IT’S difficult to know quite what to make of the pronouncements by Liverpool owner John Henry last week regarding Luis Suarez.
There are, it seems, three different conclusions that can be drawn from his punchy insistence that selling the Uruguayan to Arsenal would be “ludicrous”, and that he will remain a Liverpool player after the transfer window closes on 2 September. Henry is either a man of unshakeable principle, an innocent abroad or a Machiavellian pragmatist fixated on the bottom line.
Henry, who also owns the Boston Red Sox baseball team, has derided the “rotten” way in which football operates as “the wild west” and was aghast that Arsenal clearly knew that there was a £40 million sell-on clause in Suarez’s contract. “How does a club who doesn’t have permission to speak with your player see his contract? It should have been confidential,” he said in exasperation last week.
Henry clearly sees this as a matter of principle, partly on a personal level because he believes Suarez should show Liverpool the same loyalty that they showed him over the episodes when he racially abused Patrice Evra and bit Branislav Ivanovic’s arm, and partly on the basis that he believes Suarez should honour the contract that he signed almost exactly a year ago when Juventus were after his services and which ties him to Anfield until 2016 in return for £80,000 a week.
Yet there is also an innocent belief that the rift between Suarez and Brendan Rodgers, which became a chasm when Suarez publicly accused his manager of bad faith, leading to Suarez being ordered to train alone, will somehow miraculously pass and that the Uruguayan will soon be pulling on the red shirt as usual. “[Whether Suarez plays for Liverpool again is] between the manager and player,” said Henry. “The manager is upset, as he should be, the supporters are upset, Luis is, but that’s going to be between those two and his team-mates. We need Luis. Hopefully this will pass.”
Given Suarez’s past history, it is unlikely that hope is well founded. In particular the painfully similar scenario at Groningen, when he took his club to court on the basis of a release clause and lost, only for Groningen to then conclude that selling him to Ajax was the lesser of two evils considering the poisonously bad feeling the saga had engendered, points to stormy waters ahead. Suarez’s posturing last week looked like he was building up the case for a similarly ruinous confrontation.
With European qualification being worth up to £40m, it is easy to see why Henry is so keen to keep hold of the player who scored 23 league goals for Liverpool last season rather than let him play for one of their closest rivals. Yet there is also another side of the statistical story. The statistician Opta Joe says that, when Liverpool play Suarez and Daniel Sturridge together, they have a 12.5 per cent less chance of scoring a goal and a 25 per cent greater chance of conceding one, which is perhaps why Liverpool won 39 per cent of the games in which Suarez played last season, but 62 per cent of games when he was absent, including three of the final four games last season, which encompassed their 6-0 St James’s Park shellacking of Newcastle and in which Daniel Sturridge scored five goals. This conforms neatly with American basketball’s “Ewing Theory”, a concept with which Henry is familiar, which posits that if a side loses its key player, it pulls together and performs better.
It may well be, of course, that Henry, who recently denied that he is trying to sell Liverpool, is just trying to ramp up the price of his primary asset. That would certainly fit in with his attempts to equate Suarez’s value with that of Gareth Bale, even though the list of Suarez suitors amounts to just one club. But let’s for one moment presume that Henry is an innocent man of principle who is determined to make a stand to increase the chances of qualifying for Europe and to ensure that Liverpool aren’t irrevocably seen as a soft-touch selling club. If so, where does he – and David Moyes at Manchester United with Wayne Rooney and Andre Villas-Boas at Spurs with Bale – go from here?
English football’s past is full of unsettled players who simply refused to play until they got a move – Dimitar Berbatov refused to leave the bench at Spurs, while Pierre Van Hooijdonk actually went on strike at Nottingham Forest.
Others went to extraordinary lengths to signal their intention to move. Dwight Yorke sat outside Doug Ellis’s house overnight, begging the Aston Villa chairman to sell him to Manchester United, Ellis only relenting when the striker put in an abject display against Everton. Peter Odemwinge drove to QPR on deadline day as he tried to force a move from West Bromwich Albion to Loftus Road.
It’s just as difficult to get a player to do something he doesn’t want to do, as Bobo Balde proved at Celtic. On a remarkable £28,000-a-week five-year contract but not rated by new manager Gordon Strachan, he simply dug in and accepted training with the reserves, being banned from the first-team dressing room and then being forced to play with the under-19s. He wouldn’t move even when Middlesbrough offered £1.5m and agreed to meet his wages, instead staying at Celtic Park and pocketing almost £5m for doing nowt. As he said to Peter Lawwell when he tried to persuade him to move to Birmingham City: “You are the chief executive of Celtic Football Club, but I am the chief executive of Bobo Balde.”
If it seems as if the player always wins, that’s almost always true. Inevitably, the one man who proved himself adept at bending football’s biggest names to his will was Sir Alex Ferguson. There wasn’t a set method, he simply felt his way through the confrontation. When he felt David Beckham had become too big for his boots, he eased him out. When Cristiano Ronaldo wanted to leave, he persuaded him that, if he gave United another season’s service, he would allow the Portuguese to go without rancour or complications. And, when Rooney held Fergie’s feet to the fire, he gave him the massive pay hike he wanted but kept his anger cold, ready for the day when he had a striker as effective as Robin Van Persie, who would make Wazza dispensable.
Rooney against Ferguson proved to be a monumental clash of wills which is still being fought by proxy, but one that Ferguson has undoubtedly won. What would we all give to see how the great man would have sorted out Suarez – almost as much as John Henry, I suspect.