“Qualify for Europe on merit”

Andy Lyons meets Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry, who discusses his club's perspective on the current state of English League football and their role on the international stage as a member of the controversial G-14 group of elite European clubs

Some clubs claim that they have a duty to their shareholders to be in Europe. Is there less of this pressure at Liverpool through not being a publicly quoted company?
We don’t have that institutional investor pressure but the club has to pay for itself. We consciously incurred heavy losses for a couple of years of around £14 million when we were investing in the squad but you can’t go on doing that. The dilemma, and 90 per cent of clubs would say it’s a nice dilemma to have, is that you invest in a squad capable of getting into the Champions League, but if you don’t get in, you’re suddenly £20 million adrift and facing huge problems. We weren’t in Europe in 1999-2000 and that was a really difficult year for us. In ab­solute terms the gap between those in the Champions League and the Premier League is bigger than that between the rest of the Premier League and the Football League. I’m not saying we’re unhappy to be in that position but it’s a big gap to bridge.

Liverpool were invited into the G14 on the basis of historical achievements only. Are they not still living off their past?
That’s fair comment, though obviously we would far rather trade on current success. We’ve never been interested in the con­cept of places in Europe on anything other than current performance. G14 as a forum for major clubs exchanging new ideas is a good thing. If it’s push­ing down the line of permanent membership of the Champions League or a European Superleague concept, where half the membership never chan­ges, that’s not something we’re in favour of at all. First and foremost comes current performance on the pitch.

Some G14 clubs would think differently about that.
Yes, but it’s not a topic that’s been discussed under the G14 banner because the original talks that led to the formation of the Champions League surrounded the European Superleague, which we were not involved in. We went to one meeting but we didn’t like the concept of the permanent membership. Barcelona were not involved in that whereas Arsenal, who aren’t in G14, were. It must be said that there is a communality between those clubs who are interested in a European Superleague and those who are in G14, but at G14 meetings I’ve been to there’s never been a suggestion that there’s about to be a revolution in terms of the format of the competition. Whether it’s back on the agenda in two or three years, who knows?

Surely the G14 is a self perpetuating elite – the clubs involved want to widen the gap between themselves and the rest.
All that G14 is is a forum for debate. Being a member of it doesn’t perpetuate anything. It doesn’t in itself generate any income. It’s merely an opportunity for the major clubs to debate areas of common interest, which would include things like salary caps and the new transfer rules.

But could they not do all that without G14 existing at all?
There’s never really been a forum before in which clubs could come together. The national associations could do so through UEFA, the leagues have had their own forum, but we’d not been able to sit alongside AC Milan and Barcelona. And yet the problems when it comes to issues like transfers, dealing with agents and players’ salaries are common and there is nothing at all unhealthy about having that forum. It’s when it crosses into discussions of new competitions or breakaways that the line is crossed, but thus far that hasn’t been the role of G14.

If Paris St-Germain or Porto fail to qualify for Europe through their own leagues, are they still valid members of G14? They would no longer be the flagship clubs of their countries.
No, but in a sense G14 had to start somewhere. I think that the whole issue of membership is being addressed now. It can’t, to me, be an exclusive grouping in the future.

Thomas Kurth, the G14’s chief executive, recently talked about either expanding the Champions League to include more clubs from the wealthiest countries, or making it a lot smaller. An example used was that he didn’t want to see Maribor play Slavia Prague in the Champions League.
These things have never been debated in G14 and this point has been made to Thomas rather forcibly. As you can imagine, the remarks caused some angst with UEFA and some surprise to the member clubs of G14, who had never heard them before. I think Thomas overstepped his brief a little. But at least UEFA are recognising that they have to have a dialogue with the clubs. I remember when I was at the Premier League, I wrote to UEFA once and the letter was returned saying: “Please ask your nat­ional association to write to us.” Given that a huge chunk of UEFA’s revenue comes from the Champions League, more direct dialogue with participating clubs would make sense.

If UEFA deal directly with clubs, surely that will undermine the authority of individual FAs.
Not necessarily. We had a debate on this with representatives of various European leagues. They couldn’t see a prob­lem with clubs being more involved in matters that are directly relevant to them. The best example is the issue of match dates. It’s univ­ersally recognised by clubs that 15 European dates was the maximum that could be coped with given domestic calendars – but instead we ended up with 17. The harmonisation of the international calender is relevant to those clubs who provide the bulk of players for national teams. And if there was to be a debate about the future of the European transfer system then that’s not just something that concerns bigger clubs – smaller clubs have perhaps even more of a contribution to make.

Is it possible to envisage a sitaution where G14 might present an ultimatum to UEFA? What would UEFA say no to?
If a number of clubs wanted to revisit the European Superleague concept and have a competititon with permanent mem­bership for some, you would expect UEFA to say no, there’s a line which can’t be crossed. The same applies to the other issue which was seriously debated, which was wild card entries to the Champions League, so if AC Milan had a tough year and finished eighth, they would still be allowed in.

If clubs don’t get their own way, might they not threaten to leave UEFA and form a rival organisation?
Well you’d really hope not. OK, it works in the USA where sports are self contained. I personally think it would be a non­sense in football. Where would you find future players and referees? And there would be a whole load of regulatory issues. It would be pretty disastrous and is not a road we would want to go down. But if there is the right degree of dialogue and UEFA are embracing the views of clubs, it’s hard to think of a valid reason why it should need to happen.

Is it a concern that the financial rewards offered by the Champions League encourage certain clubs to overspend, either to stay at that level or to try to get there?
For sure, because the Champions League is the place to be. We set a fairly strict target for ourselves of three years to get into it because it makes a difference of, say, £20 million a year. Cer­tainly there is a big incentive for clubs to get into it as quickly as possible. By definition there are only going to be three or four who are going to get in and invariably missing out is going to spell pain. Peter Ridsdale was talking just recently of the consequences for Leeds if they don’t make it. The sanction UEFA have is that they won’t allow clubs into European competition if they don’t meet financial criteria. What everyone is sitting back and wondering is: will those criteria apply to Real Madrid? If not, they’re a complete waste of time. There are danger signals in clubs overspending but I don’t think there’s going to be a cat­aclysmic collapse.

But clubs like Real and Barcelona are more powerful institutions than the Spanish FA. They’re never going to be reined in.
Their debts would have been written off in some way, there might have been a government amnesty or maybe the king would have paid the bill himself. You can’t picture the bank that is going to put Real Madrid into liquidation. We’ve had to take the decision that we’re not to compete on equal terms – that would be madness.

If some clubs are being prudent and others aren’t, surely the ones who are gambling should have to take the consequences?
It’s frustrating to an extent but it’s the reality of life. Instead of thinking, OK, we can have £30 million to spend on a player, it’s much better to say, OK, we’re going to focus on spotting the world’s best 17-year-old, so that we’re ahead of the game. If your acad­emy system is working, that is the best way of trying to keep a modicum of control over your own destiny and not be subject to the vagaries of the transfer market.

The viewing figures for the Champions League are down this season. Has it not reached saturation point?
It would be stating the obvious that there’s a lot of football on TV. In England it’s every sin­gle day, it’s 1pm, 2.30, 7pm, 8.05, 5.35 – it’s wall-to-wall football. And inevitably ap­petites get satiated. You can’t go on. Now, perhaps biz­arrely, there was wide­spread enthusiasm at a recent meeting of Eur­opean clubs in Geneva to introduce a 32-team group stage into the UEFA Cup. If there isn’t the quality in the Champions League to guarantee a good TV audience, it’s hard to see how you’re going to get that in the second tier competition.

Clubs are investing in pay-per-view channels and their own internet services, but if the football market is already saturated then how are these new forms of media going to succeed?
There is bound to be a shakedown over time, but I think people will become more selective. There will always be a market for top quality football and so again our aim is to make sure that we’re at the top end here, where the quality is. I think the doom and gloom about the likely outcome of the next round of TV negotiations is misplaced, but the competitions below the Premier League and the Champions League will find it far more difficult. That’s why we should all be concerned about the future of ITV Digital. It’s crucial that there should be competition in the market. One of the strong reasons for doing the first BSkyB deal for the Premier League in 1992 was to create a viable competitor to ITV and now it’s gone full circle. It’s when you’ve got a monopoly that it’s dangerous.

Liverpool haven’t yet put out reserves in the Worthington and FA Cups. Is that simply because they haven’t had Champions League considerations until now?
It’s been a slightly hypothetical question until now, but win­ning the Worthington Cup was very important to us. In a way the most enjoyable celebration last year was the party after that. Being the first trophy it was very special. And we have a man­ager who likes to win every game. He took the Charity Shield and the Super Cup seriously. The commitment might change in the future. With the Champions League, where you’ve got potentially 17 dates, then obviously something has to give. You just can’t fit them in while producing quality football all the time. Having eight or nine games in 27 days is a nonsense, but maybe it’s part of the levelling effect of the market that the more success you have, the bigger the squad you need.

Do you see the idea of inviting Scottish teams in as a salvation for the Worthington Cup?
The Worthington Cup is very important for the Foot­ball League. Unquestionably it’s a very big fac­tor in their TV deal. I think [Foot­ball League chief executive] David Burns has been quoted as saying it’s worth £90 mil­lion a year to the League. It would be in­teresting to see a breakdown of that figure, but there’s no doubt that it is a substantial am­ount. It’s certainly something we’ve got to be mind­ful of before we say “well we’re not interested and the whole thing should fold”. Maybe the Scottish clubs coming in is go­ing to revitalise it, but the question of who gets the European place will be an issue. What I don’t think UEFA would be sympathetic to is allowing clubs two bites at the cherry – that they can qualify for Europe either by win­ning a British cup or by finishing third in their own league. But as it stands we are supportive of the Wor­th­ington Cup and of allowing the winners to have a European place.

Is there not more that Premier League clubs could do to help Football League clubs? Or is it simply a case of sink or swim?
There has to be a balance. To an extent they’ve got to be properly managed and you can’t simply keep bailing them out if they are badly run. But personally I don’t think it’s right to move forward without also giving a damn about the fabric of the game. The whole thing is stretching at the moment, with the pressures at the top of wanting to keep up in Europe and the pressures at the bottom with the fear of falling out. What foot­ball lacks at the moment is some sort of stability. In past years, when the sums of money weren’t so great, these issues weren’t quite so critical. But in any situation where you’re facing im­pending disaster, you’re not going to make the most sensible decisions.

Does that apply to the Phoenix League and the other attempts that may be made by First Division clubs trying to leave the rest of the League behind?
That was just a deeply flawed, almost desperate concept. I couldn’t see the rationale for that at all. Without a doubt it will come up again. Even before the Premier League was officially formed, Ron Noades wanted there to be two divisions. There have been a number of approaches for stand-alone, breakaway divisions, which never seemed to me to have any sense. In a way it is a shame, but there are already three tiers just within the Premier League itself, with realistic title aspirants, those who might qualify for Europe but for whom mid-table is suc­cess, and those who will be constantly battling against rel­eg­ation. What you do about it is the most difficult question of all. It’s immensely difficult to halt natural economic forces.

Is the current number of clubs in the Premier League the right amount?
I think 20 works because if you go down to 18, for whose benefit is that? It’s probably only for the clubs who are going to be in European competition. Clubs who are in the lower reaches of the Premier League and have been knocked out in the early rounds of the cups will only be playing 40-odd games a year – that’s not overplay by any stretch of the imagination. Those at the top end are playing 70 games, but understandably they tend not to get much sympathy because those are pressures that everybody would like to have – even if it means your wage bill is escalating because you need much bigger squads.

In accumulating bigger squads, Premier League clubs are taking away players who would be regulars in the First Division. Chris Kirkland, for instance, is only a reserve at Liverpool.
Yes, but we bought him as one for the future. He’s still doing pretty well for the England Under-21 team and without a doubt his time will come. There’s a sort of natural selection process that mitigates against the smaller clubs being able to hang on to their best players. That’s been the case for the last hundred years. In the old days, under the associate schoolboy system, if you were given a chance to sign for Manchester United rather than Stockport you would take it. Equally, there will always be boys who feel they would rather stay with a smaller club and get a better chance of playing than risk getting lost in a much bigger pool. And there will always be clubs like Crewe who, if they put the right quality into what they’re doing with their academy, will succeed in hanging on to their fair share of good young players. But that’s not about throwing money at it, it’s about people putting their energies in to making it work.

Why have Liverpool not gone down road of Leeds and others in setting up nursery clubs in other countries?
We haven’t yet been convinced of the benefits. We do have more informal relationships with other clubs but we’ve tried to invest all our resources into getting our academy established here. Other clubs have done it and maybe we’re missing a trick, but the idea of establishing a link with, say, an Australian club on the chance of finding the next Harry Kewell seems to be the ultimate needle in a haystack. Another flaw in having an as­sociation with a club is that you can’t force an outstanding young player to join you in any case if he’d sooner go to Real Madrid.

Liverpool don’t seem to have positioned themselves as brand leaders in marketing the club abroad. Is this a conscious decision?
We’re very conscious of being seen to be a local club. With Gérard it’s something to do with his background as technical director in France in developing young talent but it’s his belief that we should have a very strong English and, ideally, local heart to the team. In a perfect world we would always want to feel that we have a minimum of six English players in the team. It’s one thing saying that’s an aspiration. It’s another thing achieving it week in, week out. We haven’t been far off that balance. The other thing we’re definitely keen on is having a long term strategy. Again, it’s one thing having one, it’s another making it a success. The average age of the team is young, still only just over 23. We’re still acquiring players for the future. There’s Milan Baros, who’s 19, and we are signing two French youth internationals from Le Havre for 2003.

It has been suggested that lower division clubs may have to become feeders for Premier League clubs in order to survive.

I’m still very open minded about it. One of the issues facing us now is that the academies cater for Under-17 and Under-19 football. The manager is very keen to use the reserves for the first team squad – his predecessor wasn’t so keen – so we have a policy that if they don’t play in the first team they play in the reserves, whoever they are. But we have players who are too old to play in academies but maybe not quite good enough to hold down a place in the reserves, but are worth hanging on to. So either you find loans for them one at a time, or you make a case for having a link with a club that you can loan players to.
I’ve never subscribed to the theory that you don’t do it be­cause once in a blue moon you might be drawn against each other in the FA Cup. If it’s going to make a measurable difference to clubs in terms of survival then we should consider it. You can envisage clubs going out of business in the future and maybe that’s where the nursery club system might be brought into play. But it keeps being highlighted and nobody gets down to having the debate properly because it seems too hypothetical. I really don’t think we could stand back and watch a whole load of clubs go to the wall. 

From WSC 182 April 2002. What was happening this month