by Gary Shaw
The apparent disintegration of Liverpool’s 2011/12 season and the club’s seemingly rapid and dramatic shift from ‘top four contender’ to ‘just a cup team’ has been vociferously and bathetically debated in pubs, TV studios and internet forums for the past three months.
With just 2 wins in 10 league games, the lowest goals to shots ratio in the division and with a midfielder in Lucas having made more tackles than any of his team mates – despite being out injured since November – the reasoning behind such arguments are both obvious and varied.
Bad luck in front of goal – the Reds have hit the woodwork an amazing 27 times this season, Dalglish/Comolli’s (*delete as appropriate depending on your understanding of the club’s scouting procedure) poor buys in the transfer market and bizarre refereeing decisions have all been cited as evidence of why Liverpool’s form hit such a sudden and season-altering reversal in January (the side had only two defeats by Christmas 2011 and had actually performed well up until that point), but what every argument, angle or personal pub-perspective has lacked so far is the one thing that sport in general, and football in particular, due to its immediacy and dynamic nature (a game altering goal can be scored in a split-second), rarely recognises; historical context.
As a sports historian I am often bemused by the lack of appreciation that underlying, prolonged and inveterate factors have when influencing pundits’ and fan’s views of a team’s current situation.
When Liverpool last won the league title in 1990, the thought that Manchester United would win 12 in the next 21 years would have sounded preposterous to most Kopites. United had a young, inexperienced manager who, although he had broken the Old Firm monopoly in Scotland, was relatively unproven in the English top flight. Indeed, urban myth has us believe that he came within one FA cup tie of getting sacked in 1990. Slowly however, and then with a gathering pace, Alex Ferguson built one of the best sides the game had ever seen. Then he built another. And then another.
Whilst he was doing this, the ground United played in was expanded. And expanded. And expanded again. All the while mocking Liverpool fans asked similar questions – ‘55,000 fans wont go to see United as they have hardly won anything,’ they said in 1996. This was then revised to 60,000, then 70,000 as further ground developments took hold. Old Trafford’s capacity now? 75,000
With Arsenal moving to a new purpose built stadium in 2006 – capacity 60,000 – Liverpool’s lack of action on moving to a bigger ground – just as the Premier League was starting and money flowed into the game like never before – appears to be an omission of astonishing and monumental incompetence. Almost unbelievably the same issue continues to dog the club even now.
All this is of course is without comparisons on the playing side. Whilst United were building sides around Schmeichal, Giggs, Scholes and Roy Keane, and a strange, Professor-like Frenchman in North London was building his own dynasty around Seaman, Adams, Viera and Bergkamp, Graeme Souness was busy knocking down the boot-room in a vain attempt to drag Liverpool into the modern game – whilst getting rid of players such as Peter Beardsley and buying ones of the calibre of Paul Stewart, Julian Dicks and Torben Piechnick.
The seeds of Liverpool’s modern-day problems had been sown. The gap between the sides on and off the pitch – which had seen Liverpool win 6 of the previous 11 league titles before the start of the Premier League – was, in just a few seasons, not only narrowed, it was obliterated. By the start of the new millennium it was clear, Liverpool were the third best side in the division – at best.
Context? Historical perspective? Supporters seldom think of these – all they want is to win, even when their clearly inferior side is passing around a pound coin during games so that the player holding it last gets to buy a round of drinks after the 90 minutes are up.
In 2005 Roman Abramovich and Jose Mourinho pulled Chelsea up from the second place they had finished under Claudio Ranieri, into league champions and perennial Champions League semi-finalists via the not very small matter of spending hundreds of millions of pounds on transfers that made most eyes boggle – and Kopites’ weep. Overnight Liverpool’s problems had been compounded further – they were now the fourth best side in the league, at best.
Without the stability and vision offered by Wenger or Ferguson, and without the money on offer to United and Chelsea, the message to any Reds’ manager was clear – you cannot afford to make ANY errors in the transfer market, your signings – cheaper and more obscure than the other ‘contenders’ – MUST work. Unfortunately for Gerard Houllier – who had somehow managed to narrow the gap between Liverpool and the others courtesy of the treble winning season of 2000/01 – his chance to do this came, and then went. The signings of Bruno Cheyrou, El Hadji Diouf and Salif Diao in the summer of 2002 effectively signalling the end to his Anfield career.
This then was the scenario Rafa Benitez inherited; the fourth best side in England, with less money than their main rivals, far less vision in terms of owners, and a playing side in desperate need of new personnel. It would have to take a tactical genius to win anything with this side? Wouldn’t it?
Compounded by this refusal to acknowledge that acts, or just as important – omissions, from months, years or even decades ago, can have a bearing on the functioning of the modern-day club, is another element, as equally difficult to explain or justify, that often blinds groups of supporters – particularly former players working in the media– from analysing any such scenario with logic; expectation.
Most of the criticism of Liverpool in general, and Dalglish in particular, has been the side’s inability, despite spending millions of pounds on the likes of Andy Carroll, Stuart Downing, Jose Enrique and Charlie Adam, to finish in the top four this season – thus missing out on the Champions League and the euromillions jackpot that goes with it.
For a lot of fans – and presumably the owners – it is qualification for this, more than the winning of trophies, that grates the most, as they see Liverpool’s rightful place as being in a group of elite European sides that includes Real Madrid, AC Milan and Barcelona. That the Reds have defeated all of these sides at major stages of the premier European club competition in the past seven seasons – culminating in not only the glory that was Istanbul in 2005 and their losing final appearance in Athens two years later but also being ranked the No. 1 side in the continent by UEFA’s co-efficient ratings for three seasons running – merely underlines their frustration.
Yet something is missing here. Analyse the facts again and we see that, apart from the three seasons that Benitez – a La Liga and UEFA Cup winning manager before taking up the managerial post at Anfield – dragged the Reds back to the halcyon days they had last enjoyed some 20 years earlier, and Houllier’s treble winning side, Liverpool had performed pretty much as faded champions always do; a few top six finishes, sometimes lower – much lower as was the case under Souness – interspersed with the odd cup win here and there.
Indeed, in the two seasons before this one, Liverpool finished sixth and seventh, as disastrous decisions to fire Benitez (just a year after he had took the club to second place with just two defeats all season and unbeaten at home) and hire Roy Hodgson – just one win in his first eight league games – respectively, took their toll.
Immediately we can see a discrepancy between what fans expect – and the evidence of recent history. Why should Liverpool finish in the top four when they hadn’t done so for two seasons?
In that time – while the Reds were almost imploding under the ownership circus that was Hicks and Gillett – stability and sound spending in the transfer market by Tottenham Hotspur propelled them to fourth place (2009/10). A season later – with Liverpool jumping from the circus to the courtroom – Manchester City became the second English team, after Chelsea, to change the financial face of the sport – finishing third in the process.
Can you see a pattern here?
What is important to remember – and this is often where football fans display the contradistinction of being just that – a supporter – is that it is just as much factors outside a clubs control that ultimately influence their situations as any signings or managerial changes their own side makes.
To put this into perspective? No matter how much any English club spends on players, none can compete with the financial pulling power of Manchester City.
Of course, having the ability to lure the best players in the world to the blue half of a wet and windy English provincial city doesn’t necessarily mean that league titles are suddenly lining up to be won outside the City of Manchester Stadium, but look at the evidence available to us.
In the five seasons before they became ‘the richest club in the Premier League’ (August 2008), Manchester City’s league positions were 9th, 16th, 8th, 15th and 14th – and they came within a few points of being relegated a number of times. Since the 2008/09 season however, they have finished 9th, 10th, 5th, 3rd and – as is looking likely this season – either runners-up or Champions.
Together with the best Premier League performers from the past 20 years – Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal – Manchester City, on current financial and playing levels, are streets ahead of Liverpool. Including Tottenham – or Newcastle (who are at last experiencing the sort of stability off the pitch that they haven’t enjoyed for almost four decades) – Liverpool’s attempt to make the top four this season depended on finishing above at least three of these sides. Likely? Or not?
And this in Dalglish’s first full season at the helm, after he had to offload deadwood such as Paul Konchesty, Christian Poulsen and Joe Cole and after the club had been just hours away from folding as the ownership debacle descended to new depths. Context? Perspective? Expectations? Lets get real.
Whilst we all want to see Liverpool back on top of the league, to experience the famous European nights we have enjoyed in the past, and to play with a flowing, passing style that was once the envy of the world, to do so requires some abstract thought and some quantitative analysis.
Until the stadium issue is sorted and until the finances of the club are altered so that its net spend far outstrips the barely £40million they have spent in a season and a half under Dalglish, Liverpool will continue to struggle. To do otherwise or, as equally damaging, to do nothing, will only ensure that next season will look very similar to this one.
In one respect however, Liverpool can at least afford to not make a decision that would offer something like the stability currently enjoyed by our SIX other main rivals;- sacking a manager at this moment in time will, in my view, be as detrimental to the future well-being of the club as the indecision over a ground move or expansion was almost 25 years ago.
Realistically Dalglish and the new owners should be given time to narrow the gap between us and the other four or five sides that are above us. With more time, more money, and a bit more luck in front of goal – and in transfer policy (always a gamble) – I am confident we can make the top four again. After that, we need to rebuild again – as City did from last season – to mount a serious title challenge.
Gary Shaw is a season ticket holder in the Kop and holds an MA in Sports History and Culture. He is the author of four local sports’ history books; Mersey Fighters 1 and 2, At the End of the Storm – an in-depth review of Liverpool’s title winning season of 1946/47 and On the March with Kenny’s Army – on Liverpool’s double winning season of 1985/86.