By Ben Feltham.
I’m fed up with being philosophical, I want to suck on the angry sweet today. We’ve been at this for 23 years. 23 years of progress and pitfalls, pleasure and pain; of ‘understanding’, of 5-year plans, of year zero’s. Well you can re-brand it how you like, but the question remains the same – Can we have our title back please?
I was recently told the story of the GB 2000 Olympic Men’s eight rowing team, and how they were able to go from a team that hadn’t medalled at the Olympics since 1980 to becoming Olympic champions in Sydney. The turn around came because they took a decision to ask themselves one boiled down question before doing anything – ‘Will it make the boat go faster?’. That’s it. It’s difficult to comprehend the dedication required in structuring your life through the prism of one closed, genius question. That’s some sacrifice for men with lives, with wives, with kids, but the ultimate achievement in elite sport is only breathed in rarefied air. There are those that gave similar commitments and still didn’t get the prize. My question to our club is, is everything you’re doing, every inch of every day, for the sole purpose of making the boat go faster? Of getting our title back?
I think I’ve sucked that sweet dry. I’m ready to get my energy source from a slightly less bitter place and I understand that a season ending with a top 4 slot would be significant for our club, that’s clear. My problem is, that notion has become so pervasive that the idea we exist to win titles has been silenced. The beautiful thing about our sport is that every week is a new game and every year a new season, a fresh start, an unwritten path holding only potential and possibilities. The biggest determinant to where we end up this season isn’t the money we spend (more on that later), as with the British Cycling team and there marginal gains mantra, it’s what we do.
It’s also about leadership. Ben Hunt-Davis et al from the Men’s eight were motivated by the glory of the prize – if anything the money in football has distorted the purity of the pursuit – regardless, in a group of 25 plus, with many yet to reach their full height, it would be foolish to expect that level of self-motivation throughout. This is where Leadership starts, and it’s clear this is the single most important contribution Fergie brought to the sustained success of Manchester United. Apparently he didn’t take sessions, he’s arguably not even that good judge of a player (he chose Jonny Evans over Gerard Pique. Enough said). Irrelevant, he communicates, or communicated, to the people of that club the dedication of the pursuit. Well guess what, he’s gone. And David Moyes has never won a big game in his life. And Pellegrini’s new. And Arsenals raison d’être is to finish fourth. And Martinez hasn’t finished a season in the top half, and Mourinho’s great, but he was great before and we bettered him. And Spurs, well they’re Spurs. Of course I joke, and a credible case can be made for each of those clubs, but this paraphrased Seb Coe anecdote gives something of an insight into the requirements of the heady times ahead:
The winter of 1979 was harsh, harsh enough to bring down a government. That Christmas, with eyes on the Moscow gold, Seb Coe, convinced Steve Ovett would still be training on the 25th, recalled putting in an extra intense session that day, extra miles and hill climbs in the thick snow. Years later he relayed the story to Ovett who laughed and said ‘You only trained once then?’
Metaphorically, we need to be training twice a day, to do the things our competitors are not, and despite my earlier clamour for instant success I’m ready to add some perspective. Three years. That’s how long we have to win the league, three years. Why? It took Man Utd 26 years to regain the title. None of the nine fellow travellers on the bus of global football teams have gone that long without a title. It’s embarrassing. I want us to be motivated by that embarrassment, we’ve surrendered enough. And if those at the top don’t feel that embarrassment because they haven’t been around long enough, we need to impress its urgency upon them.
I hear the rebuttal – how can we compete with all that money? OK, lets look at the three best teams in Europe, Bayern, Borussia and Barca; they are not built on big money buys, (even Bayern, who, with four big money transfers in their starting 11, are a slight exception, but compare that with the make up of who they are competing with, Madrid, Man City, PSG etc. and the point stands). Of course buying big players works well, but seemingly only if it’s onto a bedrock of indigenous players, where a club culture is already strong. In the case of Bayern you have Lahm, Muller, Kroos, Schweinsteiger and Alaba continuing the succession. You could make a case that Barca could put out an entire ‘La Masia graduates’ team over the last couple of years which is in the argument for one of the greatest of all times. It’s common knowledge that the Dortmund team that played the Champions League semi final cost less than Kaka, who had 10 starts less season. The pinnacle of what Fergie achieved in 1999 was done so on the back of his five youth graduates. Not only are ‘growing’, or purchasing players before they’re a name, our only real options, crucially it seems empirically the most successful one. As Barcelona and Munich have proved, once the foundations are established, the purchasing of the right, big name players, can be a great enhancement, but only when the character of the club is unshakable, and those who come adapt and integrate. (Interestingly Cruyff has criticised the purchase of Neymar, citing it as destabilising to a Messi-centric team and attributing the purchase to the ambitions of a President who announced only in April his intentions to stand for re-election, rather then a fully worked out footballing decision. We shall see).
Regardless, the creation of a team who have grown up together really does seem to weave a web of the collective conscience, and become something greater than the sum of its parts.
Are we meeting these criterion? It seems we are; we had the youngest team in the Premier League the season past, and with the signings of Coutinho and Sturridge and the deft additions thus far this summer, we seem to be building to that blueprint.
There is though better proof of our forethought and it revolves around a young Gaditanos called Jesús Joaquín Fernández Sáez de la Torre, or Suso for short. I see the securing of the UD Almeria loan, a loan of that quality, to be as important as any signing we could make this summer in the context of the next decade. Add to that other decent loans for Coady and Adorjan and a sense of direction seems to be gathering. We have through the snakes and ladders of our academies produced a handful of players who seem ready for top flight football, and as the careers of Jack Wilshire, Robbie Fowler, Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and legions more testify, these players need to test themselves against the required standard for their talent to develop. We have someone at the helm of our club who knows this intrinsically. Liverpool fans dare only whisper the question, asked with that poignant combination of optimism and desperation – “are we the future?” It’s good that we have a boss who can look us clear in the eye and answer “Yes”. It seems he’s more interested in building a Club than a career. Carry on son. Sterling, Wisdom, Ibe, et al, these are the boys who will drive that bus back to where we aspire to be, that is what the evidence shows.
So to the last, this is a piece that has, chick-like, put its eyes to the skies, opened its mouth and said ‘feed me’. Not to go all JFK here, but we need to turn this inwards and ask not what this club can do for us, but what we can do for our club. Whist ‘The Club’ I’ve talked of here refers to maybe 100 people, we number firstly in our thousands (45,522 to be precise) and secondly in our millions. Can we effect the club’s destiny? Can we with words and deeds help raise the operating level of those we choose to believe in? We have won games before I think. It is often overlooked, but Luis Garcia’s (ghost) goal in the CL semi final was scored in the third minute. A lot of the other ninety odd minutes were on us.
Sing your heart out boys and girls, this year we’re doing our part, we’re making up history as we go along.