THREE years ago this month, Martin Broughton, Chelsea season ticket holder and then chairman of Liverpool Football Club, was reportedly assessing six bidders’ credentials to take over from Tom Hicks and George Gillett, the carpetbaggers who in just three years as owners plunged the club into unmanageable debt.
Christian Purslow had signed Joe Cole on a four-year deal with a six-figure salary. Paul Tyrrell was managing a dossier on supporters. Roy Hodgson presided over team affairs and was joined by Mike Kelly. Javier Mascherano was about to leave for Barcelona and Christian Poulsen was on his way in.
Steven Gerrard spoke of his desire to get Liverpool back in the Champions League and Broughton was going on the record too: “Seventh [where the club had finished in the Premier League the previous season] is not their rightful position, and neither is administration.
“We are out there to find someone wealthy. But it’s important that they can win popular support.”
You know the rest: New England Sports Ventures completed a takeover and John W Henry told the world: “We’re here to win. We have a tradition of winning. We’ll do whatever we need to do.”
August 2013 and Steven Gerrard is still speaking of his desire to get Liverpool back in the Champions League, a competition Liverpool last graced with a 2-1 home defeat to Fiorentina on Wednesday, December 9, 2009.
No European football of any description will be played at Anfield in the forthcoming campaign following last season’s seventh-place finish and what Broughton argued was not Liverpool’s rightful place is now near enough a four-season trend after finishes of seventh, sixth, eighth and seventh.
Off the field, Liverpool is in a healthier state than in 2010 – It would be hard for it to be anything other. On it, things appear to be much the same – the club is on the outside looking in; missing out on Champions League money, struggling to attract players of sufficient quality to get back there and facing bids for its best players from rival clubs.
What is now known as Fenway Sports Group inherited a lot of mistakes – Roy Hodgson top of the list closely followed by poor players, big wages and long contracts. But by Henry’s own admission they have since made a fair few of their own. The worry is they continue to do so.
FSG walked into an unfortunate set of circumstances, with a resurgent Spurs ready to pounce on Liverpool’s weakness and Manchester City joining Chelsea in being financially doped by a foreign billionaire.
Alongside what is now looking like misplaced faith in the Financial Fair Play rules, they are the caveats to criticism of FSG: restoring Liverpool to past glories represented a major challenge for any owner after Hicks and Gillett.
But as the clock ticks ever closer to the kick off of a new season – and the third anniversary of Henry and Co’s reign – the concern is that FSG’s approach is hindering Liverpool. Sadly, no one but the deluded would expect a title challenge but, even living within the club’s means, could progress be quicker? Could Liverpool be more competitive than they appear to be? Could a bolder approach reap rewards?
Policies of financial prudence, of gaining perceived value from the wage bill and of lowering the age of the playing staff are clearly being pursued. A young manager rather than the best manager available was sought when Kenny Dalglish was sacked. Positive football, attacking football, entertaining football – all have been referenced by owner and coach when all Liverpool has ever wanted is winning football.
It all adds up to an approach that appears idealistic – and the question is whether that idealism is now resulting in a struggle to tread water rather than a swim against the tide.
Simon Mignolet, Luis Alberto, Iago Aspas and Kolo Toure have signed. Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Jay Spearing and Jonjo Shelvey have been sold. Jamie Carragher has retired and Pepe Reina, Suso and Jack Robinson have been sent on loan.
In terms of quality and numbers – particularly with the ongoing Luis Suarez issue – Liverpool look short and potentially over reliant on players with limited experience.
By Brendan Rodgers’ own admission he is still looking for players that will improve the first 11. In July he said: “What we’ve done in the early part of the summer is to improve the squad. That’s something I feel we’ve done with the players we’ve brought in.
“Now what’s important over the next three to five weeks is improving the team. That’s something the club is working very hard at.”
Five weeks on, nothing has changed.
Rightly, the point is raised that Liverpool aren’t the pull they were. Fingers are pointed at Spurs’ £45million outlay on Roberto Soldado, Nacer Chadli and Paulinho. Rightly, the counter point is made that they have finished fourth, fifth, fourth, fifth in recent years – they have Europe, they missed out on Champions League football by two points, there’s the draw of London to foreign players and so on.
The bottom line is, they appear to be ambitious and they are ready to challenge for honours.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan opted for Champions League finalists Borussia Dortmund over Liverpool while Diego Costa decided to stay with Atletico Madrid – unsurprising after a third place finish in La Liga guaranteed a seat at Europe’s top table for the Spaniards.
The transfer window closes on September 3 so of course there is still time for Liverpool to recruit players and improve the perception of the summer’s work. But if the current situation prevails it begs a few questions – first, the age profiling of players – doesn’t this simply limit the number of potential targets? Second, is the obsession with ‘value’ stifling attempts to recruit players?
First and foremost, Liverpool must be competitive on the football pitch. It should go without saying. It’s a football club before it’s a brand. A team before it’s a business. If that means paying a little over the odds for a desired target shouldn’t the club do just that, particularly as every passing season out of the Champions League makes the club a harder sell to potential recruits?
Revisiting John Henry’s open letter to supporters following last August’s baffling business that left Liverpool a striker short it seems highly unlikely he would agree.
Henry wrote: “[The club] pushed hard in the final days of the transfer window on a number of forward targets and it is unfortunate that on this occasion we were unable to conclude acceptable deals to bring those targets in.
“The transfer policy was not about cutting costs. It was – and will be in the future – about getting maximum value for what is spent so that we can build quality and depth.”
“We will invest to succeed. But we will not mortgage the future with risky spending.
“We will build and grow from within, buy prudently and cleverly and never again waste resources on inflated transfer fees and unrealistic wages. We have no fear of spending and competing with the very best but we will not overpay for players.”
‘Acceptable deals’, ‘maximum value’, ‘risky spending’, ‘inflated transfer fees’ and ‘unrealistic wages’ sound like highly subjective terms. What price – for example – a marquee signing that improves the side, lifts morale among the squad and supporters (many of whom will be paying increased ticket prices this season) and sends out a message that Liverpool means business?
Slow and sensible is all well and good but rival clubs aren’t standing still waiting for Liverpool to get their act together and a previously undiscovered back door to success is unlikely to open soon – the maxim remains that those that pay out the most win the most.
Manchester City continue to buy while simultaneously building an impressive academy, Manchester United is, as much as it turns the stomach to say it, still the ‘brand’ to beat revenue-wise, Chelsea have Jose Mourinho and Roman Abramovich and Spurs are seemingly throwing caution to the wind in the transfer market, albeit that they have the cloud of Gareth Bale’s future hanging over them.
Henry was rightly praised for his stance on selling Suarez to Arsenal, the line about it being dictated by ‘football reasons’ was particularly heartening. But perhaps now those same ‘football reasons’ should dictate a loosening of fingers on the club purse.
And if there’s any doubt over Henry’s involvement in the buying and selling – despite the increasingly rare Anfield appearances – a line from a 2011 interview with The Telegraph should be considered: “I want to know why we are doing what we are doing on the pitch and with regard to player acquisition. I wouldn’t be doing my job in allocating resources if I wasn’t able to make sense of the individual steps we are taking within the context of our overall philosophy.”
It’s hard to accept that there isn’t a player or two at a club in Europe below the level that Liverpool are currently at that would improve the side and would be tempted by the challenge of an Anfield career.
This isn’t a call for a Leeds-style spending spree to endanger the future of the club, more a slackening of a stance that could be doing more harm than good; a declaration of ambition or as Rodgers put it, “that little bit of quality that could really set us up for an exciting season.”
Henry said FSG will do whatever they need to do to win. Now is the time for them to do just that.