After a 25-year wait, should Liverpool still consider themselves title contenders?

COMMENT: Raheem Sterling’s attitude towards Liverpool as a stepping stone may be a taste of what’s to come, writes Sam Wallace

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The Independent Football

There is a special significance for 2016 in the history of Liverpool Football Club, or rather a special significance in the history of Liverpool that concerns itself with winning their elusive 19th league championship title.

If and when the club pass a 26th anniversary without another league title, as looks likely barring a miraculous turnaround next season, then they will have gone longer than Manchester United did in their 26-year wait to win a league championship between 1967 and 1993. That 26-year wait for United felt epic, including, as it did, relegation, near misses, expensive transfer flops and a lurking suspicion that, as the pressure built in the 1980s, something was just fundamentally wrong with the club.

Yet this was football at a different time when, even under the yoke of Liverpool’s domestic dominance, there was always the possibility of change, which came eventually with Alex Ferguson. At Liverpool, that potential in United was always acknowledged by Peter Robinson, erstwhile secretary and chief executive at the club who, as Graeme Souness wrote in his autobiography, held the “fear that Manchester United might get it right one day and if that happened they could take off in a big way and leave everyone else behind”.

For the Liverpool of 2015 who have just hit 25 years without a title, having just United in front of them would be an extraordinary blessing. That group has swelled to include Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur and now the question is not when the next league championship at Anfield will come, but whether winning league titles is realistically the sort of thing this club can still expect to do – at least in this era of football.

You might say they are the same fundamental questions now facing Liverpool, at one of their lowest ebbs, as face the Labour Party at a crossroads in its history. At what level can they compete? And what can they realistically hope to achieve? The 6-1 defeat at Stoke City for Brendan Rodgers had an awkward parallel with Ed Miliband’s election night, in as much as every time one suspected that rock bottom had been reached, it turned out to be some leagues deeper than previously thought.

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Ronnie Moran, Kenny Dalglish and Roy Evans celebrate in Liverpool’s glory years, when they last won the league trophy in 1990

 

As a club, Liverpool have, over the past 25 years, often failed to read the future of football: hardly improving or expanding Anfield while others have built new stadiums; being slow to exploit their commercial potential; selling out originally to the wrong kind of owner. Now elite European football is changing again, with the Uefa decision to relax financial fair play, and as natural supporters of those regulations the club’s owners Fenway Sports Group find themselves at odds with the mood of the times.

It comes at a moment when they have unequivocally supported their young manager to the tune of £240m over three years, and yet have finished second just once – and been unable to hold on to the player, Luis Suarez, chiefly responsible for having got them to that finish last season. FSG and John W Henry have a clear idea of what they want Liverpool to be: a self-sustaining entity in football’s mad world and a club that, as the old saying goes, exists to win trophies. But what happens when Uefa’s president, Michel Platini, relaxes FFP and the floodgates open again?

The mad world shows no sign of relenting. In fact, it might just be that the madness is elite European football’s natural state of existence: the fossil fuel billionaires in the Premier League and at Paris Saint-Germain; Real Madrid and Barcelona’s pillaging their own league’s television deal; Bayern Munich’s one-party state. Gary Neville warned Liverpool of succumbing to their own provincialism at the weekend but in many respects they overcame incredible odds to dominate Europe in the glory years of the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1980, when Liverpool were two European Cups into their run of four in seven years, the author James McClure spent a year embedded with Merseyside police. He described the inner-city area of Liverpool as “one of the most wretched in Western Europe, just as it was more than a century ago” in his book Spike Island about the challenges facing the city’s police force. Liverpool’s infant mortality rate in 1977 was at the average level of 1930, “its general living standards were judged to be those of the 1940s” and the city had Europe’s worst teenage unemployment problem.

 

All that and Liverpool produced arguably the greatest club team that Britain has ever known. For those of us of Neville’s generation, the temptation was to see Liverpool in the 1980s as an inviolable part of English football’s establishment. Yet they were very much outsiders, a provincial club defying the economic and political conditions of the time. As John Aldridge observed of the north-south divide in the Anfield Rap in 1988, “they’ve got the jobs but we’ve got the side”. Sustaining that success in a new global market for players, against the lure of London with its economic pre-eminence and the wealth of United and latterly Manchester City was always going to be a conjuring act.

There has been a long tail from the league titles of the past, as Liverpool have enjoyed the power to attract great players and managers on the back of their history, and there have been spikes along the way such as 2001 under Gérard Houllier and then 10 years ago in Istanbul with Rafa Benitez – an achievement that becomes more remarkable as the years go by. But the question facing Liverpool as they reach the 26-year mark is whether they can still afford to judge themselves by those standards.

There will be the purists who will never step back from the expectation that the club exist to win trophies. If there is a buyer willing to take Liverpool off FSG’s hands and pump them full of the money that Platini will permit in the post-FFP era then that existence could once again be viable. Otherwise Raheem Sterling’s attitude towards Liverpool as a stepping stone club is a foretaste of what is to come – he was born after the second of United’s first two Premier League titles, never mind Liverpool’s last championship in 1990.

In the next few years the connection between the new generation of footballers and the last league title for Liverpool in 1990 will be even more distant than the one the children who grew up in the 1980s felt to the era of George Best and Bobby Charlton.

As for the 19th league title, failure in that regard only matters if Liverpool still consider themselves to be a club seriously in contention to win it.

What does a manager have to do to keep his job these days?

Sheffield United will have their reasons for sacking Nigel Clough after finishes of seventh and fifth in League One – after he had inherited a team in the relegation zone in his first season – and two cup semi-finals, but they must be extremely good reasons. Clough had his opposition among some of the club’s fans but, even so, it was not a bad body of work for 19 months in a job. How much, these days, is enough to keep your job?

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