THE definition of ‘bloodletting’ is: The surgical removal of some of a patient’s blood for therapeutic purposes.
In recent years, Liverpool fans have become familiar with something that most modern clubs are all too familiar with: the practice of managerial bloodletting. Somehow the patient ails, the knives are drawn, and the manager is sacrificed to the Gods of ambition, on the altar of expectation. As a rule, the patient recovers, and the cycle begins anew.
I say ‘recent years’ — in reality we’ve accumulated 25 years of familiarity, on and off, since some point in the 1990s. But in spite of that, it’s still something that doesn’t sit right with us. We’re familiar with it, but it feels wrong somehow. We wrung our hands over Kenny, we wrung our hands over Rafa, and we wrung our hands over Ged… we even wrung our hands a little over Roy Evans and Souness. Our hands have been wrung black and blue. Yet we still elevate and revere our managers, and deep down we yearn to be able to do so. We want to be able to say our managers ‘get us’, and we want to be able to say that we ‘get them’ — that we love them on some level. And when we can’t quite get that feeling, well, it all feels a bit like you’re using your other hand.
It’s a key influence on the development of the club — a key force that operates on it. We want to revere our managers, so managerial bloodletting will never sit right with some. As a result, for the most part, we’ve given our managers the kind of adulation and security of tenure they would never enjoy at other clubs.
But we’re Liverpool FC. We’re entitled to expect to win. First is everything, second is nothing. That expectation periodically propels the club into situations that border on the supernatural, with more regular forays into slightly less axalted magical territory. We win trophies. We expect magic to happen. When it isn’t happening, one of our greatest assets (arguably the greatest of all) is that collectively, we steadfastly refuse to go gentle into that good night. We’re bellicose. We demand winners, and we demand winning football. It’s an increasingly nebulous, contrarian concept given our context, but there it is — it refuses to go away. Rage against the dying of the light? We’ll keep the flame going into eternity, if it’s all the same to you.
Again, that’s a powerful, core influence on how our club is shaped. We have expectations that sit aside from what most would call reality. And we’re lucky – those expectations create a propulsive vacuum into which the club is drawn, forecfully at times, against natural laws of physics and of reason. Very few clubs are able to sustain that, yet with us, it shows no sign of dissipating — not yet any road. But it creates a tension when set alongside our yearning to revere our managers. Its by-product is the emerging sacrificial bloodlust we’ve not yet become accustomed to.
All this is set, of course, against the harsh realities of modern footballing life, and of natural law — what’s become known as ‘Tomkins’ Law’, in fact (after our very own Paul Tomkins, whose analysis on football has helped shape the way we see the modern game).
The law, simply stated, tells us that over time, your level of success will tend to correlate with the ranking of your wage bill. Liverpool’s wage bill? Fifth in the Premier League at the moment, and way off the top for longer than anyone cares to remember. The notion of ‘par’ comes into play, and those with resort to bigger wage spends steal our shiny new penny, pilfer our silverware, and drink our milkshake.
Left to itself, that natural law would pummel our club into supine acceptance of its fate, but oddly, perhaps uniquely in the domestic game, the defiance embodied by the first two forces stands in its way. Do we accept our lot and play to par? No, we demand that we win (or we should). Do we accept that other clubs’ resources will dwarf ours for eternity? No, we demand that we grow stronger, and not only that, we demand that it’s done right — that we manage and reinvest and nurture our resources, and do so in ways that compound and accelerate the growth into the long-term. (Don’t we? I seldom see other clubs calling our owners to account the way we do — not really.) We demand continuity, and consensus-based leadership, and the kind of strategic alignment that ensures resources are never squandered. We demand that every drop of juice is extracted to generate steady improvements in performance on the pitch. The traditional route to that? We demand a repeat of the formula that’s worked in the past — we search for our Shankly, we harness his vision, and we set ourselves to work and to reverence.
But with Tomkins’ Law lurking, and set against the gleaming beacon of our ‘unreasonably reasonable’ expectations (may they never die), that approach will never truly be stable — not any more. How can any manager with a par of fifth ever align the whole club, and implement the kind of lasting vision that his forebears at the club did? To do that would take a steady stream of silverware, and alongside it, a rate of growth of financial muscle that would narrow the competitive gap, and raise par to 4th, and then 3rd, and beyond. Without either or both of those things, it’s inevitable that managerial blood will periodically be spilled on the boardroom carpet.
So how do we insure ourselves against that? How do we narrow the gap long term?
There’s only one free lunch in town, and the menu is simple: A starter of intelligent leadership behind the scenes — a man who signs cheques, and big ones if the circumstances dictate it. The main? A structure behind the scenes that delivers genuine continuity, served in a jus of strategic alignment. The desert? A culture of best practice analysis and continuous refinement. Serve that up and maybe, just maybe, we can drink our own milkshake to wash it all down.
Or to put it another, less laboured way: if conditions dictate that managerial bloodletting is inevitable, and if those conditions will only dissipate when we’ve narrowed the financial gap, we have no alternative but to commit to the Directorate of Football structure, and to steel ourselves for more managerial sacrifice along the way.
If it means retaining our mental expectations, it’ll have been worth it.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda-Photo/PA Images