes significant investment in the playing staff by Fenway Sports Group, who marked their first anniversary in charge on Saturday, is starting to bear fruit.

"We have improved and are a lot stronger and you sum a side up by how strong your bench is," he added.

"If you look at our bench against United we had Craig Bellamy, Andy Carroll and Jordan Henderson - that goes to show how much stronger we've got over the last couple of years.

"It is a really big positive when you know you have got big subs coming on and we are really happy with how things are going at the moment.

"All those players (and other summer signings like Jose Enrique, Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing) have made our squad an awful lot stronger.

"There is a mixture of experienced and young and it will take time to settle and produce top form on a consistent basis.

"But I think there are going to be big things from those players."

Suarez Upset By Evra Race Claims

Liverpool striker Luis Suarez has spoken publically for the first time to deny claims he racially abused Manchester United defender Patrice Evra at Anfield on Saturday.

During Saturday's 1-1 draw at Anfield, the players were involved in a lengthy dispute and Evra was booked by referee Andre Marriner. In a post-match interview, Evra told Canalplus: "There are cameras, you can see him. He says a certain word to me at least 10 times.

Suarez responded on Sunday by saying: "I'm upset by the accusations of racism. I can only say that I have always respected and respect everybody. We are all the same. I go to the field with the maximum illusion of a little child who enjoys what he does, not to create conflicts."

An FA investigation has now been launched, and a statement was released late on Saturday night. "The FA has this evening been made aware of an incident that is alleged to have occurred during the Liverpool versus Manchester United fixture at Anfield," it read. "Referee Andre Marriner was made aware of an allegation at the end of the fixture and reported this to the FA. The FA will now begin making inquiries into the matter."

Liverpool then moved to deflect the claims. "The first we knew about these allegations was 20 minutes after the final whistle when the manager (Kenny Dalglish) was asked to go into the referee's office and told about them," a spokesman said. "The first thing we did, as you would expect, is ask the player and he has categorically denied using any language of that nature."

Reports suggest that Dalglish was summoned after Sir Alex Ferguson had accompanied Evra to the referees' room and consulted with fourth official Phil Dowd.

LFC Wants Patrice Evra Ban If Suárez Race Claim Is Groundless

Liverpool have given their firm backing to Luis Suárez over his denial that he racially abused Patrice Evra at Anfield on Saturday – and want the Manchester United defender to receive a ban from the Football Association should his accusations prove groundless.

The Uruguay international has vehemently denied Evra's allegations that he racially abused him during Liverpool's 1-1 draw with United and will fight to clear his name if the FA decides to open a disciplinary case.

Suárez has also received a show of support from his employers. A Liverpool spokesman said: "Luis is adamant that he has not used language of that nature and the club is totally supportive of the player."

The inquiry will begin with the FA asking to speak to Evra on Monday to ascertain whether he intends to make an official complaint. Evra's accusation is that he was called "a nigger" – the Senegal-born Frenchman said he heard it "at least 10 times" – but Suárez insists it is not true.

"I'm upset by the accusations of racism," he said. "I can only say that I have always respected, and respect, everybody. We are all the same." Liverpool have accepted Suárez's version of events and, given the potential repercussions for their striker if Evra's allegations are proven, believe the France international should have a disciplinary case to answer if allegations of this magnitude are dropped.

Evra, accompanied by Sir Alex Ferguson, asked to see the referee Andre Marriner, after the match to report the alleged incidents and later expressed his anger in an interview with Canal Plus.

"In 2011, there are things you can't say any more," he said. "The referee knows and there will be an investigation. But I don't want to repeat what he said." The interviewer asked if Suárez had used racist words and he replied: "Yes, he did. We can see thanks to the television what he said. He said it at least 10 times. We can read it on his lips."

Evra's complaints have been included in Marriner's match report but the referee has also informed the FA and the Premier League that the first he knew of it was after the match. The two players could be seen exchanging words at various points of the second half but it may count against Evra that he did not raise the alleged offence with Marriner during the game.

On that basis, Evra will almost certainly need back-up statements from his United team-mates if the FA is to decide there is evidence to make a case against Suárez. United would not say if there were witnesses to Evra's allegations but, without them, the authorities may decide it is a case of one man's word against another.

In 2008 Evra was at the centre of accusations that he was racially abused by a groundsman at Chelsea while warming down. But an FA hearing into the allegation – which was made by a Manchester United employee – found that it was not proven. Evra was subsequently banned for four games and fined £15,000 for his part in the post-match altercation with the groundsman. The controversy comes at a particularly bad time given that Saturday's match launched Kick It Out's three-week "One Game, One Community" action program, with players from both sides wearing anti-racism T-shirts, and every manager through the leagues wearing one of the organization’s badges.

A message was read out before the game saying that Liverpool did not tolerate racism of any form, and there was a message in the club program, including a telephone number for supporters to report anyone guilty of offences.

Lord Herman Ouesley, the chairman of Kick It Out, said any footballer guilty of racism should face "severe action" both from the FA and the player's club, but "you would have to be able to prove it beyond reasonable doubt".

He added: "There were incidents in the second half and Evra seemed to get very agitated so something was obviously bugging him because he was quite incensed. But if this happened he should have brought it to the attention of the referee at the time."

Everton FC U-18s 4 - 0 Liverpool FC U-18s

Everton’s Under-18s cruised to a comfortable 4-0 victory over city rivals Liverpool to keep their hopes of reaching the Premier Academy League play-offs alive.

The young Toffees rarely looked troubled as they raced to a 3-0 lead in the first half at Finch Farm, leaving Blues coach Neil Dewsnip delighted.

Their classy win means Everton overtake Liverpool and move into top spot in the Group C league table, six points ahead of Rodolfo Borrell’s side, although the Reds have two games in hand and a superior goal difference.

It was an energetic and controlled display from Dewsnip’s boys, with the goals coming from on-loan Sporting Lisbon defender Eric Dier, Hallam Hope, John Lundstram and Anton Forrester.

Everton opened the scoring after just four minutes. Centre-back Dier met Luke Garbutt’s cross with a powerful header from close range.

Buoyed by their early breakthrough, the Blues stepped up the tempo and doubled their lead four minutes later through powerful striker Hallam Hope. The 17-year-old cooly side-footed home from another neat cross from defender Luke Garbutt, who sparkled further upfield on the left wing.

The Blues pressed the ball with more appetite, and boasted greater creativity in midfield despite the presence of former England U-17 captain Conor Coady and highly rated Spanish playmaker Jesús Fernández Sáez, or ‘Suso’, in the opposing ranks.

Further chances came through John Lundstram, who twice troubled Liverpool stopper Jamie Stephens with close range efforts either side of the half-hour mark.

And the energetic midfielder was rewarded for his perseverance on 38 minutes after Tom Donegan produced a high cross from deep, which he headed home in a congested goalmouth.

The second half again saw few chances for the visitors, as the Blues’ back four – marshalled superbly by 6ft 4in Swedish prospect Johan Hammar – kept things tight.

Everton were able to rely on the pace and tenacity of both full-backs, the impressive Tyias Browning at right-back and skipper Jack Bidwell at left-back.

Blues keeper Conor Roberts was called upon late in the game, but made easy work from a low drive by Suso.

Towering Liverpool sub Michael Ngoo tried to turn things around with a bruising physical cameo, but the result was already beyond doubt.

The home side wrapped up the points five minutes from time after an impressive jinking run from England starlet Garbutt culminated with a cross from the right which fell perfectly into the path of hard-working Anton Forrester.

Dalglish Attends Premiere Of Latest Film On Liverpool FC's Istanbul Victory

The world premiere of a film focused on Liverpool FC’s historic 2005 European Cup win was showcased in the city.

The cast, including Anfield manager Kenny Dalglish, appeared at the red carpet screening of Will at Liverpool One’s Odeon cinema.

The film follows orphan Will Brennan, who runs away to watch the game in memory of his late father.

Dalglish said: “It was a good laugh making it.

“The film is a further extension of all the good work that's been done in the city. It’s magnificent.”

Perry Eggleton, who plays Will Brennan, said: “It was great to play a Liverpool fan.

“The movie was a fantastic experience and it was good to work with such great people. Istanbul is an amazing city.”

Hillsborough: It's Time The Real Truth Came Out

This morning a coach will leave the Anfield Sport and Community Centre, turn on to Lower Breck Road and head south out of Liverpool, its destination the Houses of Parliament. This evening, for the first time and more than two decades after the event, the Hillsborough disaster that cost the lives of 96 Liverpool fans, will be debated in the House of Commons. It will be the latest stopping point of a journey that has been long, painful, stubbornly maintained and repeatedly frustrating, and is still not over.

It will be another long day for members of the Hillsborough Family Support Group (HFSG), who lost sons, daughters, fathers on that dark spring day in Sheffield 22 years ago. They will remain in the public gallery until 10pm when the debate will be closed and the motion voted on. The motion, tabled by Steve Rotheram, MP for Walton, calls for all government documents about the disaster, including cabinet minutes and No 10 discussion papers, to be released in an "unredacted, unedited and uncensored form" to the families and the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP), a seven-strong group chaired by James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool.

The motion is expected to be passed and provide a fillip – and potentially a notable one as the attitude of the Thatcher government of the time has long been questioned by campaigners – to the HFSG and others who have dutifully pressed for answers. Rotheram describes the debate and the release next year of the findings of HIP as a potential "end of a chapter" – still not the final chapter because that depends on what HIP's study of more than 45,000 boxes of documents from government, the South Yorkshire Police, the city of Sheffield and other sources throws up.

"It's a bit of history," says Margaret Aspinall, chair of HFSG, about the debate. It is the first to come about because of an e-petition, one that quickly gathered 40,000 more backers than the 100,000 required to force Parliament to consider it. "People who signed know an injustice has been done and it's about time the truth – the real truth – of Hillsborough came out."

Aspinall has become used to facing politicians. A few months ago she met privately with the Home Secretary, Theresa May, who is expected to reply for the Government tonight, and Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary. She only accepted Hunt's apology for misinformed comments over Hillsborough once she was offered assurances that the release of documents to HIP would not be censored.

"It's a good thing that this debate is happening because it's letting the government know we won't go away," says Aspinall. "We will never go away. It keeps us in the forefront, keeps the momentum of Hillsborough."

Aspinall was 41 when her son died. She is sitting at a table in the group's office in the Anfield Sports and Community Centre. Behind her a large red banner covers much of one wall. The word 'justice', in black letters, features prominently. What is justice for the 96, and for their families? "There's no justice – I don't believe in the word justice now," says Aspinall. "Accountability. That's the word I would use now. There's right, there's wrong, there's accountability and there's truth and they are the only things you can get."

Can she and the group she speaks for get that? "I'm always cautiously optimistic. I try to believe and I have hope – that's the best word. But even if we get the truth, there's no victory in it. We are still the losers, we will always be the losers. I will never be satisfied because I will never see my son again. I will never be satisfied because my son went to his first away game and came home five days later in a coffin. I've got to live with it – we all have for 22 years."

It was on 15 April, 1989, that Margaret Aspinall fixed a gold chain and crucifix around the neck of her eldest son. It was a present from his 18th birthday three weeks previously. She poked fun at him for not being able to do it up. "You're supposed to be a big boy now," she said.

James was a churchgoer – unlike his mother – and rarely missed Saturday evening mass with his friend, Graham Wright, who was to die alongside him later that afternoon. That day they would not, James told his mother, be back from Sheffield and the FA Cup semi-final with Nottingham Forest in time for church. He promised her he would go on Sunday.

"He went to meet Graham and get the coach. I said ta'ra and watched him go up the road and that was the last I saw of my son alive," says Aspinall. "I didn't know the word Hillsborough. I knew he was going to Sheffield Wednesday. I didn't know it was called Hillsborough. We had the TV on and my sister-in-law Rose said 'There's trouble at Hillsborough'. And I said 'Where's Hillsborough?' We watched people being laid down by the goalmouth. Rose said 'I think some of them are dead.' 'Don't be stupid,' I said. 'Don't be stupid'."

James Aspinall was in pen three, one of four that made up the Leppings Lane end. Liverpool, with their large support, had protested over being allocated that end of the ground rather than the larger Spion Kop. A narrow tunnel led into pens three and four. Eventually over 3,000 people were crushed into a space the Health and Safety Executive was to judge adequate for 1,600. The policing was equally inadequate – and was to be condemned by Lord Justice Taylor in his report later that year.

"You heard seven had died and the numbers kept going up. I turned the television off. The first call was from my husband [who had been in the other end of the ground]. That was about half past six because they got locked in [the ground]. He said 'Have you heard from James?' 'No Jimmy,' I said. 'Find him.'

"He went back to the hospitals and was told James wasn't on the lists. By now it was going on nine o'clock. I eventually got through to [the coach company]. They said 'all passengers are accounted for. They'll be arriving in Liverpool at midnight.' I thought 'He's alive. Thank God.' Jimmy came back and we went down to Lime Street and waited for every coach to come in. I said to Jimmy 'You'll have to go back. Please go back and just find him.' He found James about four in the morning.

"He had phoned me every hour on the way up – so if James came home he could do a U-turn. He phoned at one, he phoned at two, the last was at four. At five he didn't call. I knew... knew in my heart that he'd found James.

"I went outside to try and calm down because I was hysterical. I saw my sister. Jimmy had asked her to come down. I shouted 'What are you doing here?' and as I said that my husband was coming round the corner in the car. As Jimmy got out, I ran. I screamed at Jimmy 'Don't catch me, don't catch me up.' If he couldn't catch me, my son's alive."

Later, Aspinall asks for there not to be too much emphasis on what she calls "the emotional stuff". She worries it makes people think they are always "moaning and whingeing".

"I'm not a sad bereaved mum, I was but I'm not now – what I do I do for a good cause, for the future. I live every day without my son, but I don't wallow in it. I try to do the positive things. People don't realize what we have done – our group has done some good things, some marvellous things for the future."

The raw emotion, and its telling, matters though because the events of that afternoon are the fundamental reason why she will be sitting in the Public Gallery this evening and why she has played a leading role in campaigning for the bare truth of what happened that afternoon, and how the families of the victims were treated later, and why a game was allowed to be played in such an unsafe environment, and policed with lethal incompetence. The raw example of what happened to one family is a blunt reminder of why so many still make their voices heard.

"Can't you see why they are all still fighting, the fans, the families, what they were accused of and what happened to them," says Aspinall.

"The police cost 96 innocent lives. People say you can forgive and forget. I don't know how you can forgive. It's a very hard thing to forgive what has been done to the families for 22 years. If they had put their hand up right away and said 'we've made some terrible mistakes' this wouldn't have gone on. They prolonged it."

It is down to the prolonged efforts of Aspinall, Rotheram and others that the campaign has reached Parliament. It is an important, and certainly symbolic stopping point, but the campaign bus will stay on the road. "We will not," says Aspinall, "let this rest."

John Henry Wanted A Young Manager

John Henry admits he was won round by Kenny Dalglish after initially wanting to appoint a younger manager in the Liverpool FC hotseat.

Saturday marked the anniversary of Fenway Sports Group’s protracted £300million LFC takeover that banished Tom Hicks and George Gillett from the club.

One of Henry’s first decisions as principal owner was to install Dalglish in place of deposed manager Roy Hodgson on a temporary basis in January until the end of last season.

Liverpool subsequently tracked a clutch of up-and-coming names in their search for a permanent successor, a shortlist which included current Chelsea manager Andre Villas-Boas.

But while having harboured reservations employing someone who hadn’t been in the hotseat for more than a decade, Henry admits Dalglish soon provided a compelling case for his appointment.

Asked if the blueprint was to install a younger manager, Henry said: “Initially it was. You want to have long-term stability in as much as the staff as possible.

“I had been talking with Kenny about philosophy and initially he was brought aboard just for the remainder of last season. But it became obvious that he was the right man to lead the club.

“Kenny is certainly charismatic and beloved by the fans. I wasn’t convinced when we arrived that Kenny should be back managing and I wanted things to work with the manager we inherited.

“But the fans knew much more than I did. It took me a while to get up to speed.”