Thursday, 27 March 2014

Crumbling Dynasties: Liverpool 1992 and Man United 2014

Liverpool and Manchester United. The rivalry extends to much more than the football clubs, the two cities have long since held a bitter grudge against one another It's a rivalry that can be dated back to 1894, Liverpool FC had only existed for two years and Man United were still Newton Heath. The city of Liverpool had thrived during the industrial revolution and was booming due to its location as a port. The construction of the Manchester ship canal allowed ships to bypass Liverpool entirely en route to Manchester which ultimately brought more business there and took it away from Liverpool. The two cities have held a general disdain for each other ever since, one that has carried over massively into the game of football.

The two clubs have a lot more in common than their fans would care to admit. Both come from chiefly industrial cities in the north of England, both clubs have been struck by horrific tragedy and loss of life to their own (Munich and Hillsborough), both are multiple times champions of England and Europe, both are famous for bringing through young talent rather than buying world superstars, both clubs take an enormous sense of pride in doing things their way, both hate the other one with an unyielding passion, both enjoyed roughly two decades of dominance in which the bulk of their great haul of trophies were won and both have now had to deal with the sudden sharp period of decline that follows.

Liverpool's boom period occurred from about 1973 (when they won title number 8) until about 1991 (when they were denied number 19 by a famous Michael Thomas goal for Arsenal in the final seconds of the season), but the foundations were layed down long before that. Bill Shankly, manager from 1959 until 1974, was the driving force behind their rise to prominence and his legacy continued throughout the boom era. He introduced the famous 'boot room' tradition where the members of the coaching staff would meet in the boot room to discuss tactics in the week prior to a game. Shankly and his coaching staff created a family atmosphere among themselves which served the team extremely well in decades to come. The original boot-room of five members produced three further full time Liverpool managers from Shankly's backroom staff.

Bill Shankly: The Godfather of Liverpool FC

Managerial appointments were always made internally during this period of success and this helped keep the spirit of Shankly alive at the club. His assistant Bob Paisley succeeded him in 1974 and won three European Cups. Paisely was then succeeded by his own assistant Joe Fagan in 1983. Fagan lasted just two years before retiring in the wake of the awful Heysel Stadium disaster. Fagan appointed his captain Kenny Dalglish to the role of manager where he remained until departing in 1991. Although he was never privy to the boot room meetings, Dalglish recognised the value of it and kept the tradition alive during his tenure as manager. From the appointment of Shankly in 1959 to the resignation of Dalglish in 1991, Liverpool won 13 League titles, 4 European Cups, 4 FA Cups, 4 League Cups and a UEFA Cup. It was undoubtedly the richest period in the club's history.

It was always going to end someday and that day came in 1991 when Graeme Souness, former Liverpool player was appointed manager. Souness had been managing Glasgow Rangers and had been hugely successful there but he failed to bring success to Anfield and the Scot ultimately ended up shriveling in the enormous shadow of those that had gone before him. Sound familiar?

Souness, like David Moyes, was the first outside appointment the club had to make in about thirty years. He had managed Rangers for five years and whilst here he had no doubt formed his own ideas with regards to coaching ideas and philosophy. Having been a player and captain at Anfield he probably should have been better prepared for the magnitude of the job at hand. Taking over an ageing group of players who had been extremely successful under the old regime, Souness found himself struggling to win the players respect, despite the fact he had captained some of them not so long ago. He lost the dressing room in his first season but salvaged it somewhat by winning the FA Cup. His bizarre decision to give an interview with the Sun (not deemed worthy of being used as toilet paper on Merseyside after Hillsborough) infuriated the fans, ensuring he was facing an uphill battle from there on.

Also, the famous boot room was demolished in 1993 to make space for a press room, thus ending one of the hallmarks of the golden era for Liverpool football club.

Having finished outside the top two only once in almost twenty years, Souness took Liverpool down to 6th place in his first season. Souness was given money to spend during the summer, almost £5m, a reasonable bit of money in that era. This proved in vain as in 1993 Liverpool once again finished 6th, having been 15th in March. He was again given money to spend the following summer splashing out another £5m on Nigel Clough, Neil Ruddock and Julian Dicks. Finally, after the abysmal performances showed no signs of letting up, Souness left his post in January 1994 in the wake of an FA Cup 3rd round defeat at home to second-tier Bristol City.

Souness is widely recognised as the man who destroyed Liverpool

One thing Souness did manage was to leave behind a talented group of young players. Fowler, Redknapp, McManaman all came through during his time. Unfortunately for Liverpool, these players (Redknapp in particular) never fulfilled their considerable potential and never grazed the heights that Manchester United's famous 'Class of 92' lived at for many years.

Roy Evans, who had been a coach since Shankly was in charge and a member of the original boot room, took over the first team for four years and guided back to somewhere near the summit. They finished 3rd, 4th, 3rd and 4th during his tenure. He should have been given the top job in 1991. Gerard Houlier, Rafa Benitez and Roy Hodgson have tried since but none have been able to restore glory to Liverpool. Benitez did famously bring them to European glory again but they league title eluded him. Only recently, under the stewardship of the young visionary Brendan Rodgers, do they look like emerging from the doldrums, 23 years after the 'Shankly Dynasty' ended.

Manchester United became the team in England in the 1990s following Liverpool's decline.Their rise, coincided almost exactly with the slump of their biggest rivals. Liverpool last won the league in 1990. United ended their twenty-six year barren spell in 1993. Since then they've gone on to eclipse Liverpool's record of eighteen titles, winning number twenty in May before the mastermind behind it all, Sir Alex Ferguson, decided to retire. Ferguson had overseen the most successful period in Manchester United's history. Having taken four years to win his first trophy, the FA Cup in 1990, he followed it up with thirty-seven more over the next twenty-three years. United surpassed Liverpool's record number of league title's and added another two European Cups to the now bulging trophy cabinet. He announced his decision to retire in 2013, embedded in history as the most successful manager in the history of the English game with a record on his own that rivals that of the entire Shankly dynasty.

Ferguson matched the boot room on his own for league titles. 13.

The retirement of their 'Godfather', presented  United with a series of new challenges. Ferguson, like Shankly, was given the freedom to choose his successor. He looked externally and picked fellow Scot David Moyes. United should have looked at the mistakes made at the end of the Liverpool dynasty for guidance as to how best to handle this transition. It was never going to be easy, and there was bound to be a drop in performance, but it's gone far worse than anyone could have expected.

United, like Liverpool in 1991, fell into the trap of appointing someone based on his success at a lower level. Souness had won the Scottish League four times in his five years with Rangers. Moyes had taken Everton from the fringes of the relegation zone to a solid 5th/6th place on a regular basis. One of the first things Moyes did upon arriving at Old Trafford was clear out Ferguson's backroom staff with Mike Phelan and Rene Meulensteen both axed. Moyes brought in his own staff in Steve Round and Phil Neville. Although they didn't carry the same importance as Liverpool's old boot room, Ferguson had recommended that Phelan and Meulensteen be kept on to provide a degree of continuity and ease the transition. Moyes thought otherwise and so the downfall began.

Moyes has  inherited a dressing room that has won considerably more honours than him and, like Souness, has failed to gain their respect as a manager. He seems over-awed by the task appointed to him by his predecessor. Moyes was a fantastic manager at Everton, same as Souness was at Rangers, but the pressures of making the step up seem to be beyond his skills. Everything about him from his tactics to his media handling scream out the blatantly obvious fact that he was the wrong choice and Ferguson's final decision was a poor one.

How to destroy a dynasty, part two.

So, are United set for a 22-year stay in the wilderness? Ultimately I think not and here's why.

Liverpool slumped at the worst possible time. Back in 1991, they like everyone else, were simply a football club. The dawn of the Premier League era the following year changed everything for good. Vast amounts of money have been invested in the game year after year. Had Liverpool's success lasted a few more years into the Premier League era, they would have become what Manchester United became. The franchise. The superclub. They'd probably be close to a thirtieth title and eclipsing Real Madrid's European Cup record rather than still chasing down the elusive title number 19.

Manchester United peaked at the perfect time. With Sky and the Premier League throwing huge amounts of money and worldwide exposure at teams, United became England's first, and so far only, superclub. They are more than just a mere football club these days. Manchester United are a brand, a commercial juggernaut worth an estimated $3bn according to Forbes. It is a business that is simply too large not to be successful. They can't afford it. The owners can't afford it. The shareholders won't allow it. Sponsors like Chevrolet, Nike and DHL will provide the investment necessary to ensure the team remain competing for honours next season and beyond.

But just because they have the means to avoid a Liverpool-esqe decline is by no means a guarantee that they will.

This season is a write off. The absolute worst thing Manchester United could do now is stand by David Moyes and give him money to waste in the summer. There is literally zero case to be made for him remaining in the job beyond the end of the season. The man doesn't know what he's doing and has to be taken out of the equation ASAP. Liverpool gave Souness three years in the early nineties (average by the standards of the time but the game has changed a lot since) and by the time he left, irreversible damage had been done and Liverpool did not have the cash available to remedy it. United do have the resources to correct this slide before it gets out of hand but it won't happen automatically and it won't happen without the right people doing the right jobs. David Moyes is not the right man. Nor, it could be argued, is Ed Woodward, the new chief executive. United are a business now as well as a football club. Businesses need to be successful straight away. Sponsors demand success and they need it now. There can be no rebuilding phase. No six year plan.

United were champions in 2013 and now find themselves being beaten comfortably at home by their rivals each week. Moyes, through his sheer incompetence has done a lot of damage in only nine months. It's horrifying to think of what he could do in another twelve. Liverpool's faith in Souness beyond his ill-fated first season arguably cost them for years to come. United keeping faith in Moyes would have similar consequences.

Dynasties take generations to build but can be brought to their knees in a matter of months courtesy of mis-management by an inadequate Scot. 

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