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Transfer Rater: Nkunku to Liverpool

Football Whispers
 By Steven Kelly

Pulse quickens ahead of Reds' opener

When you reach a certain age birthdays are just another reminder that you're one step closer to the grave. Christmas is one long commercialised nightmare that precedes a tedious, ultimately fruitless fitness regime designed to lose the weight you gained from stuffing your face all week.

There is however one day in the calendar that can make even the most misanthropic, prematurely aged curmudgeon act like the child he once was -- and that's the opening day of the football season. For Liverpool, it's Southampton at Anfield on Sunday.

True, that also has been commercialised out of all proportion. Strictly speaking it doesn't start on one day at all. Rather it's spread out over an entire weekend. Even with that the most overwhelmed and cynical of us all will still act like children in the back seat of the car, on the way to their summer holidays and pestering their parents to death. "Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?"

It's generally been a lucky day for Liverpool fans. There are few better sights than Anfield in sunshine, few better experiences than meeting up with all those matchday friends you haven't seen for three months.

It often ends in victory too, although the newish century hasn't always been kind. In August 2008, Fernando Torres hit a low shot outside the box to help the Reds win at Sunderland. In August 2013, Simon Mignolet saved a late Stoke penalty to retain a narrow lead at Anfield.

Is it a coincidence that both of those opening day celebrations also triggered Liverpool's last two title challenges? Probably, but in their 10 best league seasons of all time -- in points terms, not always title triumphs -- the Reds lost only one of their openers, 1-0 at Wolves when a certain Bruce Grobbelaar made his debut.

One thing the first day often does is sets the tone for a debutant. Despite an array of triumphs in later years, Grobbelaar never truly lost the image of a "liability" he gained from those precarious first few months between the sticks, initiated by that defeat at Molyneux.

Other first-timers started better but instead got worse. It's always great when new strikers open their account on Day 1, like Nigel Clough and Stan Collymore in the '90s. Those players didn't go on to have such brilliant Anfield careers as their talent deserved, but a good start kept people off their backs for a while.

Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish scored on their debuts too, so it also can be the prelude to years of glory. The fans have not seen you yet. They're expectant but unaware of what you can do -- then you show them exactly what you can do. Plenty of Anfield goals are celebrated with zeal, but the Collymore goal from 1995 was an example of one that had that extra zing.

Late drama always gives opening day an extra edge. It makes all that waiting around in the so-called sunshine months all the more worthwhile.

In 2007, Liverpool were heading for a draw after Gareth Barry equalised late on for Aston Villa. The home fans were jubilant, yet up stepped Steven Gerrard for a free kick and floated it straight into the top corner. There are terrace celebrations, there are terrace celebrations for late goals -- and then there are celebrations for a last-minute winner on the opening day on someone else's ground.

Mignolet's penalty save last August set the tone for the season. Liverpool had played well but, as on numerous occasions the season before, were not going to get their just reward by the looks of things. Fans came out of Anfield that day visibly psyched, ready for the year ahead. There is no other feeling quite like it.

It was a marked contrast to Brendan Rodgers' first game in charge, a dismal 3-0 defeat at West Bromwich Albion with a documentary team in tow to film the ignominy and the embarrassment.

With new players comes uncertainty, you're never really sure what you're going to get and how they start is very important. It sounds silly now but fans weren't entirely sure about the Liverpool team before one of their greatest ever seasons, 1987-88. Arsenal away was always a difficult match, the title now resided at Everton, Dalglish had virtually retired and Ian Rush was now at Juventus.


As we count down to kickoff on Aug. 16, ESPN FC previews all 20 teams in this season's competition. Can Burnley, QPR and Leicester stay up? Will the new signings of Alexis Sanchez, Diego Costa and Adam Lallana help usurp Man City's crown? Will Manchester United get back on track under Louis van Gaal?

The Rush money had been spent on John Barnes and Peter Beardsley but were they the answer? It was ESPN's very own Steve Nicol, with hundreds of appearances already under his belt, who headed in from 20 yards in the final minutes to secure one of the club's most famous Day 1 victories, and the rest of the division could not see them for dust from that moment on.

The best win of all was the 6-1 victory at newly promoted Crystal Palace in 1994, better still when you consider how poor Roy Evans' men were at the end of the previous season. There were no new faces and a general gloomy feeling around the club at the time, but that one win helped a revival of sorts.

Even if Liverpool don't win, a crazy game can just make you deliriously happy that the football season is back with a vengeance. The 3-3 draws at Norwich in 1984 and Middlesbrough in 1996 can have you tumbling out of the ground, wide-eyed and exhausted, musing on the possibilities of any season which starts like that.

In marked contrast, Roy Hodgson's dismal tenure at Liverpool could have begun differently if they'd hung onto the lead against Arsenal. Pepe Reina's late fumble was a foretaste of the comedy of errors to come. Rafa Benitez and Gerard Houllier both began only one season with a defeat and lost their jobs at the end of them.

The realists will snort with derision and say "but there are 37 more games to go." Day 1 can still set the tone though, either by deflating optimism or by instilling it where none previously existed.

In researching this blog I listed all of Liverpool's first league games during my 37 years of attendance and remembered 36 of them. Far from being pleased at such excellent memory retention so late in the day I was mortified by that solitary omission (Sheffield United away, 1990) because they ought to be as memorable as cup finals and title deciders.

The day you don't feel a tingling sensation whenever the new football season begins is a sad day indeed. The Reds will soon be back. How we've missed you ...


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