As Steven Gerrard waved goodbye to Anfield on Saturday evening, Liverpool’s pitch side announcer asked him an awkward question: “Are you optimistic the club is in the right place and we can move on without you?”
It prompted collective groans from the stands and a hum of disapproval. Whether that was disapproval of the question or the trajectory the club is heading in is open for wide debate.
This was a good day to bury bad news. The emotional send off for Anfield’s favourite son provided a convenient cover for a dismal 3-1 home defeat to Crystal Palace – a club that once left the same ground on the end of a 9-0 hiding.
It also brought to a close (at home at least) a campaign that Liverpool’s players effectively gave up on the moment they were beaten by Manchester United on 22nd March.
With 11 league defeats and a goal difference of nine, Brendan Rodgers’ side must win their final game of the season just to be sure of Europa League qualification. The much-hailed Champions League return came and went in a blink of abjection.
Rodgers and supporters of an optimistic disposition may argue that the club has had to stomach the exit of world superstar Luis Suarez and the loss of Daniel Sturridge for the majority of the season, but the former only points to a greater problem at Anfield – one that is currently being acted out by villain of the hour Raheem Sterling.
Whatever the reasons for the drastic shortcomings of this campaign, one thing seems to remain the same – Liverpool are failing to hold onto their best players and are replacing them with inferior alternatives.
Xabi Alsono, Javier Mascherano, Fernando Torres, Pepe Reina and Luis Suarez were all key performers for the club in their time and have moved on to more successful periods with clubs competing at the very top of European football.
Now a 20-year-old player with promising talent is orchestrating a move away from the club having thus far achieved nothing of note. Welcome to modern football.
It calls into question the commitment of certain players to the club and what their real ambitions are – this is Liverpool Football Club after all – but it asks a more serious question of the owners and where their ambition really lies.
At the start of Fenway Sports Group’s stewardship, principle owner John Henry made it reasonably clear that the club would be investing in promising young talent ‘with a future resale value’.
Having saved the club from the jaws of administration, this warning shot from Henry was largely brushed under the carpet. Players have come and gone over the years, but Liverpool has never been regarded as a selling club.
The football landscape has shifted. The modern footballer, with little to no regard for Liverpool’s unparalleled prestige, no longer sees running out at Anfield as career fulfilment.
How was this ever allowed to happen?
With money in top-flight English football now at a disgusting level, Liverpool will have to revise their transfer and wages policy if they are serious about competing with Chelsea and Manchester City. The suspicion is that they are not.
The club’s supporters are not interested in making £40 million on academy graduates. They want trophies and Champions League football.
This shackled ambition is preventing Liverpool from obtaining their first choice targets year on year. A situation that is worsened by failure to qualify for Europe’s biggest competition, which you can achieve by finishing as low as fourth in the Premier League.
If you are not in the Champions League than the club needs to be offering an alternative pull.
Is it the manager? Despite being a respected coach his draw seems minimal. Will the owners replace him? It seems unlikely.
Can they offer players more money? The owners won’t pay it. Especially without the extra windfall from UEFA’s premium sponsors.
What about playing in front of the famous Spion Kop every week? Sadly Anfield has become more of a tourist attraction than a cauldron of intimidation over a period of seasons – a direct result of pricing traditional supporters out of the game.
Yet despite all this doom and gloom, Liverpool still have a squad of very talented young players who have the chance to achieve great things if they truly want to. The challenge is to make sure that is at Anfield and not elsewhere.
That surely means a modification of direction from the very top. Whether that is a higher profile manager or a renewed acquisition and retention policy something must give if Liverpool are to rub shoulders with football’s elite again.
Failure to change really will see the last of Gerrard’s kind and that is bad for football.