Philippe Coutinho made an early return to Anfield on Saturday as part of the Brazil side which beat Croatia 2-0 in a World Cup warm-up.
He’d left Liverpool in an unsatisfactory manner, basically forcing through a move to Barcelona in the middle of a very promising season for the Reds. Such behaviour normally ensures a hostile reception for anyone whenever he returns to the ground where he used to be revered.
Liverpool evidently feared such a backlash and before the match sent the big guns out to the media; Kenny Dalglish. Not even Bill Shankly had a stand named after him so the words of King Kenny are the equivalent of a three-line whip or even a papal decree.
There were still some jeers but not enough to call it a barrage and certainly not “abuse”. The loud reaction to the eventual appearance and goal from Roberto Firmino was a more subtle slight to his former club colleague. It may all be being saved for whenever the Reds face Barcelona in the Champions League, which would then demonstrate the peculiar logic of football fans who’d probably give Luis Suarez a good reception despite him having done the same as Coutinho.
The somewhat muffled reception on Saturday may reflect a fan base that’s slowly, depressively come to terms with its best players always leaving.
Coutinho did after all give five years’ good service, which is quite a lot for a foreign player, certainly one who’s gifted and never had one winner’s medal to show for it.
Reactions to other big-fee departures were more shrill. Fernando Torres joined another English club Chelsea, one that had “enjoyed” an antagonistic relationship with Liverpool for years.
It quickly became evident the Spaniard’s best form was behind him and some of his £50 million fee had brought Suarez to the club, but the reaction to his return was still frosty.
It only mellowed when he appeared in Steven Gerrard’s testimonial, which was all for a good cause and people can’t bring themselves to be petty when charity is involved. Even John Terry got a good reception.
Torres won medals at Stamford Bridge but never really seemed a major influence on Chelsea, so perhaps the mellowing had something to do with that.
The same could certainly not be said of Raheem Sterling at Manchester City. Like Coutinho, fans weren’t happy with how he engineered his move to the Etihad despite his legitimate concerns over wages and the club’s downward direction.
He’s played at Anfield four times since leaving and lost every single time, with the Kop’s abuse ringing in his ears as an unwelcome bonus. He has enough money and silverware now to let that wash over him, but it is odd how other players don’t get anything like that hostility.
The call from Dalglish to leave Coutinho alone didn’t sit right with some. In a sport that seems to become more sanitised as each year passes, it’s easy to forget that it is basically an adult’s pantomime and enmity, even venom, plays a part in it.
Liverpool supporters have spent the days after Kiev moaning about the rest of English football’s apparent glee in their 3-1 loss to Real Madrid. Because of course if another English club got to the Champions League final they would all be very supportive.
It was, however, a loss that might have been avoided with Coutinho still in a red shirt.
Booing ex-players seems to irritate people within the profession, but that’s the point. They’re the professionals and can’t expect supporters to simply turn off emotions that are financially exploited all year round because it’s not the “done thing”.
A lack of any real abuse for Coutinho was mainly because it wasn’t a proper Liverpool crowd, although Firmino seemed to generate plenty of favourable noise. It may also speak of supporters who know a continually revolving door is normal for footballers.
Liverpool’s last major impact on the big stage previous to Kiev was almost winning the league four years ago. Only Jordan Henderson took part in both. Even in the modern game, that’s a staggering turnover of players.
Without proper success annually, Liverpool will be susceptible to the super-rich vultures of Europe. Maybe even success won’t make that much of a difference.
Others disagree. Ex-Liverpool favourite Dietmar Hamann believes Mohammed Salah won’t walk the Spanish path of former stars Suarez and Coutinho. But if Salah continues to produce great performances with no trophies to show for it surely even he’ll be tempted one day?
The Egyptian has made the most of a common-man persona and all Liverpool loves him. He would probably avoid a Sterling-style backlash in the future.
Or maybe he wouldn’t. After all there is still very little logic in football, thank goodness.
Steven Kelly is one of ESPN FC’s Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @SteKelly198586.