Acting stupidly hasn’t spared others when it came to the full rigrours of the law, so why should it spare Liverpool following their clumsy and arrogant pursuit of the £60m rated Southampton defender.
In the nine months that have elapsed since Sam Allardyce fell on his sword, it scarcely seems much clearer why the nuclear option had to be taken. Was it those few loose, not quite innocuous, words about loopholes in the rules governing third party ownership? Or the fact he was filmed in a somewhat bedraggled state in a London nightclub, pint of wine dangerously close at hand? Most likely, it was some kind of combination of the two.
Regardless of the precise reason Allardyce wasn’t running the line at Hampden Park this weekend, a particular consensus became notably visible in the aftermath of his removal as England manager: he had been hoist on a petard of his own stupidity. In this popular narrative, Allardyce wasn’t conceding anything particularly secretive or not understood to be in widespread practice. He was merely stupid to talk about it to a bunch of strangers.
Narrowing his crime down to stupidity didn’t necessarily imply a vote of sympathy. In the eyes of many, stupidity constituted a solid base on which to cut an England manager adrift. Allardyce was simply following a deep-rooted and ignoble tradition, from Glenn “Karma” Hoddle to the serial two-timer Sven Goran Eriksson, impulsive characters who had left a long trail of stupidity behind them.
Fast forward a few months. News just in that the controversial Burnley midfielder, Joey Barton, is to have the book thrown at him by the FA for a number of bets the midfielder had struck on games involving his own team over a period of years. Barton is handed an 18-month ban, “the shortest possible available sanction given the nature of the offence,” says a senior FA official. For a 34-year-old footballer, though, 18 months is as good as a life sentence in terms of his career.
Again, an apparent consensus soon develops. It is clear that Barton did not profit in any way from the bets, nor had he tried to influence the course of those games in any illegal way. He simply liked to bet and, despite a severe warning back in 2012, continued to see nothing untoward in placing football bets on a near daily basis. Really, how stupid can one player get?
There is a lot of it about and it is not confined to those who have to tog out for games. Last year, Ian Ayre was CEO of Liverpool during the great season ticket price hike fiasco, urging supporters to “look at facts” when it emerged that those fans (labelled “consumers” on the club’s owner’s website) would not tolerate season tickets spiralling over £1,000 a year at a time when obscenely lucrative new television deals were being announced.
Stupidly, Ayre and the club forged ahead anyway until a bushfire of angry protest prompted a last-minute rethink and a welcome, if ultimately, humiliating climbdown. For once fan power had faced down the maw of the corporate machine and emerged not only intact but triumphant. The greedy and stupid machine retreated to lick its wounds.
When Ayre subsequently left the club it was, among other things, an apparent signal that there would be no more public relations’ disasters at Anfield. Liverpool were entering a new era, good manager in place, plans for stadium expansion afoot, a vision unfolding that would turn them from also-rans into serial winners. No more duff signings, no more overt stupidity.
And then? An act of such pure, 24-carat stupidity that it made all their previous lapses into colossal stupidity seem quite smart in comparison. Just last Monday, reports began circulating around the football media, seemingly sourced from within the club itself, that Liverpool were about to address their obvious defensive deficiencies by securing the signature for £60m of Virgil Van Dijk. It was, according to the reports, the Dutch defender’s express desire to play for Liverpool. There was only one problem: all this was news to Southampton where Van Dijk is under contract until 2022.
It must be borne in mind, of course, that beyond a basic outline of events, the motives behind the aborted deal remain obscure. Depending on which version of events you chose to believe, the whole farrago is either a Southampton ploy to keep Van Dijk’s value high of a Liverpool ruse to keep his price down. Either way it now seems unlikely – though stupid to rule out – that Van Dijk will be a Liverpool player any time soon.
Alternatively, with recourse to occam’s razor, it seems more likely that, blinded by a sense of entitlement and complacency, Liverpool failed to see any reason why the deal couldn’t be ushered through by a simple force of will. Southampton had proved such fertile ground for transfer business in the past that it never occurred to them to follow due diligence in their pursuit of Van Dijk until, with a jolt, they realised the south coast club wasn’t actually all that keen to sell.
Possible ulterior motives aside, the fact that Southampton weren’t biting Liverpool’s hand off to accept £60m for a player they paid Celtic a mere £11m for seems significant in some way, a sign perhaps of the increased financial power of those Premier League clubs outside the top six and a stiff resolve to flex that newly acquired muscle. That Southampton might be engaging in some financial highwire act in order to increase the value of Van Dijk, as some claim, seems doubtful. After all, what guarantee is there that any other club would be willing to meet Liverpool’s valuation, let alone exceed it?
As for Liverpool, another consensus is forming. Not one that excuses their present stupidity, but merely seeks to add some useful perspective. What has the club been accused of, it asks, other than following the time-honoured ritual of tapping up a player before any deal is done? How would business ever get done, it adds, if players couldn’t be sounded out in private, either in person or through their agents? All clubs do it. All the time. Didn’t Southampton themselves poach Adam Lallana from Bournemouth as a 12-year-old?
And so Liverpool were unquestionably stupid and, for that stupidity, the club is going to suffer….well, how exactly? Embarrassment, sure, and the bother of having to look beyond their primary target to shore up a leaky defence. But beyond that? The Premier League has said it is investigating what went on and will decide early next week whether Liverpool have a case to answer. If the conclusion is in the negative, then the rules are an even bigger farce than we realised.
We know how the game works, though. It’s not incongruous that Southampton would lodge an official complaint against Liverpool and then express their wish that no further action take place. That’s merely the Premier League’s unwritten rule of solidarity at play, the same one that applied when West Ham were given a sweetheart deal to play at the Olympic Stadium and none of their rivals were willing to object despite their obvious irritation. Next time, or some time, it could be any one of them.
As they are already under sanction for an illegal approach to a 12-year-old Stoke player, Liverpool know another transgression would leave them skating on thin ice. Hence the intervention of senior club officials on Tuesday when Southampton’s objections became known. If they were truly livid at Liverpool’s behaviour, as we have been led to believe, then you might logically think that Southampton would be keen to see the letter of the law applied in its full rigour. Football simply doesn’t work that way.
The game effectively has two rule books. One for dealing with vulnerable saps like Joey Barton as well as expendable England managers and anyone unfortunate enough to suffer from a recreational drug problem. In these cases, the rules can be applied with impunity. In passing sentence, the FA will lecture us on the importance of integrity, its unwillingness to tolerate nonsense and expect to be applauded for its diligence.
The other one is for the truly powerful, those most vested in keeping things the way they are, the one that pertained back in February when Manchester City were found in breach of the anti-doping whereabout rules for the third time, a lapse that would earn an ordinary Olympic athlete an automatic two-year suspension, and handed a whopping £35,000 fine, a penalty which just about amounted to a slap on the wrist with one of Ken Dodd’s tickle sticks.
It is true that Liverpool are a bit of a laughing stock of the game right now, and that humiliation will taste all the more bitter for it, but there will be consolation in the fact that they are almost certainly over the worst of it.