Football Cities: Liverpool
The fourth part of our Football Cities series sees Jon Arnold run the rule over Liverpool and the wider Merseyside area. The fortunes of Liverpool and Everton have changed dramatically since the 1980s but the city remains a real hotbed of the global game. Jon previously penned a magisterial review of David Peace’s novel Red or Dead for us and he can be followed on twitter at @The_Arn.
The history of the balance of power in football can arguably be understood by one simple factor; money. For all the talk of the ‘glory game’ and clubs defying the odds, sustained success has overwhelmingly correlated to club wealth, a trend dating back to the early twentieth century with such figures as John Henry Davies of Manchester United and Sir Henry Norris of Fulham and Arsenal. Both took clubs from near extinction to the top of the First Division. Money is not an automatic guarantee of success of course — the history of the game is littered with those who’ve crashed and burned trying to raise themselves to the level of the game’s elite but failed, thanks to toxic combinations of ill fortune and bad management. But for sustained success money has always been a vital factor, a trend the wealth trap of the Premier League had only succeeded in exaggerating.
For Merseyside, the Premier League became the late twentieth century sporting equivalent to the Manchester Ship Canal. The canal opened in 1894, just over six years after construction was begun. It came about when Manchester merchants, unhappy with the import charges imposed by Liverpool’s docks, proposed the construction of it so that ships had direct access to Manchester, bypassing Liverpool entirely. Just under a century later, the first season of the Premier League and the first title of the Alex Ferguson era signified that football power had shifted inland down the M62. It brought to an end an era of remarkable dominance by one city unparalleled in the modern era. Liverpool and Everton combined to win twelve of the fifteen league titles available between 1976 and 1990, adding three FA Cups (the clubs themselves contesting two memorable finals), four league cups and five European trophies along the way.
The rise of Ferguson’s United has become synonymous with the ‘Class of ’92; the youth players who broke through and became an integral part of the team’s success. The veneration of Beckham, Butt, Scholes, Giggs and the Neville brothers concealed the beginnings of a trend begun in the late 1980s by Kenny Dalglish and Ferguson. It looks curious now that the domestic British transfer record remained unbroken for six years of a decade synonymous with greed and moneymaking; Bryan Robson’s £1.5 million transfer to United in 1981 remained the highest fee paid by a British club until Peter Beardsley moved to Liverpool in 1987. From there the likes of Ian Rush and Mark Hughes were repatriated by their former clubs for large fees and Ferguson began to spend large fees in a bid to close the gap between United and Liverpool; Neil Webb, Gary Pallister, Paul Ince and Roy Keane all arrived as Ferguson built a team aiming to end what seemed an embarrassingly long wait for the title. The Class of ’92 were the icing on an expensively constructed cake.
United’s subsequent success in the Premier League era has been down to a combination of Ferguson’s remarkable will and their exploitation of commercial opportunities ushered in by the Sky era. A stadium expansion programme in the mid-1990s helped augment the prize money which began to flood in; this was followed by a flotation on the stock exchange which further boosted their income. It’s a commercial dominance which remains unchallenged twenty years on; even in a year where they missed Champions League qualification their income comfortably outstripped that of their rivals, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal. These other successful clubs of the Premier League era also confirm the power of money; City and Chelsea funded by oil and Arsenal’s sustained Champions League qualification and stadium revenue. These are the four wealthiest clubs of the current era and they dominate the top four positions in the Premier League. Only twice have any of those clubs missed out on Champions League qualification in five years. Wealth begets wealth and consistent Champions League qualification added to the Premier League’s ever more obscene TV income cements their place at the top of the game. And if they miss out? As United proved following the relative disaster of the Moyes era, they can simply spend to regain their place.
All this leaves the remainder of the league in a curious position; the remainder of the top division are all amongst the world’s wealthiest clubs whilst largely cut off from the club game’s most lucrative competition. They lack the fortune to be bought by the practically bottomless wealth of oilmen, or are paying the price for not having the vision of the likes of Martin Edwards or David Dein in the 1990s. Such is Liverpool’s fate; a name still famous worldwide and with an income that would allow them to compete for the title in any other of Europe’s top leagues. Instead they lie outside those places, nose pressed up against the glass, watching the game’s most glamorous party going on and on the brink of matching Manchester United’s barren spell of 26 years without a league title.
This would have been unthinkable in 1990, when an admittedly less than vintage Liverpool team dawdled to an eighteenth league title. In truth the cracks were already showing; Wimbledon’s 1988 FA Cup triumph and Crystal Palace’s 1990 semi-final victory revealed a susceptibility to the more rugged side of the game and vulnerability to crosses. Michael Thomas’s last minute title winning goal at Anfield in the final game of the season shattered Anfield’s fortress mystique at a stroke. Dalglish allowed his squad to grow old, unable to be ruthless about long-term dressing room colleagues. And off the field the twin tragedies of Heysel and Hillsborough took their emotional toll.
Despite all this Liverpool were well placed to challenge United for much of the next decade. They could afford expensive purchases of the ilk of Paul Stewart, Nigel Clough and Mark Wright, even able to spend big money for the time on the likes of Stan Collymore, El-Hadji Diouf and Emile Heskey. But the changing game was catching them up — Danny Fiszman’s cash injection coupled with the introduction of Wenger at Arsenal meant Arsenal overtook them, then Chelsea and Manchester City found their sugar (well, oil) daddies. The pools money which had helped fund the rise of Liverpool and Everton in the 1960s was less plentiful, the National Lottery replacing it as a favoured weekly gamble. And at a time when the boardroom of United focused on maximising their commercial return Liverpool were owned by David Moores, who emphasised keeping Liverpool at the heart of the community. As the Premier League became a global concern Liverpool were caught out watching rivals disappear into the financial distance — infamously they were the last Premier League club to launch an official website and the day after the 2005 Champions League Final, the club shop was shut. In the summer after their triumph in the world’s most lucrative club competition Moores had to loan the club his own money to afford Dirk Kuyt, a mid-market purchase for a club with Liverpool’s aspirations. The tragedy of Liverpool under Moores was an impossible desire for the best of both worlds; a club rooted in the local community that could compete with the best in the world. The club were remaining competitive, consistent Champions League qualifiers, thanks to Rafa Benitez’s shrewd marshalling of resources, but to compete for the league title they’d need not only extra money to attract the best players but also the resources to either redevelop Anfield or build a new stadium. United attracted 30,000 more fans per matchday, Arsenal’s 2006 move to the Emirates was something of a cash cow, even Newcastle and Sunderland could boast greater capacity. The club needed to seek investment.
The story was similar across Stanley Park. If anything the Premier League’s effect on Everton was even harsher than it was on Liverpool. Under the management of Howard Kendall, part of the midfield ‘Holy Trinity’ of Harry Catterick’s last great Everton side, they had risen to become Liverpool’s main rivals in the mid-1980s — arguably between 1985 and 1987 they were even the superior side. But the club couldn’t sustain the success; the ban on English clubs after Heysel meant that they were never able to test themselves in the European Cup and the side fragmented following Kendall’s departure for Atletico Madrid. Liverpool bought John Barnes and Peter Beardsley; Everton Tony Cottee and Stuart McCall — Cottee and McCall would provide memories, particularly in FA Cup games against Liverpool, but weren’t as consistent nor as good as Liverpool’s purchases. Even Kendall’s return couldn’t arrest a slow decline. By the time the Premier League began, they’d become a midtable side, occasionally even flirting with relegation, able to give the big clubs a bloody nose (particularly the neighbours but also including Manchester United in the 1995 Cup Final). They would only eventually stabilise under David Moyes, going from a club which would finish around the top six and promise much but then spend the next season in the division’s lower reaches to one able to consistently challenge for Champions League football, albeit only managing to qualify once. As early as 1996 they’d identified the need for a new stadium, Goodison still infamously having wooden seats and restricted views. Nearly twenty years on though, they remain stuck in their old home.
It’s at this point that both clubs, seeking money to finance their new homes, tried to tie themselves into the wider issue of city regeneration. As a city Liverpool had suffered from relative underinvestment for decades; Cabinet notes released in 2011 revealed that Margaret Thatcher’s government had strongly considered the city as unpromising for investment, the late Sir Geoffrey Howe suggesting the area undergo a ‘managed decline’ and seeing the area as ‘stony ground’ – in 1986 unemployment in the city had infamously reached 25%. Whilst Michael Heseltine’s championing of Merseyside may have been equal parts genuine care and political opportunism the government fell]t like the enemy, happy to demonise them as dole scallies as parodied in the likes of the sitcom Bread or Harry Enfield’s sketch show. Whilst English football has rarely been overtly political as anything but associated glory for politicians the success of Liverpool and Everton in this period couldn’t help but feel like cultural resistance; the area asserting its pride in the best way it knew how. With United’s rise Liverpool could no longer assert itself in sporting terms consistently. Still, the city was seeking to ambitiously regenerate itself with projects such as Liverpool ONE, Clayton Square and the Albert Dock and becoming England’s first European Capital of Culture. Liverpool and Everton sought to tie their relocation plans into this.
The narrative regarding stadia has always been at the heart of Merseyside football to a degree; indeed the origins of the rivalry lie in Everton’s unwillingness to pay the rent on Anfield stadium and shift to Goodison in 1892. Recently though, it’s become a lingering issue, not only for the football clubs but for the local area too. The ill-starred sale of Liverpool to Tom Hicks and George Gillett was fuelled by the need for Liverpool to not only be competitive on the pitch but to have a stadium that could close the matchday income gap on the clubs Liverpool considered peers. Liverpool had secured planning permission for a new stadium in Stanley Park in 2003, which would eventually raise potential attendances to 60,000. It was beyond the club’s means, even with EU funding, so in came Hicks and Gillett supposedly with the wherewithal and certainly with a breathtaking new stadium design. What followed is eloquently documented in Brian Reade’s An Epic Swindle, the story of a financial empire built on debt being caught in the financial crisis of 2008. The club descended into financial trouble, so desperate that transfer fees such as Xabi Alonso’s disappeared to pay off debts rather than being reinvested in the squad. Rafa Benitez’s team, for a brief period ranked the best in European competition, fell apart and the club appeared trapped at Anfield. Stanley Park Stadium, supposed to revitalise the area around Anfield, was a distant dream.
And across the park Everton also appeared stuck in limbo. Unlike Liverpool their owner was local boy made good Bill Kenwright, but, as with Moores, he lacked the resources to keep them competitive and fund a new stadium. Proposed new stadia at Kings Dock and Kirkby fell through, despite Tesco supporting the latter with possible retail development. The city council even proposed the unthinkable; Liverpool and Everton sharing a stadium, a situation vehemently opposed by fans. Everton remain trapped at Goodison, with progress on a proposal to move to Walton Park ‘steady’. On the field Roberto Martinez has maintained Everton’s upper mid-table status but the club appear to remain as frustratingly far as ever from breaking through the glass ceiling of wealth. Their income according to Forbes ranks, them in the top 20 in the world, but the lack of Champions League football means this only ranks eighth in their own league.
Meanwhile Liverpool were rescued from financial problems by the Fenway Sports Group, clearing their debts and allowing them to invest in the team again. They even appeared to be tantalisingly close to becoming a force again under Brendan Rodgers but their swashbuckling second place of 2013/14 could not be built upon; Luis Suarez departing for Barcelona. It was an indication of Liverpool’s status; for all their history they couldn’t keep their stars if richer clubs came calling. Alonso departed for Real Madrid, Mascherano for Barca, Torres for Chelsea and Sterling for Manchester City. Ambitious stars saw other clubs as better prospects for Champions League football and trophies. Their cage is slightly more gilded than Everton’s, slightly more promising in possibility but it remains difficult to escape. Still there remains hope, with the club managing to attract the best available coach in the world, Jürgen Klopp. His spell at Dortmund makes him appear well-suited to the job, a progressive coach who understands that football is about both passion and intelligence and who raised a languishing giant to win league titles and play in a Champions League final. His first press conference saw him preaching a message of hope and asking the fans to believe again, as integral to the club as the players or indeed the manager. Liverpool finally looked to have found a manager in the Shankly tradition; a charismatic coach who sees himself as one of the people. Meanwhile FSG accepted the club were best served by expanding Anfield; perhaps a good job given the club’s part in running down the local area by buying houses around the stadium to leave empty. Any regeneration for Liverpool will come at their old home.
The soap opera of the Merseyside Premier League clubs concealed a smaller tragedy, one equally reflective of the modern game. Under John King and John Aldridge, Tranmere Rovers had been close to the Premier League, losing out in three successive playoffs and being a penalty shootout away from a League Cup final in 1994 before making it to Wembley in 2000. The club, under the weight of debt, defied low budgets and falling attendances to survive in Division One to survive. Unlike their more celebrated neighbours their prison wasn’t luxurious, instead being a vicious circle of low priced signings and relegation battles. Peter Johnson, like Moores and Kenwright a local businessman, had been looking to sell his shares in the club since 2002, one memorable attempt to dispose of them in 2009 resulting in the club being listed on eBay (admittedly not Johnson’s fault). The club was making million pound a year losses; peanuts to a Premier League but significant to a club of Tranmere’s standing. By 2014 the outlook was bleak; the club’s future uncertain and Ronnie Moore dispensed with after admitting to breaching the FA’s betting rules. Like Liverpool they gambled on the potential of a young manager who might develop players in Rob Edwards . Tranmere though had no equivalent of Suarez to rescue them and Edwards’s lack of experience was a disaster; he didn’t have the nous to overcome setbacks. Tranmere’s small squad became trapped at the bottom of the table and fell into league two. In a whirlwind of loan signings, short term contracts and injuries they fell straight out of the league after 94 years.
There is though one element that distinguishes the character of Merseyside; a certain resilience when backs are to the wall. The success of Everton and Liverpool in the 1980s expressed the defiance of a region on the pitch; that Liverpool’s most successful era ended in the same year as Margaret Thatcher fell feels like no coincidence with hindsight. Even in the various circumstances the clubs are still capable of expressions of hope; at the time of writing Tranmere sit fifth in the National League, Everton managed to hang onto John Stones when a big club came calling and Jürgen Klopp has Liverpool dreaming again. The city continues to redevelop itself, helped by its year as Capital of Culture repainting the city’s image by emphasising its cultural heritage over the more recent images of deprivation. On and off the field the city remains overshadowed by local and national rivals; Manchester and London still overshadow them financially but Liverpool continues to proudly fight its corner. The past may never be forgotten, but the future can always be faced with hope.