"What do you mean you've hurt 'your' knee, it's Liverpool's knee" - Bill Shankly.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Liverpool will never embrace future with one foot in past

Oliver Kay, Football Correspondent

Life at Anfield was quiet. A few people might mill around during the week, trying to spot a star or snatch an autograph, but it was only on match days that any real crowd gathered. Go to Old Trafford any day of the week and you will see . . . crowds gathering, buying tickets, drifting around the souvenir shop, queuing for the museum or simply gawping at the stadium. Old Trafford is supermarket football.”

The above paragraph could easily have been written last week, but in fact it was written 15 years ago in Stephen F. Kelly’s biography of Graeme Souness. Kelly went on to portray Manchester United as a corporate monster and Liverpool as a cosy corner shop, but he suggested that things were changing, that the Merseyside club were evolving into “a multimillion-pound business staffed by well-paid executives in Marks & Spencer suits and where success is imperative on and off the field”. How did that go, then?

In one sense it sounds like a bygone age and in another it feels as if nothing has changed. As United close in on Liverpool’s proud record of 18 league titles — it was 18-7 when the Premier League was launched in 1992 — the instinct among the Merseyside club’s supporters may be to bemoan the disharmony in the boardroom, Rafael Benítez’s contract saga, injuries to Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard or even just to blame Lucas Leiva, but the reality is that Liverpool are just about punching their weight on the pitch while falling dramatically short in all other departments.

On the pitch, Liverpool have a team capable of beating Real Madrid away from home in the Champions League. As a club, though, they are so dogged by infighting and inertia that it is difficult to see what happens next.

Everywhere you look, it is a collision of cultures, the old guard at odds with the new — with Rick Parry, the chief executive, ousted and David Moores, the former chairman, contemplating stepping down from his honorary role as life president — and even the new at odds with the new. Parry’s departure has been portrayed as a move towards unity and, in the view of Tom Hicks, the co-owner, towards dynamism, but, barring a change of ownership or an enormous injection of cash, the underlying problems will remain.

Every home match at Anfield generates about £1.5 million, meaning that their match-day revenue over an average season is likely to be about £37.5 million. United, their stadium full to its 76,000 capacity and their corporate lounges heaving every week, earn more than £3 million every time they play at Old Trafford. Last season their match-day revenue topped £100 million. It is one reason why their accounts for the financial year ending June 30, 2008, will see a turnover in excess of £300 million, the largest recorded by a British club.

Liverpool simply cannot compete with that and, while a lack of dynamism or commercial vision has been a factor in their efforts to break away from the corner-shop mentality, it is not the biggest one. Ultimately it comes down to location, location, location and, whereas Old Trafford always had potential for expansion Anfield, hemmed between rows of Victorian terraces, remains every bit the corner shop.

Much of the blame for that has been laid at Parry’s door, not least by Hicks, who has described the chief executive’s tenure as “disastrous”. As a global brand, Liverpool are woefully underdeveloped — incredibly, they were the last Premier League club to have their own website and did not even have a commercial director until the appointment of Ian Ayre in 2007 — but the shortfall in commercial revenue (£41 million in the 2006-07 campaign, as against United’s £56 million) does not begin to reflect match days.

Parry cannot be accused of hiding from that fact. Almost as soon as he had taken office, he identified the need to relocate. But all their efforts over the past decade have been hampered by planning issues, a lack of funding, rising construction costs and now the global economic climate. Moores sold the club to Hicks and George Gillett Jr on the premise that they would provide the money to deliver the new stadium while supplying Benítez with the funds to strengthen his squad. Instead they have delivered discord and wrangling — not just with Parry and Benítez but with each other.

It is an utter mess, with Gillett desperate to sell his stake but seemingly intent on being obstructive for as long as he struggles to find a buyer. It is why the feeling persists that Benítez has made Liverpool about as competitive as they can expect to be in the Premier League while somehow making them one of the most feared teams in Europe. That will not prevent the inevitable gnashing of teeth on Merseyside when United draw level with their total of 18 league titles in May. But, for as long as Liverpool remain at such a competitive disadvantage, it cannot be classed as underachievement.

If Parry could turn the clock back to 2007, he would not allow Hicks and Gillett anywhere near the place. If he could turn it back ten years, he might approve a full-scale redevelopment of Anfield. As it is, he will leave the club in May much as he found it and as Moores found it when he took over as chairman in 1991 — in need of investment, in need of direction and, above all, in need of the nineteenth league title that continues not just to elude them, but to pass them by completely.

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Quote of the moment

Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.
- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009