Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The bigger they are the harder they fall

Despite the fact that I don't go out of my way to to publicise the fact, I've never shied away from the fact that I was a Liverpool fan in the seventies. Until my Dad took me to The Valley in 1980, and to be honest for a little while afterwards too, I followed Liverpool while they conquered England and Europe.

Since our relegation from the Premier League I have spent less time watching the 'Best League in the World' yet have been more interested in the top of the table following Liverpool's successes since Rafa Benitez arrived. No one would question the excitement of the 2005 Champions League Final, and last season they very nearly piped Man Utd to their first title since 1990. I suspect that if you'd told me in 1990 that having won the championship in ten of the last fifteen years they would go at least twenty years before they won another one I'd have called you mad. It's a bit like suggesting now that Man Utd will not win another Premier League until 2029. It's, actually, one of the reasons that football is such a great sport - anything can happen.

Since 1990 there have been a number of changes in world (and especially English) football that have removed a large proportion of the potential variables of the sport. Nassim Nicholas Taleb would probably have suggested in 1990 that it was entirely possible, all be it improbable, that Liverpool could fail to win another title for twenty years plus (based on this season and what I'm about to go on to write it could well be many more than twenty years). However, the change in the finances in English football have made the potential for events to be considered Black Swans even more likely.

In 1990 Liverpool were financially stronger than most other clubs, but crucially their side was much stronger. When I say side I clearly mean squad, but there were fewer players involved back then. Before the Sky money came along bringing with it many hangers on that required, and motivated, players to demand higher and higher wages the financial strength of a club was less significant. If you were the reigning champions and you had the best side most of the best players wanted to play for you, and that made it easier to build even stronger teams. Today the Premier League is full of players that (in my view) really couldn't care less where they play, don't really care too much if they win or not, probably aren't all that bothered if they are in the first team or not. "Just show me the money".

I understand that we are all whores to money. I like what I do and I'm able to provide for my family, but if I was offered a lot of money to do something I might not like as much I'm probably take it. I have no problem with players trying to maximise their income. I think there does need to be a readdressing of the balance of income to expenditure at football clubs but it will never happen. Charlton are just one of many clubs that have overstretched and have paid the price with relegations and financial hardship. It is likely to take us in excess of another decade before we will be as financially secure as we were in 1997, the season we won our first promotion to he Premier League. The truth is that none of the powerhouses of English football care. We, like Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, Bradford and others were relegated from their exclusive club and suffered relegation again. However, we were replaced with other sides for them to beat twice a season. It looks likely that Portsmouth and Hull are the latest candidates to find themselves in the third division just a couple of years after dining at Old Trafford, but they will be replaced too.

This has led to a number of clubs believing that "We're all right Jack" as they were in the Premier League and those outside of it couldn't compete. The latest round (I'm thinking the last three seasons) of injections of cash to unfashionable teams has caught a lot of clubs out. We were relegated due to a number of factors, but I believe mainly due to the loss of something that Curbishley brought to the table. I won't open up the debate again, but Newcastle and Middlesborough were very established in the Premier League. "If it can happen to them then none of us are safe". I think this was the main motivation for Bolton's recent suggestion that the Premier League be expanded slightly and have two divisions with no relegation from the bottom one.

This is not an attempt to keep Bolton in the top flight - something that was thought to be assured just five seasons ago. This is an attempt to prevent Bolton falling into the third division, or even lower, when they are relegated. I say when as it is now apparent that the three teams that win promotion from the Championship come into the league with more disposable income, due to lower wage bills, and players that are hungry for success, not just money. This makes it likely that we will see at least one promoted side survive for at least one season, which means that one with an established Premier League wage bill will go. £11m a year for two years is not enough to adjust. It's rumoured that Hull were willing to offer Michael Owen a long term contract last summer that would have eaten up half of that on it's own. At this point I might even suggest that despite our problems we were run better than most clubs. Both Portsmouth and Hull have much bigger financial worries than we had on relegation, and I'm not sure they are the only ones.

Thus relegation means a very good chance of long term disaster. Without aiming to pick on them, Hull have managed (in just one season in the Premier League) to go from a club with a lot of cash and a massive income compared to expenditure to a club with massive debts and spiraling costs that cannot be met from income in the Premier League, let alone the Championship. Relegation would be a total disaster for them. NB. I'm basing this on a few tabloid stories, so the facts could well be inaccurate, but the point is valid.

So where is this all going? Well, this subject has been covered many times before, and I have little new to add except to point out the main architects of this master plan are now under threat themselves.

Man Utd are a massive club. Chelsea have a very wealthy backer. Arsenal are well run, but still have substantial debts following the building of the Emirates Stadium. Liverpool are the least well protected against a drop in income. I know you could argue that with the debts Man Utd have they could also be in trouble, but for now they are so much stronger in terms of squad strength they are safe for the time being.

A point about Chelsea in relation to Man City. When Abramovitch turned up at Stanford Bridge in 2003, Chelsea had finished in the top six for seven seasons including a third and two fourths and had qualified for the Champions League twice in that time. When Shinawatra purchased Man City in 2007, they were relegation fodder. Despite the fact that they survived, they could well have been relegated that season. Thus the injection of capital that was magnified a year later when the Abu Dhabi United Group bought the club distorted the whole balance of the Premier League. I'm all for competition, and I would love to see Aston Villa or Spurs qualify for the Champions League, but I just couldn't see it happening - not with all the buying power the current top four have.

Which brings me back to the title of this post. Tonight Liverpool need something of a miracle to qualify for the knock out stages of the Champions League. They are struggling in the Premier League and they have the weakest squad they have had that I can remember. Take Torres or Gerrard out of their side and they struggle, take them both out and they are in real trouble. So why does this matter? Well if you ignore my interest in Liverpool in the seventies, it matters because it looks like the safety of another (smaller) exclusive club in English football is about to disappear.

If Man City continue their spending and actually break into the top four this season (possible) or next season (likely) or the season after (very likely) then Liverpool (assuming it's them that fall out) could start a fall from grace that is similar to the one that we have experienced. Clearly they will not end up in the third division, but a season out of the Champions League could force more cost cutting that could leave them less able to qualify next season. A second season out of Europe's Elite could (and probably would) motivate Gerrard and/or Torres to leave.

Liverpool already have average Premier League players on Champions League wages. They already have debts that can only be serviced if they stay in the Champions League. Swap Liverpool for Charlton and switch the competitions and you see the similarities.

I don't particularly want Liverpool to suffer - quite the opposite. However it does seem only fair that those greedy clubs that stole the limited resources from the weaker clubs for their own ends suffer the same fate. Assuming that the Arabs do not bore of football there is a very real chance that Liverpool will end up like Everton. A once former great that just can't get anywhere near anymore.

The bigger they are the harder they fall.

Up the Addicks!

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