Is our culture a barrier to modernisation?
As a follow on to the FSG ‘bigger picture’ piece Si Steers asks whether our culture has held us back in the modern era.
The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life” — Bill Shankly.
In many ways that Shankly quote is what defines the cultural identity of Liverpool Football Club. We have always been more than a football club; we are a community icon that defines Liverpool as a city. We have never been about conformity, and we have always stood up to authority in the pursuit of justice. We have a tradition of raising a middle finger up to the establishment.
From Robbie Fowler supporting the Liverpool dock workers, to the campaign to free Michael Shields from prison, we have always been a club of the people. The fight for the truth and justice for the 96 has become an integral part of our identity. How many other football clubs would have had the fan power to push Anne William’s petition over the 100k threshold?
That is what the Liverpool way is all about. Shankly had a vision for Liverpool: he moulded the club in the culture of the City. The City of Liverpool is unique; ‘Scouse not English’ isn’t just a throwaway phrase, it is a definition of Liverpool as a City and a football club.
In many ways it is our history that has held us back in the Premier League era. Our tradition and heritage are the heartbeat of the club, and we don’t want to change. The commercialisation of football flies in the face of everything that Shankly’s Liverpool stands for.
The single, biggest issue that we have as a football club is how we blend our cultural identity and heritage into a new era of football where the dominating factor is finance. Without finance in this generation, you fade away. It has become impossible to compete at the top level of the game without having the ability to compete financially.
The closest we have come to the Premier League was under Rafa Benitez in 08/09; Benitez did an outstanding job of building a side capable of challenging the best in Europe at a relatively low cost in comparison to the spending power of Madrid and City. But to kick us on to that final stage, Benitez needed backing with investment. He was also left in the position where he couldn’t afford a single mistake in the market.
In order to be competitive we have to transform Liverpool Football Club into a ‘business’, it isn’t just about the football anymore; it is about how much money we can make on the back of the Liverpool name. Lucrative deals with Standard Chartered and Warrior have created a different kind of sponsor relationship that sits uncomfortably with most fans. Shankly would be turning in his grave at the idea of having Club policy influenced by sponsors.
The stadium issue has been holding the club back for ten years. In that time, our rivals have moved forward. We are light years behind United in match day revenue. In that time Arsenal have built and moved into a brand new stadium that will serve the club for the next 100 years. Whatever the stadium solution is going to be, it is critical that decisions are made and plans put in place. Supporters are tired of rhetoric, if moving to a new stadium gives the Club the best chance of creating a new dynasty then heads needs to rule hearts for everyone involved with the Club.
There will be plenty of traditionalists that despair at the concept of Liverpool being a ‘brand’, and I include myself within that. But, I am also realistic enough to know that we have spent too long trying to modernise, and have been left behind as a result.
Despite the disastrous tenure of Hicks & Gillette it is telling that before they took over our record signing was Cisse at £14m, and before that Heskey at £11m. We have never stood a chance when the very best players have become available; despite having a worldwide fan base that is comparable with Barcelona, United and Madrid.
In my view that is because we have never had owners with a vision. The clumsy attempts by Hicks and Gillette to modernise alienated the fan base, which is before they riddled the club with debt and sold out a European Cup winning manager. But, at least the recruitment of Ayre was a step in the right direction.
Under FSG the signs for modernisation look promising. They look as though they have taken the time to understand the culture of the club and are sensitive to our heritage in decision making.
So far, everything they have done has been promising. They have a strategy in place that is progressive. The appointment of Comolli in a football strategy role means we have a link between business and football: and we are taking a long term view on recruiting players (worth bearing in mind when slating the likes of Carroll and Henderson!).
There are going to be moments in our future where the modernisation sits uncomfortably for Liverpool fans. We have to find a way of adapting; I am not suggesting swapping a pre-match beer in the Albert for a prawn sandwich and glass of Pinot at the‘Standard Chartered’ stadium.
But, we do need to accept that the footballing environment has changed, and we need to change with it. If we stand still, we will get left behind. There will be occasions where decisions the club makes will be commercially driven: and whilst they may not sit comfortably, they are being made for the long term good of the Club.
Shankly’s holy trinity will always be part of the Liverpool bible: but if we want to write a new chapter, we have to accept that football is now big business; whether we like it or not.