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Liverpool: Money Swallows The Universe

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The beginning of the end of everything.

Luis Suarez of Liverpool reacts to a missed chance during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Liverpool at Goodison Park.
Luis Suarez of Liverpool reacts to a missed chance during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Liverpool at Goodison Park.

It's fair to assume that Ian Ayre, managing director of Liverpool, is a reasonably intelligent man. He has, after all, risen to a position of some cachet in the strange and cloistered world of football administration. So let's presume that he's aware that the phrase "With the greatest of respect" is - like its counterparts in euphemism "I'm not a racist, but ..." and "Fair and Balanced" - a cipher. In fact, even calling it a cipher is euphemistic. It's a lie: an unsubtle wink to the listener that can be accurately glossed as "With so much contempt that even the language of Shakespeare lacks sufficient scope of expression".

It's possible that he doesn't know this. That he genuinely does have respect for Liverpool's "colleagues in the Premier League". But that seems unlikely, given that his proposals for the reworking of the sale of the league's television rights - essentially, allowing clubs to negotiate individual television deals, as in Spain - couldn't be more disrespectful if he'd hired a squadron of beagles and spent a week feeding them nothing but All-Bran and chilli con carne, then strapped the poor animals to remote controlled-helicopters and dispatched them around the country to spell his plans out in swooping deposits on the pitches of Goodison Park, of Carrow Road, of Craven Cottage ... of any and every club that isn't blessed with the good fortune to be Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United or Arsenal.

For these are the teams - no, not Manchester City, at least according to that piece - that command the attention of the Premier League's current favoured customer: the overseas consumer. And if Ayre is saying it publicly, you can bet good money that the rest are thinking it privately. Welcome to the football of the future. The notion that a footballing competition should allocate its money in rough proportion to footballing achievement has been abandoned as unconscionably old-fashioned; now it will be allocated in accordance with reach. Power expands to match your status, not ability. If you don't get the juices flowing in Kuala Lumpur, then you matter less. You deserve less. Hell, you are less.

Because let's be clear. Allowing clubs to negotiate their own TV rights would entrench what is already a desperately moribund plutocracy at the top of the league. (With a startling lack of awareness, ESPN are actually trailing this weekend's Chelsea-Everton game with the slogan "In the Premier League, it's all about the haves and the have-nots".) What is already tedious would become immovable; we know this. That anybody working in football can look toward La Liga and think "there's a financial model that we really should be emulating" would be staggering were it not horribly predictable. Indeed, it's inevitable: what good capitalist wouldn't want to maximise revenue? (This is why good capitalists are often bad people.) Where the rest of the world looks at Spain and sees a competition suffocating under the weight of its Real-Barca bunfight - eighteen rabbits trapped in a sumo ring, frantically dodging gargantuan feet - Premier League executives, at least at the top end, see opportunity.

Note that Ayre's argument - and, for all that he insists "this is a debate we should be having", you can rest assured that he knows what he wants the answer to be - is, like all base political mendacities, lent urgency by apocalyptic warnings. He says that the present deal, as it stands, means that the big clubs are "disadvantaging ourselves against other big European clubs", which is a touch comical coming from a man working for a team not competing in Europe this season. Perhaps he means Stoke. But he also proffers the more vague horror: "will the Premier League bubble burst?"

Firstly, Ayre is attempting to manipulate the ground of the debate. Since what he is proposing is wholly selfish, it needs to be presented otherwise. This can't be done by pointing to what the plan will actually achieve, since establishing a gargantuan wealth disparity benefits nobody except the clubs at the top. So it needs to be presented along the lines of "if we don't do this, well, just imagine". When he points to the possibility of the bubble bursting, he's saying to those lesser "colleagues" he holds in the greatest of respect: either we screw you over now, or we're all buggered. Accept less, for fear of the nothing to come.

Secondly, and perhaps more intriguingly, there is the unthinking admission that the Premier League is in fact riding a bubble. Economic bubbles arise from high levels of trade at inflated prices that fail to reflect the intrinsic value of the product. And they pop. If the Premier League is suffering from tulipomania, then Ayre's suggestions acquire an undercurrent of panic. Maybe the powers behind the club are thinking that even Liverpool fans - who seem, at times, to make a point of being even more nonsensically devotional than the rest of us - are going to realise that a club that has inflated season ticket prices 1,108% over the last thirty years (compared to an actual inflation rate of 77.1%) in one of the most economically deprived areas in the land really doesn't give a flying one if you walk alone or not, as long as you pay through the nose for the privilege. After all, vastly increasing international television revenues would certainly alleviate, or at least ameliorate, the need for a new stadium.

In The Guardian, Barney Ronay recently wrote:

Strip away football's grand spectacle and the greatest thing the game ever achieved is its deep-rooted sense of communal and geographical coherence. Football clubs are, at bottom, local concerns and this is the fountainhead of their longevity and current good health.

What Ayre's plan represents is a weakening of this coherence. By expanding non-local income streams, a club becomes less dependent on their locality, but as a consequence they become more dependent on their global identity. This is the notion that lay behind the horror of Game 39: the Premier League has more markets to serve than the borders of these islands can hope to accommodate.

Considered pessimistically, we can see that this pursuit of a fresh fountainhead represents the first step in the uncoupling of "Liverpool Football Club" from Liverpool. First comes the wealth disparity. Then comes the entrenchment of same. Then comes the La Liga style stretch. And then, of course, comes the European Super League. Because if the international markets will pay silly money to watch Liverpool play one of those oh-so-respected colleagues, then just think how much would they pay for a season that could guarantee Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, AC Milan, Juventus, and the rest. (We'll assume that Liverpool have spent their way back into the European places by this point.)

One of the quieter, sadder ironies of Ayre's comments is that the very platform on which he is seeking to launch his vision - Liverpool, the international brand, as established on the successes of the 1970s and 1980s - was built, in large part, by a man who once said:

The socialism I believe in is not really politics. It is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day. That might be asking a lot, but it's the way I see football and the way I see life.

That sound you can hear - very faintly, beyond the damp panting from the boardrooms and the clink of coins from the megastores - is Bill Shankly, spinning in his grave.