ANGRY Twitter is never the place to go looking for reasoned football debate. Even so, the widespread gloating over Liverpool’s admission that they are out of the race for Jude Bellingham’s signature feels misplaced.
Be careful what you wish for, haters. If it can happen to the Reds, it can almost certainly happen to your club.
Not every club of course, there are two notable exceptions (three, if one generously insists on including Ted Lasso FC, currently imploding at Stamford Bridge). And while English Premier League supporters took to the streets in protest against the closed-shop concept of a European Super League, the state-owned clubs quietly formed one anyway.
The EPL is already a continental super league and Liverpool are no longer invited.
Their failure to compete for Bellingham is not just an opportunity for giddy tribalists to stick the boot in. It’s a nail in the oil-soaked coffin, another reminder that Gary Neville is right to ponder the kind of owners needed, if not always wanted, at England’s leading clubs.
In a recent live discussion, the ex-Manchester United pundit wearily played the pantomime villain, accepting the jeers and cheers from the crowd, as he laid out the Red Devils’ options from the cold, detached perspective of a successful businessman. His beloved club may want the sentimental attachment of a homemade British consortium, but they need Qatari investment to satisfy trophy expectations.
And of course he was applauded by some and booed by others, at a time when politics and sport are more interconnected than ever. The relationship is uncomfortable and ugly, but a reality nonetheless, creating an unfair dilemma for EPL fans. Do you welcome the comparatively poorer owners and never seriously challenge for major silverware again, or take on the dodgy human rights stigma and sign Bellingham?
Clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United can’t have both, not anymore, not without serious legislative changes concerning the ownership model of EPL clubs, leaving the Reds in an absurd sporting and financial position.
Their sporting position was practically unassailable, at least until recently. Last season, they were a couple of results away from winning every available trophy. They competed in every possible fixture. Their international reach touched every nook and cranny on the planet. Jurgen Klopp’s swaggering globetrotters granted their club a licence to print money.
According to The Guardian, they generated a profit of £7.5 million last season. Before tax. That’s what two cup triumphs, a third Champions League final in five seasons and a breathless title race earns an elite outfit these days. Just £7.5 million. Before tax. And this was achieved after the club had increased commercial revenue by £29 million to £247 million.
By all means, attack the Fenway Sports Group for its prudent financial model, relying on astute player tracking and scouting and a Svengali-like presence in the dugout to work miracles on a budget. But where are Liverpool owners expected to find the £200 million reportedly required to pay the various facets of Bellingham’s expensive transfer, especially when there’s a greater need for reinforcements in central midfield?
Warning to other clubs as rich-poor chasm widens
Previously, Bellingham was a mission statement for Liverpool, a promise to cling to the elite's coat-tails. Now, he’s a warning to others as the rich-poor chasm widens. Neville is right. Hate the game, not the player, but Neville is still right. The EPL’s collective closing of one eye to the obvious consequences of state ownership facilitated this mess.
State-owned clubs are buying reputations, hearts and minds, at any cost. For them, Bellingham is not so much the final piece in a football puzzle, but the latest face on billboards, another attractive brand by association. Money is no object, because the objective has never been money.
For owners like Fenway Sports Group, it’s about nothing else. The Americans made Ted Lasso, but they also made Jerry Maguire. They expect to be shown more money than they spend. Under FSG, Liverpool’s greatest spend in a single summer was £160 million, back in 2018, an outlay that effectively launched the Klopp trophy run.
The prospect of exceeding that amount on one player is not only unthinkable, it’s unworkable. A near record-breaking campaign generated a profit of £7.5 million. This season is unlikely to end with Champions League qualification. Less money. Less choice.
An exodus of ageing talent is also expected. Midfield replacements are possibly needed for Fabinho, Naby Keita, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, James Milner and perhaps even Jordan Henderson. Mason Mount and Declan Rice are possible targets, but an entire squad overhaul is beyond the piggy bank.
In defence of FSG, no one anticipated Virgil van Dijk’s dramatic loss of form and the owners might have expected more for the £180 million lavished on forwards Darwin Núñez, Luis Díaz, Cody Gakpo and Fábio Carvalho. Liverpool’s funds are restricted, compared to their rivals, but they’ve certainly spent less wisely this time around.
But it scarcely matters. One of the two most popular football clubs on the planet cannot afford the services of the best young player in their country, not because they lack support, revenue, heritage, pedigree or a decent coaching structure. They have plenty of that lot.
But they are still owned by people, rather than a state.
Of course, this inconvenient truth will not stop #FSGOUT from trending again if the Reds lose at Leeds United and Klopp certainly deserves greater financial support after overachieving with his heroic squad. He must rebuild quickly and effectively at the end of an anti-climactic campaign. But he’s operating with a handicap.
Without the kind of money that buys Bellingham, Klopp is left looking at peashooters to take down cannons.
The transfer market is a fight that the Reds have already lost.
Without the kind of money that buys Bellingham, Klopp is left looking at peashooters to take down cannons. The transfer market is a fight that the Reds have already lost.
Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.
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