David Conn: Liverpool's respect for values rather than raw commercialism appeals to neutrals

Anybody wondering why the neutral football nation will mostly rally behind Liverpool, not Chelsea, in the Champions' League semi-final second leg on Tuesday, would have found significant clues not just in the Liverpool players' sterling defensive performance at Stamford Bridge last Wednesday, but in a quieter, understated appearance they put in at Anfield a fortnight ago. Then, in a file of uniform grey club suits, all the players, the manager, Rafael Benitez, the chairman, chief executive and staff of Liverpool took their seats solemnly in the Kop for the 16th annual memorial service for the victims of the Hillsborough Disaster.

Anybody wondering why the neutral football nation will mostly rally behind Liverpool, not Chelsea, in the Champions' League semi-final second leg on Tuesday, would have found significant clues not just in the Liverpool players' sterling defensive performance at Stamford Bridge last Wednesday, but in a quieter, understated appearance they put in at Anfield a fortnight ago. Then, in a file of uniform grey club suits, all the players, the manager, Rafael Benitez, the chairman, chief executive and staff of Liverpool took their seats solemnly in the Kop for the 16th annual memorial service for the victims of the Hillsborough Disaster.

In that, for all the changes which have taken top-flight football away from its traditional community and supporters, you could see a link between today's millionaires' dressing-room and Liverpool's sense of itself as a club, and the greatness and grief of its history.

"Ever since Kenny Dalglish and his wife Marina made themselves available 24 hours a day after the disaster, Liverpool Football Club have been very supportive to the families, when most of football didn't want to know," Phil Hammond, the Hillsborough Family Support Group's chairman, told me. The group now has an office within Anfield, and the club looks after the electricity and phone bills.

Liverpool's chief executive, Rick Parry, told me they do not sentimentalise a bygone era - Parry was, after all, the first chief executive of the breakaway Premier League. However, they do strive to stay true to Bill Shankly's 1960s mantra, that there is a "Liverpool way" to do things. The sensitivities of the quarter-final tie with Juventus, when Parry said Liverpool were "very sorry" that 39 people died at Heysel, and the "Amicizia" (Friendship) mosaic was produced in the Anfield stands, came about following meetings Parry had with fans, including the Red All Over the Land fanzine. Generally, not unanimously, the tone was felt to be right.

"These are rapidly changing times," Parry said. "It is a business. But it is terribly important to cling to values. At Liverpool we try to instil respect. We want to be loved by our fans, but also respected for how we do things."

He said there is "a tension" between maintaining values and football's drive to make money, and there has always been a sense that Liverpool's eclipse in the Premiership era - they have not won the League since 1990, when it was still the Football League First Division - is at least partially due to the club's unease with the new, rampantly commercial age so greedily embraced by Manchester United plc.

While United floated on the stock market, making £93m for Martin Edwards eventually but bequeathing the current, Up for Sale uncertainties, Liverpool's chairman, David Moores, sought to maintain his private, Littlewoods-dynasty ownership. Liverpool's subsequent pacts with commercialism have at times seemed half-hearted and so struck the wrong note - the seating of the Kop was laden with heavier symbolism than great terraces elsewhere, because the Liverpool's fans deaths had led to the Taylor Report's all-seater injunction, but when they built it, Liverpool stuck a McDonalds in its bowels, a move which jarred like a sour pickle.

Terrified, shocked even, by Old Trafford's remorseless "brand-maximisation", in 1999 Liverpool grabbed one of the deals going about with media companies, a partnership with caterers and broadcasters Granada, who bought 9.9 per cent of the shares for £22m and brought a corporate approach which many felt was a clash of cultures. The Hillsborough Family Support Group were suddenly handed a bill for refreshments at their meetings, before a quiet word ensured it wouldn't happen again.

Liverpool's long-planned move to a new ground, once they realised that Anfield's expanded 45,000 capacity would not make enough money to compete with United, has also been painful and drawn out. In 2000, a local newspaper exposed a plan, "Anfield Plus", initiated by Liverpool City Council to regenerate the Anfield and Breckfield neighbourhood around a new stadium, but local residents had not been consulted even though 1,800 homes were earmarked for demolition. Liverpool FC were also deeply resented for having bought dozens of houses around the ground and leaving them empty, blighting an area already in severe decline.

Since then, the club has consulted painstakingly with local residents' groups, and recently refurbished several of their properties on Skerries Road. "We'd like to think we're regarded as a better neighbour now," Parry said. Not all residents are thrilled with the new plan, to build a 62,000 stadium on Stanley Park, demolish 1,600 homes and refurbish up to 3,400 more, or the new "Anfield Plaza" complex pencilled in for the current stadium site, but planning permission has been granted and Parry said the club hopes it will be a "catalyst" for local regeneration. The plans are currently stalled pending a decision by the North-West Development Agency about a mooted £22m grant for community facilities in the stadium and improvements to the surrounding park, while the NWDA and its, chairman Bryan Gray, the former chairman of Preston North End, have raised the question of Liverpool sharing the new stadium with Everton, a solution which looks obvious to outsiders but which neither club's fans really want and to which Everton have no money to contribute.

With or without that grant, Liverpool still face problems funding the stadium. The cost, recently put at £120m, is rising daily. Failure to qualify for the Champions' League in 2003-04 meant Liverpool's turnover slipped from £102m to £92m, just over half United's £169m. Financial advisors, Hawkpoint, were asked to find new investors, without results except for a long tussle with the hotel and housebuilding magnate Steve Morgan, and the embarrassment of Parry's meeting with the Thai Prime Minister, which Parry insists was "exploratory, potentially interesting," but never a done deal. He is still smarting at the publicity: "There was a lot of froth."

The conundrum of the "Liverpool way" can be seen in Morgan's bid - generally favoured by supporters because he is a lifelong fan who was at Hillsborough and can be trusted with the club's tradition, Morgan's main gripe is that Liverpool have not been aggressively commercial enough. His proposals were rejected because the board wanted half his £70m to pay existing shareholders, to which Morgan reluctantly agreed, meaning David Moores would have made £17.5m from his shares, but Morgan then withdrew last autumn, reportedly because he believed the stadium costs were spiralling too high. Parry told me the club still has "challenges" and a "pressing need" for new investment.

At Liverpool as elsewhere, many fans still grumble; about high ticket prices, "day tripper" casual supporters and too many foreign players, among other things. However, the club still haltingly, almost self-consciously, tries to do the right things, and in the presence of the players and staff at the Hillsborough memorial service, there is a recognition that Liverpool have not lost the football club's deep connection and understanding of its supporters and wider community. Which is why, when they face a club on Tuesday who are there only because a Russian oil baron bought them two years ago and chucked a load of money in, all but the hardest Bluenoses and most miserable Mancs will be Liverpool supporters, if just for one night.

Premier League clubs decide to accept Uefa 'home-grown' quota

For all the sound and fury which followed the announcement in February, the Premier League has decided not to take legal action against the new rule introduced by European football's governing body, Uefa, that from 2008-09, eight players in every club's squad of 25 must be "home-grown".

David Dein, the Arsenal vice-chairman, opposed the idea furiously, saying it would "dilute" the Premier League's "product", a majority of clubs voted to oppose it, then our Football Association was the only one in Europe to argue against it, which all other FAs believe will help their domestic game and national team.

At a Premier League meeting last week, insiders say Dein again urged legal action, but that clubs had voted to accept the rule, which means that in European competitions, four players in a squad must have come through a club's academy, and four through that of another domestic club.

"We fundamentally support Uefa's objectives in encouraging youth development," a Premier League spokesman told me, "but we believe the quota system is flawed. However, given that the FA have undertaken not to introduce Uefa's proposals domestically, we have no plans to mount a legal challenge."

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