January 3, 2013 by mapperleystag1
The most eagerly anticipated and discussed ties for the 3rd round of the FA Cup are always games involving lower league or non-league sides up against giants from the Premier League. This season is no different, with neutrals and casual observers turning their attention towards the One Call Stadium this weekend, where Conference side Mansfield Town host five-time European Cup winners Liverpool.
On the surface, there appears little that links Mansfield Town and Liverpool. One is a former Football League side, currently enduring their fifth season of non-league ignominy; the other is arguably the most successful side in the history of English football, having won the Old First Division eighteen times, the FA Cup on seven occasions and having celebrated success in European competitions eleven times between 1973 and 2005.
Despite the clear gulf in size and history of the two clubs, a closer inspection reveals that the sides have more in common than simply an FA Cup tie on Sunday. In recent years, both have suffered alarming falls from grace. Liverpool, once a feared name in national and continental football, have slowly morphed into an underachieving, average Premier League side, one with a smattering of truly world-class players overshadowed by notorious big-money signings who have regularly flattered to deceive. For a club with such an illustrious past, it is remarkably nearly 23 years since they were last domestic champions and their hopes of lifting the Premier League title for the first time seem more and more distant with each passing year. The problems regarding ownership of the club and the unresolved question over the future of redeveloping or relocating from Anfield have only added to the tensions.
Whilst Liverpool have had their fair share of on and off-field controversies in the past decade, their troubles if anything pale into insignificance compared with the turbulent recent history of Mansfield Town on the pitch and especially in the boardroom. After 77 years as a Football League club, the Stags were relegated in 2008 with supporters putting the blame for the on-field demise firmly at the feet of controversial owner Keith Haslam, whose dubious financial activities were documented in 2005 by campaigning football journalist, David Conn, in The Guardian. With relegation all but confirmed following home defeat to Rotherham United, the previous non-violent protests and boycotts by supporters over many years gave way to post-match anger, with some furious fans managing to break into the boardroom and assault Haslam to the extent that he required hospital treatment for head injuries. Despite selling the club that summer, only in March last year was Haslam’s power over the club finally removed when chairman John Radford bought the ground after eighteen months of protracted struggles and threatened legal action against the former owner. For the first time in many years, the focus at Mansfield Town has been completely on footballing matters.
Performances in the league by both sides this season have been frustrating. In their first Haslam-free campaign for almost twenty years, and on the back of winning fourteen of their last sixteen league games in the previous campaign, Stags fans had every reason to feel confident that they could go one better than last season’s playoff heartbreak and return to the Football League. In the red half of Liverpool, optimism was also relatively high, with supporters demanding a marked improvement on 8th position under Kenny Dalglish with the appointment of the seemingly self-anointed tactical revolutionary, Brendan Rodgers. The expectation was that Rodgers would not only improve considerably on last season’s finish, their worst performance in the league for eighteen years, but would also ingrain in the squad his distinctive philosophy based around dominating possession so impressively exhibited the previous year at newly promoted Swansea City.
To date, both sets of supporters have found their pre-season optimism unfulfilled. After a number of early season away-day capitulations, combined with a direct style of football which was far from pleasing on the eye, some Stags fans were clamouring for Radford to sack manager Paul Cox. Meanwhile, on Merseyside, Rodgers was heavily criticised for failing to sign a replacement for Andy Carroll, whom he had allowed to move on loan to West Ham United, signalling that he was clearly surplus to requirements at Anfield. This, combined with an uninspired start to the season, immediately put Rodgers in a difficult position, with some “experts” even at such an early stage questioning his ability to manage a club of the prestige of Liverpool.
As things stand, both sides are in a position they will desperately not want to finish in: Mansfield are 9th in the Conference (although with games in hand), whilst Liverpool have slowly risen to the lofty heights of 8th place in the Premier League. However, in recent weeks there have been signs of improvement. Although losing surprisingly at home to Aston Villa, Liverpool have won five of their last seven games, with Luis Suarez beginning to find the back of the net on a consistent basis. In the Conference, Mansfield have only lost once in their last seven games, a shock defeat to Alfreton Town on Boxing Day quickly avenged in the return fixture on New Year’s Day. As a result, both will head into the game with confidence, each having won 3-0 in their previous fixtures.
Despite similarities in terms of off-field uncertainties in recent years and mediocre performances on the pitch, it is crucial to stress the vast differences between the clubs. This is most evident in finances where Mansfield, one of the largest and biggest spending clubs outside the Football League, reputedly pay their highest earners at most £2000 per week, in itself a sizeable amount for non-league football, and have reportedly paid a fee of approximately £35 000 for a player from a rival in the division in the summer. By contrast, Liverpool stars Luis Suarez and Steven Gerrard are paid £120 000 and £140 000 a week, sixty and seventy times more than the highest paid Stags player respectively. Regarding transfer fees, in the last few days, Liverpool have signed Daniel Sturridge for £12 million. However, this fee is dwarfed by the monumental spending by the club in past seasons, which has seen Andy Carroll being bought, to much amusement from onlookers, for £35 million. The purchases of Stewart Downing for £20 million and Jordan Henderson for £16 million were equally met with a mixture of shocked silence and disbelief by stunned observers.
It is therefore quite apt that one or both of Downing and Henderson are likely to have some involvement in Sunday’s game. Other fringe players at Anfield are also likely to be given a chance to prove themselves against far inferior opposition, where they will surely be expected to highlight the enormous difference in technical ability between the two sides. Sturridge should also be available for selection, and could make his debut and begin to pay back his hefty transfer fee in Sunday’s game. On the other hand, Mansfield will look to expose any weaknesses and physical frailties in the Liverpool side through set pieces in particular, utilising Exodus Geohaghon’s missile long throw at every opportunity. In open play, expect the Stags to try and stretch the opposition, hoping to spring Matt Green and test the rapidly degenerating legs of Jamie Carragher, if the Liverpool legend does indeed start. Without possession, Mansfield will be forceful in the tackle, attempting to press and harry the Liverpool side far more effectively than QPR and Sunderland ever managed. Despite this, Liverpool should frequently be able to expose the gap in quality and book their place in the 4th round in convincing fashion. The fact that the FA Cup is their best opportunity for silverware this year should ensure that complacency is not an issue.
However, if Liverpool turn up in North Nottinghamshire lacking motivation and expecting an easy day’s work, then they could quickly find themselves in deep trouble, battling on a heavy pitch against a highly motivated side desperate to prove themselves in front of a national audience, with a hostile crowd baying for blood. This is why the FA Cup remains such an unpredictable competition and keeps us captivated year after year.