Alone among the 44,000 in Anfield’s rickety stands, Michael Shields yesterday watched Liverpool with an open mind. For 41/2 arduous years, he has been kept away from the team, and the ground, he loves. At 2.55pm, flanked by his family, he took his seat in the directors’ box, after a low-key entrance, a guest of the club and a free man.
His broad smile as he listened to You’ll Never Walk Alone, holding his teary-eyed sisters’ hands, was one of disbelief that this day had arrived, of gratitude to those who stood by him as he fought to clear his name. All of that, though, no doubt gave way on referee Lee Mason’s whistle to nerves, anticipation, hope and fear. Michael Shields, as he always wanted, was a fan again.
A fan, though, who has had other things to consider over the last few weeks, the last few years, than the fortunes of his football team. He has missed four years of claim and counter-claim about Rafa Benítez’s management, culminating in a barrage of criticism for the Spaniard’s sale of Xabi Alonso, for his side’s poor start to the season, their continued reliance on zonal marking and their weakness at set pieces.
Few fans will have attended Anfield yesterday or, indeed, this season, so free of prejudice and agenda as Shields. After witnessing a Liverpool performance of confidence and precision, of power and control which swept Burnley aside with contemptuous ease, which could have led to twice as many goals as the four they managed, he may have left Anfield wondering why all talk of titles is deemed so foolish on Merseyside, why so many fans harbour doubts about the state created by 2005’s 'Rafalution’.
Some elements, the excellence of Steven Gerrard especially, will have reminded Shields of his last visit here. Others, like the pace and elegance of Fernando Torres even as he became embroiled in the most physical of battles with Clarke Carlisle, are new. That it was Yossi Benayoun who orchestrated the destruction of the visitors will have been a surprise to Shields and, in truth, the vast majority of the crowd.
It was the Israeli’s explosion in form in the second half of last season which tilted Benítez’s team towards the title and, when the mood takes him, there is little question that he is as influential in this Liverpool team as anyone, Torres and Gerrard apart. After an even opening 20 minutes, Benayoun took control.
He had already headed Emiliano Insua’s cross just wide, when he collected Glen Johnson’s through ball, jinked past Graham Alexander and slid past Brian Jensen to open the scoring.
His shot, spilt by the Dane after a lightning-quick counter attack from a Burnley corner, fell kindly to Dirk Kuyt to double the lead after 41 minutes, before Benayoun scored his second after a quite wonderful move. Torres laid the ball to the onrushing Gerrard on the edge of the box, the Liverpool captain powered through and squared for Benayoun, who tapped home. His third, the easiest of the three, came when Andriy Voronin clipped a clever ball through, the Israeli sprung the offside trap and slotted home.
“We have seen what a good player he can be from the bench,” said Benítez, “but of course he wants to start. He has experience, though, and he knows the best way to respond and to make sure he plays is to keep fighting.”
Liverpool could have had more. They ran riot after the fourth goal as Burnley crumbled wholly. Gerrard hit the post, Benayoun had one ruled out for offside and Voronin chipped the ball just wide of the post in the dying minutes. “What we have learned today is that if you lose focus for just one second,” said Owen Coyle, “players with as much quality as Liverpool have will punish you.”
Shields’s response to his first visit to Anfield since Liverpool won their fifth European Cup, four long years ago, will have been just as awestruck, just as optimistic. In that, too, among his fellow fans he may be alone, for now. If Liverpool can keep this up, though, he will not be for long.