Some appreciation for the man as the Premier League snubs him.
“Don’t sign me the player sign me the man.” Or words to that effect, were uttered by Bill Shankly to his legendary Chief Scout Geoff Twentyman in 1967. Simon Hughes covers the topic in his excellent book, but it was this quote that stuck with me whilst watching Liverpool’s post 2009 slump to mid-table mediocrity.
Shankly’s instruction was simple on the surface; he wanted men with the right character to wear the red shirt. But there was more to it than that. Twentyman would look at the lad’s background, his parents, his education etc. All worked towards building an image of the right player for what was an increasingly ambitious football club. Was he hungry enough? Did he care enough? This was every bit as important as the player’s ability and would often be the difference in whether or not he was signed.
Somehow we flipped round from this great era of recruitment and we were suddenly muddled and stranded a million miles from this approach. From Benitez’s final season, to Rodgers and all in between, players arrived who simply didn’t want to know or care. Embarrassing defeats would be clocked up, horrible cup exits endured and rivals stole a march on us, all to the increasing detachment of certain players. Moreover, senior squad members would either not influence in their position or where injured at crucial moments. Injuries cannot be helped, but for almost a decade at Anfield they were like weeds, springing up everywhere and blighting the squad with niggles and pulls.
What’s the plan?
One of my common complaints during this time was the lack of genuine scouting activity. It seemed that any player in the Premier League, who’d had a more than average season, was a viable transfer target. Such was the case that we’d gone from Xabi Alonso to Charlie Adam in two years. (Still shaking my head as this is written). Obscure foreign signings also backfired in large quantities and we were left with a squad without much character or fight. Some of them just simply didn’t look interested, especially if the going got tough as it so often did.
Then came 23rd June 2015, late on in Rodger’s reign, the Transfer Committee almost under the radar, announced the signing of one Roberto Firmino Barbosa de Oliveira. Bobby had arrived. I had never heard of him but given the £29 million price tag, it was clear he was a highly rated signing. Looking at his background, it was immediately encouraging. He hailed from the poor Northern Brazilian city of Maceio, where as of 2014 135 crimes were committed per 100,000 residents. His mother was fearful that her boy might end up dragged into gangs and he’d often sneak out to play football in his bare feet, climbing over the family wall to join his friends. It was clear this was no middle-class kid who’d grown up pampered in academies. Like Suarez before him, we’d signed a hungry street footballer. Shanks and Twentyman would have approved.
Yet the early signs were not encouraging. He seemed ineffective and quiet in matches. Culminating in a very poor performance in the 3-1 away defeat to United in September 2015 where he was replaced after 65 minutes. Fans were grumbling despite him playing less than ten games. My only hope was that it was clear Rodger’s days were numbered and the toxic, stifling air around the club might lift. The Ulsterman didn’t rate Bobby, having shunted him almost as an afterthought to the infamous wing-back position occupied by other famous defenders such as Raheem Sterling and Lazar Markovic. Whatever he had in mind for Firmino, he simply wasn’t getting anything out of him.
It was only when I finally got to see him play live against Bordeaux that I realised what a clever and gifted player we’d gotten hold of. By this time Klopp had arrived and was letting the Brazilian to play further up front. Every ball he received that night was trapped with a silky first touch and each pass he picked was the right one. His little turns and clever touch reminded me of the legendary Jari Litmanen and I knew from then on he couldn’t be a bad player.
In December 2016 Klopp expressed both his enthusiasm for the player as well as a telling comment on Liverpool’s then fallen status:
“Nobody asked me about him but he was a player I thought was one of the best in the Bundesliga. So when I saw that Liverpool had signed him I thought: ‘How could Liverpool do this?’ “They were not in their 100% best moment and other clubs would have spent more on him so I thought immediately: ‘What a good transfer for them.”
It was a relief to have a manager who believed in and galvanised the player, allowing him to go on and achieve the levels we’re currently watching with pleasure.
Two and a half years from on from that epic clash with Bordeaux and he is one of the most gifted players in the Premier League. His vision and movement alone are lovely to watch, so too his are his clever skills and eccentricities. He plays as his background would suggest, with true enjoyment and a will to win. Thus far in his Reds career he’s been involved in eighty-four goals and been a huge influence in our Champions League surge. It isn’t far off the mark to say he should be in the Premier League team of the season. For me, he offers more to a first XI than Harry Kane and is far less selfish.
His signing was a throwback to the days of Shanks and Paisley when true characters with heart, skill and fight were added to the ranks on a regular basis. Yes, the club got Suarez in 2011, but he was a one off bright light in an otherwise dim time for Liverpool’s transfer business. Since Bobby has arrived, more in his ilk have followed. And while he’s not the sole catalyst for improved recruitment, the football he helps the team to play must surely act as one hell of a magnet to the game’s top talent. It’s also clear that his sheer personality and graft on the pitch have helped others around him blossom. Mane, Salah, Robertson and Ox can all trust that with the Brazilian on the pitch, there is a truly gifted player who will play them in at the right moment and not let a good move fall down.
When he was a teenager he told an influential coach that he wanted to go and become the best Brazilian player. The son of a water vendor isn’t far off reaching those dizzy heights, and it would be fantastic for him and us if he were to stake even more of a claim against Roma and beyond in Kiev.