UEFA Champions League: A Real mess for Liverpool

REAL MADRID attract major trophies just as Liverpool seem to court drama and controversy. There’s no denying the French police handled the event abysmally, clumsily responding to an incident that was partly their own making and treating Liverpool’s fans with disdain and strong-arm aggression. In the circumstances, it’s no surprise that these events overshadowed the triumph of the Spanish champions.

Likewise, if the problem was also caused by fake tickets, and there were allegedly ticket touts roaming around London St. Pancras, then greater control has to be exerted. I spoke to Liverpool fans at the station who were going to Paris without a ticket just to be there. Who can blame them?

Denis, Denis…

If UEFA had any teeth, they would not consider the Stade de France for future finals, even though Paris is the spiritual home of the European Cup. Saint-Denis is not an ideal place to welcome 75,000 people, if only because the crime rate is far higher than the national average in France. Perhaps that’s why the local police were quick to introduce a chemical response.

The truth will emerge in the weeks ahead, but it was obvious that, given the easy accessibility of Paris, there was always going to be a mass movement of Liverpool fans for this game. Some people believe we are still in the 1980s, that all British football fans are violent. Unfortunately, the anarchy at the European Championship final undid a lot of the fine work over the previous two decades and once more, continental Europe perceived the English as feral hooligans. How much of that sentiment drove the behaviour of the French authorities?

There have been attempts to simply blame Liverpool fans for the debacle, but at St. Pancras the lengthy queues included the very old and very young, expectant, hopeful supporters waiting to board their train. Given the huge numbers, it was inevitable that some would be unruly, no matter which club they followed. I was in Stockholm in 2017 for the Europa Final and I witnessed some bad behaviour from Manchester United fans and in Paris a few years ago, Chelsea fans were filmed abusing locals. Big crowds have a higher percentage of those willing to step over the line.

Criticism of Liverpool fans invariably gets interpreted as criticism of Liverpool the city. Football is so vital to the city for its escapism and source of local pride, but the rest of the country doesn’t really understand so this intensity is often used as a stick to beat Liverpool on the head.

Skysportsism

Did Liverpool really think the quadruple was on? Did they truly target four trophies? It would seem unlikely anyone was seriously contemplating winning the lot, mostly because to win everything, you have to beat teams who are similarly focused on those prizes, namely, Manchester City and Real Madrid. Jürgen Klopp is too professional to do anything but adopt the age-old cliché: “We take each game as it comes”. The pursuit of four cups made for a good “skysportsism” and helped the bookies cash-in on the run-in to the end of the campaign, and that was it.

Liverpool had a great season, but their margin of success was as narrow as any margin of defeat. Their two cup victories were achieved on penalties, that most unsatisfactory method of success. Two 0-0 draws against Chelsea that could so easily have gone the other way. They lost the league by one point and the Champions League by a single goal. Liverpool played with a flamboyance that has, arguably, exhausted them, but City still topped the table. Real Madrid, a team nobody really considered as potential champions, managed by a coach that was supposed to be past his best, controlled Liverpool like no other opponent in 2021-22. For all their pressure and possession, it never looked as though Klopp’s men would ever equalise.

Twin peaks?

Klopp was understandably distraught, the peak of his trademark cap pulled down to shield his eyes, but predicted Liverpool would be back, joking that fans should book their hotels for Istanbul in 2023. But was this season the peak of this Liverpool, indeed both teams? For Real this is more understandable as they have a host of key players at the veteran stage of their careers. For Liverpool, they have pushed Manchester City for four years, closing the gap between the two clubs, but with City already reinforcing their squad, the task will arguably get even harder. Between them, they have won over 70% of their league games over five years. They have scored over 900 league goals in that time.

Liverpool’s dynamic forward line of Mo Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané has arguably played its last game for the club. This trio have scored 58% of Liverpool’s Premier League goals over five years, although the ratio dropped significantly in 2021-22.

Salah has said he’s staying at Anfield for next season, but his contract expires in June 2023. In other words, unless he signs a new deal, Salah will be running-off his contract and Liverpool will not get a handsome fee. Firmino is also looking to leave and Mané seems bound for Bayern Munich. All three players are either 30 or a fortnight off that landmark. Admittedly, Liverpool have options in Diogo Jota and Luis Diaz, but can they cope with losing Salah?

Real have been putting off their rebuilding, although there have been changes in recent years. But surely, this time, the team has achieved all that it can? Real have won five Champions Leagues since 2014 with teams that were not exactly trendsetters or great innovators. Some of their five victories, such as 2022 and 2016, were not especially convincing and generally, sceptics consider Real have come through the competition because of their wealth and size. It’s hard to be critical, because five is five after all, and Champions League winners come in different shapes and sizes and not always representative of the current hierarchy. It is, in its final stages, a knockout tournament.

You only need look at their path to glory and the opponents they have beaten: PSG, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool. If a team beats rivals of these quality, they are deserved winners. Ultimately, the reason there has been a collective shrug of the shoulder is because it feels like the same old song. Real Madrid, champions of Europe. It has happened 14 times.

Stranger in a strange land: Sheffield Wednesday

ALTHOUGH a battle would rage between Leeds and Sheffield if you ever suggested it, the club with the most gongs in Yorkshire is actually the Wednesday. Sheffield Wednesday have won eight major honours to Leeds United’s seven, although most of those trophies were lifted before the second world war. Sheffield United, their neighbours and red half of the steel city, have won five. Leeds, without doubt, are the closest the county has got to modern success, although their last piece of silverware was won in 1992.

Hillsborough has become a word that sends a chill up the spine of every football fan who remembers the days of precarious overcrowded terracing. There is a kind of horrific irony in the fact that the 1989 disaster took place at a time when football was staring into the abyss. 

The average attendance for the top flight in 1988-89 was 20,500 and Wednesday’s gates were just over 20,000. The most horrific and far-reaching catastrophe of the modern football era took place at a time when football grounds had never been less appealing. Not that Hillsborough was one of the worst stadiums, for it was always considered for FA Cup semi-finals and it hosted several games during Euro 96, but times were very different.

Hillsborough today remains a decent and capable arena and Wednesday still have the potential to be a very sizeable club. Sadly, they fall into the category of big also-rans, a status they have endured often over the past 50 years. The list of clubs in this bracket is extensive and seems to be getting more lengthy with time: Birmingham City, Nottingham Forest, Derby County, Stoke City, Newcastle United, Sunderland, Middlesbrough and so on.

Sheffield is a city that should host Premier League football on a regular basis. With a population of 530,000 people and two big clubs in Wednesday and United, it is not unreasonable to think that some modicum of success should come the city’s way. The last trophy to land up in Sheffield was the Football League Cup in 1991, won by Wednesday. That’s 30 long years ago. The last league title was won by Wednesday in 1930 and the last FA Cup triumph was also theirs in 1935. United’s last prize was the FA Cup in 1925 and their only title was won in 1898.

This season, Wednesday find themselves in league one thanks to a 12 point deduction that was later reduced to six. The penalty was punishment for breaching the EFL’s profitability and sustainability rules. Understandably, there is some bitterness and resentment, but Wednesday are too big to stay at this level for too long – at least that’s what the optimists believe.

While United were rubbing shoulders with the elite in 2020-21, Wednesday were last in the Premier League in 2000, so they have been in exile for over 20 years. The club’s finances have clearly suffered and in 2019-20, they made a pre-tax loss of £ 24.1 million. Their income totalled £ 21 million, but their wage bill was £ 33.5 million, a very worrying figure.

They haven’t uprooted any trees in 2021-22, so the mood at the recent home game with Gillingham was a little sombre and flat. Admittedly, it was Remembrance Weekend, but with the team just above mid-table and a little shot-shy (20 goals in 16), it was no surprise that Darren Moore’s side had drawn half of their games. They had only lost three league games and had gone seven games unbeaten, but those stalemates can be very damaging. Wednesday’s top scorer, Lee Gregory, had netted six goals before the Gillingham game, but he was unable to play in the game due to a calf injury. Gregory joined the club in the summer from Stoke City and has already become vital to Wednesday’s cause. They could have done with him.

The game itself was a reminder that this was the third tier of the English game. Gillingham took the lead after 22 minutes through Vadaine Oliver, a neat finish permitted by a generous Wednesday defence. Earlier, the home side went close when Callum Paterson’s close range effort bounced off the post. It wasn’t until the 75thminute when Wednesday equalised, Barry Bannan’s shot rebounding to Florian Kamberi, who shot home from inside the area. That was it as far as entertainment went, it was not a classic game by any means. But Wednesday are not far away from being a reasonable side, they have lost just three times, after all. With a few more goals, they can be promotion contenders. A crowd of 20,000 helps support the narrative of a long lost status.

Perthaps this is why the locals seeed perpetually discontented, judging by the banter on the journey back to the centre of town. A trip from Hillsborough can include a tram journey, a highly civilised way to travel even if the carriages were full of supporters singing anti-United songs and gagging for their pre-match refreshments. They’re all the same, really, football fans.

Sheffield Wednesday – Fallen giants looking for a reset

AT LONG last, Sheffield Wednesday released their accounts for 2019-20 season, just a few months after publishing their 2018-19 figures. Some might say these are grim times for the Owls and their relegation to League One was attributable to a six-point deduction (reduced from 12) imposed on the club for failure to pay players.

Wednesday now find themselves in a division that also includes Sunderland, Ipswich Town and Portsmouth, all clubs that have been league champions in the past. Wednesday remain a big club on paper with the potential to draw 25,000 crowds to Hillsborough even on a bad day.

Wednesday’s financials for 2019-20 don’t make very pleasant reading, they made a pre-tax loss of £ 24 million, about average for the Championship. It represented a negative swing of more than £ 40 million, but it has to be noted that the club only made a pre-tax profit in 2018-19 because of the £ 38 million profit from the sale of Hillsborough to owner Dejphon Chansiri. The club paid £ 2.5 million in rent in order to play at their historic ground in 2019-20. Wednesday, however, consistently lose money and the only other profit in the past decade was down to the waiver on a £ 21 million loan.

Wednesday’s turnover fell by 8% in 2019-20 to £ 20.9 million, with matchday income down by 23%. Due to the pandemic, the club lost five home matches in terms of revenues, so the 2020-21 campaign will surely reveal further losses as virtually the entire home programme was played in front of an empty Hillsborough.

Wednesday combine their broadcasting and commercial revenues in their financial statements, but it is reasonable to assume there was little change in both streams – the combined total was £14.2 million, just a little higher than 2018-19. 

Where the club did show an increase was in their profit on player trading which reached a record £ 6.2 million. Wednesday have, consistently, failed to leverage the talent they develop and nurture themselves. Liam Shaw and Ozaze Urhoghide have both left for Celtic for very modest fees despite being highly-valued in the past.

Wednesday’s wage bill, at £ 33.5 million, was a worrying 161% of income, slightly up on 2018-19 but less than 2017-18’s 168%. Needless to say, the wage bill is still at an unsustainable level and the club will surely continue birng costs down to a more manageable level. Wednesday’s net debt has declined by £ 20 million since 2018 and fell by £ 7 million from 2019 to £ 57 million. 

Since relegation, player turnover has been high at Wednesday – 13 left in the days that followed the end of the campaign. More than 20 have departed Hillsborough since the start of July 2021.  Manager Darren Moore aims to reduce the average age of the squad as efforts to trim the wage bill gather momentum. The club has also lowered prices at Hillsborough for 2021-22 quite significantly.

Sheffield Wednesday are, naturally, among the favourites for promotion and with a financial reset in progress, getting back to the Championship as soon as possible will be a priority. But with the likes of Sunderland and Ipswich in the mix, League One is set to be very competitive.

@GameofthePeople