The Sunday Review: Liverpool FC’s 2010/2011 season

by Anthony Painter

This was the year of lost owners, three managers and the end of history for Liverpool FC. And despite the tumult – nearly quite literally losing everything – it may have recaptured its soul. The story of Liverpool’s year offers deeper lessons that reach beyond the Shankly gates. Some of those lessons are even political. It’s definitely a story of our world and times.

Let’s start with Tom Hicks and George Gillett. And a basic point: there is no rational financial reason for anyone to own a football club. It’s pure vanity; the economics of mad men. So you have to be very rich for it to work in the long-term. Sure, it’s a growing market as the entertainment industries beyond film go global. But the costs are too high, the rewards too uncertain, and the loyal revenues only compensate to a limited extent for the high risk-low reward business model. You do it out of vanity in the main – you want to own people’s dreams and put yourself on a glamorous platform. Either that or you are a crazy gambler.

Little business sense means that if you are not super rich you have to borrow on unreasonable terms. And if you want to build a top side you have to borrow a lot. Hicks and Gillett weren’t super-rich. They borrowed on ridiculous terms. They couldn’t compete but, worst of all, they lied – to everyone including themselves. They were symbols of the age of capitalism we have just come through. Luckily, a quintessentially English establishment figure, Martin Broughton, chairman of British Airways, came to Liverpool’s rescue and justice was done. Hicks and Gillett left with less than nothing. The swindlers were swindled.

The new owners, led by John Henry, at least seem to “get” sport. They turned round Boston Red Sox, picking up a couple of World Series in the process. They’ve got some interesting investors on board – including the New York Times and the mega-celebrity basketball star, Miami Heat’s LeBron James. It’s a more sensitive, aware and personal version of debt-fuelled capitalism. They get the spirit of the club and the fans, it would seem. The debt is New England Sports Ventures‘ rather than Liverpool FC’s so at least the club is more shielded from the downside. Nonetheless, the fundamental business model still has enormous weaknesses. Maybe this generation of players will pull the club through; and then there’s the life-force that is King Kenny?

Before we come back to Dalglish, let’s start with Rafa. I love Rafa Benitez. He has everything as a person – a generous spirit, a deep understanding of Liverpool as a place and of the club and its fans. He still lives on Merseyside and on leaving the club gave a series of £96,000 gifts to local charities including the Hillsborough family support group. The significance of the number 96 will not be lost on anyone with an understanding of the club’s tragedies. Rafa is a generous and brilliant man.

That deep empathy and humanity somehow never quite translated into Liverpool’s football.  Apart from once. And that will never be forgotten as a profound human spirit summoned up the most remarkable game of football and triumph ever. Even Vladimir Smicer scored in turning round a 3-0 deficit against AC Milan to lift the Champions League in 2005. I first saw a Benitez-managed side in the UEFA cup final in Gothenburg in 2004. It was organised like a Roman battalion. Within three years Liverpool would be playing like that. You could sit in the stands and look down perfect lines of defence, midfield, with Steven Gerrard slotting in between front and midfield lines to induce chaos in opposition defences.

It never quite reached the summit. It came very close at the end of the 2008-09 season when it was probably only a capitulating Aston Villa that prevented Liverpool from lifting the title as Manchester United – heading for a third consecutive defeat – were allowed back from the dead in the last ten minutes of a critical league game at Old Trafford. The Soviet Union had its moments – the launching of sputnik perhaps the technological equivalent of Liverpool in Istanbul – but that form of regimented organisation ultimately never works. And by the end of the end of the 2009-2010 season it had collapsed for Liverpool. The Berlin Wall had come down.

Just as Benitez had succeeded in positioning himself in opposition to Hicks and Gillett with the fans, Roy Hodgson became a fall guy for the owners’ failings. He didn’t help himself when he was photographed chumming up to Alex Ferguson – yes, football is personal and tribal. Liverpool’s opening games of the season were as tough as could be and so Roy never managed to get into his stride.

Then the team started losing at Anfield to the likes of Blackpool and Wolves. Hodgson is not a bad manager at all, as his subsequent success at West Brom has shown. He never emotionally connected with the club and its fans and in the modern era, in which we crave that emotional relationship with those whom we entrust, that was never going to work. More than one political leader can attest to failing this test- whatever their technical capabilities. And so Roy Hodgson had to go. The stage was set for the return of the king.

I readily confess to being a Dalglish sceptic back in January. Along with Ian Rush, he had been my childhood idol. If you play with variations of his name in passwords you can probably get access to all my personal details quicker than if I were to sign up for a Playstation 3 account. He created the greatest Liverpool side in my lifetime. No, he did more than that. He created the greatest side in my lifetime. Barnes, Beardsley, Aldridge, McMahon, Grobbelaar, Hansen, Houghton, Nicol, were just some of the great team that took even Tom Finney’s breath away. Who could forget their 5-0 destruction of Nottingham Forest? It was an exhibition of controlled demolition that perhaps only the modern day Barcelona match.

Yet, his return felt to me like the club and fans trying to repeat history by re-running it. I was wrong and for a simple reason. I’d forgotten a key Dalglish strength – his understanding of footballers and what makes them tick.

My mistake was confirmed during Liverpool’s one-all draw at the Emirates last month, all but ending Arsenal’s title challenge. Fabio Aurelio’s hamstring went just about 20 minutes into the game. 17-year old full-back Jack Robinson came on. At the end of last season he had become Liverpool’s youngest ever player with a 5 minute appearance on the last day of the season. This game was as much a must-win for Liverpool as it was for Arsenal. As Robinson walked on the pitch, Dalglish completely relaxed him by smiling and having a laugh with him. A relaxed Robinson largely kept Theo Walcott at bay for the rest of the game.

In that one single moment, an empathetic and human reassurance from Liverpool’s manager not only lifted Robinson’s performance in that game; his whole career has been set on a new trajectory. Benitez would have terrified Robinson with strictly communicated formation charts and positional instructions. Hodgson would have nervously sent him on, rubbing his chin as he did so. Dalglish made him think he was a world beater. And he did the same with Jay Spearing, John Flanagan, Lucas Leiva, Raul Meireles, Dirk Kuyt and, goodness, even Maxi Rodriguez scored two hat-tricks in three games. And did I mention Luis Suarez? Oh boy, Luis Suarez. Get a load of him.

Liverpool FC has been rediscovered as a social animal. The human touch has returned. Whether it will be able to compete with the massive levels of investment of Manchester City, Chelsea, and Manchester United remains to be seen – there was only one Fernando Torres to sell. The team’s capitulation at home to Tottenham Hotspur, which may have cost it a place in the Europa League, shows that there are still significant weaknesses. What seems clear, though, is that Kenny Dalglish will get the most out of this living, breathing entity that is Liverpool Football Club.

And, strangely, now that Manchester United holds a record number of league titles, a weight has been lifted. Now the club has been returned to the spirit and values of Bill Shankly, it doesn’t feel so bad. We still loathe Manchester United – there is no greater feeling in the world than beating them. Chelsea doesn’t even come near. Chelsea are like an alien invasion movie – you know they will get sick from avian flu or get bored and fly home sooner or later. Manchester United will always be there.

They can have the prize of history. For now. As Neil Kinnock might say, we have got our club back and it feels exciting and new and most definitely not nostalgic and deluded. Some might say that, whatever happens from this moment on, Kenny Dalglish is applying traditional Liverpool (or Glasgow to be more honest) values in a modern setting.

And the club has turned itself around through understanding the basic human principles that apply in any form of organisation. Combined with leadership there is no limit to potential achievement. I’m sure there are some political lessons in this somewhere..

Anthony Painter usually reviews books.

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4 Responses to “The Sunday Review: Liverpool FC’s 2010/2011 season”

  1. Sara Dhungana says:

    Good Stuff!

  2. Anthony,

    Thank you for keeping me entertained as I fill time before the last Match of the Day of the season.

    You provide a curious set of comments about Rafa. You profess to love him and compare him to the Soviet Union. While the mismanagement of Hicks and Gillett obviously didn’t help him, I tend to think it was poor man management as much as rigid tactics that explain his decline as Liverpool manager. It could all have been so different if he’d been able to show enough love to the key player of the 08/09 season – Xabi Alonso – to keep him at the club.

    King Kenny has the human touch that Rafa seems to lack. As you say, this has been key to the turnaround in Liverpool’s season. But, for the most part, Liverpool has not had a great deal of pressure on them in the period since Kenny’s return. In terms of whether Liverpool can advance higher up the league next season the questions are: Can Kenny have the same kind of impact when there will be more pressure on the team? Will sufficient funds be invested in the playing squad by John Henry et al? And will these funds be wisely invested?

    Damien Comolli and Steve Clarke will help on most of these fronts but I think that Liverpool need about five top quality players to have a squad capable of winning the league, which potentially suggests an outlay as high as £100m or more. Liverpool has recovered its soul but much more hard cash may be a precondition of again being champions.

    YNWA, Jonathan

  3. Thanks Jonathan,

    All fair comment. Hopefully it will come cheaper than £100million but I suspect it will take that- over a couple of seasons though. Comolli and Clarke are key.

    I tend to see the Soviet tactics and the poor man management as two sides of the same coin. Xabi Alonso- to think that Rafa wanted to replace him with Gareth Barry is just so incredibly shocking that it’s difficult to mentally process.

    Yes, the pressure has largely been off but comprehensive defeats of Man U and Man City with a v.good victory at Stamford Bridge also do show some core quality. And remember, much of the recovery period has been achieved without Steven Gerrard. Though, over time that is something LFC will have to get increasingly used to.

  4. I see what you mean about the Soviet tactics and the poor man management being two sides of the same coin. But they don’t have to be so. Mourinho is tactically completely Soviet but his players always love him and will run through brick walls for him. To be fair to Rafa when it really counted in big matches he was invariably capable of inspiring the Liverpool players to deliver. But I’m not sure this was consistently enough the case. We came back from 3-0 against Milan but there were too many draws and defeats against relatively lowly Premiership teams.

    Gerrard – Agree. I wonder whether he’s getting to the age where he needs to rethink his game, as Giggs did in transitioning from a marauding winger to a passing central midfielder. I think he may spend more time next to Lucas in the middle of the pitch than off Carroll and Suarez in future. He should make more of his passing range and save his legs a bit.

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