Friday 13 December 2019

Liverpool's painful Champions League exile cost £400m to bring to an end

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers during a press conference at Anfield, Liverpool. Peter Byrne/PA Wire.
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers during a press conference at Anfield, Liverpool. Peter Byrne/PA Wire.

Chris Bascombe

It has taken 1,742 days, four managers, 44 first team signings at a cost in excess of £400 million, a change of club ownership and one of the grubbiest legal squabbles in Premier League history.

For Liverpool – the club that displays their European Cup at the training ground – the Champions League return has come at a price.

It is a repaired club that welcomes the Uefa anthem and accompanying paraphernalia, vastly different to that defeated by Fiorentina on their last appearance in 2009. The Kop banners will celebrate a club synonymous with European success, but their recent history serves as a warning about the consequences of being a grandee in exile.

Liverpool have only recently stopped the bleeding caused by their prolonged elimination, and for all the sentimentality about the club returning to a competition to which they feel they ‘belong’, it has been an excruciatingly painful getting back. Recapturing football romance is an expensive business.

 In real terms, Liverpool lost a minimum of £120 million in Uefa funds from their four seasons out of the Champions League – spending almost four times as much trying to get another slice of the pie – and the lost status and revenue ripped the club apart in the immediate aftermath of their exit.

It was on Dec 9, 2009, in the third minute of stoppage time, when Alberto Gilardino’s side-footed a first-time shot past reserve goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri to give Fiorentina a 2-1 win at Anfield. It was a decisive blow.

Graeme Souness, a TV pundit on that night, said he feared the club was on the verge of “meltdown” as they came to terms with the repercussions of not only group-stage elimination, but likely failure to qualify the following season. That proved an understatement.

The impact on and off the pitch defined the next five years, precipitating the dismissal of Rafael Benítez, the fall of Tom Hicks and George Gillett and subsequent takeover by Fenway Sports Group via the High Court. The reigns of Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish ended swiftly because they never threatened to get the club near to the top four.

Being pushed off the money train was debilitating. When Liverpool failed to qualify for the competition at the end of the 2009-10 season, the perilous business plan of Hicks and Gillett was exposed as much as the poorly performing team.

The Royal Bank of Scotland had sanctioned loans and refinancing packages to the Americans on the basis of Champions League football. Without it, Hicks and Gillett found himself up the proverbial creek begging every broker on Wall Street for a paddle.

Liverpool had been budgeting for participation in the competition since Gérard Houllier led them back to it in 2001. The club’s yearly accounts defined qualification as the “minimum requirement”. Hicks and Gillett took this policy to the extreme, risking the future of the club on Champions League participation.

This sense of brinkmanship defined Benítez’s reign, as European success prevented the club from suffering deep-rooted divisions and its risky financial projections from turning destructive. Every time Anfield braced itself for internal war, along came a victory over Chelsea, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, Barcelona or AC Milan to perpetuate the uneasy truce between manager, board and the banks.

Once the Champions League was no longer around to keep the investors happy and redeem another season without a Premier League challenge, carnage ensued. Hicks and Gillett were shoved out, managers came and went, players such as Javier Mascherano and Fernando Torres did a runner at the first opportunity and countless others decided the signing-on speech about the dream of playing in front of the Kop was not for them without the Champions League. Such is the turnaround in personnel, only Steven Gerrard and Martin Skrtel remain from the last Champions League outing.

Unlike Hicks and Gillett, FSG have never been in a position to budget for the Champions League. Until now, that is. Once you are dining at Europe’s top table, the shareholders are in no mood to concede their seat.

This is the pleasure and peril for Brendan Rodgers as he becomes only the sixth Liverpool manager to lead the club in a European Cup tie.

It does not take long for the gratitude towards him to surrender to a feeling of entitlement. Qualification becomes the least the board expects. “This is our competition,” Ian Ayre said at the Champions League draw.

Do not be surprised if the minimum-requirement policy returns as FSG realises how much easier it is to attract sponsors, players and those corporate partners who will help to pay for the Anfield stadium upgrade they hope to start in December.

In an era where Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United can solve their problems by investing more in three days than Liverpool would be capable of in three years, it was harder for Rodgers to qualify for the Champions League than any of his predecessors.

In setting such high standards so soon, he has also created instant pressure not only to maintain but elevate them. The euphoria of Liverpool finally making it back into the European elite will be short-lived. The attention has already shifted to ensuring they avoid all those financial, commercial and, lest we forget, footballing pitfalls by staying in.

44 -Liverpool have bought 44 players since last playing in the Champions League in 2009-10

4 -Only a quartet of players remain from their group-stage exit in the 2009-10 Champions League - midfielders Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva, and defenders Glen Johnson and Martin Skrtel

4 -Liverpool have employed four managers in that time - Rafael Benitez, who left at the end of the 2010 season, Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish and Brendan Rodgers

£400m -Liverpool have spent a shade over £400m on players since the summer of 2009, including £35m on Andy Carroll

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