Owners will be asking serious questions come end of season, writes Amy Lawrence
"More than any cup the most important thing for this club is to win the league again." Those words resonate these days around Anfield. They actually belong to a 21-year-old Michael Owen, who expressed the sentiment moments after winning the FA Cup in 2001, thanks to his masterclass in finishing.
Cups were very much the order of the day back then. Liverpool ended the campaign with three of them, as the League Cup and UEFA Cup made for a glittering trophy cabinet to symbolise fresh ambition. "This club is going places," pledged the manager at the time, Gerard Houllier.
The season would bring another significant milestone. In 2001 Liverpool made it into the Champions League courtesy of a third-place finish in the league. The cake was duly iced. Rick Parry, who was then the club's chief executive, felt something momentous was brewing. "Liverpool got back on the European map after so long in the wilderness," he said. "That year was crucial because it was the first time we qualified for the Champions League, and the revenue and the experience that we gained from that gave us a platform to build upon. That in itself was a huge achievement."
There was abundant reason for optimism. But it was telling that during a debriefing with Houllier to celebrate the cup treble, there was noticeable touchiness when the subject turned to whether this could be a platform for winning the title.
Questions about how far Liverpool stood from a genuine attempt to reach the Premier League summit pinched a raw nerve. "This is not a press conference about Manchester United," tutted Houllier, with tangible exasperation.
Over a decade down the line, the question of how much cups mean in relation to league positions has become even more prickly. The Champions League has had a distorting effect. It was no coincidence that John W Henry, Liverpool's American owner, was quick to turn his thoughts to a Champions League finish while he was being interviewed at Wembley after the club's League Cup victory in February.
Although an FA Cup semi-final looms, recent league defeats have all but extinguished hopes of a top-four spot.
Henry, remember, had warned that failure on that front would constitute a "major disappointment" at the beginning of the campaign.
According to John Williams, the Liverpool historian and author of Red Men, the emphasis in football has changed from what he calls the "event", such as a cup final, to the "process", such as qualifying for the Champions League. "That is even more so when the owners are foreign," Williams says. "The whole ambition is about being seen as part of the elite in Europe and gaining a route into the global market. Not being able to expose the brand is painful financially as well as in status terms."
Williams sees a contrast between the owners, who are focused on the process, and the manager, Kenny Dalglish, who still believes in the magic of the event. "Kenny is old school, from the '70s and '80s where winning trophies is important. This notion of success if you finish second, third or fourth is a bit alien to him."
While Liverpool struggle in the league, as an alarming sequence of five defeats from their last six games testifies, Dalglish continues to make the case that the team's exploits in the cups deserve more respect. He recently urged critics to "take an intelligence check" such is his conviction that the cups should be taken into greater account when Liverpool's season is assessed.
According to Williams, fan opinion at Anfield is split. "Is it enough to win cups? We have this conversation in the pub all the time," he says. "Is it really a successful season for Liverpool even if you finish seventh, 30 points off the top, regardless of winning cups? It is a very live debate."
There is no debate when it comes to analysing where the team needs to improve, however. In that 2001 season Owen scored 25 goals. The absence of a predator in the current set-up will be felt acutely as Liverpool visit Newcastle today, the club they enriched by £35m in exchange for Andy Carroll in January last year.
Dave Usher, editor of the Liverpool Way fanzine, says a shrewder eye for the market is a necessity. "There is only one way to get the club back where we want to be: buy better players," he says. "It really is that straightforward. If we spend our money better, we'll improve on the pitch and have more chance of winning more trophies, getting in the Champions League and attracting better players.
"Get the signings right and it causes the snowball effect. Get them wrong and you have what we've seen this season -- a team set to finish below Newcastle and struggling to hold off Everton, Stoke, Norwich, Swansea, Sunderland etc."
What the Carroll deal crystallises is a general concern over the decision making of Dalglish and his scouting department. As Williams points out, this is another thorny and emotionally clouded issue: "Bob Paisley used to say: 'Judge managers by their judgment of players.' The complication of Kenny's situation is that's not how you judge him. He's Kenny. He's the most loved player in the whole history of the club. But in the end the owners have to look coldly at his judgment."
And there is the bottom line. Whatever Dalglish feels about what ranks as satisfaction for Liverpool FC, we have to wait and see what Fenway Sports Group think at the end of this erratic season.
Sunday Indo Sport