On the eve of England’s biggest derby, United’s greatest fear stands exposed
“My greatest challenge is not what’s happening at the moment, my greatest challenge was knocking Liverpool right off their fucking perch.”
It was, as ever, Sir Alex Ferguson’s defiance in the face of media criticism that elicited the Scot’s best and most memorable invective. “And you can print that,” was the appendage that inspired a thousand banners.
Dethroned, Liverpool remains a club seemingly forever doomed to be the bridesmaid in the face of Manchester United’s dominance and the rise of petroluem-fueled nouveau riche at Manchester City and Chelsea. Without a Premier League title to speak of, and no English crown since 1990, the Merseyside club remains a global institution propped up by the façade of unrepentant nostalgia. It is the source of amusement in Manchester and a sense of persecution on Merseyside.
Yet, in Liverpool’s relative demise over the last two decades, there is also a warning. A stark one at that. Glory cannot always be sustained; decline, if not inevitable, is the normal cycle of things. And degeneration can take decades to put right.
It is, perhaps, United’s supporters’ greatest fear – that the decline in results since Ferguson’s retirement is not a blip now into its third year, but the edge of a precipice from where the club may not return in a generation. Save for United’s vast commercial machine, so many of the ills that afflicted Liverpool in the 1990s now echo 30 miles west at Old Trafford: poor management, a squad in decline, a club superseded by others.
The last Liverpool title-winning team of 1989/90 was already on the slide, although events would combine, much as they have at Old Trafford, to precipitate a rapid decline in results. Blessed with talent including Peter Beardsley, John Barnes and Ian Rush, Liverpool’s was an ageing squad at a club without a competitive plan for regeneration.
Kenny Dalglish’s team finished nine points clear of Aston Villa at the end of the ’89/90 season – to cap a decade of dominance. Liverpool won six titles in the 1980s, with perhaps only Everton realising a sustained challenge in the middle of the decade.
In the following campaign Dalglish retired suddenly, citing grounds of ill-health for a February 1991 departure. His team was three points clear at the top of the table, but the club would finish six behind eventual champions Arsenal. Within two years the team had slipped to sixth, finishing inside the top three just twice in the decade after Dalglish’s Anfield retreat.
In the following years Liverpool’s family owners made a succession of poor choices – on and off the pitch. Following Dalglish’s departure first-team coach Ronnie Moran took charge for 10 games before former player Graeme Souness was named as a permanent successor. Under the Scot Liverpool won the 1992 FA Cup, but claimed no further silverware before Souness was sacked in 1994 amid acrimony with his players, backroom staff and club legends.
Much like David Moyes at United, Souness inherited a squad with a plethora of key players over 30. Rush, Barnes, and Beardsley were all past their best, while Steve McMahon, Ray Houghton, Jan Molby, Ronnie Whelan, Steve Nicol, and the eccentric goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar, completed a core group of ageing stars. Few were adequately replaced under the Scot’s stewardship, although Souness was quick to ship out those for whom he had little time.
In 1994 bootroom old-boy Roy Evans was appointed manager, to be joined in 1998 by a co-chief in Frenchman Gérard Houllier. It was an arrangement that, inevitably, lasted less than six months. Long-term rot had set in, with the club winning just two trophies – the FA and League cups once each – in the 1990s.
There is an argument that Ferguson not so much knocked Liverpool of its perch than witnessed the Anfield club fall of its own accord, then fully capitalised on the vacuum that appeared in English football.
Off-the-pitch Liverpool failed to join the rising tide of commercialisation in the industry, with United leading first the exploitation of supporters’ interest in merchandise under CEO Peter Kenyon, then global sponsorship rights with the arrival of the Glazer family in 2005. The petro-wealth injected by Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, and the Abu Dhabi regime at City, has left Liverpool unable to adequately compete in the transfer market, while Anfield’s antiquated facilitates and relatively small capacity remain a brake on the club’s development.
At Old Trafford there is a sense that the club’s past success, together with an income that is set to pass £500 million this year, is a protective wrapper against the permanent decline experienced at Liverpool. Certainly, the Glazers’ new-found willingness to spend in the post-Ferguson era has led to wholesale squad transformation in just two seasons, and not the organic transition that might otherwise have taken place.
It is also a sense of complacency that may, in time, come to haunt the club. Incumbent manager Louis van Gaal, like Houllier at Anfield the first non-British or Irish manager in United’s history, believes that the turnaround will be rapid – and that it will take far less time than the 26 barren years that United experienced between 1967 and 1993 before another title is claimed.
“I am part of the transition so I cannot imagine that shall happen with Manchester United. But as you say when it is happening to Liverpool it can happen also to Manchester United,” he told the media this week.
“But I cannot imagine that, as we are in position and we are going in the right way. Maybe it shall take a longer time but I cannot imagine that it shall be the same for Manchester United: it’s too big, too well organised and we have infrastructure and we are improving that every year.”
Decline is rarely forecast. On the pitch the team’s performance has improved only incrementally under the Dutchman. Moyes’ disastrous 10 months in charge left United seventh, completing the 2013/14 campaign on a Premier League low of 64 points and out of the Champions League. The Reds made fourth on 70 points last season, but the team is on course to finish fifth this year, having already been knocked out of the continent’s premier competition.
Off-the-pitch United remains in transition too, having yet to fully modernise Ferguson’s old-boy scouting network, while the club remains without an Academy head following Brian McClair’s departure to the Scottish FA a year ago. This week Derek Langley, long-time head of youth acquisition, announced his retirement, with reports citing a decision was accelerated becaused of disenchantment with United’s direction. Not for the first time, Ed Woodward has much to answer for.
And while the club’s financial insulation proffers a sense of protection, the decision-making at senior levels remains exposed. Woodward’s naiveté in the transfer market has led to a series of embarrassing gaffes and missed opportunities over the past three seasons.
There is, after all, little support for the club’s vice-chairman to fall back on, with United lacking executives of long-term football standing – Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton having been effectively marginalised in Old Trafford’s highly politicised power structure.
Even the club’s income has limits – the Glazers presumably, will not countenance changing managers every two years of it means spending at levels that have reached £250 million gross under Van Gaal.
The club’s true decline may also be masked. Van Gaal is fortunate that the Premier League is at its most open this season – leaving United in touch with Champions League qualification where the team’s performance has rarely merited a place at Europe’s top table. He will certainly be sacked if United finishes outside the top four – the new benchmark, where becoming champions was the only measure that counted under Ferguson.
Here too comes a warning from Liverpool’s recent history. The further United slides, the less attractive it might become to both players and Van Gaal’s successor. Should Ryan Giggs be appointed in the Dutchman’s stead this summer, as is now increasingly possible, a wry smile may be felt across the Moran, Souness and Evans households.
In the more immediate future United’s fixture with Liverpool at Anfield this weekend could shape the race for European qualification. Should Liverpool win, Jurgen Klopp’s side will join United on 34 points – and United’s Ferguson-inspired perch will be a little closer to being permanently vacated.