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History Repeating Itself

Steve Baker looks at the recent argument that Liverpool might ‘do a Spurs’ now they’ve sold their biggest asset, Luis Suarez.

Can the Reds in fact repeat what history has previously shown is the case and make positive what seems such a negative?

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” - George Santaya

The sale of Luis Suarez has predictably produced a mushroom cloud of opinion as to whether and how Liverpool can cope without him. Supporters of rival clubs have predictably declared the move to be a decisive backward step for Liverpool which puts paid to top 4 ambitions, a view shared by many Liverpool supporters. In many cases this view appears to be based on Liverpool ‘doing a Spurs’ post Bale by fecklessly wasting the Suarez money on a clutch of overpriced misfits. At times this view is expressed with sense of historical inevitability which would draw blushes from an author of the most deterministic Stalinist tract. While the Spurs experience offers a cautionary note, a longer view provides a wider perspective.

It is a truism that in an ideal world any club would never sell a world class player. To do so requires base jumping into a realm of uncertainty where solutions to replacing the loss are elusive if they exist at all. But it is a situation which virtually every club faces from time to time, particularly when Real Madrid or Barcelona come calling. The starting point for (at least some) Liverpool fans is to accept this fact, rather than see the Suarez sale as evidence of FSG mismanagement or asset stripping. The reality is Luis Suarez was always going to leave at some stage. The comments of his lawyer and father in law – made prior to the Chiellini incident – evidenced his long held ambition to move to Spain.

Liverpool’s own history offers numerous precedents. Having reached an agreement with the club that he would leave at the end of the season, Kevin Keegan inspired Liverpool to a treble in 1976/77. With hindsight, the replacement of Keegan with Kenny Dalglish appears straightforward – replace one brilliant player with one who was even better. But at the time Keegan had acquired a renown which Dalglish (though already recognised as a very good player) would only achieve after joining the club and we were entitled to be anxious about the departure of such a galvanising, brilliant player . Certainly, no supporter could have known quite how successfully Dalglish would assume the mantle. Two points of particular salience arise from this historical precedent. Firstly, while both players nominally occupied the same position on the pitch, they operated in very different ways. Speed of movement was one of Keegan’s strengths while Dalglish was peerless for speed of thought. Where Keegan frequently ran with the ball at his feet, Dalglish more often looked for the pass and let the ball do the work. The point is that the loss of Keegan’s specific qualities were overcome and improved upon by a new approach rather than seeking to mimic his particular attributes. Secondly, the replacement of Keegan was also overcome by a broader evolution in the team, notably the addition of Graeme Souness in the season following Keegan’s departure. Some reading this will doubt the applicability of the first point to the present day – where is the equivalent of the Dalglish signing? – the second is certainly applicable: indeed there is far more scope to improve the present day team than that of 1977/78.

For those still unconvinced by the Keegan precedent, the replacement of Ian Rush after he was sold to Juventus in 1987 is more compelling. One of the most prevalent complaints on social media in relation to Liverpool’s activities this summer has been many of the targets are from mid table clubs, notably Southampton who finished 8th last season. In 1987 Liverpool bought John Barnes from Watford who finished 9th in 1987, John Aldridge and Ray Houghton from Oxford Utd who finished 18th and Peter Beardsley from Newcastle who finished 17th, all of whom were conspicuously successful. Again, these moves showed the possibility of replacing one great player by remodelling the approach of the team around new players with different strengths. One of the best performers in the current Liverpool team last season was Jordan Henderson who played in a Sunderland team which finished 10th in his final season with them. At the heart of this objection is the demonstrably false assumption that all top players are already with the top clubs or that if the players were that good their existing club would have finished higher, ignoring the fact that football is a team game where even three or four talented individuals can only take a team so far. Both contemporary observation and history demonstrate the folly of this regrettably widespread complaint.

When confronted with the 1987/88 example those craving a ‘marquee’ signing have pointed to the signing of John Barnes in particular that Liverpool did make the signing a known top quality name of the type they currently crave. Again, this argument involves a gloss on history with the benefit of hindsight. Many of those old enough to remember the signing of Barnes would describe a mixture of excitement and uncertainty prior to him starting that season . Barnes had acquired a reputation of a mercurial player who sometimes dazzled but frequently delivered less than his talent suggested. It was only after moving to Liverpool that he was utilised in a fashion which brought consistently excellent performances and led him to be justifiably regarded as one of the very best players in the history of the club. So the purchase of Barnes was not a case of Liverpool going out and buying tthe elusive ‘sure thing’ which much of the Twitterati seem to believe can be achieved by spending £40million and upwards .The ability of Dalglish, the manager at that time, to envisage how these new acquisitions could combine and how to bring the best out of them both individually and collectively was the real key.

While he has yet to achieve the same as Dalglish as a manager, Brendan Rodgers has demonstrated a similar ability to inspire individuals within the context of a thrilling cohesive unit. Of course he cannot create success without the right raw material – the buys he brings in to the club must possess the technical, physical and mental qualities to succeed. But history shows those qualities are not always found in the most obvious places and that a well-crafted whole can achieve more than seemed possible from the sum of the individual parts. Those critical of Liverpool’s dealings this summer and urging marquee signings would do well to remember that and another lesson of history: that supposed ‘banker’ big money signings –think of Veron to Utd., Shevchenko and Torres to Chelsea for example – frequently fail to deliver.

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