WHERE to start? A week ago Liverpool were about to embark on their final game of the season, a meaningless trip to Swansea the latest in a run of meaningless league games. There may be some dispute on when exactly it was the league games became meaningless, and to some none of them were meaningless, but it was hard to think of that Swansea game in any other way. Maybe somebody at the club should have told Kenny Dalglish that the owners didn’t see those remaining league games as meaningless.
Before the season started John Henry declared that Liverpool had to finish in the top four. There was no leeway. No “challenging for top four” – it had to be a top four finish. Had FSG done enough to make this a genuine target?
Liverpool finished second in 2009. Then Christian Purslow was sent in by the banks who were at stage one of having had just about enough of Tom Hicks and George Gillett. By the end of that season the interference and the need to sell to buy had played its part in Liverpool ending a turbulent season in seventh.
Liverpool were seven points from fourth, four points behind the now rich Manchester City and two points above neighbours Everton.
By now the banks were on stage two of having had just about enough of Hicks and Gillett and so they sent Martin Broughton in to finish off the job Purslow had started. Benítez was sacked, Hodgson came in and expectations that had put pressure on Benítez all season were lowered. Fourth place didn’t really matter now – and although the board were reluctant to admit it, that was because Liverpool were as good as in administration by now.
By the end of that season the dodgy American owners had gone and new American owners had come in. The “yanks out” banners went up in the loft and although the new owners weren’t welcomed with open arms they made the right noises to keep those banners in those lofts. To this day they’ve never been referred to as “the yanks”, perhaps a sign that Liverpool supporters recognise that businessman can be good or bad regardless of where they come from, even if it’s from a country where football is called soccer and mainly played by girls. It’s a big country and its interest in the flavour of football Liverpool play is growing rapidly with many US Reds more clued up than many of their UK counterparts. In fact football fans can be good or bad at it regardless of where they’re from.
The new American owners were FSG, known as NESV at the time. They didn’t meet the criteria that Broughton had laid down for buyers – they paid off the acquisition debt but not the remaining debt and they did not commit to building the stadium that had got Liverpool into a mess in the first place. But they bought the club fair and square although litigation continues disputing how fair and square the sales process was. None of that is FSG’s fault.
FSG brought Damien Comolli in as director of football strategy and less than three months after taking over they sacked Roy Hodgson. Liverpool were heading for relegation and the sacking took place long after the fans had run out of patience. He was paid off and told to get his things; in his place came Kenny Dalglish, who managed to get Liverpool back up to sixth by the end of the season.
Liverpool were now ten points from fourth, 13 points behind the now third-placed Manchester City and four points above neighbours Everton.
FSG had reduced the amount of money Liverpool were spending on interest payments (by a little under £15m a year) and put it towards new signings. They also got money in from the sales of Fernando Torres and Ryan Babel – not to mention money that came in too late to be spent in full (on transfers at least) from the sale of Javier Mascherano at the end of the final Hicks and Gillett transfer window. In all Liverpool’s “profit on player sales” was £43.3m between the end of July 2010 and the end of July 2011. In previous seasons as the Hicks and Gillett bubble started to burst that figure was £23m (2010) and £4m (2009)
Since the end of July 2011 the club says it has bought players for total guaranteed transfer fees of £12.5m and sold players for total guaranteed transfer fees of £16.5m. The club has also refinanced its debts. The £92m facility previously held with RBS and Wachovia has been replaced by a £120m facility with RBS, Barclays and Bank of America. £37.7m of that earlier facility related to the costs of the yet-to-be-started new stadium, the new facility sees that facility upped to £45m. The infamous shovel is yet to even see the ground it was meant to have broken five years ago.
Meanwhile, at the end of the first full season for both the returning Kenny Dalglish and the owners FSG, Liverpool FC finished eighth in the league.
Liverpool were now seventeen points from fourth, 37 points behind the new champions Manchester City and four points below neighbours Everton.
They’d also won their first trophy since the arrival of Hicks and Gillett and came runners-up in another, a massive improvement on the early exits from both domestic cups the season before.
Old sayings and quotes are brought up as and when it suits. When Liverpool were challenging for the title in 2009 the cries from those who are never satisfied were of “this club exists to win trophies” as the title challenge was belittled and the achievement of staying into the top four again was dismissed. By 2012 the cries were of “the league is this club’s bread and butter” as the cup success and near-miss were played down and belittled.
For those who always moan the idea that both sayings can be combined into one is rather alien. The fact the sayings were coined when the Champions League was called The European Cup and was only entered by actual champions is lost. Can Liverpool not exist to try and win every competition they are entered into?
Three years since finishing second it’s quite clear that for Liverpool the Premier League is a competition they are now entered into not to win but to finish as high as possible, in fourth if the owners’ demands are taken seriously. For the two domestic cups the club has shown it’s capable of winning them although next season’s Europa League will almost be unknown territory after a year away.
The top four used to be Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and one other team. Liverpool were that other team in all but one season from 2004 to 2009 but in the years that followed the teams who are contenders for the top four has increased markedly. Spurs and Manchester City have forced their way in, even Chelsea, with all their money, only managed sixth. Newcastle might turn out to be regular top four contenders, it may turn out to be a flash in the pan (Villa finished sixth in 2010), but even without Newcastle the Reds are trying to break into the top four of a group of six clubs who have all got as much right to play in the Champions League as the Reds.
To get into the top four the club has to do much more than change manager and reinvest money brought in from selling players. Borrowing money to buy players to get into the Champions League killed Leeds United.
Manchester United, even if their owners keep their hands in their pockets, have a massive advantage over Liverpool in a financial sense because they made their stadium bigger and bigger as Liverpool dithered over moving a few hundred yards across the road.
Manchester City and Chelsea can find as much cash as their ways of getting round Financial Fair Play will allow. Spurs usually find money when they need it, and chances are they’ll decided they need it this summer, having finished fourth but still missed out on the Champions League. Arsenal might surprise everyone and use some of those funds they claim to have available when needed. What are Liverpool going to do?
As it stands Liverpool are going to miss out on any early summer bargains – a problem the club have had for far too many years now. Rafa Benítez was frustrated at how Liverpool as a club would go on holiday as soon as the season ended, instead of using the time to persuade clubs to part with their gems before any bidding wars kicked in. They’ll miss out on those bargains because, unless someone is being less than honest, Liverpool don’t have a manager yet and don’t know what the new one thinks he will need to take Liverpool from bottom-end Europa League places to bottom-end Champions League places. And players aren’t exactly going to be keen to join a club that still has no manager having got rid of three in the space of less than two years.
There are plenty of reasons that can be put forward for and against the sacking of Kenny Dalglish but if he and the owners agreed on top four as a minimum requirement he didn’t meet their targets. If that wasn’t the minimum requirement for FSG why say so to the media before the season even begins?
That comment set the tone for the season. Top four was a must, regardless of how much other sides – already further on in their progress than the Reds – might have upped their own games. By the time Liverpool were heading south for the Carling Cup final they were four points behind Arsenal, seven points away from fourth but at the start of a decline in league form. Time and again Liverpool played well without getting the points, although they were also capable of losing after playing badly.
That demand for a top four finish had always seemed an unreasonable demand, a challenge for top four seemed more suitable to Liverpool’s situation and that of the others at the top end of the table. A challenge for top four should guarantee European football of some kind – but that’s what the Carling Cup win did. When Liverpool lost the game after the Carling Cup final – at home to Arsenal – it felt like the league season was over. Liverpool had challenged for the top four, albeit only until the end of February, and European football was assured.
Sadly, it seems, FSG didn’t share this view. They felt the investment in the squad (nowhere near the £120m often quoted) should have brought that top four finish and that place in the Champions League.
Nobody has asked them what they’d have done if Liverpool had finished fourth and still missed out.
A new kit deal with Warrior has now kicked in, reportedly worth around £13m per season, but Liverpool are still stuck in a stadium that hold 45,000 fans. For reasons not yet explained FSG have dumped the plans drawn up at great cost and granted planning permission for a stadium that could potentially be expanded up to 75,000 seats if other obstacles relating to infrastructure are eventually overcome. Instead they’ve reverted to plans for a stadium that can hold a maximum of 60,000 and can’t be expanded any further.
To build that 60,000 seater stadium they need to find a naming rights partner and the increased revenue from just an extra 15,000 seats means it isn’t so attractive to FSG to build it. Redeveloping Anfield is full of obstacles and far more expensive to do than FSG will accept.
FSG, from day one, seemed reluctant to build a new stadium. 18 months on and it looks no closer than it did when all the talks was about how vital is was that it was complete before Liverpool’s year of European Capital of Culture in 2008.
There are now genuine fears about FSG and although there is still a minimal amount of time left for their actions to make up for their lack of words the vacuum created by so many sackings and so little recruitment is leaving fans increasingly frustrated.
News that Roberto Martinez has been approached does not tally with claims that the club are looking to get Pep Guardiola. André Villas-Boas might feel he has unfinished business to do in the Premier League but if FSG’s mystery advisers have recommended no contact whatsoever with Rafa Benítez it seems FSG are still being swayed by those with old grudges. And those old grudges almost destroyed the club once.
Benítez may prove not to be right for the club, but if the club are interested in names like Martinez, Rodgers, Villas-Boas and Guardiola it’s incredible to think that they don’t see any need in at least meeting him and listening to him.
A new communications director starts his new role at the club in a few weeks. By the time he’s in post the job may be much tougher than he ever envisaged.
There is still time for FSG to surprise us. But not much.