It was such a glorious opportunity for Liverpool. How did they blow it? They were more than just respected, more than just appreciated. They were revered, they were venerated, hell, they were even popular.
That’s the hardest trick of all for champions, certainly emphatic ones: to be liked.
Yet when Jurgen Klopp’s hard-working, quick-thinking, all-action team clinched the title last season, only the bitterest rival could begrudge them.
Liverpool were rare emphatic Premier League champions who were liked and revered
And all they had to do to remain right there, at the pinnacle of English football, was not be Manchester United. And they couldn’t pull it off. Couldn’t not be the club that turns up to every Premier League meeting with a self-serving, bad idea. Couldn’t not be the club that wants to tyrannise 14 others.
Couldn’t not be the club that demands the power, the glory — and all the money. Couldn’t not be the club that would sell English football out to Rick Parry, or UEFA, or Andrea Agnelli at Juventus for a sack of cash.
That’s all Liverpool had to be. Not Manchester United. And they blew it.
So when Everton line up against Liverpool on Saturday, it will mean more, but not in the way Anfield’s marketing department imagines.
It will mean more because a club it was thought represented the best turned out, in its machinations, to represent the worst. It means more because many people feel so greatly let down including, it seems, some of Liverpool’s supporters. They are as perplexed as anybody that a club so successful within the established parameters of the English game, should end up on the same side as its evil twin.
Roy Hodgson was as good as dead to Liverpool fans the moment he spoke of his fondness for Sir Alex Ferguson, but it looks as if John Henry and the Glazer family have been cosy for years, while plotting to carve up English football.
‘The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again,’ wrote George Orwell in Animal Farm, ‘but already it was impossible to say which was which.’
But they ruined that when owner John Henry tried to sell English football out for a sack of cash
In philosophy at least, Manchester United and Liverpool are now indistinguishable.
Yet, as Christian Purslow of Aston Villa — a former Anfield executive — asked Liverpool chairman Tom Werner at Wednesday’s Premier League meeting: What was not to like? Certainly for the owner of a Premier League club. The workings of the top division of English football could not be simpler or more efficient. Everyone makes money, or should.
The top finishers each season pass through a platinum door to the riches of European football, while the three worst clubs are relegated. And that’s it. We can argue about the trickle down effects to the pyramid below, but anyone who thinks Project Big Picture was really about that probably believes gullible isn’t in the dictionary, too.
So why might an elite club be dissatisfied? Think of the summer Manchester United have just had. It began with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer boasting of how United could exploit the financial crisis caused by coronavirus to plunder the transfer market, and ended with them recruiting a free agent in Edinson Cavani, because the clubs around wouldn’t sell.
Covid-19 has wreaked havoc across many industries but, before it, Premier League clubs were strong financially.
Many remain so, despite losses. They do not need, or will not yield, to Manchester United’s money. If they do, it is only for an exceptional price, like the £80million that teased Harry Maguire out of Leicester.
Change the rules to aid Manchester United’s financial advantage, weaken those outside the Big Six, enforce stricter FFP regulations to thwart owner investment, and maybe United could better exploit the world they had created.
Henry (L) and Man United’s Joel Glazer (R) were behind the plans to carve up English football
As it is, with some very straightforward principles and voting procedures, the Premier League is as competitive as it can be.
And as a simple league, it is conservatively run. That is why 14 votes are needed to pass rules or bring about change. It wards off radical or kneejerk measures. The 14-6 vote is a lock to prevent the creation of selfish cabals.
The founders did not wish for changes to be made 11-9, or even 12-8. They required more than a two-thirds majority. And the most collegiate members and clubs have always understood and deferred to that.
In popular imagination, Ken Bates, the former chairman of Chelsea, could start a fight in an empty meeting room.
In fact, he is remembered as one of the most solid supporters of the Premier League’s equal voting principle, even when it went against him.
There have always been factions within the whole, big and small concerns. Even before the arrival of Roman Abramovich, Chelsea were among the smaller of the big boys.
Yet it was Bates who often reminded his fellow members what they had signed up to, and that they had to carry 14, like it or not. This kept it fair. Bruce Buck, Chelsea’s current representative, has a more conciliatory manner, but is not married to voting equality like Bates.
Ex-Chelsea chief (R) Ken Bates was a big supporter of Premier League’s equal voting principle
There never was a golden age of football club ownership — Tottenham nearly fell off a cliff in the old Football League — but one imagines David Gill would have played his hand rather differently than Ed Woodward of Manchester United last week. Gill was a fine politician, always first to arrive at Premier League meetings and deep in conversation with his fellow executives. But never those at the elite end.
Gill used that time to try to carry the 14, to get a few recruits to whatever supposedly innocent cause Manchester United were espousing.
He worked the directors’ suite at Old Trafford, too, in a way Woodward does not.
‘Put it like this,’ said one voice inside those meetings, ‘the five substitutes proposal would never have failed had Gill been around.’
Manchester United were the most successful club in the Premier League, but Gill’s shrewd politicking ensured they were never at war with the other 19 shareholders.
That has now changed; but the disappointment comes seeing Liverpool treading the same path. For a club so fond of slogans, being Not Manchester United could have emerged as the strongest identity of all. Not in big print on a poster, but by positioning Liverpool at odds with the grasping nature and base motivations of the European elite.
Had Liverpool emerged with an altruistic plan to help the lower leagues through this economic crisis, that did not include the opportunistic monetary and power grabs, what heroes they would have been.
It’s sad to see Liverpool tread the same path as a self-serving club like Manchester United
Now that would be a club capable of living up to the idea that this means more. That would be a club of the people, one whose principles would justify the rhetoric many find cloying.
It isn’t that Liverpool under its current ownership have never made mistakes. There was the infamous £77 ticket for best seats in the new stand, and the decision to furlough lower paid staff this year.
Yet, very quickly, faced with supporters’ protests, the board relented. It listened, which is more than many do.
Now think of the good Liverpool have done under Fenway’s stewardship: rebuilding the historic Anfield site rather than moving to a new ground; appointing a superb, charismatic manager in Klopp, who has greatly enriched English football culture; delivering a brilliant, diligent, selfless yet highly skilled team, one of the finest this country has produced; becoming European champions, world champions and domestic champions.
Liverpool under Klopp have given us some of our greatest games and most admirable achievements.
To concede the title as they did to Manchester City two seasons ago, then find the strength and will to win it the following campaign, was a feat many believed could not be accomplished.
Liverpool’s modern and carefully cultivated reputation went down with the ship Big Picture
Their senior staff are much admired, too. Michael Edwards runs the finest recruitment department in the country, and Liverpool have barely missed in the transfer market in recent seasons.
The day-to-day operation is steered from New England by Mike Gordon, president of Fenway Sports Group and regarded as one of the sharpest minds in sports ownership.
Yet somehow, and perhaps quite unfairly, this hugely respected executive tier have been dragged into an unseemly civil war by Henry, the billionaire at the helm of FSG.
Parry has been pumping the idea that Henry is a benign influence whose only thought is to help the English football pyramid, yet that view now generates the most hollow laughter.
There are great and good people at Liverpool, and it is a great and good club.
But the modern reputation it has cultivated so carefully went down with the ship Big Picture.
Hapless Harry isn’t exempt from stick, Gareth
England manager Gareth Southgate sprang to the defence of the beleaguered Harry Maguire, rounding on his critics as ‘some people who should know better’.
Most likely, he means former professionals who were damning in their judgment of Maguire for Manchester United, before he even joined up with England.
Yet, overwhelmingly, calls on Maguire have been entirely professional, focusing on his defensive positioning, decision-making, awareness and speed of reaction to events, all of which have been disappointing lately. Some have contrasted this with his transfer fee, although at a world record for a defender, that is entirely understandable, too.
What purpose does it serve if those asked for professional opinions pull their punches?
We can all see the game.
Harry Maguire has been rightly criticised for his recent performances on the pitch
Hammers cam not a concern
Reflecting on his time away from West Ham’s players, David Moyes — now recovered from coronavirus — said he kept up using CCTV cameras installed at the training ground.
This shows how times have changed. Former West Ham bosses would have needed a similar system at Faces in Gants Hill, or the Epping Forest Country Club.
Clarke might be forgiven… Parry won’t
Greg Clarke, chairman of the Football Association, told the Premier League meeting on Wednesday that Rick Parry was the most dangerous man in football. It didn’t take long for evidence to emerge.
On Thursday, Parry’s EFL released one of the many versions of Project Big Picture, a discussion document it implies Clarke authored. It mentions the creation of a Premier League 2, with top tiers of 18 clubs each, and the rest of the leagues below combined with the three National Leagues to comprise five divisions, a catchment of all lower-tier clubs from Sunderland to Farsley Celtic. There would be no League Cup and no FA Cup replays, and the possibility of Premier League B teams in the competitions below.
It was plainly released to embarrass Clarke, just as the project’s unveiling — supported by Parry — blindsided the Premier League clubs.
Clarke has so far escaped criticism by shamelessly reinventing himself as the Premier League’s biggest fan, while admitting participating in meetings that went behind the backs of all but two of its members.
Parry’s people, meanwhile, are trying to paint the swift demise of his big idea as a victory, because the EFL have a seat at the table in the strategic discussions about football’s financial future.
Two points here. The first is that this does not necessarily give the EFL a position in the Premier League’s review, more the general one that is taking place throughout the game; secondly, that even if there was a movement towards greater cooperation, there exists a majority of Premier League clubs who feel very strongly that Parry’s backside should not be anywhere near that seat.
He treated them as the monkeys and two clubs as organ grinders. Clarke may just about be forgiven, but Parry won’t.
Rick Parry won’t be forgiven for treating 18 clubs as the monkeys and two as organ grinders
Money in football needs to be healthy, not fair
One final point about football and finance. All the talk is of making it fair. It’s not meant to be fair. We know the bigger clubs generate the most money. Fairness would let them keep it. But it would destroy the competition. So we should not be aiming for fair. We should be aiming for healthy.
This means preserving the pyramid at the bottom end, and preserving competition as much as possible at the top, while also acknowledging merit and worth. This is the balance that must be struck.
AVB can’t claim credit for Bale
Ahead of Gareth Bale’s debut for Tottenham this week, his former manager Andre Villas-Boas has claimed credit for the tactical switch that transformed his career. He said he played Bale further forward after January 2013, a change that brought him 15 goals in 18 games and a move to Real Madrid.
Yet that season, Tottenham finished outside the top four, behind Arsenal, were knocked out in the fourth round of both domestic cups and eliminated from the Europa League by Basle at the quarter-final stage.
It’s about improving the whole, not one. Nobody will be lauding Jose Mourinho if he gets similar performances from Bale, but also Tottenham, this season.
Regardless if Jose Mourinho gets Gareth Bale firing, he won’t get praise unless Spurs improve