Football: Liverpool talking different language

Norman Fox examines the changing faces of Anfield
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The Independent Online
SHREWD MOVE though it was for Liverpool to sell a 9.9 per cent stake of their ownership to the Granada media group, the promise that the deal would provide millions to spend on players could further distance the club from its history of being determinedly representative of Merseyside and Britain. More money will mean more foreign players who will probably know more about how to cop out of contracts than what it used to be like as a dedicated fan on the Kop.

Liverpool have completed a clever financial deal with Granada. Unlike Manchester United's proposed arrangement with BSkyB, with its emphasis on a quick profit for the shareholders, the Granada contract has released money directly into the club's transfer fund. Since the end of last season Gerard Houllier has spent pounds 17m on mainly foreign players and has also agreed an pounds 8m fee for Newcastle's Dietmar Hamann. With Paul Ince bound for Middlesbrough, Steve McManaman gone to Real Madrid and David James sold to Aston Villa, the first team next season is likely to be predominantly imported, but will it be better?

The majority of fans writing to the Liverpool Echo have praised Houllier for being courageous in "getting rid of the troublemakers". They have been saying that if weeding them out and replacing them with unfamiliar foreigners is what it takes to overcome the fact that Liverpool have not won a trophy for four years and are acutely embarrassed by Manchester United's success, then so be it. They look at Arsenal and envy them their recent progress, which is also piloted by a French manager, though one with a lot more hands-on experience at club level than Houllier.

Whereas Arsene Wenger has brought to Highbury some of the most accomplished players in Europe, Houllier's signings offer less confidence.

Rick Parry, Liverpool's chief executive, claims that the summer signings have been done on the basis of Houllier's experience of European football and in the confident knowledge that the deal with Granada would take place, not with the intention of replacing an allegedly disruptive core of players with virtually unknown foreigners. "We cannot look back to the past and neither can we stand on our own feet financially, nor think that we can compete at the highest level with an all home- produced team," he said.

So is this the set-in-stone, buy-foreign policy of a Liverpool club that in their last championship winning season (1990) had only four non-UK born players in the entire squad? Peter Robinson, the executive vice-chairman, who says there is no such policy, points out they are committed to investing more than pounds 2m of Granada's money in the youth academy. He maintains that the lower division clubs, who have British players in which Liverpool would be interested, have raised the asking prices "out of all proportion".

So the French manager is going to have a lot of oeuf on his face if his payments of pounds 2.5m for a Marseille striker called "Titi" Camara and pounds 4.6m for Sander Westerveld (a British record for a goalkeeper) who has only recently won his first cap in a friendly for Holland, prove inadequate.

Of the foreign players he has bought, perhaps the only one most leading clubs might envy is the 25-year-old, 6ft 4in Sami Hypia, a Finnish international defender who had attracted a lot of attention while at Willem II without anyone else offering as much as pounds 2.5m. Houllier is well aware of the fans' annoyance at the team's defensive frailty, yet the purchase of Blackburn's Swiss international Stephane Henchoz begs two questions: if he is that good, how come Blackburn's defence never recovered from the loss of Colin Hendry, and is loyalty high on the agenda of someone who had it written into his contract that he could leave if his club were relegated?

The times they are certainly changing since Tommy Smith left after 18 devoted years at Anfield, in the shadow of which he was born. Yet even the outspoken Smith says Houllier should be "given a chance to turn things round this season". Being of the old school, he, too, believes that the root of Liverpool's recent malaise has been the absence of team spirit within the squad. The fact that Robbie Fowler, now elevated to vice-captain (a clear challenge to show better discipline), has been left without his best mate, McManaman, is widely seen as a deprivation for the good.

With all the changes there is irony in the fact that the club have appointed Smith's former colleague Phil Thompson as assistant manager to knock heads together and revive the British spirit of the Boot Room. This season he will not even speak the same languages.

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