The Future of LFC: part 1 by Paul Tomkins

Posted by Paul Tomkins on May 19, 2004, 04:28:26 PM

The Future of LFC, in Two Parts

For reasons both good and bad, this is a fascinating - and confusing - time to be a Liverpool fan. I've decided to dust down the old keyboard and look at the situation both on and off the pitch, in two separate articles: the first on the non-playing side (management, board room), the second (to follow tomorrow) on where I feel we need to go in terms of both players and playing style.

Part One: The Management and the Board

Getting rid of Gerard Houllier, if it transpires, should only be in order for us to follow a more progressive path, not a regressive one - to take the good things GH did (and there were many) and take it on to the next level: somewhere he so far seems incapable of taking us himself. That GH was great for Liverpool football Club should never be questioned, whether he stays or go; whether he still IS great for us is another question entirely.

Going back to names from the past should not be an option. There is a military saying about fools who steadfastly repeat the tactics of old battle victories - what worked yesterday does not necessarily work in the new landscape of today, where the element of surprise is no longer an option, and with new tacticians and new weapons (such as that Cruise Missile of modern football, Thierry Henry). This is a saying I've also used about our counter-attacking style, first seen in 2000/01: it worked wonderfully then, when teams were surprised at a radical variation from the traditional patient passing LFC style, but it didn't mean it would continue to work once teams wised up to it; also, it's one thing playing that way away to Man U or Chelsea (makes enough sense to me), but another at home to teams who come to do that very same thing to us (hence two very poor seasons of results at Anfield - it's not a coincidence). Our playing style has needed to evolve, and while GH has made some efforts towards that, it has not worked sufficiently well for various reasons, some his doing, others out of his control.

The 'local pride' argument has been brought up by Steve Morgan - a man looking to buy his beloved club on the cheap (which only became apparent once people sat down and looked at the deal - as if LFC's appointed financial advisers were going to agree to something so shabby), a man trying to force a revolution from which he will be the main party to profit, and someone who has conducted a media circus around his bid, in order to become the "people's" choice, when his intentions are hardly altruistic. The real local hero is David Moores, a man who has frequently put his money where his heart is - and who would need to pump another fortune into the club, which he may no longer have, had the board accepted Morgan's offer, in order to merely see his shareholding DROP (no wonder he said no!). He does not deserve to be made out to be a villain, and that is what has saddened me about Morgan's bid. I don't doubt Morgan is a passionate Red. But it would be nice if he offered the club a package that valued the club at its true worth.

GH may not be the man to lead us forward (his natural cautious approach has caused him no end of problems in recent seasons), but he cares passionately about this club. His mistakes in the transfer market were honest, and the bad buys listed from 2002 (and adding a few others) still only amount to the price Man United paid for Veron. Morgan seemed to think he'd have great prescience and would never have allowed bad buys like Cheyrou and Diouf to be made; he's living in Dreamland, being wise after the event (I'm guessing that's not how he made his fortune...).

You don't get many more cast-iron success guarantees than a player of Veron's calibre, rated the best player in Italy for years, seen as world-class to all and sundry, and yet both United and Chelsea have wasted fortunes on him; he's been a disaster. Similarly, while he had good spells, Arsene Wenger has just lost a full £13m on Sylvain Wiltord. Unfortunately for GH, these managers have championship trophies to make their mistakes almost irrelevant. GH is going in the right direction by ditching the good-but-inconsistent Heskey for the super-quick and direct Djibril Cisse, scorer of 26 league goals in France this season (several more than the awesome Drogba, and in a weaker side). But maybe it has come too late. It seems 2002 was the point where we lost momentum, and GH's signings that crucial summer saw us fail to keep building, and instead take a turn for the worse.

I don't recall a huge uproar at the time of signing Diouf, Diao and Cheyrou; personally, I'd rather we stuck with Anelka, who was bedding in nicely and used to the Premiership, but I was also seduced by Diouf's displays that summer. Diao and Diouf had both had excellent World Cup showings, and Cheyrou was a free-scoring midfielder on the verge of the French national team, and now (although it may be hard to believe) a full French international. Having said that, perhaps the warning signs were there for all three. Diao was never a sensation in France, merely "good" (but that's okay for a player who was surely only back-up?), and Diouf's scoring record in French league football was pretty poor (it is better for the Senegal national side, but includes hat-tricks against extremely sub-standard sides in qualifying; in two African Nations Cups finals and one World Cup finals, I think he has scored only one or two goals, in something like 15 games). Meanwhile, Cheyrou was told in France that he needs to toughen up, so God-knows how he was ever going to come to terms with English football. He can clearly play football, but lacks the backbone to be a success here. And yet all of these players still have good enough reputations in France, so we can get some money back if we choose to sell them.

Would Morgan have vetoed these signings as he hinted at? Maybe. But maybe he would also have turned his nose up at Patrick Vieira ("reserve at AC Milan? Not good enough for us"), Robert Pires ("Who? Never heard of him"), and Thierry Henry ("that rubbish winger at Juventus who is a total flop in Italy?"). A board has to trust its manager when it comes to signings. We all think we can select great players, but our theories are never put to the test. (Thankfully in my case: I'd have signed some real stinkers, such Stephane Guivarche, the world's worst centre forward, back in 1998...). Even if we picked the right players, could we ever know how they will blend with the other players? It's not an exact science. It's hit and miss, to a large degree.

Would Morgan have agreed to Baros and Riise? - cheap at half the price when on form (as the latter now thankfully is again, and Baros remains a gem at £3.2m.). Pongolle and Le Tallec? (Who Wenger was pig-sick to miss out on?). Cisse is now being admired by all the top European clubs - but would Morgan have backed him two years ago, when our board tried to sign him? (which is the reason he's being loyal to us?). What about Hyypia - surely no-one in their right mind would have sanctioned the signing of some tall, plodding Finn? Perhaps Morgan would have said "go for that Duberry at Chelsea, he looks good, and he's English"? I don't mean to do Morgan a disservice, but there is no evidence to suggest he could have steered the club any better than David Moores with regard to signing players.

So to my mind the club were right to tell Morgan where to stick his insulting offer, and hopefully they'll wait for a new party to get involved, one who offers a fair price and doesn't have alarming human rights issues. But in rejecting Morgan's offer, it seems the board may feel they need to act upon "popular opinion" in another way, and get a new manager in to appease the restless natives. Maybe that's why the press have gone crazy with speculation today, when GH seemed safe for another season (which would have had to have been his last should he have failed). If new money does come in, this would be the last great influx of cash for some while; do the board trust GH with that money?

In GH's defence, this is the third time in four seasons that we've qualified for the Champions League. He has had some terrible injury problems to deal with this season, but moaned too much about them, and didn't have the squad players in place to "do a job". (After all, that's the eventuality they exist for - you can never have reserves as good as Michael Owen or Harry Kewell, but we needed better than those we could call upon). The free-flowing football we played in the autumn months was ditched for a more basic game (resulting in the second dismal winter running), despite GH saying he was going to stick to the new attacking principles, and it seemed like GH was never sure which path to travel down. There seemed a lack of clear direction; you couldn't see Arsenal changing tactics if players were missing - they may shift the emphasis if Henry is absent, but never their fast-passing approach. As ever, it was only in the final weeks of the season, in the run-in, that we seemed to click into full gear, with the players given full  reedom to express themselves, and yet I've always believed that the run-in begins mid-August. That's when Arsenal started theirs this season.

While selling a stake of the club to Thailand seems very surreal, as a result "local" should not become too much of an issue. We should never forget that the "European" changes GH made to this club, upon arrival, were essential. It took a foreigner to rid us of our bad English habits of boozing, junk food, lack of concentration and commitment and, in some, downright laziness. Had these changes not been made we'd have fallen like a stone; Evans did great initially, but the climate changed radically during his tenure, and we started to struggle. It was noticeable that within two years, most of Evans' players were struggling at their new clubs or in the First Division. Jason McAteer has rightly been held up as an example of how local players don't necessarily make you a better side. The improvements GH has made have helped us "stand still" in terms of league position, but without them, we'd have sunk (or was Sean Dundee a better third striker than Milan Baros?). Alas, standing still is not really good enough for a team used to setting the standards. The cup successes were great, but the playing style has too frequently been dull, and the gap with the top teams, in terms of points, has grown alarmingly large.

Alas, GH cannot make that initial impact again, as you can only rid the club of inherited ills once. After a while, all your motivational speeches start to get repitive, and lose their drama; if you've won a few league titles, like Wenger, the players may trust you that bit more when you repeat yourself about how your methods will bring great results. There have been other problems, but foreigners like Hyypia (one poor spell in five years), Dudek (initially and recently), Hamann, Kewell, Baros, Henchoz (initially) have all been fit to wear the Liverpool jersey; just because Diouf and Cheyrou haven't been, it shouldn't make "local talent" the only answer, in a knee-jerk response.

Yes, more local players, if as talented as Steven Gerrard or Michael Owen, or as committed as Jamie Carragher, are to be welcomed. But players as good as Owen and Gerrard are freaks; the only other local talent to emerge is Rooney, from the next generation, and he's a diehard Blue who would never play in our shade of red. In eight years at Arsenal, the only regular who was a youth team graduate under Wenger has been Ashley Cole. Sol Campbell is the only other regular local. So in fact we have twice as many local players as Arsenal; I don't see that making much difference. Welsh, Mellor and Potter may make the grade in the coming seasons, but even Shankly would have preferred a player from Mars who was good enough for LFC and played with the intensity of someone like Patrick Vieira, than a scouser who wasn't.

The bar has been raised this year. Arsenal improved yet further under the wonderful Wenger, Chelsea, in one nine month period, spent more than GH's total Liverpool outlay in five years (and that's ignoring the money he got back on sales). And Man United have a squad with title-winning success and a bank balance we can never compete with, and who spent fortunes over the course of last season. The crime was not to finish below these three, as in some ways that was always on the cards; it was to be left so far behind, and to look so shoddy at times in doing so.

So now some worrying names are being bandied about. Kenny Dalglish, while welcome on the PR side, must NEVER have a footballing role at Liverpool again. I love what he did to the club, but he also left a very poor side when he resigned. He remains the club's greatest ever player, a legend beyond doubt, and a great manager for four seasons - albeit working on the framework built up by others - adding to what Paisley and Fagan had assembled. After adding Barnes, Beardo, Houghton and Aldridge, his signings (and tactics) grew increasingly bizarre. Even Ged's worst buys do not compare to the grand awfulness of Jimmy Carter. It would be the same as Arsenal inviting George Graham back. Football has moved on immeasurably since the late 1980s - the mid 1990s were a revolution; in Dalglish's last full season, our main rivals, long-ball Aston Villa under the turnip-shaped leadership of Graham Taylor, fielded Olney and Olmondroyd up front - no better than Second Division strikers if at the peak of their careers now in the modern game. If the board got Dalglish in to work with the team, it would be suicide. Some Liverpool fans need to get over this fixation with the past *as a means to future success*. Recreating the past's success does not mean re-installing the personnel; had we thought like that, Shankly would never have been invited to the club in 1959.

Look at the heavyweights of Dalglish's era, his counterparts: George Graham, Graham Taylor, Howard Wilkinson, Terry Venables - all total failures in their recent posts, all purveyors of a brand of football that seemed out of date compared to the free-flowing modern European-influenced football that also had great "British" fighting attributes. (Ferguson the exception to prove the rule). Dalglish was poor at Newcastle and a disaster back at Celtic; his success at Blackburn (in 1995) with wingers and two target men would not happen in the new post-Wenger era (1996-onwards, and roughly the time the Gullits and Zolas started arriving, and then came the younger world-class players).

Also, all ex-Reds have proven to be very poor tacticians: Evans and Keegan being prime examples. Because Liverpool's success was built on having the best players and playing a simple pass-and-move game; and yet where do you find better players than Pires and Henry? Who can both pass like they do, and move like they do? Preparation has changed, diet has changed. Even the LAWS of football have changed. It's a different game.

Meanwhile, the split-system of manager/footballing director - the suggestion being Curbishley below Dalglish - is a total farce. I don't see it at United or Arsenal; just at Spurs. Enough said.

Maybe GH's biggest failing (or sorts) has been in buying too many young players and ignoring the need for experience. Man U had success in 1996 with their "kids" but they were surrounded by older pros to shoulder the burden. Players like Riise and Baros show great potential for the future, are good value for money, hungry and eager to learn - and that way your side, already including Owen and Gerrard, grows up together; but it is different to the wonderful work he did with the French youth set up: a project that he deserves enormous credit for but which needed other coaches to ultimately make successful. The star men of his French youth teams - Thierry Henry, Patrick Viera, David Trezeguet, et al - will always be French, and that's the crux. Alas, Gerrard and Owen will only be at Liverpool long-term if the team remains in the hunt for top honours. The theory of the team growing together and improving year-after-year falls apart when the best players get disillusioned before that date of fruition arrives. When times got tough (and all of our younger players - Owen, Gerrard, Riise - have had long and highly publicised periods of poor form in these last two seasons), there wasn't a Gary Mac to look to for guidance on the pitch, just other young headless chickens like El Hadji Diouf.

The players clearly like and respect and GH, and are loyal to him, and that's nice to see. But they won't complain if a top, top coach comes in to replace him, will they? Would Steven Gerrard be pissed off if we signed a genius of a coach? Of course not. I have no idea who that man will be - there are numerous great coaches in Europe coming to the end of their tenures, not least the miraculous Hitzfeld at Bayern and Mourniho at Porto.

So while I'm not insisting GH be replaced, I am just stating that if he is, it be with a modern forward-thinking manager of the highest order who doesn't have anyone from the club's past above him (be it Kenny, or even GH) as Director of Football, to confuse issues.

© Paul Tomkins 2004

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