Sunday, October 17, 2010

Living The American Dream

On the statue of John Lennon at Liverpool's John Lennon Airport there is the inscription: "Above us only sky". Beneath it, with almost blasphemous irreverence, some scallywag has added: "...and below us only Wolves and West Ham".

Local joves will have you believe this is the famous Scouse humour at work. Given the seemingly comical misfortunes of Liverpool Football Club you would have to give a royal 'hats off' to the wit behind the graffiti. What it masks, sadly, is just how pitiful 'the Mighty Reds' have become. And how much Liverpool fans are clinging on to their newest American saviour, John William Henry II.

With a name seemingly assigned by the Pilgrim Fathers themselves, John W Henry is the living embodiment of the American Dream: the son of Illinois farmers, he dropped out of college only to self-teach himself commodity brokerage, making millions in the process to end up buying himself a baseball team (the Boston Red Sox - a team so big, they don't even care about spelling). All somewhat clich├ęd, you might scoff.

However, owning large American "sports franchises" is somewhat old hat these days. So, when you've got a billion or two stuffed under the bed, the investment de la jour is to acquire an English Premier League football team. This was pretty much the same story as Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr who, until last Friday, were the previous owners of Liverpool.  Let's just hope Henry - now being hailed the new Mersey Messiah (following in the footsteps of Lennon, Kenny Dalglish, Cilla Black and "Dat Barry Grant from Brookie") - doesn't fall victim to the disillusionment that befell Tom Hicks' son, who allegedly sent a Liverpool fan an e-mail which poetically trilled: "Blow me, f**k face. Go to hell. I'm sick of you". Some people really miss the point about being in it to win it.

Henry has, without labouring the bleeding obvious, a huge task ahead: picking up one of the most famous properties in world football, he must invest to ensure the club's illustrious heritage can match the business environment of the modern era, when the likes of the Manchesters United and City, and their London rivals Chelsea, have the financial clout to keep them entrenched in the Top Four.

Let's keep some perspective, though: it wasn't that long ago Liverpool were ever-present in the upper reaches of the Premier League, even pushing Manchester United for the top spot at one point a couple of seasons back. They are, without any question, one of the most successful clubs in the history of association football, having earned an equal-record 18 league titles, seven FA Cups, seven League Cups and, of course a glittering tally on the European stage - five European Cups and three UEFA Cups, making them the most successful English club in European competition.

However, the collective Scouse moustache is justifiably adroop right now. The club is in the almost inconceivable position of third from bottom. On Sunday it travels across Stanley Park to re-engage Everton in one of the most enduring city derbies. Much is at stake. Defeat for Liverpool will almost certainly place Roy Hodgson's future in the Liverpool hot seat in serious doubt. This, I believe, would be grossly unfair, though, sadly, a fact of life that a manager is only as good as his last results...and Liverpool's have been abysmal.

In Hodgson, Liverpool has a very capable manager. By comparison with his predecessor, the emotionally volatile Rafa Benitez, Hodgson's honest, down-to-earth geniality and ability to do more with less, should see the club through the weeks to come and into a more respectable position by Christmas. That doesn't diminish the task, however, of picking up bruised and battered egos in the club, and bruised and battered egos amongst fans who deserve and expect better.

No club is big enough to be guaranteed Premier League status. Great names from the top flight past, like Leeds, Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest and Portsmouth now languish in the lower levels. Liverpool deserve no less exemption from the same fate and nor should they expect it. And nor should we really bank on it. To be in such a dire position by mid-October augurs badly for any hope of Liverpool returning to European contention for next season. Moreover, Hodgson - with Henry's money - must revive a squad demoralised by the Benitez era and defocused by the unsightly High Court squabble this week over club ownership.

I grew up in an era when Liverpool dominated world football. Their exploits in Europe turned the club into international currency. As a Chelsea fan, though, I have little love lost for them: but unlike the bland corporate behemoth that Manchester United has become, Liverpool represents the dated, anachronistic glamour that football should still have. Simply put, Liverpool is a great football club from one of the great footballing cities. That doesn't give it a right to anything, but if you love your football, you want to see great competition amongst the great competitive clubs.

Anfield - for as long as it exists - is still one of the most magical grounds to visit, and to hear the Kop in full voice singing You'll Never Walk Alone is an anthemic experience every bit as good as a Wembley rendition of the National Anthem shortly before 3pm on Cup Final Saturday. Liverpool fans deserve better. And in John W Henry, they may just have found it.

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