“Once decline becomes precipitous, even money may not prevent the decline spiralling into permanency.”
– David Bick, Square 1 Consulting
The consultant-speak belies how bad the situation is for Liverpool. The season has been nothing short of disasterous. In a campaign that started with a loss to Spurs — and basically ended with a dreadful performance at home against Chelsea — last year’s would-be champions fell from grace with alacrity.
The players simply weren’t good enough. With the exception of workhorse Dirk Kuyt, every squad member can shoulder part of the blame:
– Gerrard’s season was summed up in his “conspiracy” pass to Drogba,
– Midfield bulldog Mascherano played with a heady mix of anger and stupidity, while his partner Lucas was a pale replacement for the sorely missed Xavi Alonso,
– Jamie Carragher showed signs of rapid decline, while the man he was protecting — Pepe Reina — made simple saves look tricky at the beginning of the season,
– Rieira and Babel — for all of their chirping — didn’t come close to earning their wages,
– Defensive backs Johnston and Insua looked like strokes of brilliance by the manager, until injury felled both at inopportune times.
And nothing further needs to be written about the absence of Fernando Torres — who seems to be afraid of what the Premier League is doing to his body.
Regardless of individual performances, Rafael Benitez remains the lightning rod for the team’s troubles. Many will forever asterisk the Champions League win as a squad assembled by Gerard Houllier and dragged to victory by Stevie G.
The doubters will point to Benitez’ endless tinkering in his first seasons and the revolving door on the training ground. Keane, Pennant, Voronin, Arbeloa, Bellamy, Crouch and countless others — all players who came and went. That’s not to mention the 20 million pound purchase of Alberto Aquilani — known in Italy as “The Crystal Kid”. But the punters are missing the pattern of waste and wandering ambitions that have guided the team for two decades.
Rafa inherited a team that was still revelling in its former glories: a club that could boast to being England’s all-time best, both at home and abroad. Like a fat, aging Lothario — LFC could count on its fans to point to past conquests. The faithful beat their chests as they sing the club’s famous theme, along with odes to Rome and Wembley and Paris and Istanbul.
But the fat and the decline were there for all to see. The Souness/Spice Boy years in the Nineties. The neglect of the youth system in favour of the latest fad player from abroad (Diouf/Diao/Diarra anyone?). The self-righteous talk of the “Liverpool Way”, even as board members plotted against each other.
And then came the Americans. George Gillett and Tom Hicks arrived in Merseyside promising a yellow brick road to the title, while secretly planning how to flip the club like a renovated townhouse. The problem was that neither counted on a U.S.-made global recession — or a slowly developing hatred for each other.
Now the club sits mire in unprecedented debt. Its plans to build a bigger stadium still sit on an architect’s table — and much-needed revenue from the expanded capacity sits unrealized. As Man U, Arsenal and Chelsea build their global brands — along with their counterparts in Spain and Italy — Liverpool has failed to adjust to the new reality. LFC is still trying figure out what it is.
But time is running out. The Reds will not see Champions League football next season. Thanks to Gillett and Hicks, the team now owes 10 million pounds more in annual debt payments then it makes in operating profit. The manager realizes what this means for the transfer window and is likely to looking for greener (and warmer) pastures. So are key players like Gerrard and Torres and Mascherano, who all see the writing on the wall.
The decline has begun. The spiral is forming. And time is ticking.
It’s time to be afraid of the dark.