Benitez out, Hodgson in, then. If we take it as read that Rafael Benitez had outlived his usefulness at Anfield (and, whilst there are plenty of supporters that remain unhappy at his departure at the start of the summer, Liverpool last season were a team – and club – in decline, rather than a team – and club – in transition), then he probably had to go at the end of the season. There are two conflicting views on the appointment of Roy Hodgson, and both of them have merit. One the one hand, it could be argued that Hodgson is a steadying hand on the tiller – a managerial journeyman with a reputation for treating his players well but drilling some discipline into them both on and off the pitch. Perhaps he is the perfect choice to arrest Liverpool’s recent and sudden decline.
On the other hand, however, he is also a managerial journeyman who, in taking the Liverpool job, is taking his thirteenth managerial position. He could be regarded as the managerial equivalent of applying a sticking plaster, a stop gap measure who gives the club little opportunity to rebuild the playing side of the club over a period of time. What we know for certain, however, is that the media love him, and if the external pressures of being under the microscope to the extent that a club the size of Liverpool is have any effect on the stability of the squad, then Hodgson’s appointment will bring significant benefits to the club. The uncomfortable question remains: has he been appointed because he is the current flavour of the month?
The most important battle of the summer at Anfield, however, is not taking place anywhere near the pitch. It seems likely that a deal that will finally see the removal of Gillett and Hicks from the club may be close. The current front-runner, Kenny Huang’s QSL group, is making familiar noises about throwing money at the team and chasing the holy grail of a new stadium. It is to be hoped that Liverpool supporters, having campaigned so vigorously against Gillett and Hicks, will not sell their souls on the promise of untold riches and largesse. The supporters groups Spirit of Shankly and Share Liverpool are clearly concerned that this take-over has to be the one that gets it right:
Given the financial dynamics of running a football club, and particularly the need for annual player acquisitions, SOS-SL believes that any genuine investor is more likely to seek a return on their investment at exit rather than seeking substantial annual dividend returns, and should be willing to partner with organised fans who wish to provide additional equity for the club.
The optimistic amongst us would hope that new owners will not start building up further unsustainable debt, that they will seek partnership with organised supporters groups and that their overriding intention will be the guardianship of the heritage of Liverpool Football Club. Whether Huang has any intention of doing these, however, is not known and the statements that he has made have been largely from the school of thought that Liverpool simply have to go out and spend enormous amounts of money. “Liverpool is and always should be one of the highest-spending clubs in all of football, and our financial models presume Liverpool will be at or near the top in spending on players every year”, Huang said during the week, which raises critical questions which Liverpool supporters have to ask, even more so after confirmation came through this morning that CIC, the investment arm of the Chinese government, were not financing his bid for the club. The default position for Liverpool supporters has to be that Huang’s consortium could be another Munto Finance or Dr Sulaiman Al-Fahim, and that he has to demonstrably prove otherwise.
Meanwhile, Roy Hodgson made a solid, if unspectacular start to competitive football with a comfortable aggregate win against the Macedonian club FK Rabotnicki in the Europa League. He has persuaded Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres to stay at the club (although whether Liverpool should have cashed in on the sale of the now thirty year old Gerrard is another matter) and it seems likely that Liverpool will improve on last season’s performance, if only because they surely can’t do a great deal worse than they did last season. There are simultaneous causes for optimism at pessimism at Anfield at present. Joe Cole, for example, could be an excellent signing for them, but he is injury prone. Fernando Torres is one of the best strikers in Europe, when fit. With the wind blowing in the right direction they should finish higher than they did last season, but there are too many maybes hanging over the club to be able to believe that they will be to challenge for the league championship itself.
The main battle for Liverpool on the pitch, however, is for a place back in the Champions League and whether they can manage this may depend on other clubs stalling as much them improving. There is some degree of reason for them to believe that any or all of Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Aston Vill have stagnated somewhat over the summer, and it remains to be seen whether Manchester City will be able to gel and improve on their fifth place finish last season. At this remove, however, it seems to early to make anything like a definitive call on which four clubs will grab the Champions League spots. It may be too soon in March of next year, as well. The Premier League title would seem to be beyond them for this season, but a place in the Champions League certainly isn’t and the process of going from in decline to being in transition already seems to have started.
It’s a start, but for a club with the expectations of Liverpool, it might not be enough to assuage supporters who have now spent twenty years without a championship to celebrate. Those supporters may well consider that they have demonstrated enough patience over the previous two decades and that enough is enough. However, the long-term stability of Liverpool Football Club has to be the most important issue to be resolved over the coming weeks and months. When a club of this stature finds itself in the position in which Liverpool have come to find themselves, there will always be magpies and vultures that start to circle overhead. Getting rid of Gillett and Hicks will be a very good start, but the intentions and motives of their successors will be even more important than this. The battle for the heart and soul of Liverpool Football Club isn’t over yet, and the supporters need to keep the pressure on to ensure that the long term future of the club is passed into hands of people that deserve it. It cannot afford to be the wrong decision again.
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