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Our Owner’s Lack of Ambition: Is Rafa the Glue Holding our Hopes Together?

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Let me first begin with a brief history lesson:

Cast your mind back to 1992 (if you were old enough) and think what United did after finishing 2nd to Leeds. Having bought Schmeichel (keeper of the season in the 91/92) and following recent big investments in McLair, Pallister, Ince, Irwin and co, and the emergence of Giggs, Beckham etc, Ferguson realised his team needed a striker. He had failed to sign David Hirst, Matt Le Tissier and Brian Deane, and went out and bought Cantona from Leeds (after rejecting Leeds‘ bid to buy Irwin). Cantona provided the spark for their team and the won their first title in 26 years. The next season he went out and again set the transfer record to buy Roy Keane. They then won the double.

If you’re old enough, cast your mind now back a bit further to the early 1970’s (or if like me you weren’t quite around then, turn the pages back). Shankly’s team of the 60s was ageing and he new he had to rebuild. In 69/70 we finished 15 points behind the winners, having to “settle” for a UEFA cup place. Rather than wait for his team to fall even further behind their rivals, he went shopping. Having bought Larry Lloyd in 1969 and nurtured Ray Clemence up through the ranks until he broke into the 1st team in ’70, he signed Steve Heighway and splashed the cash on big John Toshack. In 70/71 we again finished in 5th place, 14 points adrift. Shankly kept on shopping and signed Kevin Keegan in the summer of ’71. Keegan and Toshack helped fire us up to 3rd place in 71/72 (still settling for the UEFA cup), and still not satisfied with his team, Shankly splashed even more cash on Scotland international Peter Cormack, who would go on and play an integral part in the double winning team that season.

What’s the point of this history lesson then, you ask? You don’t win things without investing in the team – and you don’t stop investing until you win. And even then, you don’t stop investing if you want to keep winning. No team has ever won the title having to sell to buy. That’s not how Shankly did it, it’s not how Paisley did it. We all know it wasn’t how King Kenny did it (the Beardsley, Aldridge, Barnes and Houghton signings weren’t exactly cheap).

But now at Liverpool we do things differently. We must sell to buy, despite promises of Snoogy Doogy and plans for a new stadium to bring in big cash receding faster than Rafa’s hairline. To sign Torres we sell Garcia, Bellamy and others, to sign Mascherano we sell Sissoko, to sign Johnson we sell Crouch and Arbeloa, and we could only afford Aquilani because we sold Alonso. Now when we finish 2nd, instead of building on what we have and allowing our manager to go strengthen his hand, his “transfer budget” is used to renew contracts – as if signing existing team members constitutes a transfer!

Who are we kidding?

Photo from fOTOGLIF

What bothers me in all this isn’t just the owners lack of funds – I’m getting used to that. It’s the lack of ambition that I sensed when Christian Purslow (managing director, pictured right) was explaining that the club had indeed invested in the team by renewing contracts, as we’re not supposed to know the difference between extending contracts and buying new players. Yes, we must live in the constraints around us. But how can we then expect to overhaul United and keep out new competition that actually is spending like drunken sailors? How can we complain when our squad isn’t deep enough to handle major injury crises like the one we’re facing without bad results, when we’ve had to sell players to buy new ones, rather than relegate 1st teamers to squad status to deepen the squad as we sign new and better players?

There seems to be a dichotomy between the ambition of the club as shown in our transfer activity, and the expectations of fans as shown in our disgust at ending up in the UEFA cup or our anger that we’re in 7th place struggling to cope with several injuries to 1st team players.

And I know I’m not the only one at a loss as to what to make of this Purslow fellow. He’s certainly a smooth talker, saying the right things soon after his arrival (but then his employers are known for talking the talk, if not walking the walk). But his recent comments about “budgeting wisely” got me thinking:


“If we have three home games in the UEFA Cup we are equivalent to what we budget for in the Champions League. We’re very disappointed but we could have played one home leg, one away leg in the knockout stage and been out of this competition anyway,” he said.
“I like to think we’ll be taking 40,000-50,000 to Hamburg in May and if we get halfway to doing that we will make more money than we would from one round in the Champions League.
“It’s a missed opportunity financially but it has no effect on budgeted performance, and that’s the key thing. Budget prudently and then you don’t get negative surprises if the football doesn’t go the right way.”

Indeed, much of that is sensible, and pinning the club’s financial hopes on winning the Champions League or the title is not the way to go, as any Leeds fan will tell you. But his comments got me wondering whether this shrewd “low expectation” budgeting has come along with low expectations from the owners. It’s no secret that the owners’ number one priority is turning a profit on the sale of our club (which is pretty much a guarantee since most of the cost of purchase was through loans, a good chunk of which are on the club’s books now). And because I used to think the way to achieve financial success in sports was through on-the-field success, I was comforted by thinking that even if they were only focused on the bottom line, they’re goals and ours would be aligned since they’d need football success to generate financial profits. Alas, apparently this is not the case. It may be the best way to get rich through the business of sports, but it is not the only way. The leveraged buyout has them in the position where any buyer who can see the growth potential and revenue potential of the club (underscored by Purslow’s shrewd overseeing of our new sponsorship deal), could give them the profit they seek, even if the club does not win anything between now and then.

Photo from fOTOGLIF

Rafa’s critics seem to think the only reason he has not been fired for our poor results is because of his new contract which would cost our owners £20M to break. While this is no doubt a factor, I suspect they are also reluctant to put the club into further instability and uncertainty as this would throw some doubt into any potential buyer’s minds. Add to that the fact that Rafa in his dedication to the club seems determined to succeed despite the uncertainty and instability at boardroom level, and the owners must surely now realise that they have a manager who will do his best to keep things steady, even as they try to offload the club for a profit.

Rafa’s critics also believe Liverpool will not win anything with him in charge – and even if that were true (which I doubt), frankly, I think our owners wouldn’t be bothered one bit. I do not believe they are particularly motivated by us winning the title. Regular qualification for the Champions’ League, decent cup runs and a top 4 place, and these “low expectations” will provide a steady enough revenue stream to ensure they can attract a buyer with the promise of better merchandising and international marketing and a greater future revenue stream once the stadium is built. Winning silverware does not factor into it one iota.

Frankly, my doubts are not over Rafa. My doubts are whether ANY manager will be able to win any silverware with the lack of ambition shown in the transfer budget we’ve had over the years, and the penny pinching decision to take the costs of contract renewals out of the limited transfer budget. No team – from Shankly’s to Dalglish’s to Ferguson’s to Wenger’s to Jose’s – has ever won a title while having to sell in order to buy. No manager has managed to do it, and certainly not while his rivals are spending steadily and investing in their teams and deepening their squads all around him.

So while others are eager for Rafa to be fired to bring in some new messiah who will work miracles in this penny pinching climate, I’m very skeptical over such optimism. As I said elsewhere, sacking a quality manager in the midst of such turmoil would usher in a period of uncertainty and instability that would shine a tragic light on the unfortunate situation that our owners have put us in: no real investment to suggest they are bothered about winning anything, mounting debt, constantly regressing stadium plans, a “transfer budget” that is used only to renew contracts, and constant boardroom squabbles while attempting to hawk the club off for a profit.

Frankly, I give Rafa credit for getting us where we were at the end of last season in the midst of all that over the last 5 years, and I credit him with us not falling away from the top since the owners arrived. Should Rafa quit now or worse, be sacked, I can see us heading into steady decline. I say this because I doubt there are many managers who would do as well as Rafa has done in this environment, and fewer managers who would be able to repair the chaos and instability that sacking him would cause, especially not on the “transfer” budget our owners would provide, even if most of our squad remained intact.

So my advice to Rafa’s critics: be careful what you wish for; you might just get it.

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