Dynasty: Introduction

Dynasty: Introduction
November 13, 2008 Paul Tomkins

(Some formatting, such as italics, may have been lost in transfer)

Glamourous locations arrived at in global travels; power and money; unfeasibly big hair; silver ostentatiously displayed; success that peaked in the ‘80s with huge TV ratings; and warring silver-haired American tycoons –– but not a Joan Collins or Heather Locklear in sight. This is the story of a different Dynasty. Liverpool Football Club’s rise to the pinnacle of the game began five decades ago –– 2008/09 is the 50th season since the appointment of Bill Shankly –– and bar a brief exile, the club abides as a major English and European team. The eight men at the helm during that time have not been linked by blood, but they have all bled red for the club. Successful or not, skilled or not, they all cared.

Fifty years of unparalleled success. Thirteen league titles, five European Cups, three UEFA Cups, seven FA Cups, seven League Cups: 35 major trophies in five decades –– the honours list speaks of unprecedented triumph. Add three European Super Cups and 15 Charity/Community Shields, and it’s 53 pieces of silverware by the 50th year. (Any Newcastle fans reading this, you have my permission to weep uncontrollably; just don’t damage the pages.) Of the eight men who got to manage the club during this time, four were former Liverpool players — and each landed at least one major honour.

Of course, the majority of those trophies were garnered in the first 30 years. The fourth decade of the dynasty saw a relative drought: Championship in 1990, FA Cup in 1992 and League Cup in 1995. And were it not for a new direction, courtesy of continental cousins, the dynasty may have ended there, with a drift towards mid-table mediocrity and a failure to revisit the scenes of so many cup successes. Gérard Houllier had his critics, and it’s undeniable that the second half of his tenure was a massive disappointment after the positive reconstruction of the first, but he landed four major trophies and finally got the team back into the Champions League; throw in ‘showpiece’ silverware, and he can count one trophy for each year of his reign. Rafa Benítez, like his three predecessors, has yet to find the magic formula for a league title, but he put the Reds back into the very top bracket with two Champions League Finals and an FA Cup success, as well as coming within nine minutes and a Steven Gerrard own goal of landing the League Cup in his debut final. As with Houllier, add the European Super Cup and Community Shield, and the Spaniard was registering a trophy per season. The new millennium had seen the rebuilding of the club; its name back in lights. In the summer of 2008 it was announced that the Reds had risen to become the top-ranked team in Europe, based on results of the previous five years. But without the foundations laid five decades ago, it would almost certainly have been a club sinking into darkness.

It’s always frightening to think about how different things might have been if only a certain decision wasn’t taken; as George Michael noted in the song that was number one in the UK charts at the time Liverpool won their one and only double: turn a different corner and certain people might never have met (something he no doubt pondered when caught cottaging in a Los Angeles lavatory). In the case of Liverpool Football Club, that corner was turned, both figuratively and literally, by Tom Williams, the chairman, and Harry Latham, a fellow director, when approaching the lone figure of Bill Shankly late on Saturday 17th October 1959, as the then-Huddersfield manager left his team’s home ground following defeat to Cardiff. Had that meeting not taken place, this book would not have been written. Liverpool may eventually have come good again, given the club had already won five league titles in its history, but it’s unlikely that it would have been to anything near the extent subsequently seen. For that to happen, it needed key men, visionaries.

Shankly took up the offer made to him in Williams’ car, and Bob Paisley, already a first team coach, became his assistant. In that moment, the future of the club was set on a course for the stars in a way that Williams and Latham could not have believed possible. It was as if they inadvertently created the world’s first spaceship and sent it successfully into orbit. Shankly’s fifteen years and Paisley’s nine meant that almost all of the first half of the 50-year dynasty was overseen by just two managers. Unquestionably they were aided by the back-room men, oiling the wheels behind the scenes; a collective known for years as the legendary ‘Boot Room’, on account of the glorified kit cupboard within Anfield in which they gathered. But these men needed a leader to follow; at least until it came to their chance to take control.

Other clubs have possessed more than one legendary (or, at the very least, notably successful) manager in the last 50 years, such as Matt Busby and Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and Bertie Mee, George Graham and Arsène Wenger at Arsenal, but no club has employed undoubted geniuses in back-to-back appointments. Shankly possessed everything necessary to build a club up from a very humble starting point, and Paisley had the different kind of eye necessary to take things that one step forward.

But this is about much, much more than just two men. Joe Fagan won a treble of League, European Cup and League Cup in his debut season and was a beaten European Cup finalist in his second and final campaign; Kenny Dalglish won three league titles, one of them in scintillating style, and the club’s only double — in his inaugural campaign at that; Gérard Houllier led the team to an historic three cup successes in one season; and Rafa Benítez oversaw the most remarkable night in the history of the club by winning the most memorable of all European Cup Finals in the time-span covered by all but the first year of this book. Indeed, even the other two won trophies: Graeme Souness punctuated a disappointing tenure with an FA Cup; Roy Evans, meanwhile, had just a League Cup to show for some fine attacking football — but unlike the much-heralded Newcastle United of the same era, or Leeds a few years later, at least it was something. You have to go back to the 1950s, before the dynasty was in place, to find the last Liverpool manager to leave the job empty-handed. And since the club returned to the top flight in 1962, the lowest the Reds have finished is 8th. (Unlike Manchester United, relegated in 1973, and with three bottom-half finishes in Alex Ferguson’s first four seasons; and Arsenal, with a low of 17th and a further five finishes of 12th and below in that time). Not bad for a club languishing in the old Second Division when Shankly pitched up.

With the 50th anniversary of Shankly’s appointment approaching, and the club approaching the level it was at in the years before the Scot’s abdication — towards the top of the league, and making waves in Europe — the great institution experienced the previously unthinkable, and descended into civil war. Owned by two Americans — George Gillett and Tom Hicks — who acquired the club in 2007, the pair were at odds with each other in the world’s media, dragging the manager, Rafa Benítez, into the discord, and with chief executive Rick Parry publicly asked by Hicks to resign at the height of the squabbles. Whatever the rights and wrongs, and whoever’s side you care to take, it was not a situation anyone involved in the running of the club could be happy about. It certainly wasn’t the way the club used to do business, and a return to such values must be on the minds of all concerned.

Dynasty is not intended as some trip down memory lane purely to marvel in its delights, even if that is a most welcome part of the journey. “If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday”, said Pearl S Buck. In football, while much will change — indeed, has to change — there are plenty of universal truths that endure. Speaking of his time as manager at Real Madrid, and referring to what he learned from the Boot Room, John Toshack said “There are a lot of modern theories, but the most important things in football were important 50 years ago. And they’ll be important 50 years from now.” Despite some obvious differences, there are some surprising and striking similarities between Bill Shankly and Rafael Benítez, the men at either end of the fifty year divide. For instance, the lessons of how Shankly got the ball rolling: the birth of modern Liverpool FC. There are a lot of parallels between what Shankly did and what Benítez attempts 50 years later. Shankly started from a lower position, but Benítez is working in an age where more is demanded, and where expectations are higher as a result of that unprecedented success between 1964 and 1990. Both missed out on a number of early targets deemed too expensive, as each worked with less funds than some rivals, but both eventually had far stronger squads than they inherited once they were four years into their reign. Both bought players who were impressive initially, but with better replacements arriving were later sold for a profit (Kevin Lewis and Momo Sissoko are just two examples). Character was vitally important to both managers when sizing up a transfer target. Then there were the two pairs of crucial signings with apparent similarities. In 1961 it was Ian St John and Ron Yeats, while 46 years later it was Javier Mascherano and Fernando Torres. All were 23 when they put pen to paper; each pair became the two most expensive players in the club’s history; and one was a forward and the other there to stop the opposition. Then there was Shankly’s belief in a large squad, his penchant for making notes (not during games, mind) and his belief that players could not repeat their usual level of intensity in games that were close together; it could almost be Benítez under discussion. Shankly was hauled over hot coals for making wholesale changes to his side just a matter of days ahead of crucial games in 1965 and 1973, with the club receiving a large fine for the latter incident when the manager made ten changes for the visit to Manchester City.

When Inter Milan narrowly overcame Liverpool in 1965, Shanks pointed out how pleased the unofficial world champions were to beat the Reds. “That’s the level you have raised yourselves up to,” he told his players. That is finally true once again.

The Past and the Present

Comparing different eras within football is notoriously perilous. The sport, and how we look at it, has changed in innumerable ways. Simply knowing the name of each division is in itself a complex matter: in 1992 the First Division became the Premiership, so the Second Division became the First Division. A few years later, the First Division became the Championship (which only confuses the issue of saying a team ‘won the championship’) and the Second Division (i.e. old Third Division) became the third different First Division in the space of a decade. Confused? You should be.

Different skills are more important in different decades, as the rules are amended to alter the influence of attacking play. Tactics, systems and formations have changed and developed, and the English game has become cosmopolitan in its personnel and global in its appeal. Priorities also change. In 1965, winning the FA Cup was almost the pinnacle of the game, on a par with winning the league title. Within 40 years it had become an afterthought. In the days of Shankly and Paisley, first was first and ‘2nd was nowhere’. But by the new millennium, 2nd, 3rd and 4th were of great importance. The relevance of the League Cup has never been that great, but in recent years it’s almost become a youth/reserve competition.

The aim of this book is to compare the situations, prepare the context ­­ within which framework accurate judgements can be made. For example, comparing a modern squad against one from 1964 is misleading, because back then, even though Shankly wanted a strong squad, it could be about 14 players at most over the course of a season. The allowance of a substitute was still a season away, and the lower pace and intensity meant fewer injuries, so fewer players were needed; these days, squads of 25 or more are commonplace, while up to 50 players may have squad numbers. The notion of the ‘squad player’ has expanded in recent years. In the first 30-40 years covered by this book, a club had players who played regularly for the first team, and who tended to be good or very good. Then you had those who didn’t play very much, or not at all, and bar the odd exception, they were understandably viewed as being not so good. But nowadays clubs can see full internationals as mere bit-part players; they may not play too often, but in some cases their quality is undeniable — even if they don’t get a lot of time to prove it. With the pace of the modern game, and the way athletes are pushed to the limit, strength in depth has become an important concept. In previous decades, a decent local lad would make up the numbers; these days, a manager has to try to buy two top-class players for every position. But of course, he cannot play both at the same time; as such, one could be seen as a failure, even if he provides a decent alternative.

Writing for The Times the morning after the Reds’ remarkable 4-2 victory over Arsenal in the quarter-final of the Champions League on April 8th 2008, Oliver Kay noted how the game has changed over the last two decades: “When players of a certain vintage try to dismiss the ‘nonsense’ spoken by modern managers about the pace of English football these days, they should be given a tape — not a DVD, obviously — of this match to sit through. This was not football as they knew it. The worst thing that ever happened to that generation was the advent of nostalgia-based sports television channels. As classic matches from the archives are reshown, younger viewers can marvel at the talents of Kenny Dalglish or Liam Brady, but they can also see the outdated rules and the outlandish physiques that made for such a different spectacle.

“One station recently showed a rerun of the most famous Liverpool-Arsenal clash of them all: that on May 26, 1989, when the London club needed a 2-0 victory at Anfield in the final match of the season to beat the Merseysiders to the League championship. It is remembered as a classic, but it was a stultifying spectacle as Liverpool’s defenders repeatedly passed the ball back to Bruce Grobbelaar to wind down the clock. With the back-pass rule still three years away, Grobbelaar would bowl the ball out and, within 20 seconds, it would be back in his hands. It was a misplaced sense of adventure that drew them out in the closing stages, only for Michael Thomas to score Arsenal’s decisive second goal deep into stoppage time, thus providing the most dramatic climax to a title race that England has seen.”

Of course, Liverpool were perfectly entitled to make use of the back-pass law — much of their European dominance had involved that very process. And if it was so easy to achieve success this way, why didn’t every team adopt it and reap the rewards? But even so, much of the game’s increased speed is down to the ball being in play — and out of the goalkeepers’ hands — for greater periods of time.

Pitches nowadays are more like bowling greens and less like reenactments of the Somme; balls are like balloons; goalkeepers narrow their angles rather than stay rooted to their line; off-the-ball incidents are captured by a dozen cameras, as is every movement of the players (who are also monitored by tracking devices), while the internet, countless sports satellite channels and extensive newspaper coverage mean that the game is now endlessly analysed, shortening managerial careers in the process. The outlawing of challenges from behind has allowed more freedom to creative talents; the offside rule has evolved to the point where eight players can be in an offside position but, without a hint of logic, not ‘interfering with play’; players and club owners are more likely to be from overseas than England (only 38% of Premiership players are currently English), while the Bosman ruling has altered how clubs trade players; while your average tackle from 1971 would result in a life ban if made three decades later. Other than that, it’s still eleven versus eleven (at kick-off) on pitches marked out in the same manner, trying to score in goals that, despite some talk of expansion ahead of the 1994 World Cup, remain the same size. Plus ça change…, as the French say.

In an interview in March 2008, Rafa Benítez gave his views on how things differ. “Nowadays,” he said, “in comparison to 20 years ago, we play 20 percent more games in a season. Players run 15 percent more than they used to and, even more importantly, they run 30 percent faster.”

As a result, comparing fitness from decades ago is possible only against the competition of that era, not against the modern scientific methods (which, in 50 years’ time, may seem as archaic as Shankly’s dietary advice of eating steak and chips does now). Of course, everyone is usually in pretty much the same boat; no-one is ever that far ahead of their rivals for long, with good ideas quickly adopted as they are disseminated. With all this in mind, as well as the changes in the financial landscape and numerous other factors (including strength of squad inherited, development of players, tactical awareness, the support of the board, quality of the league at the time, and so on), I have devised a set of categories in which the analysis can take place, so comparisons between Shankly, Paisley, Fagan, Dalglish, Souness, Evans, Houllier and Benítez can be made in full awareness of the problems and luxuries they experienced in their own era. For example, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s there were a lot of strong English teams capable of winning the league, such as Manchester United, Leeds, Manchester City, Everton, Arsenal and Derby, as well as Liverpool, while United were so strong they had become the country’s first European Champions in 1968; as such, Shankly’s failure to land a league title between 1966 and 1973 can be viewed in that context. Alternatively, United fell away to 18th in 1973, and were relegated in 1974, to remove one major rival. In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, English football dominated Europe; in the early ‘90s, the country’s national game was in poor health. Come forward to more recent times, and the arrival of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea in 2003 meant that Rafa Benítez had to try and overcome a rival team ­­ the nouveau riche Blues ­­ whose wealth was on an unprecedented scale.

An example of how the challenge of winning the league — or even finishing 2nd — has changed can be seen in the statistics of each of the managers’ first 150 league games: a landmark Benítez reached two matches before the end of 2007/08, and as such, a nice figure to use by way of comparison. (Only Joe Fagan and Graeme Souness failed to reach the 150-game landmark, managing 84 and 115 league games respectively; Ronnie Moran, as a mere caretaker for nine matches in 1991, isn’t counted, nor is Phil Thompson’s leadership during Houllier’s time in hospital with a ruptured aorta a decade later.)

Kenny Dalglish chalked up the most wins in his first 150 league matches, with 87. But Benítez and Houllier had the next-best record, with 81 wins each. Bob Paisley won 79, Bill Shankly 77 and Roy Evans 72. Bob Paisley’s first 150 league games were spread across complete seasons where the Reds finished 2nd, 1st and 1st, while Dalglish’s were chalked up during 1st, 2nd and 1st place finishes; both managers would see their Liverpool team finish 2nd in the fourth season, in which the 150th game occurred. So Paisley’s two titles and two runners-up positions were achieved with fewer league wins than Houllier and Benítez managed when averaging between 3rd and 4th. Equally, it could be argued that bigger squads make it more possible to win a greater percentage of games in a single season.

Judging a manager purely on the silverware he wins ignores the challenges inherent in winning them. The key is not purely counting trophies — as important as they are — but discovering the context of each man’s achievements or, in some cases, failures. What situation — and what players — did he inherit? What state was the club in, politically and financially? How expertly was he assisted by his coaching staff? How much money did he spend, in relative terms? How did each of his signings pan out? What legacy did he bequeath? How dominant, rich and/or well-managed were rival teams? And so on. All of these factors, and more, are considered when assessing the men concerned.

How the club now moves forward cannot be foretold – it’s simply impossible. So much could change, and no doubt will change in the coming months and years. But the past 50 years is written in stone, with Liverpool’s achievements inscribed upon marble and silver, and its modern founder, with arms outstretched in triumph, carved in gleaming bronze.

Brains Trust

For the purposes of this book it was essential to have valid evaluations of all the players purchased by the club over the five decades, to help gauge each manager’s activity in the transfer market. These, along with the contributions of those who emerged through the ranks, are also used determine how strong the squad was when each manager reported for his first day in charge — a crucial part of deciding how difficult his task was.

In order to have each player analysed as accurately as possible, I assembled a Brains Trust, where experts ­­ including those who knew some of the key figures, as well as football writers, authors and editors of various LFC websites ­­ along with a select few fans, have contributed marks out of 10 for every Reds’ performer in the last 50 years, from which an average rating for each player has been ascertained. (Of course, ‘expert’ is always a subjective term. However, I have tried to make sure only those with real knowledge are included; anyone awarding Sean Dundee 9/10 would instantly be struck off and reported to the relevant mental health authorities.)

Once the quality of each player was rated, other factors needed to be analysed. It struck me how important it was to judge the ‘value’ of these players — as signings, and as part of a squad bequeathed to a managerial successor — as precisely as possible, with a set of criteria that could apply equally to 1959 and 2008. That process needs explaining.

Please note that this is not a statistical book by any means. However, when it comes to judging players — from the amount of games they played, through to their transfer fees, and on to rating their contribution to the Liverpool cause with a mark out of 10 — everything leads back to figures, or statistics. The use of numbers is inescapable. As an alternative, in order to be more colourful, the players’ quality could perhaps have been compared with, say, aquatic life: Ian Rush a shark, Michael Owen a stingray, Jan Molby a whale, El Hadji Diouf a catfish and Torben Piechnik a plankton. But ultimately such comparisons wouldn’t really provide the quantifiable accuracy required.

First and foremost, this is a book based on history, and what people saw with their own eyes. Achievements and anecdotes are a vital part of the assessment process for each manager, but when it comes to analysing their players more deeply than “he was great, he was rubbish”, or “he was cheap, he was expensive”, a different kind of evaluation is necessary. As such, Dynasty mixes subjective, eye-witness appraisals with objective statistical facts.

While this is a book about managers, it is undeniable that their contribution is largely measured through the strengths and weaknesses of their players. How successful a manager is depends on the abilities of those who cross the white line on his behalf. The true measure of a manager is in the games and, if all goes well, the trophies he wins; but getting it right in the transfer market is arguably the most influential factor in success. How successful a manager can prove to be clearly depends to a large degree on his budget, and how he invests it, but it’s not the only consideration. The players he inherits and those graduating from the youth team are often as important, if not more so in some cases. All these are vital parts of the assessments herein.

While the idea was to be as fair as possible and rank the players for their quality and not their fee (seeing as the fee would be assessed separately), it’s important to acknowledge that it’s impossible to completely divorce the two. Had Gary McAllister cost £5m, then despite his influential displays he would have been viewed slightly less favourably; maybe people would have focused on the fact that, apart from two sensational months, the rest of his two years were steady rather than spectacular, and that £5m was a very high fee for a man of his age. Equally, had Paul Stewart been a free transfer, then perhaps he’d have been viewed more sympathetically. (Then again, any player lumbering about like an inebriated vagrant who’s lost his can of Special Brew is never impressive, no matter how much or little they cost.) So any perception of a player is tainted by his transfer fee.

Transfers

Many experts claim that managers succeed or fail by the signings they make. Tactics, groundbreaking fitness regimes, special diets, sports psychology, etc, are all important, but will only get you so far if the quality of personnel is substandard; you can use these techniques to punch above your weight, but there tends to be a ceiling to the success, while consistency can be difficult to achieve. The best managers can get more out of limited players, but the greater the quality and the better the balance of personnel, then the more chance there is of succeeding over the course of a season.

Obviously modern managers spend far more money, in terms of pounds sterling, than their forebears, as fees have risen at a staggering rate since the post-war period. Clearly, football transfers do not follow standard inflation. It’s pointless saying that Josemi cost four times as much as Kenny Dalglish ­­ it needs to be looked at in terms relative to the year in question. You could add the values of all Shankly’s signings together and, coming in at £1,329,250, still not attain the current asking price for a jobbing lower division player. But the question should be: in his day, how much did Shankly spend relative to his rivals? And how much did he spend, in relative terms, compared with his successors?

With this in mind, I have devised a system to rank the cost of each signing out of 10, based on the fee’s relation to the English transfer record of the time; so that rather than use a financial figure to make comparisons — which becomes meaningless with the passing of time ­­ the mark will show how large or small the fee was in relative terms. Outbound transfer fees, as debits, are rated as a minus number, up to -10; money coming into the club, as credit, is rated as a positive number, up to +10. The transfer record is taken only as what English clubs have paid.

Ranking signings against the record fee works back from a benchmark. It is not 100% accurate, and cannot escape the vagaries and arbitrariness of transfers, which don’t always follow logical comparisons. After all, a player’s value is set by how much the buying club is prepared to spend, and how much the selling club is willing to hold out for. Sometimes this eventual evaluation leaves pundits scratching their heads. All the same, comparing transfers with the record of the day is still the best way to judge how much each signing cost in real terms.

As an example, Peter Beardsley’s transfer fee of £1.9m in 1987 was the equivalent of £2.9m in 1991, when the Reds broke the English transfer record again with the purchase of Dean Saunders. Both of these were -10 signings in terms of outlay — the most an English club had paid. By 1995 ­­ the last time the Reds set the record, when signing Stan Collymore ­­ that high-water mark had become £8.5m; therefore, another -10 outlay. As an example of how other players’ values compare, Jason McAteer, signed for £4.5m that same year, was a -5.3 signing; roughly equivalent to a fee of £17m 13 years later.

Come forward to August 2008, and the English record stands at the £30.8m Chelsea paid for Andrei Shevchenko in 2006, whilst there are several other players who have been bought for fees in this vicinity: Rio Ferdinand, Juan Sebastian Verón and Wayne Rooney, to name just three. Given the cost of Shevchenko, Liverpool’s record signing, Fernando Torres, is rated at a -7.5 fee. This is based on the price of £23m, which is the median fee quoted for the Spaniard, on account that reports differ, with some sources claiming it was as low as £20m and others as high as £26m, including possible add-ons for milestones reached by the player. One difficulty with assessing modern-day transfers is that an increasing number of fees are undisclosed, or involve such incentives to reward appearances or trophies won.

Going back to the summer of 1962, the point when Liverpool won promotion to the top flight as champions of the Second Division, Denis Law (a protege of Shankly’s at Huddersfield) secured a move from Torino to Manchester United for £115,000, a new high-water mark; it would be 12 years before Liverpool topped that figure, when Shankly shelled out £180,000 on his very last signing, Ray Kennedy — at which point the new record became the £350,000 Everton paid for Bob Latchford. At the time of Law’s arrival at Old Trafford, Shankly’s record outlay was the purchase of Ian St John from Motherwell for £37,500 a year earlier. This was more than double what the Reds had previously paid for a player, but even so, it was still some way short of what United were able to afford. However, that is not to say that Shankly didn’t pay big money; in 1967 he paid £96,000 for Tony Hateley, which was 83% of the record (-8.3). Shankly, Fagan, Houllier and Benítez are the four managers who have failed to make a record-breaking signing, although each, bar Fagan, broke the club’s own record on at least one occasion. Between 1977 and 1995, Paisley, Dalglish, Souness and Evans all broke the English record.

Ultimately, all clubs use the transfer record as a barometer. And paying large fees helps any club get the men they covet. A transfer fee may seem cheap five years after the event, but at the time it may have stretched the club’s resources and, of course, seen off the hopes of any rivals in the market. This can be seen with someone like Gary Pallister, who cost Manchester United £2.3m (-8.5) in 1989; four years later, when they won the title, it was in no small part down to the giant centre-back. By spending big in 1989, Ferguson had taken Pallister off the open market; by 1996 the English record was £15m, but Pallister still has to be viewed as a very expensive player when considering United’s double-winning side.

With every new TV deal comes a rash of extravagant spending. As soon as someone increases the record, the values of every other player, be they world-class or jobbing journeyman, are adjusted accordingly. Clubs turn around and say “well, if he’s worth £30m, our reserve goalkeeper must be worth £10m”, when the day before, they saw their player’s worth as £7m.

The inward and outbound transfers of Stan Collymore, in 1995 and 1997 respectively, provide an example of how the transfer record affects other fees. In 1995, Collymore cost Liverpool £8.5m, a new English record. Two years later he was sold for £7.5m — only a £1m loss, on the surface. But in between, Alan Shearer had moved to Newcastle for £15m. Therefore, the going rate for a top striker had almost doubled, and should Roy Evans have wished to buy another top forward in England, he’d have struggled with what he received for Collymore. Had Collymore, with the exception of a few excellent games here and there, produced for Liverpool what he did at Nottingham Forest, or indeed, actually improved, then by 1997 his value should have risen to somewhere in the £15m ballpark. Instead, from being the country’s record signing, he was sold to Aston Villa for only half of the new high-water mark — a more accurate marker for his dwindling value by 1997. The very reason Collymore was sold at all was down to his relative failure, and this was reflected in his price. Had he succeeded at Anfield, then the point may well have been moot, as Liverpool would not have sold him — at least not to another English club. So in relative terms, Liverpool lost a lot more than a million pounds.

On the whole, the transfer record has seen an increase every year or two, with the occasional longer period of stability. But 1979 was when English football went insane, as spending went through the roof — although interestingly, Liverpool, the champions, were not party to the craziness. In the year of Margaret Thatcher’s first election success and as a prelude to English society’s self-centred, spend-big culture of the next decade, it was a year when the record rocketed. The proof that my evaluation system has some validity can be seen in the events that followed David Mills — a run-of-the-mill (no pun intended) midfielder never capped beyond U23 level for England — moving from Middlesbrough to West Brom in January for a new record fee of £516,000. Trevor Francis, a far superior player, became the first million pound player a month later (after all, he had to be worth at least twice someone like Mills, surely?), and by then even average or totally unproven players became more expensive overnight. In September, jobbing England B international Steve Daley — another who never made the senior England side — moved from Wolves to Man City for a ludicrous £1.45m, and then Andy Gray, an effective but hardly world-beating centre-forward, was transferred from Aston Villa to Wolves for £1.469m. In eight months, the record fee had virtually trebled, and average players became far more expensive as a result.

So this is the level against which the transfer of Ian Rush in 1980 should be judged, and not against Dalglish’s fee just three years earlier; Rush cost only £140,000 less than Dalglish, but by that time, rather than be close to the English record, it was only one-fifth (-2). In 1980, £300,000 was still a hefty fee for a teenager from the lower leagues, but it was nowhere near the kind of money being splashed by other clubs. The spending eventually slowed after Bryan Robson moved to Manchester United for £1.5m in 1981 — a minimal increase — and it wasn’t until 1987 that the record rose again, with the Reds’ procurement of Beardsley.

Other factors, like the Bosman and Webster rulings, have played a part in determining a fee since 1995, whereas before that there was the transfer tribunal, which would appear to pluck a figure out of the air for a player out of contract; Bosman subsequently resulted in such players moving for free. But this has just made it easier to buy players. Where it’s cost Liverpool more than their rivals is in losing key personnel for far less than they were worth: both Steve McManaman and Michael Owen moved to Real Madrid, in 1998 and 2004 respectively, leaving Liverpool with a total of just £10m for two players whose combined value should have been four times that amount. As a result, it made it harder for the club to find replacements.

Value For Money

The key thing when assessing signings is the value for money they presented. In some ways it’s easy to just go out and buy all the top established stars — particularly if money is no object. It doesn’t guarantee success, but it takes less skill and leaves less to chance. Unlike recent Chelsea managers, no Liverpool boss has ever had unlimited resources. And as such, it’s not just the quality of the player that’s important, but how much he cost, what service he provided, and how much he was sold for. While Chelsea can afford to see Shevchenko’s value dwindle from £30.8m to £5m in a couple of years, as he heads towards retirement, Liverpool could never countenance such a move. When Liverpool buy a player, the club almost always needs to know that it can get some money back further down the line, to reinvest in the team.

First of all, each player’s contribution to LFC was assessed by the Brains Trust. The Quality rating focuses solely on what they did in a red shirt (therefore, someone like Brad Friedel’s resurgence at Blackburn is not a factor), and, in the case of the newer players, what they’ve had the chance to realistically achieve in the time allowed. At the time of writing, Fernando Torres has had only one season; therefore, that is all he can be judged on — and it just so happens that it was almost perfect. It’s easy to say “well, he hasn’t done it over five or six seasons” by way of criticism. While that kind of multi-season consistency is necessary when it comes to retrospectively judging the greats, you cannot hold the fact that he’s only been at Liverpool for a year against him or Benítez, when trying to judge all eight managers on an equal footing.

The ratings are in many ways as expected, with the club’s obvious greats — Dalglish, Gerrard, Clemence, Keegan, Hansen, Hughes, Fowler, Hunt, Torres, Souness, et al ­­ at the very top of the list, and its embarrassing dross at the bottom; after all, it doesn’t need a Brains Trust to separate Kenny Dalglish and Sean Dundee. But the list does help differentiate between the very good and the great, and the fairly good, the mediocre and the below average.

However, the Value For Money list looks a little different. Starting with each individual’s Quality rating, a series of adjustments were made to arrive at a coefficient for every single player. His age, the fee he was purchased for, the fee he was sold for, and the number of appearances for the club all affect the Value For Money rating. As an example, even though David Burrows and Djibril Cissé — vastly different players from different eras — both scored 5.94 in terms of Quality, the former was a cheap player sold for a profit, while the latter was an expensive player sold for a loss. Add that Burrows played over 100 games more than the Frenchman, and you get a Value For Money rating of 9.17 compared with Cissé’s 3.73.

The basic equation is as follows: the player’s Quality rating (out of 10), plus 0.01 point for every game played, minus purchase fee (up to -10), and finally, the addition of the sale fee (up to +10) ­­ or, if he hasn’t yet been sold, his current transfer value (as estimated by the Brains Trust). So for Cissé, who played 79 games for Liverpool, having cost 49% of the 2004 transfer record and been sold for 19% of the 2007 record, it would be 5.94 + 0.79 – 4.9 + 1.9 = 3.73; a fairly low score, although four players have the ignominy of a negative figure.

At the other end of the table, seven players scored over 20 for Value For Money, with a theoretical high of 30 points available if a player reached 1,000 games. For Benítez, whose first signings have not had the chance to play more than 239 games, and whose later signings, such as Fernando Torres, no more than the 59 games the club has faced since he arrived, a weighting for ‘future game potential’ has been added. Meanwhile, players like Rob Jones and Mark Lawrenson, who had to retire injured when in their pomp, receive additional points relating to how many games they might have otherwise gone on to play.

Time

Judging footballers is clearly dependent on the passing of time. Perceptions of players change throughout their stay at a club. In the winter of 2001, Emile Heskey, scoring goals and terrorising defences with his bulk, height and brute strength, seemed an inspired signing; three years later, despite a number of apparent attributes still in place, his limitations were only too clear to the watching faithful. Spanish right-back Josemi started well, and his no-nonsense approach to tackling made him look ideal for English football, but his game quickly fell apart. Glenn Hysen was imperious initially, then mistake-ridden afterwards.

In some ways Benítez is at a disadvantage in the comparisons, in that many of his signings have been younger players yet to mature, or senior ones who have not yet played enough seasons to be considered legends. Players like Krisztian Nemeth, Emiliano Insua, Jack Hobbs, Daniel Pacheco, Mikel San Jose, Gerardo Bruna and Damien Plessis have exceptional talent for their age, as evinced by their big influence in helping Liverpool win the Reserve League Northern Section in 2008 and then the overall English title via a play-off final, but at present it’s about gaining experience and working their way through the second string; just as, back in 1980, Ian Rush and Ronnie Whelan (as well as Steve Nicol a year later) were Bob Paisley signings who were still virtual unknowns, as had been Alan Hansen in 1977. The current youngsters could end up being Benítez’s best investments. Or they could end up like Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Anthony Le Tallec — young players with quality who didn’t necessarily look out of place in the first team, but who never developed as hoped.

However, a lack of time to judge Benítez’s signings works both ways. Ryan Babel has the potential to be a world-class star, but if he fails to build on the promise of his first season, then what at this point seems a good investment could turn sour; equally, and as unlikely as it seems, players like Pepe Reina, Javier Mascherano and Fernando Torres could end up seeing their reputations tarnished if they don’t maintain their high standards in the coming years. Then there’s Daniel Agger, whose potential seems limitless, but who needs to overcome the injury problems that dogged him in 2007/08. But as all are still young, even if they fail to develop as hoped they should retain, if not increase, their value ­­ as was seen with Momo Sissoko in 2008. Even when players lose their way after a couple of excellent seasons, if they are young enough then they can be sold for a profit and the cash reinvested in the side. The £9m the club received for the Malian from Juventus, for a player who originally cost £5.6m, allowed Benítez to tie up the superior Mascherano on a permanent deal. So while the final impression of Sissoko was one of disappointment after his initially high standards slipped, in every way you look at it he remains an excellent signing.

Age and Adjustments

Once the players were rated out of 10 in terms of Quality, a number of adjustments were made to deal with the slight anomalies that occurred. For example, it struck me that age needed to be taken into account when it comes to transfers involving players aged 28 or over, given that their values drop as they approach 30, and dwindle rapidly once they hit 31/32. So while Graeme Souness left in 1984 for £650,000 — 43% of the English transfer record — it was a huge amount for a 31-year-old, and testimony to Paisley’s judgement in buying the Scot. So that signing scores double (+8.6/10), on account of the fee recouped for his age.

Of course, some players get the chance to see out their time at Anfield, rather than embark on one last transfer into the sunset. Some may receive the opportunity to move on, but also be given the option to stay as part of the squad. But only the best last into their mid-30s, and even then, it takes someone special to still be a regular after more than a decade in the first team, as was Alan Hansen. And this also needs acknowledging. Anyone who manages five years or more as a regular in the first team that takes them into their 30s gets points for Value For Money, to compensate for a loss in transfer value; they are giving value in terms of appearances rather than transfer fee.

A key to managing a successful team is also knowing when to sell. Graeme Souness raised a lot of funds in his first 12 months, but later admitted he should have hung on to some of those players for longer; while in other cases, managers kept ageing stars too long. Of course, the transfer values of those Souness sold relied on their success before he arrived, which made them valuable commodities even though many were getting on in years; in addition, there’s the negotiating skills of the chief executive in getting the desired price. It didn’t take a genius to get £1m for Peter Beardsley, who was still such a bright talent (and indeed, one who was sold for £1.3m two years later), although to get £925,000 for 31-year-old Gary Gillespie was fairly incredible, while the £900,000 Manchester City paid for the fading force that was Steve McMahon was another acceptable deal for Liverpool. Compared with a lot of other managers, Bob Paisley was a master at releasing players at just the right time. Talking of his time at Liverpool in the ‘80s, Paul Walsh said “There’s no sentiment at Anfield. When your number’s up your number’s up.” Ronnie Moran explained the thinking: “All the lads who have played for Liverpool are more than welcome to come back here [to visit] any time. They know that. But as far as the team goes, once they leave, they are forgotten. They have to be.”

A recent example of the perfect transfer, and how a manager without a big reserve of riches can continue to improve the team, would be Patrick Vieira at Arsenal. He was bought from AC Milan’s reserves aged 20 in 1996, for a fee that wasn’t cheap but which, at £4m, wasn’t going to destabilise the London club. He played 426 games at an incredibly high standard as the Gunners won plenty of trophies, and crucially, was sold when on the cusp of 30, when injuries were catching up with him, for a whopping £13.7m. Had Arsène Wenger held off for another couple of years, as pundits felt he should, he might have got some (faltering?) service out of the French midfielder, but would have been left with a player with no resale value — which would make it harder to either find a replacement or reinvest to strengthen other areas of the team. Much of Manchester United’s success of late, despite their large revenue streams, has been based on selling players like Jaap Stam, David Beckham and Ruud Van Nistelrooy for large fees as the clock starts to run down on their careers, and reinvesting the money in the next wave of talent. It seems that Rafa Benítez is working in a similar way, albeit so far when it comes to selling his fringe players, like Momo Sissoko, Peter Crouch, Scott Carson, Mark Gonzalez and Craig Bellamy, for a significant profit. For too long, anyone who wasn’t a regular in the first team at Anfield had a value that depreciated rapidly, until they were worthless; plenty, like Diao, Cheyrou and Le Tallec, were released or sold for pittance. While neither he nor the club would want to sell his best players, many of those Benítez has signed, such as Torres, Reina, Alonso, Agger, Skrtel, Babel and Arbeloa, are worth much more now than when they first arrived.

Home-grown players

At times it’s hard to know which manager to accredit when a young player comes through the ranks. For instance, Robbie Fowler was personally enticed to Liverpool by Dalglish, given his debut by Souness, played his best football under Evans and, after some serious injuries, was sold by Houllier for £11m after becoming third choice. Ian Callaghan and Gerry Byrne were already at Liverpool when Shankly pitched up, but Byrne was transfer-listed at the time. Houllier gave Steven Gerrard his debut in his first game in sole charge, but he didn’t ‘discover’ the youngster; Gerrard’s talent had been well known at the club for a number of years.

What is true is that any manager who has such players coming through during his time in charge is blessed; Rafa Benítez must be wondering where the type of talents that emerged during the ‘90s have gone. It’s not like Liverpool have been releasing players like McManaman, Fowler, Carragher, Owen and Gerrard simply because the team is now full of foreigners. The best home-grown players — the big hopes — of the last decade (since Gerrard’s debut in 1998) have yet to prove they are anything but lower league standard, with the exception of Stephen Warnock and Danny Guthrie, both of whom have been sold because of better players ahead of them. Richie Partridge, John Welsh, Jon Otsemobor, Neil Mellor, Stephen Wright and Darren Potter have all failed to reach anything near the standards expected at a top club, and yet these were the cream of the Academy system. Then again, between 1972, when Phil Thompson broke through, and 1990, when Steve McManaman emerged, only Sammy Lee and David Fairclough made the grade, and even then, unike Gerrard, Fowler, Owen and Carragher, they were not in the very top bracket of Liverpool players. The talent just wasn’t there in those years, so the Reds had to look further afield to find it; albeit not as far and wide as today’s top teams need to cast their net. The sad fact is, in the ‘90s Liverpool spent a lot of money buying players, and had its greatest success in producing top class players via the youth team, but won only two trophies and averaged 5th in the league.

Inheritance

When comparing the managers’ records, it has to be acknowledged that while some were fortunate enough to inherit majestic galleons ploughing imperiously through the waters, others took charge of punctured dinghies ailing in the open ocean.

We can all get an idea of how good certain players were over the course of their careers, but it’s one thing for a manager to inherit a player freshly in his prime and at the peak of his powers, and another entirely inheriting a fading great whose best days are well behind him.

Most managers would like to be given at least five years to have a proper stab at things; often such time is seen as a luxury, but for those who have had to immediately overhaul a squad — Shankly, Souness, Evans, Houllier and Benítez — any less time usually isn’t long enough. In such circumstances, a manager needs to work through the process of signing players, keeping the successes and moving on the inevitable flops (if 50% of any manager’s signings are roaring successes, he’s a genius); bringing through the kids, who need time to adapt, and replacing the stars who grow too old; and repeating each summer, to the point where the wheat remains and the chaff is scattered to the wind.

It’s no bad thing inheriting a great player who’s 34 and has a year left at the top, in that the team will have that strength to call upon over the next 12 months. But finding a replacement is clearly the new manager’s problem, and a pressing one at that, given the time it takes to identify targets and negotiate deals. Clearly Kenny Dalglish, in 1985, inherited a better Ronnie Whelan than did Graeme Souness six years later, while the version Roy Evans received was 33 and well over the hill. Same man, very different version of a top player. However, while some players are washed up at 31, others, who have kept themselves fit, can bring their experience to bear — at least for two or three years. This applies mostly to thinking players, rather than those who rely on athleticism. This is true of Alan Hansen; although his knees were like a collection of loose pebbles in a sock, his experience and positional sense alone made him as invaluable at 35 as he was at 25.

There are several factors in judging the squads that formed each manager’s Inheritance. The process applies to the squad as a whole — because a manager doesn’t deal with just eleven players — and also the strength of what would probably be the strongest XI they could field, before they even think of dipping into the transfer market. (Of course, the ratings are based on individuals; as such, they do not take into account the team exceeding the sum of its parts. That becomes evident in the success or failure of the team.)

To start with, there’s the Quality of the player. Then there is his age, and as with transfers, points are penalised for every year from 28 onwards. So while the great Billy Liddell, in the squad Shankly encountered on his first day, had a near-perfect rating due to two decades of sterling service, he was 37 years old. As such, Shankly was not inheriting a 9.90 player, but a 1.90 player; he’d be lucky if he got a season out of him.

At 28, a player is in his prime, but his transfer value is starting to depreciate; as such, every subsequent year limits the chances of cashing in and reinvesting that money, which will be part of any new manager’s considerations. While there will always be exceptions, players tend to peak at around 27/28. That hasn’t really changed — the game has grown far faster and more injuries occur; but improvements in diet, professionalism and fitness, and superior medical treatment balance out any differences. Once a player hits 29, it clearly creeps into the thinking regarding transfers.

Age-balance is vital to a successful side. It can be a mix of young and old, or simply eleven players in their prime, but the average age of a successful side is almost always 27/28, in keeping with the peak period of an individual. With this in mind, it’s interesting to observe the first XI Kenny Dalglish bequeathed Graeme Souness. As a team, it was still very strong, averaging out at 8.03 for Quality. This makes sense; it wasn’t as strong as the team of European Champions-elect that Bob Paisley handed over to Joe Fagan, which averaged at the high-water mark of 8.86, but they were still the reigning champions of England and still in the running for the 1991 title. But as soon as ‘weighting’ is added to take age into account, it drops to 5.67: the worst inherited XI in the 50-year history of this book. That damning conclusion is due to its average age of 30 — an incredible two-and-a-half years older than any other squad at the point of a managerial changeover. The other seven managers each inherited sides with an age between 25 and 27.5, while the current team also falls neatly into that range — but Souness clearly had his work cut out. So while Souness’ time would prove a disaster, it wasn’t quite an unmitigated disaster; he at least had some valid excuses. And that, to a large degree, is the purpose of this book: to look deeper into the reasons behind the success or failure of each manager, considering whether they were blessed or handicapped, and to see if their decision-making improved their fortunes or merely compounded their fate.

Conclusion

Above all else, the findings of the Brains Trust are there to give an indication of quality; their conclusions can only ever be opinion, and not fact. Just because Steven Gerrard marginally edges out Graeme Souness does not mean he is definitely better. Some felt the opposite, but the current captain’s overall average was fractionally higher. Also, there is a little misty-eyed nostalgia that naturally occurs when assessing players, with some of Shankly’s total rejects scoring better than those who fared just as badly decades later. Where possible this bias has been kept to a minimum, but it is of course the nature of any retrospective analysis.

Hopefully the results of the Brains Trust will prove entertaining and prompt some debate; while they can never be 100% correct, in most cases the findings should be close to the truth.

© Paul Tomkins 2008

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