May 1981, Paris, and Ray Clemence sat in the dressing room at Parc des Princes and contemplated his third European Cup success. Most players never even play in a European Cup Final, let alone three and here was Clem with his third winners medal. This would go nicely with his two UEFA Cup medals, five league championships and an FA Cup win. As he sat there watching his teammates celebrate victory over Real Madrid, Clemence had an uneasy feeling inside. This was yet another success with Liverpool but for some reason it just didn’t feel the same. He’d kept another clean sheet but it just wasn’t enough anymore. He wanted a change.
When Ray Clemence told the club he wanted to move everyone was shocked. He’d not given any inkling of being unsettled and perhaps he hadn’t quite realised it himself, but he felt he needed a new challenge. So after almost thirteen years and six hundred and sixty-five appearances he moved to Tottenham.
The following May saw Clemence return to Anfield for the first time in his new colours. Defending the Anfield Road end the crowd kept chanting “England’s number one”, but it was the reception he received when he came out for the second half which took his, and many watching, breath away. As he ran towards The Kop the whole stadium was on their feet.
Clemence still says this was the most emotional he’d ever been at a football ground.
But why should Clem receive such a warm reception from supporters he’d walked away from? He’d given the club his finest years. He made three hundred and thirty six consecutive appearances between September 1972 and March 1978. The club was successful and had a worthwhile, if yet unproven, replacement waiting in the wings in Bruce Grobbelaar. The general feeling was that he’d given us his best and he left with our blessing. He also announced he was leaving during the summer, which didn’t affect any momentum we might have built up during a season.
The 1981-82 season was a pivotal one for the club as players such as Clemence, Jimmy Case, Ray Kennedy and Avi Cohen all left, with also David Johnson and Phil Thompson moving on during the season. Liverpool usually only replaced one or two players at a time so to replace five was quite a risk. They needn’t have worried as the club’s thirteenth League title was secured with that win over Tottenham. The replacements Grobbelaar, Mark Lawrenson, Ronnie Whelan and Ian Rush soon became legends in their own right, so the succession was seamless.
Maybe there lies the key to whether a player who leaves a club on his own volition, is given the blessing of the fans.
This article, if you hadn’t guess already, has been inspired by the latest goings on surrounding Philipe Coutinho. It now appears the club has been successful in keeping him, as he is now blaming his ‘advisers’ for the reason he’s made himself unavailable so far this season.
Coutinho’s career was floundering at Inter Milan when he signed in the January 2013 transfer window for a bargain price of £8.5m. During his three and a half seasons he has become an important member of the team with last season arguably his best. Barcelona has come calling and for a Brazilian who was spotted by Inter as a sixteen year-old at Vasco da Gama, he may find the lure too irresistible.
The club didn’t want him to leave, the supporters didn’t either but if he had have gone why should it hurt so much?
He signed a new five year contract in January giving us every indication he was going to be an integral part of the brave new world Jurgen Klopp is attempting to build at Anfield. In pre-season we got a glimpse of what we might be able to look forward to when he combined well with new signing Mo Salah on numerous occasions. The prospect of Coutinho unleashing the pace of Salah and Mane was beginning to water mouths.
Yet on the eve of the new season he puts in a transfer request. The suggestion was that FSG did not want to be seen to be keen to sell him and so engineered the player into this position to save face. It would suit the owners if the fans had turned against Phil, as they had begun to and so Coutinho could move into the box marked ‘snake’.
But how can a player avoid this? Is there a right way to leave a club? Can you blame players for wanting to challenge themselves? Can you blame players for wanting to play in front of over 100,000 people at the Nou Camp?
This hurts us supporters each time. I was gutted when Luis Suarez left. I felt proud the club refused to sanction his efforts to leave the previous season, yet you can’t knock the player who did his utmost to try and get us the league title twelve months later. Some fans still harbour a grudge, but for me Suarez is such a magnificent player he was always likely to want to move to somewhere like Spain.
Coutinho is no Suarez though. You always knew what you’d get with Suarez. You knew he’d influence each and every game. But Coutinho goes missing in matches. In amongst some magic moments there has been some average performances.
But what right do we Liverpool fans have to expect players to stay at the club? After all, they invariably have come from somewhere else. Did we consider how PSV fans felt when Suarez left in January 2011? What about Roma fans having just witnessed twenty nine goals in two seasons from Salah only to see him return to England?
Of course we can’t ignore Southampton who have endured a raft of players moving from the South Coast to Liverpool. In fact as I write this the ongoing saga of whether Virgil van Dijk will leave St. Mary’s for Anfield continues to rumble on. I’m sure Southampton fans would’ve loved to have seen more of Lallana, Lambert, Lovren, Clyne and Mane, but they’re Liverpool players now and we want them to do well for us.
It’s not easy being a football supporter but your club is bigger than any player and will exist long after those players have retired. We’ve lost players before, some of whom I struggled to get over such as Keegan, Souness, McDermott, Beardsley, Alonso and Suarez. There have been numerous I’ve said good riddance to, Owen and Sterling for example.
There are also plenty the club has decided to move on and it’s this point where you can see the players’ side of things. They could give their all for a club but if the club decides in a change of direction then they could be sold anyway. Coutinho may well have signed a contract but the club could still decide to sell him whilst he’s under that contract.
Van Dijk is under contract at Southampton and appears to have decided he’s leaving. This saga has been dragging on since virtually the end of last season with the player effectively downing tools. What us fans never really consider is that we’re happy to have a player who has cheated his previous club, preferring to ignore the fact he may very well cheat us.
Do we really think Salah will stay longer than a couple of years? What about Firmino? He’s twenty six. Will he still be here in three years time? These are not Liverpool-born players, it’s not particularly clear whether they’ve been lifelong Liverpool fans so should we expect them to stay here no matter what?
It’s pretty clear these days that players hold most of the cards, although maybe that should be corrected to agents hold most of the cards. What shouldn’t be forgotten is that Coutinho’s agent is none other than Kia Joorabchian, a name which still strikes fear into many football supporters hearts and who has been effecting transfers worldwide for years since the Tevez affair in 2008.
After all this there are only a few examples of clubs successfully holding onto players when they’re being courted by other clubs, with Suarez and Gareth Bale being recent examples. Although in both cases it seems they were persuaded to give one more season before their moves were sanctioned twelve months later.
So perhaps we’re to endure this charade again next summer so let’s hope the story follows a similar path to Suarez and Coutinho gives us his very best for this season and we’re challenging for the league title again. What does seem to be clear, though is that the club were not planning to re-invest any transfer fee (which may have been as much as £130m) back into the playing squad. The squad needs improving and £130m would’ve gone a long way to helping with that. But the club was quite happy to pass up the offer as if they don’t really need the money. Although it could be argued the team would’ve been poorer for the absence of Coutinho and would £130m have replaced him without disruption? Another question is that Barcelona were offering as much as they were because their coffers had been filled by the Neymar transfer. Will they still have that much money next summer? Will any team? If Coutinho is unsettled again next summer will the club have to accept a lower offer than they would’ve been able to obtain this summer? It’s a risky strategy in a game where players and agents are holding many of the best cards.
As supporters we’ll go on falling hopelessly in love with our heroes even if they do eventually leave for other admirers.