The Anfield Crossroads - A Club In Flux

Posted by Paul Tomkins on December 8, 2004, 09:48:44 AM

It has been an eventful few months, to say the least. The title of this piece does not relate to a section of the Walton Breck Road; although a new crossroads down towards Stanley Park may at some stage lead to the 'new' Anfield. All the while it's still unclear whether that will be as sole tenants, or as a live-in landlord taking in an impoverished neighbour. In fact, nothing seems clear at Liverpool at the moment.

This week, it's still all 'kicking off'. Last week's AGM, with Steve Morgan and his wife's intervention made plenty of headlines (I'm sorry, but no one asked your husband to pay £300,000 in legal bills; you weren't offering to buy the club for altruistic reasons; it isn't exactly charity we are talking about). Now the L4 Consortium, with (alleged) Middle-Eastern investors, is poised to make some kind of offer for the club, with information on a take-over website.

In the middle of all this, heaven forbid, there's some football taking place (how dare the game itself get in the way of all that surrounds it?). The club finds itself in the middle of a run of tough league fixtures, and performances on the pitch have been hugely encouraging in the last three matches (including our young reserve team knocking out Spurs on their own patch in the Carling Cup). The Merseyside derby awaits this weekend.

And tonight sees the deciding game of this years Champions League group stage.

Well, it's a knock-out tie now. In the past the club would have drawn or narrowly lost the away leg, and needed to win by one or two goals to progress; so nothing new here. A 1-0 win will do, or if Olympiakos score, victory but a two-goal margin. I always feel happier with these situations than needing only to draw - this way you get a 100% positive, high-tempo performance (and the same enthusiasm from the crowd, too). Whatever the result, we will play well, and create chances. There's nothing to stop us doing to the Greeks what Arsenal did last night to Rosenberg.

The problem comes when 1-0 or 2-0 up, knowing a late Greek goal could eliminate us; clean sheets have been hard to come by recently. That said, we haven't conceded many at Anfield, and even Arsenal only managed one meaningful effort on our goal.

But even if we go out from winning 2-1, at least we can go out with our heads held high - in a transitional season, and without many key players during these group games, we couldn't expect to walk through a group that contained two of the top four teams in Europe last year; they may have been weakened, but they are still experienced. It won't be ideal, but it will be understandable; and in no small part down to a referee in Monaco who said he saw the blatant handball, but allowed Saviola to score all the same.

To boost our campaign, players are returning: Gerrard, and now Baros. Except Gerrard is now making the kind of statements Michael Owen was making a couple of years ago: progress and I stay, stagnate and I go. Owen went.

Over the summer, at the height of the frenzy, I declared that Gerrard would stay, for a variety of reasons; I was proved right (but only just). I also noted soon after that now he had admitted he was close to leaving, he had given licence to the media to speculate and speculate until eventually he did leave – perhaps partly due to their unsettling influence. I'm just not sure we needed this latest statement from the player himself.

In many ways, what Gerrard has said is no surprise, nor is it anything too outrageous. However, the timing of his comments is not at all welcome, ahead of such a big game (maybe he thinks it will inspire the troops, but that hardly seems the best way to go about it). I would like to remind him that he signed a new long-term deal this time last year; we were hardly heading for the summit at that point in time. Contracts might not mean a lot, but they mean something.

Gerrard says he can't wait another four years to be challenging, and I support that view; he said we should be in a position to do so next season, and I agree. I very much doubt we'll be favourites to win the league next year, of course, but we should have gelled as a team by then. Next season our aim is to challenge; but to win the league has to remain only a slight outside chance. Challenging is the key, as there will be three other sides well-equipped to walk away with the trophy come May.

Now should be the time to start thinking about who the club will buy (without delving into Championship Manager-style pipedreams; we are still not talking about US Defence-style mega-bucks budgets). Instead we will have to endure incessant rumours about Chelsea signing Steven Gerrard. At least if he does go, we can't say (unlike with Owen) we didn't see it coming.

For me, Michael Owen left at the right time for him as a player, at this stage of his career; the club was about to start it's third or fourth 'transitional period' since he broke into the first team, and it was a 'neat' end to his Liverpool career – a full-stop, if you will – in that it coincided with the end of a certain chapter of Liverpool's history (even if the way Owen left wasn't exactly 'neat', given its timing, etc.). The offer of Real Madrid will always be harder to turn down than the offer of Chelsea. He went with my reluctant blessing and understanding, although of course we could have done with keeping him.

Gerrard was always different – behind Owen in terms of service to the club, he hadn't been part of the Roy Evans reign, and his career kick-started almost two years after Owen's, both for club and country. In an article over the summer I said that Gerrard therefore 'owes' us two more years - because he signed that new long-term contract and should at least honour half of it, and because (unlike this summer) we'd have a better idea of where the club is headed. If we are still encountering false dawns when the player turns 27, fair enough.

Next season is the key one for Gerrard. This was always going to be a transitional season. Consistency was always going to be the main stumbling block with a new manager, new players, new ideas, and a whole raft of injuries. While new players were settling in, things were going to be tricky; injuries to established players only made that harder. Anyone who cannot see that has their head in the clouds.

Liverpool didn't have the luxury of making changes while 'on the up' - as Chelsea did. For all their headlines, Chelsea are doing no better at this stage of the season than they were last time around. They spent a lot more than us over the summer, and their rebuilding was to add to what was already working well (their best season for 50 years) - and not to solve problems of massive failure.

Chelsea can buy this winter, and buy next summer. Any problems can be solved with the chequebook. I'd be saddened if Gerrard wanted success on those terms. Success with Liverpool would always mean a hundred times more to him, surely? But if he does want to go, then it will allow us to strengthen in two or three positions; Gerrard is a phenomenal player, who ideally will stay at Liverpool beyond the next two years, but he is just one player. If he (and the rumours) starts to overshadow the club then, as we've seen with Everton, it can be more beneficial to let the player go. Our problem is that, unless we were to sell him to Spain, we will strengthen our title rivals in the process - whereas Everton and Man Utd (for all the illusions this season) have not shared the same ambitions for nearly twenty years.

Even with investment we will not be able to match Chelsea's spending power. But it doesn't need an absolute fortune; Arsenal have done so well under Arsene Wenger without spending anywhere near as much as Chelsea and Man Utd. Benitez proved at Valencia that it's not the money you spend but how you shape a team that matters. If we could find a few more like Xabi Alonso - world-class talent in the region of £10m - then that will help him greatly in his task. Trouble is, that kind of quality is not easy to find on a regular basis.

It is clear - beyond any doubt - that the club is looking for a large influx of cash, and that something will surely happen soon. Building a new team and a new stadium at the same time is never going to be easy; we need a surplus of money to be able to do both - pawning off one for the other is not the way forward, as you end up with a great stadium, but not the team fit to grace it. Look at Leicester and Derby - both mid-table Premiership sides when they started building new stadia; now financially-impaired mid-table Championship sides. We won't fall that far; but we can't afford to fall at all - we've already fallen far enough since 2002.

So far it's been anything but a smooth ride for Rafael Benitez. But there is nothing to suggest (injuries and myopic referees aside) that we cannot have an extremely good second half to the season, and find ourselves in pretty good shape come pre-season for 2005/06. Next year was always going to be the one that counted, as that's when we will get to see what Benitez is all about. The early signs have been mostly very encouraging; the football has been superb at times. Consistency is what we need, and that takes time.

© Paul Tomkins 2004

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