Opposites attract, similarities clash and England’s north west is no exception. Two of the cities most central to the industrial revolution lie thirty miles apart from one another and were once bound by the riches of cotton import and the values of dock workers.
There’s many things that lie between the two these days, the East Lancs Road, a safari park, the ship canal. This last one served as a symbolic divider between the city's respective ‘red’ clubs. Liverpool declined after the opening of the waterway, whilst Salford Quays and Trafford Park began to boom in the aftermath of the industrial revolution.
Two working class communities, cut from working class clothes, began to live opposing lives. Animosity between fan bases grew. Their commonalities, to put food on the table for them and theirs, would set them apart.
As the Premier League era dawned, Liverpool (prior to Heysel) had been a European power house. United meanwhile, were building a domestic dynasty. The two clubs embarked on the new world of football with fairly similar commercial strategies - put bums on seats, rake in the tv coin, amass prize money.
Manchester United, with 45,000 seats to fill as the Premier League began, stole the march. Liverpool, and Arsenal, spent years trying to emulate the success and riches the large capacity of Old Trafford generated.
By the 2010 the top four was taking a new shape. Roman Abramovich had set up camp in West London, Sheikh Mansour in East Manchester. The age of the overseas investor was upon us, bringing further attention from across the pond.
Randy Lerner bought Aston Villa, Ellis Short took the reins at Sunderland, Shahid Khan (the Pakistani-American billionaire owner of the Jackson Jaguars) invested in Fulham. None made any sustainable attempt at getting near the top four.
Liverpool, the most successful club in the country, were a prize pick for the Fenway Sports Group. Since their takeover in 2010, the club has now won an elusive Premier League, another European Cup and expanded Anfield.
John Henry’s pockets and those of FSG are a little shallower than either Abramovich’s or the City Football Group’s. City have navigated financial fair play through manipulation of sponsorship money, only escaping sanctions due to the lateness of the charges laid. Even if Liverpool wanted to emulate project longbow, the cash isn’t there to do it.
Since 2010 Henry’s finance company has all but ceased operations, and whilst his personal wealth has increased, it is dwarfed by many other owners of Premier League club’s.
With Liverpool banging their heads up against the glass ceiling, how can they keep pace with City, Chelsea and potentially Newcastle. Only once since the takeover could Liverpool boast having the best forward in the league (Luis Suarez), until now.
With 18 months left on Mo Salah’s $200,000 a week contract, Liverpool have a dilemma as the Egyptian, who they must do without during January’s AFCON, is seeking to double his salary as part of a new deal. Whilst suitors will circle, Liverpool’s failure to secure the pharaoh's services will send an unambitious message to an understandably demanding fan base. Either way, it creates issues for Jurgen Klopp’s salary structure.
There isn’t one Liverpool player inside the league’s top 10 earner’s list. Kevin De Bruyne tops the ranks earning 75% more than Anfield’s highest paid player, Virgil Van Dijk.
Liverpool must decide if that changes, and weigh up the risks that come with it. It’s a predicament long in the making and with a smaller war chest at the owner’s disposal, they’ve twice tried to find alternative revenue streams and failed.
Ten years ago, then managing director, Ian Ayre floated the idea of redistributing TV money based on international viewing figures. Wind the clock back to 1997 and the newly formed Labour government were investigating the state of play in the country’s top division. The main reason the Premier League was able to make the challenges of it being a cartel disappear was the creation of the Football Foundation.
Had Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal pulled up the financial drawbridge it would have effectively been a cartel within a cartel. Football’s mafia families if you will.
Roll forward a decade, and without levelling all the responsibilities at the Anfield gates, Liverpool were embarking on another new age of football; the European Super League. Manchester City’s recent successes created a revised big five. Tottenham, with the same number of major trophies in the last twenty years as Swansea, Leicester, Wigan and Birmingham, forced their way in to a six.
Fan power and protest put paid to the plans, whether the rest is history remains to be seen. The ESL isn’t totally dead yet. Meanwhile, Liverpool’s salary strategy of even distribution sees them with the second highest wage bill in the division. If Salah’s contract is to become more comparable with, for instance, Kevin De Bruyne, will the rest of the squad follow, and how do Liverpool operate in a financially sustainable way?
Between 2018 and 2020 the wage bill at Anfield rose over 20%, however losses were recorded in the last set of financials, which only covered three months of the pandemic impacting revenues. The real time condition of the books is still unclear.
Kylian Mbappe looks set to escape the clutches of Newcastle’s new owners, but if Liverpool don’t stump up for Salah, the Toon might roll the dice, despite their interest in out of favour Eden Hazard. How City first shook the establishment up was domestic cannibalisation; Shay Given, Emmanuel Adebayor, Carlos Tevez and more, but prior was an audacious bid for Kaka. Watch this space for Geordies with Mo Salah floating amongst the fog on their chest, above their already inked Tyne bridge tattoos.
As TV money, not gate receipts, landed an albatross around Arsenal’s neck, they were no longer top four mainstays.
Newcastle pinching Salah could be the fault line in the football landscape changing once again, if Liverpool fail to meet his salary demands.
But for Liverpool; there is no Sheikh, no crown prince. Despite MP Tracey Crouch’s well intentioned review of the English game, any changes will merely pair back the Premier League juggernaut, as did the Labour government’s attempts in the late nineties, before once again gathering break neck uncontrollable pace, moving it further away from the lower leagues and an evenly weighted pyramid.
Across Stanley Park lies Everton, the People’s Club they say, and the other half of the friendly derby. Another club with foreign ownership perhaps a league below that of City, Chelsea and now Newcastle.
The hard reality is, Fenway Sports war chest can’t compete with those of the aforementioned clubs. Liverpool, along with others, couldn’t beat off the rest of the game to cement their place at the top table financially, perhaps it is time to join forces with them.
Meanwhile, a bigger decision needs to be made on Mo Salah’s future, and the clock is ticking.