Commentary Box: A Passion Play

LIVERPOOL is a passionate football city, that’s what we are told. Liverpool Football Club’s fans are, arguably, the most ardent of any supporters in Britain. It is a devotion that has been built over many years, from the Shankly era, through the cultural highs of the 1960s and, in spite of the disasters of the 1980s and the city’s economic decline.

But the club has never truly got over Heysel and Hillsborough and these seismic events contributed to Liverpool losing their role as the driving force in English football as the Premier League era began. Even if Liverpool win the Premier in 2019, it will be the longest period that the club has ever gone between titles – 28 years. Liverpool’s “era” ended in 1990, although since then, they have won nine trophies, including a fifth European Champions League. It has hardly been beer and sandwiches at Anfield.

Before the first wave of success under Shankly, Liverpool sunk as low as mid-table second division. The influential Scot laid the foundations for a dynasty, possibly football’s only true empire, that went on beyond the golden years and was successful in handing the baton on from the republic’s instigator to Bob Paisley to Joe Fagan to Kenny Dalglish. Little wonder that the decline has been so hard to take for Liverpool’s fans, especially as the balance of power shifted some 35 miles away to industrial and footballing rival Manchester, to the only other club that could claim – under Matt Busby – to have created a culture with any longevity. The notable difference between the two is that, unlike Liverpool, Manchester United were unable to effect a workable succession plan for Busby and, much later, Sir Alex Ferguson. Liverpool, at least, maintained the Shankly legacy for a decade and a half. The leitmotif started to go astray in the 1990s.

Liverpool fans seem to take exception not only to United, but also to any “new money” club like Manchester City and Chelsea. Doubtless, they have the same contempt for Paris St. Germain. So when they were drawn to face City, England’s champions-elect and representative of the zeitgeist of modern corporate football, Liverpool’s loyal droves were eager to show the Abu Dhabi-backed club they were entering a world that was once bread and butter for Liverpool. Inflicting discomfort and making a point was the name of this game.

Liverpool – and other – fans claim that both Chelsea and City haven’t got a history, but that’s total nonsense. History is created on a daily basis. The correct summary of both clubs’ past is that they do not have a particularly successful history. Liverpool have just that, but times change and new clubs, thankfully, emerge in every generation to challenge the status quo. To be brutally honest, hegemony is never good for football, whoever might be at the top. It dulls the impact, removes unpredictability and induces a yawn. Liverpool’s period of dominance was great for their fans, but it was uninspiring for the neutral and for the followers of clubs forever in the shadows. The same applies to the 1930s with Arsenal and the 1990s and United.

There’s utter resentment that clubs that have been beneficiaries of enhanced investment are now overtaking some of the traditional “winners” in football. But if change never happened, Newcastle, Sunderland, Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers would all still be at the pinnacle of the game. The clubs that have attracted huge investment have also welcomed the financial impetus because they could not compete with the Liverpools and Manchester Uniteds of this world under normal circumstances. Chelsea and Manchester City were two of football’s great underachievers. That’s not to say such artificiality is good for the broader game, but that’s why it happened – the desire to tip the balance. It’s interesting, though, that the biggest critics of “new money” are those clubs that have become accustomed to being at the top, institutions who clearly fear the newcomers as if they were marauding vandals climbing the barricades.

Should Liverpool be that resentful? Although it cannot be compared to the huge sums involved today, Liverpool were one of the first clubs to sell shirt sponsorship when, in 1979, they agreed a four-year deal with Hitachi that earned them £ 50,000 per season. At the time, this was seen as the club “selling its soul”. Furthermore, the club’s fans tried to induce the type of investment that City received from Abu Dhabi more than a decade ago, did they not? When the club was owned by the unpopular George Gillett Junior and Tom Hicks, fans urged the duo to sell the club to Dubai International Capital, the sovereign wealth fund of Dubai. Had that happened, who knows who would now be sitting at the summit?

It’s also worth noting that Liverpool’s golden era was not underpinned by the creation of talent from its own stable, but a combination of shrewd acquisitions and, latterly, financial clout that enabled them to buy big. There were 26 players who played in Liverpool’s four European Cup finals between 1977 and 1984. Of those, only six were what could be called “home grown” – Jimmy Case, Ian Callaghan, David Fairclough, Sammy Lee, Tommy Smith and Phil Thompson.

The big name signings included Ray Kennedy (£200k), Kenny Dalglish (£440k), Graeme Souness (£350k), David Johnson (£200k), Mark Lawrenson (£900k) and Craig Johnston (£575k). Liverpool’s big strength in those days was the ability to spot modestly-priced raw talent – Ray Clemence, Kevin Keegan, Ronnie Whelan, Steve Nicol, Ian Rush and Phil Neal, to name but a few. That pipeline no longer seems to exist, indeed Liverpool’s expenditure in top names, which they were able to do because of their European success, climbed significantly in the late 1980s – in both 1987-88 and 1988-89, they paid-out almost £ 4 million in transfer fees, a marked change from 1985-86 when they spent just £ 400,000. This was all at a time when English clubs were banned from Europe.

Today, Liverpool, like City and Chelsea, are big spenders and locked into the current mode of transfer business – hence, the club is the biggest user of intermediaries, paying some £27 million in the past year to agents and middle-men. Like it or not, Liverpool are as much part of the bloated world of top-level football as the clubs their fans despise – and would they complain if another middle eastern investor made Fenway an offer they could not refuse?

Hence, the events that took place before what was an exhilarating Champions League tie. There was something quite feral about the drama – just watch the video clips (of which there are many) to see the near-crazed expressions. The footage inside the City coach is almost terrifying, one wonders what would have happened if some fans had actually got into the vehicle. It’s also clear that a lot of this going on among police vans and hi-vis jacketed policemen. Where was the control?

If nothing else, this entire incident played into the hands of those that champion out-of-town football grounds, rather than those locked into the inner city. There was something strangely Hitchcockian about it all – the closing scenes of The Birds as Rod Taylor and Tippi Hedren slowly drive though a landscape on which thousands of birds are menacingly perched. What can Liverpool expect for the second leg – has April 4, 2018 set a dangerous precedent?

Photo: PA




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