As Rafael Benitez gets set for a return to Anfield for the first time in a managerial capacity since leaving the club in 2010, his imprint on the club still remains; nearly half of the Liverpool side that have played the majority of games this season were signed by him. But whilst there may still be some familiar places around the place, the club is in an almost unrecognisable state from the one he left. The Reds’ slide from Champions League knockout stage regulars to perennial underachievers has been startling, and there is little evidence to suggest that their fortunes will change for the better anytime soon.
Since Fenway Sports Group purchased the club in October 2010, the club has failed to qualify for the Champions League - and not through lack of trying on their part. Whilst they have not spent as lavishly as the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea, they have invested significantly in to the playing squad. Unfortunately, their resources have been squandered by both Kenny Dalglish and, to a certain extent, Brendan Rodgers. Over £100m has been spent on Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing, Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam, Sebastian Coates, Joe Allen and Fabio Borini, and none of them are mainstays in the side.
The crux of the problem, for me anyway, stems from a lack of leadership and experience at boardroom level, which then stems down to the footballing side of things as those making decisions at the top lack the knowledge of football both as a sport and a business to make the right calls. Both principal owner, John W Henry, and chairman, Tom Werner, have admitted they know very little about the sport, and whilst Ian Ayre may be a boyhood Liverpool fan, he has right whatsoever to make decisions regarding managers and transfers; he’s a money man, and has fine a great job increasing our turnover through sponsorship and kit deals, but nothing more.
FSG seemed to understand the need for someone with experience of handling the football side of things at boardroom level, which is why they hired Damien Comolli, on the recommendation of Billy Beane (he of Moneyball fame), not long after they bought the club. But Comolli’s stats-oriented, homegrown recruitment policy ended up being an unmitigated disaster (Suarez aside - and you don’t need stats to see what a special talent he is - his two only successful signings were Craig Bellamy on a free and José Enrique for £6m) and eventually cost him his job, along with Dalglish. The cup runs were brilliant, but a League Cup win isn’t going to help us attract the top players from around Europe in the same way Champions League football will.
Whether you believe Kenny should’ve been given another season or not, the money they wasted should have seen us close the gap on the top four, but it merely widened it. FSG ultimately claimed they wanted to get ‘their man’ in place, and there is some merit to their argument – they couldn’t not give Dalglish the job permanently after the job he did as caretaker or there would’ve been full scale anarchy on the streets that would make the Toxteth riots in the eighties look like playground banter - but their actions fail to resolve our problems, but instead raise as many questions as before.
If Dalglish was not FSG’s guy for long-term, then why allow him to spend so much money? If they had such a clear blueprint in mind moving forward following Kenny’s dismissal, which clearly included hiring a young coach and having him work under a Director of Football, why appoint Rodgers, and allow him to convince you out of hiring a DoF? Why have Ian Ayre go on BBC radio and claim that Liverpool can compete with anyone in the transfer market, then not a few weeks later fail to back the manager with £6m to sign a much-needed attacker after you made him get rid of five senior attackers in a bid to trim the wage bill? And who the hell thought they were qualified to decide that Dempsey was not worth the money?
Clearly FSG are being advised by people behind the scenes, but who? How can people be held to account when it’s still unclear who is making the decisions? The manager is the easy target, but if his hands are tied then what can he do? David Dein has been mentioned in certain quarters as someone who has FSG’s ear, and he certainly has an accomplished CV, but why only have him in an advisory role when we sorely lack someone of his pedigree in the boardroom? Until we get clear structure in the club’s hierarchy that will be in place for years to come and be unaffected by any managerial changes, we will continue to stagnate.
Reports this week suggest that future transfers will now be decide by committee, which is definitely a more stable structure, but when the committee consists of Brendan Rodgers, Ian Ayre, head of recruitment, Dave Fallows, Barry Hunter, the recently appointed chief scout from Manchester City, and head of analysis, Michael Edwards, it’s just asking for trouble. The latter four names have little to no qualification to be deciding on whether a player would be a good signing or value for money. It is a baffling set of candidates; we might as well just start polls on the club’s website and have the fans decide whether we should sign players.
I haven’t even touched on the stadium issue, which, bar a set of reports in the media late last year stating the obvious that FSG would prefer to renovate Anfield, has failed to progress in nearly three years; it was, as they suggested, a priority for them to resolve. As the latest set of accounts to come out confirm, despite the fact that our turnover is still amongst the highest in Europe, without the income that Champions League football provides and the extra match day revenue that the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United generate, Liverpool will soon find ourselves in a crippling amount of debt again like we were under Hicks and Gillett. Time is against us.
It doesn’t matter if Brendan Rodgers is in charge next season, or if Benitez’s constant championing for a return ‘home’ eventually gets him a second chance; the manager is merely a cog in a dysfunctional machine. Liverpool’s problems go way beyond who is training the players and picking the team. This current setup will not see a return to the Champions League, and unless something changes in the next few months it’s looking increasingly likely that Luis Suarez will decide to move to a club who can match his ambitions and allow him to showcase his talents on the highest level, which is no more than he deserves.
No pressure, then.