Six months ago the Liverpool chief executive, Peter Moore, was asked what distinguished his club from other European football giants. “We had this amazing historical figure: Bill Shankly, a Scottish socialist who built the foundation,” he told El Pais. “Even today, when we talk about business, we ask ourselves: ‘What would Shankly do?’”
So what would Shankly do in a global pandemic that threatens to bring the economy and the health system to its knees? The answer, it’s safe to say, would not involve piggybacking on a government scheme to stop mass unemployment when you are the world’s seventh-richest club. Furloughing Liverpool’s non-playing staff – saving perhaps £1m – when you have an annual wage bill of £310m and paid £43m to agents last year is not a good look.
True, Newcastle and Spurs did the same last week but by now we know who Mike Ashley and Daniel Levy are. Liverpool were supposed to be different.
Yet at a stroke the club’s owner undermined the work of their captain, Jordan Henderson, the driving force behind plans to arrange a Premier League fund for NHS staff. It’s not too late for Fenway Sports Group to admit it has misjudged the public mood, to row back, to apologise. Even the smartest people get it wrong sometimes.
However, Liverpool’s problems merely reflect the trouble English football has in responding to these dislocating times. You cannot blame players who are being asked to give up – or defer – 30% of their salaries for being aggrieved when they don’t know whether the money will go towards the NHS or back into their owners’ pockets.
It is also a bit rich for the health secretary, Matt Hancock, to publicly shame footballers when frontline medical staff are lethally short of PPE equipment. And, let’s be honest, if the government really wanted the super-rich to contribute more in this crisis, there is an easy solution: change the tax system.
That said it was obvious football might get a kicking weeks ago and the players, the Professional Footballers’ Association and the Premier League should have anticipated it. In mid-March, donating a large sum to the NHS would have been a massive PR win. Now it looks like they are being shamed into it, while also appearing out of touch with fans.
There are some who will say the game is less connected to local communities nowadays – after all, top players make more money in a week than most of us earn in a year. But the evidence suggests otherwise. Spanish academics have twice studied how much Deportivo La Coruña mattered to the people of La Coruña, first in 2003 and then again in 2012. “One of the most striking data,” they wrote in their latter study, “is the increase in the percentage of people who believe that if Deportivo disappeared, the quality of life in the city would be worse.”
Similar results have been found in England. A 2015 study asked just under 1,200 residents in Luton and Bury how important their club was to the town. A total of 47% in Luton and 39% in Bury felt their quality of life would reduce if their football club was no longer around.
Bury are already on the brink and last week two chief executives in sport told me they are working on the assumption things won’t get back to where they were until September. How many other Football League and National League clubs might be in trouble by then? And how healthy will other organisations, such as UK Athletics or the British Basketball League, be if no events take place by then?
Certainly with the economy forecast to take the biggest gut-punch since the Great Depression it is hard to see a swift return to normalcy. Already there are predictions the business model that has supercharged the Premier League and other sports will change, with the value of broadcasting rights likely to fall.
How will it not, if fewer of us can afford pay-TV? Over the coming months football would do well to learn from other sports, who have shown it is possible to work speedily and effectively for the greater good. Three weeks ago the Professional Triathletes Organisation announced it would increase its annual end-of-year bonus scheme from $2m to $2.5m – and immediately paid it out rather than wait until December.
Realising that triathletes lower down the food chain would need extra help, it gave the extra $500,000 in bonuses just to men and women ranked between 21 and 100 in the world. The world’s top 10 have also committed to doing online appearances and exhibitions and donating all the revenue to lower-ranked triathletes.
Other bodies, such as Sport England, are also stepping up. Last week it announced a £192m package to help grassroots sport – including a £20m emergency fund with grants of between £300 and £10,000 for sports clubs and community organisations, those vital but unappreciated capillaries in our society. That comes down to smart leadership. And it matters more than ever.
In Peter Moore’s El Pais interview, he pointed out that Liverpool’s owner had “not taken a penny of benefits” and stressed their broader philosophy of investing to create a virtuous circle. “Take care of your heritage, keep going, and surely good things will happen,” he added.
More than just a club? Right now those claims ring more than a little hollow.