Money matters most for league contenders
Despite the fee Liverpool received for Luis Saurez, they may struggle to reach heights of last season
Then Middlesbrough manager Bryan Robson introduces new signing Fabrizio Ravanelli of Italy at the Riverside Stadium in July 1996. Photograph: Allsport.
In the summer of 1996, Middlesbrough FC signed Fabrizio Ravanelli from Juventus for £7 million. The Italian had featured regularly on the Saturday morning Serie A highlights show on Channel 4 so was no stranger to English football fans. He was strong and dynamic, celebrated goals with abandon and looked a lot like Richard Gere during the Internal Affairs phase of his career.
All of the commentators loved saying his name and, along with Juninho and Emerson, he gave an international dimension to Boro and it was amusing to imagine Ravanelli wandering the former steel and iron town on his days off, leather-jacketed and Gucci-ed, wearing shades because it is an Italian birthright and searching in vain for a quality espresso.
Ravanelli arrived just when English football was on the cusp of a radical change in the ratio of home to foreign players. The previous year, Arsenal had purchased Denis Bergkmap for £7.5 million while Liverpool stayed local, buying Stan Collymore for £8.5 million.
But in August 1996, Middlesbrough played Liverpool in the first match of the Premier League and the White Feather scored a hat-trick in front of the ecstatic local support. So began a winter of sensory overload for Boro fans. They reached the FA Cup final. Chelsea beat them 2-0. They made it to the League Cup final. Leicester beat them 2-1.
And no team was more fun to watch in that year’s league, when Middlesbrough scored 51 goals, the seventh highest total in the league. They were relegated on the final day.
Middlesbrough finished 12th in the championship last year. Not a fatal position but miles off the promotion race and in a different world to that heady afternoon when they had the insanely fun notion of just outshooting every other team in the Premier League.
Market meltdownAs the transfer market goes into meltdown these weeks, it is striking how quaint the Ravanelli fee looks. Boro fans must read the latest comings and goings and wonder if they will ever again be able to keep company with the giants of English football.
They will see that Louis van Gaal has been told by the Manchester United board that he can pay more than any club has paid for a footballer in order to restore the Old Trafford club to the forefront of the European game. Like Viv Nicholson, the Dutch man can spend, spend, spend.
The question is: on whom? The month long jamboree in Brazil highlighted the rush among the super-clubs to snap up the relative short-list of what the Americans call franchise players: footballers with the hypnotic power to keep the turnstiles ticking and, more crucially, make every kid want a replica shirt.
Luke Shaw will enhance Manchester United but no more and with Adidas on board for a £750 million (€950m) kit deal, the onus is on United to attract a player whose personal wattage is almost as strong as that of the club. The trouble is that there are so few of what is the ex pros call “top, top” players. That was never as apparent as during last year.
United fans, players and executives looked through narrow eyes and with gritted teeth as Luis Suarez came close to bringing Liverpool a first league title in 24 years through his uncanny and unstoppable genius. Before Liverpool played Chelsea last May, one thing was clear: this was the best chance they would have to win the league for years.
Whether Brendan Rodgers and company had stumbled to that position by accident or design didn’t matter: that was their season. That league game against Chelsea was like the cup final of a lifetime. And they lost.
Now, Suarez is gone and Liverpool have £75 million (€95) in the bank and they have told their people: don’t worry, we’ve just bought Rickie Lambert. Owner John W Henry’s declaration that the time was right to sell Suarez was, in a practical sense, correct. You can only handle a player that volatile for so long. And in order to compete in the domestic and European league, the club needs to deepen its cast, most notably in an incredibly flaky back line.
By spending wisely, Liverpool can better its chances of staying in the top four and keeping revenue lines open. Baseball is Henry’s first sport so he knows about streaks. And he would have known that what happened at Liverpool last year was not a typical league-winning season. The habitual and steady 1-0s and 2-0s based on defensive solidity, midfield flintiness and a bit of craft up front.
It was as if the stars aligned for Liverpool, inflicting on David Moyes and Manchester United an unforgettable winter of misery which knocked them out of the equation. Arsenal proved to be ephemeral rather than the real thing and Chelsea tried and win the league without having any reliable goal scorers.
Simultaneous malfunctionsIt is unlikely that Liverpool’s major competitors will suffer simultaneous malfunctions of that magnitude again. What Henry and Rodgers can never say publicly is that Suarez was literally priceless to them last year. He came as close as any footballer ever will to winning the Premier League on his own and the effect that he had on his team mates will be best judged this year in his absence. If Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge look like lost souls this winter, it won’t be difficult to gauge why.
So Rodgers has money to spend and, like Van Gaal, choosing prudently is critical to the season’s fortunes before they even lace up boots and begin preaching on the training ground.
More than ever, the role of an elite manager has absorbed prerequisites of a fantasy football manager, by gambling 10s of millions on a player who might catch fire in the way that the Uruguayan did during a season that already carries a bittersweet flavour for Merseysiders.
Even with serious transfer money, Liverpool will struggle to convince that they are realistic title contenders now that the magician has left. And as for Middlesbrough, a club more representative of the English game than United or Liverpool, the big time looks further away than ever. As the transfer fees grow ever more heated, it is hard not to believe that the real business of winning the league is being conducted right now, in board rooms, with lawyers and agents and bottles of fizzy water at the ready.
Sooner or later, the English Football Association will have to curb the spending power of the billionaire clubs by introducing a salary cap to limit the collective wage bill that any one team can pay out. It won’t restore equality to clubs but will at least draw some sort of veil of respectability over the current charade where the best managers are also the best shoppers.