Looking back on the season at this point at the beginning of March, one can say that there have been positive signs in terms of us being competitive with Manchester City and Chelsea, two clubs backed by enormously wealthy owners. Some say that this was a season of opportunity with management of Chelsea and both Manchester clubs in transition, but at this point it could also be said that we could have been standing in a much worse position at this juncture, not least taking into account the mood of the club after our season opening loss at home to Aston Villa. The 2013/14 season as a whole is now very much in the balance following the disappointing away loss to Stoke, but we still have a decent shot at a trophy, most likely the FA Cup, with the Premier League title still an outside shot.
Over the weekend we have had a revelation courtesy of Liverpool’s club owner, John Henry, who said this in a filmed panel discussion at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference:
“Luis Suarez is the top scorer in the English Premier League which is arguably the top soccer league in the world”
“And he had a buy-out clause – I don’t know what degree I should go into this – but he had a buy-out clause of £40million – more than 60 million (US) dollars. So Arsenal, one of our prime rivals this year … they offered £40million and one pound for him and triggered his buy-out clause.”
“But what we’ve found over the years is that contracts don’t seem to mean a lot in England – actually not in England, in world football. It doesn’t matter how long a player’s contract is, he can decide he’s leaving.”
It is very rare for us fans to know details of the ins and outs of backroom dealings, but by John Henry being so clear in his own words we now have some explicit clarity with regards to the Luis Suarez transfer saga last summer.
One can only imagine where we would be placed at this point in the season if we had pulled off the signing of Suarez. It is largely water under the bridge now but I do think the rare clarity of information we have received courtesy of John Henry enables a revisit of what likely happened from our side, as a club, in attempting to pull off the Suarez signing, but ultimately failing. The most important thing is that there are lessons to be learned, and perhaps justifiable calls for some accountability.
Obviously at some point last summer we had been tipped off about a £40m release clause in Suarez’s contract, most likely by Pere Guardiola, his agent. One would suggest timing linked with a rather suspect flurry of betting activity in Spain, reported in various media sources in early July of that summer. The fact that we were tipped off indicates that Suarez was at that time very interested in a move to Arsenal. Based on this information our club proceeded to the infamous £40m + £1 bid which we rightly expected would trigger the release clause. However, John Henry refused to cooperate and Liverpool used the media to embarrass us regarding the nature of the bid, and by doing so the suits in executive offices of our club (our executive management) were instantly rocked back onto their heels; a position from which they never recovered in regaining an upper hand.
Refusing to allow a player to proceed to negotiate personal terms with a club that has triggered a release clause is pretty unprecedented. John Henry has boasted that words in Suarez’s contract counted for little, but I take this as bluster. Liverpool would have been left wide open to pressure, be it from the PFA, the FA, UEFA, FIFA, or even a combination of these bodies because challenging the whole framework of contracts is not something that authorities can readily accept, as it would ultimately risk chaos in the professional sport as a whole, in England, and possibly globally. One has to ask, when it was clear at the time that Luis Suarez very much wanted to join Arsenal for Champions League football, why pressure, with or without legal recourse, was not exerted on LFC. I will explain why it probably was not, at least not to any significant level.
For all we know, there could have been some action behind the scenes, at least a lot of discussions amongst executive management at Arsenal as to potential strategies of how to outmaneuver Liverpool. However, this tracks back to our bid of £40m + £1. The nature of this bid was an overt admission that we had been tipped off on Suarez’s release clause, and by the letter of the law of professional football such tip offs are illegal. Although technically illegal, it is pretty widely known within the football community that players’ agents talk with clubs and divulge contract details, and such communications reside in a gray area which is largely tolerated. Murky gray area notwithstanding, there was no way that we could deny that we had been tipped off regarding Suarez’s release clause and that very likely put our executive management in a bit of a legal straightjacket.
In hindsight, although we know that any money included in a bid over and above a release clause is perhaps unnecessary money spent, if we had put in a bid of £42m there is no way that it could have been definitively proven by Liverpool that we had put in a bid for Suarez after gaining inside information. A bid of £42m in all likelihood would have secured the signing of Suarez in my humble opinion. Arsenal’s backroom were outfoxed by Liverpool’s backroom despite having a strong upper hand initially because of poor strategic thinking that allowed an opportunity to slip through our fingers. Remember Arsenal did not reveal the +£1 bid, that was John Henry and Liverpool, in a very high profile manner, i.e. they used the media to outfox us.
I wanted to share this revisiting of the Suarez transfer saga last summer, because it is very rare that fans know all the ins and outs of transfer dealings; but in this case, we have John Henry in his own words as firm evidence. The opportunity for signing Suarez has in all likelihood come and gone. While we hope that the suits in our executive offices have reflected on how they were likely outfoxed, I believe it is right for fans to have confidence that indeed lessons are being learned moving forwards. We should demand some accountability, so that improvements can be built into our overall approach, and perhaps a review and reorganisation of individual staff responsibilities. Doing so can only help, in terms of future transfer dealings.
So where should accountability lie?
Personally I do not lay any blame with Arsène Wenger. Where we fell short in the Luis Suarez saga was in poor strategic thinking, and although the football manager may play a role, responsibility for such strategic thinking should lie within a core team within the club’s executive management. If the football manager overtly oversaw the process then that is not necessarily his fault; he is an employee of the club and those higher up in the club’s structure should understand his limitations and recognise the need to assert themselves more. Ultimately in this case, I believe we have clarity that points us to our Chief Executive, i.e. Ivan Gazidis (IG). One could perhaps consider Dick Law, but IG should have been in the loop of details every step of the way. If IG wasn’t, one has to question his oversight as Chief Executive. One could perhaps consider Stan Kroenke, but I don’t believe Kroenke should be expected to know every detail; he employs IG and should trust him to perform competently with a degree of autonomy in the lofty, well paid, position of Chief Executive.
To make it clear, I am not asking for IG to be sacked. Indeed, one can point to much good that he has done for the club in enhancing commercial revenues. Perhaps what is needed is a little restructuring of our executive management with someone with ultimate responsibility for transfer dealings, at an organisational level in between IG and Dick Law. Many clubs nowadays employ a Director of Football, but I do not recommend one. I prefer a football manager to have full responsibility for players he wants to sign because he has to manage those players. A person in between IG and Dick Law wouldn’t be a Director of Football; indeed, he would be more like David Dein. Last summer we hired Chips Keswick as Chairman, as successor to Peter Hill Wood. I do not know what Chips Keswick exactly does, but perhaps we can question this hire and whether we should have brought back David Dein (or someone similar to David Dein) at that juncture. Nevertheless, there is room for IG, Chips Keswick (as successor to PHW), as well as a David Dein. This would take any ambiguity of transfer dealing oversight largely away from IG, so that he can focus largely on continuing to grow commercial revenues.
On a side note, obviously John Henry felt free to divulge details at this juncture because Liverpool are in a good position in the Premier League table, Luis Suarez appears fully satisfied there now, and they are in a good position to secure Champions League football for next season. John Henry had an up close and personal view of effectiveness of our executive management in transfer dealings last summer, outsmarting them in the process – one could argue very easily. He used the media very well in going so public with our £40m + £1 bid, perhaps with a level of faux outrage.
Ultimately, he made our executive management look like a bunch of amateurs, and in saying what he did in a filmed panel discussion at MIT over the weekend it was the equivalent of him smoking one of his cigars while enjoying how he got one over on Arsenal Football Club. We should perhaps see the glass half full and draw on this as motivation as fans to demand from the club’s executive management some transparency of lessons learned and associated adjustments, in line with my humble suggestions, or otherwise.