A new tradition in New England?

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

Bob Paisley, the legendary Liverpool manager who steered the Anfield club to six English league championships and three European Cups, once ironically quipped: "We've had the hard times, too. One year we finished second."

Success was the only thing that mattered during Liverpool's days of domination, and the mentality of accepting nothing but the best was carefully handed down from senior professionals to the club's newcomers.

It did not take long for Steve Nicol, who was signed by Paisley as a 19-year-old from tiny Scottish side Ayr United in 1981, to pick up on the unique mindset and use it to drive his career.

In 14 years at Liverpool, Nicol won 10 trophies, was named Footballer of the Year in 1989 and came 39th in a poll of the English Premier League power's all-time greatest players.

More than a decade after leaving Anfield, he still detests losing as much as ever. However, Nicol has reluctantly had to learn how to cope with disappointment.

As coach of the New England Revolution, he has come up empty in Major League Soccer's playoffs for the past five seasons.

Two straight defeats in the MLS Cup (last year's coming courtesy of a gut-wrenching penalty shootout against Houston Dynamo) were preceded by a pair of extra-time losses in the Eastern Conference finals and another championship game defeat in 2002, his first season in permanent charge.

As New England heads toward the postseason once more, Nicol is increasingly hopeful that this year his team can exorcise the demons of those past setbacks. A victory in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final earlier this month has helped dispel suggestions that the Revolution do not have the stomach for the big occasion.

"It was huge for the psyche," Nicol admitted. "Having lost previous finals, you get sick of people asking about it and it is always there in the back of your mind.

"We have proven we can win when it counts and we will take confidence from that. If you can't do that, then there is something wrong with you."

For sure, there is a big difference between winning a Cup competition that involved overcoming three USL teams before travelling to Texas to beat FC Dallas on its own turf, and being crowned league champion for the first time in franchise history.

Even so, New England seems to be in a good place mentally heading into the final weeks of the MLS regular season. The Revolution does not have any big international names but a collective spirit that reminds the manager of his Liverpool days.

"It would be pretty daft to be at such a great place for so long, to win things, and not take anything from it," Nicol said. "I'm pretty sure that spirit and togetherness is one of the things that we had at Liverpool and this team has it as well.

"The most important thing for us is the team. We are not about one guy doing well or one guy getting all the headlines. Whatever the name on the back of your shirt, the goal is always the same."

The Scot firmly believes that a big-game mentality is more powerful than a big-name roster. Even though Liverpool's team of the '80s boasted superstars such as Ian Rush, Kenny Dalglish and John Barnes, no one man was bigger than the team. That side grew together over a period of time and Nicol is trying to implement the same approach in Massachusetts, where he has some of the MLS' most consistent performers in Taylor Twellman, Michael Parkhurst and Shalrie Joseph.

"I think we have already grown as a team together, but we just haven't finished it off," Nicol said. "What we have got to do now is get into another final and get into a position to close it off again.

"We will always go in with confidence. We think we are a good team and on our day we can beat anybody that is put in front of us."

What has pleased Nicol the most is New England's consistency this season. The Revs have avoided losing consecutive games while producing the league's third-best record at 14-7-7.

"The best teams are always playing at a consistently high level and I think we have been pretty near that top level," he said.

"With us, we have a core and we know what we are trying to do. It helps me and the staff, when you have a group that knows what it is doing and can pass that down to the others. That helps new players settling in."

Liverpool is currently in a drought in terms of league titles, having not won one since 1990. That 17-year wait has been interminable for a club with such a heritage, despite a victory in the 2005 Champions League final against AC Milan.

"I can't believe how long it has been," Nicol said. "When you think of all the titles we won in the '80s, it has been a long wait for their fans, just like it has been for our supporters in New England.

"If we could win the MLS Cup and Liverpool could finally win the Premiership – well, that would be about as good as it could get for me."

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