The proliferation of commercialism at the top of world football, driven by the surge of wealthy owners, competition for television rights and increasing corporate sponsorship, has highlighted the importance for certain teams to embrace their identity and offer something more than financial gains.
This was brought to light this month, as Jurgen Klopp accepted Liverpool’s offer to become their new manager. How did Liverpool, winners of just one League Cup since 2006, attract one of the most respected and sought after managers in the game?
Of course, the millions of pounds on offer help, but there would have been similar, if not higher offers available to the German.
It’s more likely, that Liverpool has an identity he can associate with – the emotional connection between the club and their fans being the most prominent; strengthened by the success and tragedy from the club’s past.
There are numerous ways a club’s identity is shaped – the history and origins of the club, its political motivations, social outlook, its role in the community or their style of play. Every club is different and every club has a separate identity.
After the announcement of his arrival, Klopp stated:
My teams must play at full throttle and take it to the limit every single game. It is important to have a playing philosophy that reflects your own mentality, reflects the club and gives you a clear direction to follow. Tactical of course, but tactical with a big heart.
Liverpool has extraordinary supporters and Anfield is a world renowned home, with an incredible atmosphere. I want to build a great relationship with these supporters and give them memories to cherish.
Liverpool’s identity is seen as a huge asset, that can be capitalised on when targeting managers and players or intimidating opponents on big European nights. Something to be protected and treasured.
John Barnes said that if a manager was going to Chelsea, trophies would be the only benchmark of success, with little importance placed on relationships built with the area and its fans. However, he remarked that
Liverpool as a city demands that affinity, and I think that’s what he will do
A club losing its identity creates disillusionment among fans. In the Premier League there is an increasing capacity to create more money due to its global appeal. For some stakeholders, income has become the main motivation for the club’s existence.
Newcastle United’s fans, for example, can be forgiven for believing they have turned from supporters of a football club to customers entering into a business transaction when supporting their team.
In the mid-nineties, Newcastle were described as the “The Entertainers”. A mentality of, if the opposition scores three, we will score four. Although the Keegan era didn’t bring the Premier League trophy, their brand of football and commitment to the style of play helped create a special bond between players and fans. An identity they could be proud of, with St James’ Park being the lifeblood of the city.
In 2007, when businessman Mike Ashley bought the club, the ambition and identity changed. Maximising profit became their mission. Success was measured in revenue and ambition limited to retaining their place in the Premier League.
Prior to this summer’s transfer window, there was anger from the fans, at a perceived lack of transfer activity. For Ashley, these transfers will be seen purely as a financial investment, hoping that performances on of players such as Georginio Wijnaldum and Aleksandar Mitrović will retrieve an economic return.
During his tenure, there also have been some controversial sponsorship contracts such as the deal with ‘pay day loan’ company Wonga and the failed re-branding of St James’ Park to the ‘Sports Direct Arena’.
Newcastle fans were once one of the most vocal and passionate sets of supporters in England. A place were opposition teams found it hard to get a result. The reality is now the club faces so many internal battles, they are often beaten before a ball is kicked.
Good and bad owners will come and go, but the supporters remain the only constant.
The football fan are in many ways, a simple beast – as long as they feel part of a team they can identify with, to share precious memories with friends, something which gives the working week meaning, they’ll be happy. Football fans can live without success, but identity is the heart and soul of football.