Liverpool risking reputation with reaction to Luis Suárez bite controversy

Although the reaction from Anfield was swift and serious, Liverpool's determination to retain their prize asset at all costs undermines their condemnation of his actions

The first text of the day read: "I hope you lot in the press won't be making a mountain out of a molar hill." In that toothless spirit it is worth noting Luis Suárez is believed to have left Anfield with Branislav Ivanovic's shirt on Sunday, not a piece of his flesh, but that does not diminish the fact that Liverpool's response to the unfathomable assault on the Chelsea defender runs contrary to the words of their manager, Brendan Rodgers. The prized asset continues to come before reputation in football.

Liverpool have reacted with impressive swiftness and seriousness to Suárez's latest indiscretion. The club's hierarchy was widely condemned for its inaction when the Uruguayan was found guilty by an Independent Regulatory Commission of using racially abusive language towards Patrice Evra. The then manager, Kenny Dalglish, was unwisely left to defend the club's position until criticism intensified following the striker's refusal to shake Evra's hand at Old Trafford and Fenway Sports Group, the owner, exerted greater control.

"Kenny Dalglish defended him," said another former Liverpool manager, Graeme Souness, in the Sky studio on Sunday. "He backed this same player to the hilt and who knows how much that contributed to Kenny not being here any more?"

PR lessons have evidently been learned from last season's Evra debacle. Sunday's three-pronged reaction – the Suárez apology plus condemnation from the managing director, Ian Ayre, and Rodgers – echoed the three statements that followed the non-handshake last February. Then, both Suárez and Dalglish apologised and Ayre issued a now all-too familiar company rebuke.

"We hope that he now understands what is expected of anyone representing Liverpool football club," said Ayre, 14 months ago. Clearly, Suárez has not learned from staining his reputation repeatedly, damaging Liverpool's image in the process, and requires the anger-management counselling being offered by the Professional Footballers' Association. He is 26 years old.

Liverpool have not paid lip service to this latest problem. Ayre was bound for a promotional trip to the Far East and Australia when news reached him of the bite on Ivanovic. He immediately postponed the visit, returned from Manchester airport and instigated the meetings with Rodgers and Suárez that resulted in Sunday night's statements and an undisclosed fine for the striker on Monday morning. The principal owner, John W Henry, and the chairman, Tom Werner, were also actively involved from Boston as Liverpool showed decisive leadership.

Internal punishment was immediate, though it is regrettable that Suárez and Ayre named the Hillsborough Family Support Group as recipients of the fine imposed on a player who earns more than £100,000 a week. "A local charity" would have sufficed instead of placing Margaret Aspinall, the HFSG's formidable chair, in the position of having to defend the receipt. A club can fine a player a maximum of two weeks' wages except in exceptional circumstances, and Liverpool have refused to say whether sinking teeth into an opponent falls into that category.

It was the rush to dispel doubts over Suárez's Anfield future, with Ayre reiterating on LFC TV on Monday that the Uruguay international is not for sale and represents "everything we'd want in a striker", that undermined Liverpool's disciplinary stance, however.

It is folly to think a club that stood by their finest player throughout a racism controversy will now get rid as a result of a bite. But, equally, sparking a debate that Liverpool may still need to have – particularly if Suárez asks to leave this summer – suggested that protecting the value of its greatest asset is as important as protecting the club's reputation. Suárez has repeatedly said he loves Liverpool and wishes to stay, yet the line he has to cross before FSG considers him too much trouble does not appear to exist.

Rodgers, not the media on a witch-hunt, first raised the issue of Liverpool being "a club with incredible values and ethics" during an awkward post-match press conference on Sunday. It is a familiar refrain from the Liverpool manager, who later conceded that no player is bigger than the club or irreplaceable. The treatment of Suárez indicates otherwise. Rodgers, like Dalglish before him, has discovered that backing Suárez to the hilt and being undermined by him comes with the job. He stood firmly behind the striker amid accusations of diving against Stoke City by Tony Pulis and had to backtrack when Suárez subsequently admitted cheating in an interview in Uruguay. The nature of the reprimand, as with the extent of the fine for biting Ivanovic, was not disclosed.

As a football team Liverpool cannot afford to sell Suárez this summer. The first Liverpool player to score 30 goals in a season since Fernando Torres, courtesy of a 97th minute equaliser against Chelsea on Sunday,, he carried the attacking threat almost single-handedly until January, giving Rodgers precious time to impose his ideas on the squad. He is the club's one world-class forward and the absence of Champions League football for a fourth consecutive season limits the pool of possible replacements. But as a club the issue has to be considered, not instantly dismissed, and it would be advisable to abandon talk of values and ethics while Suárez remains on the payroll.

The former Liverpool and USA goalkeeper Brad Friedel summed up the unpalatable truth. "Liverpool have said it was unacceptable," he commented. "There's not a lot they can do except offer help with his anger issues. But I know the American owners will not be happy with what they've seen. At the same time, they're businessmen and won't want to just get rid of a £22m investment. They will try to work with him."

comments powered by Disqus