Liverpool F.C. - The Decline and Fall Of the Reds and a Football Empire
Not everybody looks back fondly upon the 1980s. For the legion of bitter little socialists that inhabit the media establishment, it was the decade of Thatcherism. For fashion snobs, it was the time that taste forgot. But for the Merseyside clubs and Liverpool fans in particular, it must seem like a golden age following the week that wasn't.
The era of two European Cups, seven League titles, two F.A. Cups and four League Cups must seem a lifetime away after the past seven days. Defeat to bitter rivals and usurpers Manchester United, exit from the League Cup at the hands of Northampton and then a scraped draw against Sunderland at Anfield on Saturday that owed much to refereeing generosity, sees the once mighty Reds consigned to sixteenth in a league they once dominated.
Yet in 1988, when the negotiations for a breakaway Superleague began, the top two in the "Big Five" conducting negotiations were the two Mersey giants (the others being United, Arsenal and Spurs).
Liverpool won their last title in 1990, and since then there has been a drastic change in English football. The model that proved so successful for Liverpool, careful fiscal planning and letting their football do the talking, has been swept away by the debt laden style of commercial behemoths like Manchester United and Chelsea.
The baton has passed from Anfield thirty miles along the road to Alex Ferguson's marauding Red Devils who have dominated the Premiership era. What must be galling for the Liverpool fans is that the only resistance to United has come from Leeds, Newcastle, Blackburn and Chelsea. Only Arsenal of the old order has had any success in the intervening years, using a financial model similar to the old Anfield bootroom plan. But the Gunners have not won a trophy in five years and their move to the Emirates Stadium was tacit acceptance that the old model could no longer compete in the cash laden new era.
The old Moores dynasty realised this and reluctantly made plans to introduce new capital and find a new home. Alas, as David Conn magisterially records in his article in "Four Four Two" this month, Americans Hicks and Gillette saddled the club with huge debts that they incurred during its purchase. As a result, Liverpool was limited in its ability to produce the a better stadium that could allow them to compete with other top tier clubs financially. At a time when the Reds were ready to reclaim their throne under the guidance of new management, they became subdued by debt and the spectre of administration that presently stalks the fallen giant.
Given the travails of the last couple of seasons, the Champions League triumph of 2005, the Final appearance in 2007 and the runners up position in the 2008 Premiership season demonstrates over achievement during the era of Rafa Benitez as manager. Yet for all the quality he brought in, such as Torres, Reina, Alonso, Mascherano, Agger etc., there was also a lot of money wasted in purchases of £15m and £20m for Glen Johnson and Alberto Aquilani respectively.
As a consequence of the dire financial situation, at least one top star must be sold every summer. It was Xabi Alonso to Real in the 2009 season, Mascherano before the start of 2010, and next year likely between Fernando Torres or Steven Gerrard. Unfortunately, the replacements have not matched the quality of the players exiting the club.
When Benitez decided to leave in the summer, the likes of Jurgen Klinsman, Gus Hiddink, and other top talent were out of reach. Liverpool's next best option was found in Roy Hodgson, an experienced, talented manager with a good track record of success. Up for the national team job in 2012, Hodgson sacrificed this opportunity to focus his efforts on recapturing past glories for Liverpool.
Hodgson's decision to lead the Reds' resurgence was aided by the presence of reliable players such as Pepe Reina, Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard. Now, however, the present condition of the club casts these players' future into doubt. Only a brave man would wager that all three will remain at Anfield for the start of next season, and it has become apparent that the pressure has begun to affect their performance: Reina has made uncharacteristic and costly lapses already this season, and the injury ravaged Torres looks like a pale reflection of "El Nino" who blew the Premiership away in 2007.
Hodgson has not been helped by the fixture schedule, hosting Arsenal in the opener and having to travel to the two Manchester clubs in quick succession. But, truth be told, in these games against the main title challengers Liverpool has always looked second best.
Liverpool is known to give managers time to adjust and become comfortable with the club. Hodgson will hope that new signings Cole, Poulsen, Konchesky and Meireles will settle quickly. The team will have to adapt to the manager's new tactics, which differ tremendously from Benitez, as the New England Sports Consortium aim to rectify Liverpool's financial situation. But if none of these events occur, Liverpool could soon be considered one of the weaker establishments involved in the English and European games.
Will Liverpool recapture the glory days of the seventies and eighties or are they in terminal decline? A question that seems debatable today but that would have been unimaginable in the glory days of the 1980s.
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