Crisis over at Anfield, then. Blimey, even David Ngog scored. Maybe it is because of such miracles that all the sensible advice from pundits about how “just one win” wouldn’t alter Liverpool’s dire on and off-field straits has gone through the defenestration process. Liverpool were almost everything against United that they weren’t against either Sunderland or Olympique Lyonnais. They were committed, organised and, most significantly of all, with Fernando Torres up front. Manchester United, however, were terrible. The Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina didn’t chase the length of the Anfield pitch to celebrate Ngog’s goal just because it (a) clinched victory over “them” or (b) might be a once-every-two-blue-moons event. He also needed the exercise. Liverpool remain fifth, though, with Manchester City and Aston Villa poised to overtake if they do the right thing with their game in hand each and only Spurs likely to descend from their current heights (Champions League, with Michael Dawson at the back and Harry Redknapp who knows where?). And their current Champions League plight remains unaffected by Sunday’s events, even UEFA’s coefficient system can’t run to big club favouritism to that extent. At least, not yet it can’t.
So the battles that permeated the sports pages last week are still there to be fought. Just under a year ago, after Arsenal were taken apart on the break by Villa at the Emirates, the talk was of how the Gunners would cope financially with fifth place and a season outwith the Champions League. Before long, Villa’s Inter Toto Cup exploits caught up with them, as did Arsene Wenger’s men. But Villa won’t be so tired this year. Manchester City…well…you know. And, of course, Liverpool might face a season and a half among the Europa League not-so-elite. The divisions over whether this will even happen at all, let alone be so apocalyptic, are as wide and visible as anything Abbott and Costello have produced in the proverbial boardroom.
In the red corner is the ‘Spirit of Shankly’ supporters union, drawing informed comparisons between Liverpool ’09 and Leeds ’01 and trying to get their message across via banners, protest marches and the occasional hijack of a co-owner at Liverpool’s Kirkby academy. A few “Yanks Go Home” beach balls might do the trick at the minute. In the other red corner, meanwhile, is George Gillett Jr, the Liverpool co-owner whose dad lacked imagination in the son-naming department and who, in his own mind, possesses an economic mind to match the best around, combining the optimism of Alastair Darling with the foresight of Alan Greenspan. The ‘club’, in this debate, is personified by new managing director Christian Purslow, another remorseless optimist, although that is partly what he is paid to be.
SOS, the acronym surely no accident, have combined with ‘Share Liverpool FC’ in providing more detailed analysis of Liverpool’s finances than they are given credit for, certainly by the club, who accuse them of un-necessary ‘scaremongering’. SOS argue that such scaremongering is entirely necessary. In citing Liverpool as the ‘next Leeds’ they describe a club reaching “the semi-final stages” of the “lucrative” Champions League, “reliant on its continued appearance” in the competition, “doing well in the Premier League”, with “an ownership that has borrowed heavily against (the club’s) success and money from ever-increasing TV deals”. That was Leeds United in 2001. Leeds only made the “semi-final stage” once of what was then not such a “lucrative” competition, compared to Liverpool’s “continued appearance” in the business end of the competition, (to the quarter-finals and beyond). But the other component comparisons are precise. And “doing well” in the Premier League, which meant fifth place and qualifying for the UEFA Cup in 2001, is no longer enough when you are “borrowing heavily” against “TV deals” that are no longer increasing in line with salary inflation and when your matchday income is 16-33,000 punters short of two of your major rivals.
Gillett’s defence of Liverpool’s current financial position to an SOS representative at Kirkby last month was truly astonishing and perhaps didn’t garner the media attention it deserved. Most of what was attributed to him either required no further analysis or defied analysis altogether. The headline-making debate about who said “the shovel needs to be in the ground in the next 60 days or so” at the new stadium site was about as important as any internecine strife between himself and fellow co-owner Tom Hicks, one notch above arguing over how many angels you could fit on the head of a pin. Gillett and Hicks’ first appearance at Anfield was as carefully stage-managed as such things come. And neither would have dared say anything which might have brought an inadvertent “what the…?” from the other. However, the fact that the words came from Gillett (it’s on YouTube, so it must be true), allied to the vehemence of his denial at Kirkby (“bulls**t, that was not me”) calls into question his memory…or, as many Liverpool fans may choose to see it, his fundamental honesty.
Next up was his chronologically-suspect insistence that global economic conditions were responsible for all the broken promises about the new stadium: “In that period of time,” he says of the afore-mentioned ’60 days’ “the world credit market collapsed” . This times the collapse at March 2007, when one observer suggested it was: “a year and a half later, when the credit crisis hit”. You may have guessed already that this too was Gillett. The really remarkable thing was that he said this only moments previously. Then there was his revelation that “We have put more money in than anyone, than Manchester City, with the craziness they have got”. Yes, that craziness.
More bizarre was the news that Abramovich “didn’t put his own money in (to Chelsea). He used loans borrowed from Russian banks and that’s why he’s in so much trouble”. How many back, and front, pages would you have to hold for news like that? More bizarre still was, well, this: “If I told you that Arsenal by law cannot spend as much as we do… would you say we were underspending?” Well, no. That wouldn’t be the first thing I’d say. “What the **** are you on about?” might be. Still, as he says, “the media don’t understand how to write about cash flow and profit and loss”. So it’s our fault (yet) again. Unfortunately for this argument, it wasn’t the “media” that wrote about the “significant doubt on the group’s and parent company’s ability to continue as a going concern” before the banks came to the club’s rescue in July. That particular statement was made by KPMG LLP, Liverpool Football Club’s accountants.
Yet amid the pensioner-at-bus-stop ramblings Gillett gets to the fundamental point and confirms that all the scaremongering is necessary and that the financial analyses of ‘Spirit of Shankly,’ ‘ShareLiverpool FC’ et al are pertinent. “The budgets are based upon a relatively limited run in the Champions League.” And without Champions League football, for a season anyway, “the debt wouldn’t go up”. That Gillett and other official club spokespersons don’t see this as alarming is, itself, alarming, a manifestation of the parallel financial universe in which these people live, where debt is good and doesn’t have to be repaid.
Admittedly, the banks are quite happy to continue propping up the club and raking in the debt interest repayments. But a year and a half of Europa League football – always assuming Liverpool hold onto fifth spot from Villa and/or Spurs…or Sunderland – won’t do much to help meet those repayments. The precise earnings differential between Champions League glory and Europa League drudgery is difficult to quantify – it has to be if even David Conn in the Guardian can’t quite be sure (“it is impossible to put a figure on what Liverpool might lose out on”). It must be safe, however, to asume that it would run into tens of millions of pounds. Even the much-trumpeted new, £20m-per-annum, sponsorship deal with Standard Chartered will only draw itself up to its full height if they win the Champions League, never mind simply being in it.
As the papers eventually reported, once Christian Purslow’s hyperbole machine ran out of fuel, “a significant element of the deal is performance-related with bonuses to be paid out should they win the Premier League or the Champions League”. In his rush to equate the deal with Manchester United’s new arrangements and to bang on incomprehensively about “strategic and cultural fits,” Purslow overlooked this key fact, and who would dare suggest that he didn’t think such performance-related issues would be an issue, when Liverpool strode confidently on to the Stadio Artemio Franchi pitch in Florence, a few short weeks ago. Of course, it isn’t an issue any more, now that Liverpool have beaten United and all’s well with their world again. After all, even without Gerrard and Torres, they still have Lucas and Ngog. What could possibly go wrong?