There was nothing memorable in Liverpool's dour 0-0 draw with Everton in their penultimate home game of last season on the pitch. There was no last-minute drama or ponytail intervention, no 44-yard free kicks or challenges that should be housed in an octagon. When is a Merseyside derby not a Merseyside derby? It was the question nobody asked but found the answer for anyway on a humid May afternoon.
- Payne: Rooney ready for Anfield
- Bennett: Reds' leadership focused on top-four finish
- Report: Liverpool apologise for 'Munich' tweet
But then, the epilogue. The epilogue is that strange period of time between the final whistle and when the stadium is silenced for another fortnight, the moment the fourth wall erodes and you realise all this was for entertainment.
Television cameramen run onto the pitch to trace the players who have written the narrative; players shake hands with their counterparts and exchange glib remarks, before half-heartedly acknowledging the fans; the fans, those who have been halted by the swelling mass of humanity exiting, reciprocate with their hands above their head and feet forever shuffling forward.
It is a menial process, one that rarely has any consequence on life, but one that must be done.
There was nothing menial about that afternoon. The usual handshakes and applause were underway, hand movements all around Anfield. But then David Moyes turned toward the Everton fans, 3,000 of whom had congregated left of the dugout, and jogged. As he jogged, his hands, clenched into fists, were thrust toward his supporters; to me, to you, to me, to you.
He would alternate fists: first, the right would salute them, dangle in the air and wave toward the sky as if he were playfully angry with God; then came the left, the process repeated, before he returned to the double-fist for added effect.
He looked like an uncle at a wedding whose favourite song had just had its first few riffs played. In reality, he was a manager who had achieved a goalless draw against his city rivals, a result that pushed them closer to finishing above Liverpool for the second consecutive season. It also, as he highlighted in his post-match comments, kept them in contention for European qualification.
It would be barbarous to scoff. Given the respective expenditures of the two clubs and the burden of history upon the Blues, to finish above Liverpool twice was a testament to Moyes' managerial ability and the squad he had shaped. The possibility of finishing above Tottenham, and bringing European football to Goodison Park, was just as impressive. It was such achievements that led him, later that month, to receiving a phone call to change his life.
If Brendan Rodgers clenched his hands after that draw, it was through frustration and regret. His words afterward would suggest similar. He spoke of needing more attacking players and of how his side had drawn too many games; to finish in seventh, below Everton, was not good enough.
This was a man who had understood the expectations of his football club as the season progressed. That is not to suggest he took the job at Anfield last summer thinking he could oversee mid-table mediocrity without reprimand, of course -- but only when in the trenches does the full horror unfold. Every tactical decision was forensically examined; every movement in the transfer market was met with a metaphorical intake of breath, as if "Die Hard" protagonist John McClane was about to cut the big, blue wire on a ticking bomb.
To meet expectations at Liverpool is Rodgers' endgame, but first he must simply realise what they are. That learning process began on his very first day, when questions of glory, history and Bill Shankly were thrown at him by the world's media. There are tangible signs he is learning: the utilisation of Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge from January; the hammerings of bottom-half sides by threes, fours, fives and a six; the fact Liverpool are now unbeaten in 10 league games, losing just two of the past 18.
Moyes has undergone a similar lesson after he was carried away in a whirlwind of expectation at Old Trafford. A goalless draw at home to Chelsea, to Jose Mourinho, would have been an excellent result when in charge at Everton. But there was perplexity over how much Moyes wanted to win the game as he presided over United's first 0-0 draw at home since May 2009. That is something Rodgers touched upon in his pre-match news conference on Friday, acknowledging how United's famed final 20 minutes of hellfire was dampened.
And so to Sunday, to Anfield, to Liverpool and Manchester United. There can be no fists of happiness at a goalless draw, no dad-dancing at one point instead of three; not from Rodgers, not from Moyes -- not publicly, at least.
Rodgers knows that, but Moyes may yet be unaware. Advantage Rodgers, advantage Liverpool. When up against the champions, take any comfort possible. Though Moyes has more experience as a manager, Rodgers has more at a club with such high expectancy. It will be the first time the 40-year-old has that benefit, and probably the last for quite a while.
The Northern Irishman has coped with the expectation well so far this season; indeed, he is almost unrecognisable to the man who paraded Stewart Downing around Anfield after a 1-0 home win against Anzhi Makhachkala as if Downing had parted the River Mersey and led the people of the Wirral to the promised land.
That was not good enough. There was a sense, however intangible, that the first few months of Rodgers' reign was effectively a probationary period, a fumbling in the dark as winter approached. It took him a week to figure out how the espresso machine in his office worked, let alone understand what was required of him.
You do not make the Liverpool job, the Liverpool job makes you. Or breaks you. That is unfair, but that is also reality. But as last season grew on, so did Rodgers. He realised success would not be judged by how many hairs erected upon necks because of his words, but instead that good football -- winning football -- would find favour. The performance against Oldham in the FA Cup heralded a realisation that the squad he had, and what he was doing with them, was not good enough.
That winning mentality explains the start Liverpool have enjoyed this season. At 1-0 against both Stoke and Aston Villa, the defence tightened, the midfield tried to compact and the forward line became deeper. It was a little too defensive and cautious at times, but football is not an exact science.
Because of those results, expectancy is at an all-time high at Liverpool under Rodgers' tenure. Don't believe that Moyes will be alone in mopping his brow in the Anfield tunnel. This expectancy is different than any other for Rodgers: in that undefinable concept of progress, a victory against Manchester United would represent it for most. Liverpool did not beat any of the top four home or away last season; here is an opportunity, an early one at that, to change that statistic.
A victory over United would not be a coming of age for Rodgers; it will not be the day a boy becomes a man or any other cliched nonsense. It would not even be an epochal moment, because an epochal moment will only come on the day he wins Liverpool trophies, Champions League qualification, the title. But what a win over United does is give him the experience of meeting expectations against one of their fierce rivals. It also, wickedly, would keep that learning curve for Moyes as steep as his own last year.
It could be the case Rodgers has a lot of good qualities as a manager, but he undoubtedly lacks experience. Sunday is part of a season-long experience of not only understanding expectations, but trying to meet them. If they are Rodgers' fists that are raised at the full-time whistle, he should hope it is in happiness, not sadness, and that it is to celebrate three points, not one. Or worst of all, none.