Careful What You Wish For ...

Posted by RAWK Editor on January 17, 2008, 02:07:02 PM

Careful What You Wish For...

...Well, that’s how we got into this mess in the first place, isn’t it? Careful what you wish for, as it might just come true.

As fans, we wanted investment. We wanted it because we wanted money coming into the club, in order to compete with the other three big teams. We wanted to get rich quick, and for our new sugar daddies to buy us the shiny new players we craved. We were greedy, and given that we are football fans, understandably so.

With David Moores’ finances, the club was struggling to even pay for players in Dirk Kuyt’s price range; the erstwhile chairman had to pay for the transfer from his own pocket.

It’s clear that Moores suddenly found himself out of his depth. In the early- to mid-‘90s, his and Liverpool’s wealth was comparable with that of their rivals, and the club could break the British transfer record for strikers like Dean Saunders and Stan Collymore. But Moores became a man drowning, as the waters rose sharply around him.

Perhaps Moores and other the senior figures at the club could have been more savvy in the ‘90s, when football went Boom!, but as it is we tend to decry any acts of commercialism. How does a club go down that route without being accused of selling its soul? Back then we were proud that our club wasn’t acting like Manchester United; but now we look on in envy at their riches as they close in on our 18 titles. (Thankfully, five European Cups is still well out of their reach.)

Before Moores sold up just one year ago, Arsenal and Manchester United already had far bigger stadiums, and Chelsea had all the money in the world, and then a little more, and then, just because Abramovich really was that rich, a little more still. Arsenal and Chelsea were already in a position to charge far, far more for tickets, on account of being situated in affluent London, and United’s merchandise machine has been in overdrive since the ‘90s (while they’ve also seen price hikes under the Glazers).

Chelsea and United had signed more than a dozen £20m+ players between them, while Liverpool had none. And Arsenal had an amazing collection of youngsters sourced as far back as the turn of the millennium, whose values were soaring by the day; the calibre of player who, if Liverpool wished to buy in a ready-made form in order to compete in the here-and-now, would cost absolute fortunes.

We certainly got some of what we wished for: Torres and Babel whetted the appetite. The net spend wasn’t that much more than it had been in previous seasons, but without new owners, it’s likely to have been a case of having to sell in order to buy. And the key players all received hefty wage rises in line with the competition, something that was required –– albeit also facilitated by the rise in Premier League reward money.

But then it all got messy, and it seems we nearly got a new manager, in Jurgen Klinsmann: something and someone we really did not wish for. (Although, of course, there were enough Liverpool fans spitting the dummy and calling for Benítez’s head. But these are almost exclusively the 606-ers and forum trolls who refuse to use any sense of perspective when making judgements. These are the men, women and children who live and look longingly at the greener grass on the other side.)

Meanwhile, financing the loan they need to repurchase the club is proving difficult for Gillett and Hicks, and the financial landscape has changed as the season has progressed. It’s all gone pear-shaped.

So now people are calling for the Yanks to sell, and for the club to change hands once again. There is talk of Dubai International Capital coming back in with a new offer, possibly to buy out Tom Hicks.

While I understand the frustrations of fellow fans, and have been distinctly underwhelmed at some of the owners’ actions, not to mention depressed at the way progress this season has been undermined by off-the-field activities, I would call for caution when it comes to crying for change. It may be just what we need. But let’s not think that it will instantly solve all the problems, or that any new owner couldn’t actually make things worse.

Hicks and Gillett admitted they knew nothing when they bought the club, but maybe they now (finally!) know a lot more. Maybe they’ve learnt a few lessons, as the fans protested back in November and again this week? In another, lesser-known interview last week, Hicks admitted that they had underestimated the passion of the fans. No-one can accuse them of being naive businessmen, but in the arena of English football that accusation could be made. It’s only to be expected that fans will put pressure on them –– which set of fans wouldn’t? –– and how they react to that will be interesting to witness.

Hopefully they are now far more aware of just how much the manager means to the fans. Hopefully they now know that the manager manages, and doesn’t just train the team. Hopefully they realise that meddling is not the route to success in English football. I won’t rule out that possibility, but obviously it’s up to them to prove that or, if the reports are to be believed, call it quits if they feel it’s beyond them.

There’s no getting away from the fact that Hicks’ comments about Klinsmann were ill-advised, and badly timed, but if he was hoping to clear up the ongoing speculation surrounding Rafa’s position, and explain how much better things had become, that intention (if not its execution) should not be ignored. Reports that Parry and Gillett were enraged by his comments suggest less a case for constructive dismissal, and more a case of foot-in-mouth. But only Hicks knows what he was playing at. 

Talking to another manager was not a mistake if they genuinely believed Rafa was likely to leave; but of course, their first concern should have been getting over to clear up the mess and persuading him to stay. Which is what ultimately happened –– although had the Reds lost in Marseilles, a big mistake might have been made, and that really scares the hell out of me.

Benítez could well now be in the position Martin Jol was at Spurs, but that is not necessarily the case. The situations are in no way identical. This is a different club, a different manager, and different owners. That distinction needs to be made.

Sounding out goes on in football. But offering the job to Klinsmann (should Rafa have left) was a worry, given his lack of experience or any kind of notable achievements on his CV. But again, that eventuality never came to pass. So that just leaves speculation. Only they know how itchy their finger got over the trigger. Even so, it seems a bizarre choice.

Hicks and Gillett could hold up their hands, admit their mistakes, and say that they really have finally come to understand what is needed: total and committed support of the manager. The trouble is, fans will be far less likely believe them, and to the press it’s become open season on the club. Any story, however outlandish, will appear to be credible, and act to further destabilise and undermine Benítez. I’m sure you’ve read a few already.

Part of me wants to see a clean slate, and a line drawn under the American adventure, given how messy it’s become, and part of me wants them to sort out the mess themselves.

Because changing owners would mean yet more upheaval, yet more uncertainty, and possibly yet more delays over the stadium. It doesn’t guarantee Rafa a job any more than the current ownership does. And it could mean new owners making the same mistakes as the Americans. Or worse.

Jumping from the frying pan into the fire is not the answer. Getting some stability as soon as possible is. But right now, God knows how that can happen.

Perhaps it’s unfair to bracket the American duo together given that they are not joined at the hip, and only Hicks seems intent on shooting from his. Perhaps Gillett sharing ownership with Dubai International Capital could work; but on paper it would appear an even stranger relationship than the one we currently see.

Why Dubai International Capital concern me, apart from the suggestions 12 months ago that they wanted to sell the club to make a profit within a few years (which may or may not have been true), is that the fact that Sameer Al-Ansari, founder and chairman of DIC, is a Liverpool fan. And in some ways that terrifies me, as contradictory as it sounds.

Because for every honest, knowledgeable fan (which Al-Ansari could well be, don’t get me wrong), there are a handful of fans who care as much as everyone else, but also think they know best. And fans who think they know best, and happen to also be in control of the club, are most likely to tinker.

So while Al-Ansari and DIC could be the best solution (and if it came to pass, here’s praying), there’s also the worry that he could do something even the Americans haven’t: interfere in team selection. While Rafa has been undermined, he hasn’t been told who to play, and where to play them.

The Americans have made mistakes, but the pair have been nowhere near as bad as someone like Vladimir Romanov at Hearts, who ended up sacking several managers and picking the side himself. Hearts now sit second-bottom of the Scottish Premier League, having been top when he sacked George Burley.

The situation at Liverpool remains salvageable, but winning back the fans won’t be easy. And I’m not sure how the duo can go about doing it. Backing Rafa with time and serious funds would be one way, and the signing of Martin Skrtel was a start, but part of the problem is a lack of the kind of money that it would require. I’m not sure they can convince those who see their time as being up.

Unless one or both of the Americans were to sell to a party who were guaranteed to be brimming with common sense and football knowledge –– say, a consortium led by someone like Kenny Dalglish, who appreciates Benítez’s qualities and the pressures he is under, and would never dream of undermining him –– then there’s no way of knowing for sure that we’d be better off. We’re back to gambling.

I certainly never expected Thaksin Shinawatra to appear like the model silent benefactor, but I’m still glad he didn’t take charge of Liverpool; I’m sure we dodged a bullet with that one.

So we’re back where we were a year ago: wishing for someone to come in with deep pockets and a patient approach. Or for one or both of the Americans to silence the doubters and to do something to prove that they have what it takes to successfully run a legendary institution like Liverpool FC.

Frankly, I don’t care how it happens, or who it involves –– I just want to see the club back on an even keel, and to become the model of stability it was for so many years.

© Paul Tomkins 2008

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