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Will Liverpool Ever Return to Glory?

Scott Heavey/Getty Images

My favorite football quote is commonly attributed to Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool FC manager: “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” Shankly became the manager in 1959, at the time when Liverpool were mired in the Second Division and turned them, during his fifteen years there, into a superpower of English and European football. Back then, the Reds, whose support largely came from the Liverpudlian shipyards, were a powerful football force with working class ethic, valuing modesty and team loyalty above all.

After Margaret Thatcher closed the Liverpool shipyards, high unemployment tore communities apart and infected them with blind despair. The feeling that there was nothing left but football, now more important indeed than life and death, metastasized with the Heysel massacre in 1985, where thirty nine people died when Liverpool supporters charged at Juventus fans before the European Champions Cup finals. The noble absoluteness of Shankly’s dictum was further put to terrible test when ninety-six Liverpool supporters were crushed to death at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield before a game against Nottingham Forest in 1989. The Sun, Murdoch’s flagship tabloid, claimed under the bombastic headline “The Truth” that drunk Liverpudlians pickpocketed the dead and urinated on the policemen. (The rag is still boycotted in much of Merseyside.) Now we know that the local police and authorities were fully culpable for seriously mishandling the situation, concealing their own failures and insidiously blaming the victims. This September, the report by an independent panel, led by the Bishop of Liverpool, completely exonerated the Reds’ fans and revealed the efforts by South Yorkshire police to deflect the blame by feeding lies to tabloid hacks. Twenty-three years later, it’s hard to underestimate the effect the Hillsborough disaster had on the club and the city: a shrine to the ninety six stands alongside the Shankly Gates at the Anfield stadium.

The following year, Liverpool won its last title, and then, in 1992, the English Premier League commenced. The English football culture was reconfigured to allow for a greater flow of money through the system. Liverpool haven’t done well in the new culture: they’d accumulated eighteen titles before it, none in it. In some ways, the club’s philosophy never really transitioned from Shankly’s to the one founded on the belief that money is the most important thing in football.

Liverpool FC today is too big and loaded with history to be comfortable in the upper tiers of mediocrity where they’ve been lounging at least since the beginning of the Premiership, with just enough success (UEFA  Cup in 2001, Champions League in 2005, a few domestic cups) to make a new era of greatness appear possible. But it takes a practically unlimited source of money to achieve greatness in today’s football. While the Liverpool of yore cherished the players who came from its famed Academy, today’s top English clubs, Manchester City and Chelsea in particular, shop all over the world for new talent, thereby inflating the market to a football-shaped bubble. The majority of Premiership clubs are in the red, a few flirting with outright collapse.

When, a couple of years ago, Liverpool were taken over by the Fenway Sports Group (which also owns the Boston Red Sox), it appeared they could play with the rich boys. Following the ignominies inflicted by the previous owners  (Hicks and Gillette, named like a second-class vaudeville act), the new owners John Henry and Tom Werner splashed money to indulge the ambition of the Liverpool FC manager Kenny Dalglish (the greatest Liverpool player ever and the last manager who delivered a title). Dalglish’s project turned out to be a fiasco: after egregiously overpaying for the likes of Downing, Henderson and Carroll (the most expensive English player ever), Liverpool finished in the eighth position last season and Dalglish was fired.

Henry and Werner (named like a Beacon Hill tailor shop) hired Brendan Rogers, a young manager who’d shown his potential at Swansea. One of his stipulations was control over purchases and sales of players, in the Premiership usually the provenance of the director of football. But Rodgers, eager as he was to show his prowess as a team builder, quickly found himself entangled in the chronic mismanagement at Liverpool. He wanted to get the American Clint Dempsey, who’d scored seventeen goals for Fulham last season and publicly yearned for the Reds in the offseason. Rodgers got rid of Carroll by loaning him to West Ham, hoping to make the move for the young Yank absolutely necessary. He did not like the personality of Chelsea’s Sturridge and failed to make a serious move for him. The word in Liverpool is that Henry preferred to have Carroll on the bench, or at least as an option. Somewhat petulantly, the Fenway Group offered for Dempsey an amount that was ridiculed by the press and deemed insulting by Fulham, thereby publicly undermining Rodgers. Ian Ayer, the club’s managing director, did nothing and showed that he’s too weak to mediate between Rodgers and the American bosses. Dempsey went to the happy-spending Tottenham, while Liverpool found themselves with only two senior forwards: Suarez and Borini, a twenty-one-year old Rodgers protégé, who has yet to score in the Premiership. This Thursday’s crazy victory (5-3) of its young reserves at the Swiss club Young Boys in the Europa Cup notwithstanding, Liverpool has enjoyed the worst beginning of the season in over a hundred years. And it might yet get worse after this Sunday’s game against Manchester United.

The Fenway people claim to have enough ambition and patience to take Liverpool back to where it used to be before their Premiership wheels came off. But it’s easy to be skeptical of a yet another promise of a new era--the Reds seem to be permanently caught between the unavailable past and the evasive future.

The first installment of Fox Soccer Channel’s new series Being: Liverpool, which started last week, didn’t dwell much on the past, nor did it dare imagine far into the future. In addition to an inexplicable colon in its title, it offered to the American soccer audience a look into the Rodgers-coated Liverpool. Only thirty eight, Rodgers was picked to build the team in his own youthful image and the twenty-years-worth of underachievement put him in a position to be a new Shankly, an aura he would clearly enjoy. Happy to introduce his cute puppies to the camera and brag about the car and house provided by the club, he was very quick to use the word success as frequently as possible. He’s seen pouring wise advice into the jug ears of the young full-back Jon Flanagan, signaling his ambition to focus on young players in building the team. We can watch him conveying his ideas to his bosses, Henry and Werner, who might be having a hard time with his Northern Irish accent and who, by their own confession, knew next to nothing about English football, let alone the rich trove of Shankly’s wisdom, when they acquired the club. What is evident, despite all the reality-TV sugarcoating, is that two distant visions of what a football club ought to be are struggling to come together. Rodgers is trying to do his job caught between an epic past of Shanklian commitment and a future of being an American overseas investment. Bill Shankly would have been very disappointed with that situation.