The WHAT League?

The biggest surprise in this week of unprecedented glory came right at the end, when the final whistle blew at The Valley and Liverpool had secured third place. Gerard Houllier threw his arms in the air, absolute joy spread across all his features. It was a slightly ridiculous reaction considering the match had been won twenty minutes earlier when Robbie Fowler lashed in the third. Ridiculous until you consider that Ged had always insisted that qualification for the Champions League was our priority.

This display confirmed something that I had doubted for ages: all those times when he insisted that winning a glut of cups was less important than finishing third in the league, he actually meant it. I had always assumed that he was spinning a web of deceit with which to throw other clubs and the media off the scent, allowing us to engage in a spot of silverware burglary in the cups.

And even having seen his euphoria at finishing third in the league, I still can’t credit it. In a poll conducted on this site a few months ago on whether we, the fans, would rather win two trophies or qualify for the Champions League, opinion was almost evenly divided. Well, I hope those people who voted for the latter are suitably embarrassed now. Had they had their way, we would have been deprived of the feast of football that was Dortmund and the incomparable ecstasy of Cardiff Mk II.

Just look at the FA Cup final. People like John Pearman, who have seen us at the very heights of Europe, were reduced to a blubbering mess by events in Cardiff. “Grown men [were] crying . . I have never known or seen scenes like it. Cup Final victories over Everton, European triumphs, League Championships, we’ve seen them all but believe me, nothing will ever surely match the scenes in the Liverpool crowd.”

Do all the Champions League boosters seriously mean to tell me that they would have swapped all that for the opportunity to enter the prostituted tournament that Uefa have the gall to call the ‘Champions’ League?

Never has a tournament been more dishonestly formulated than the Champions League. Without wanting to get into the argument about whether the tournament is more difficult or more worthwhile than in the days when Liverpool dominated it, there can be no question that Uefa took a product that was possibly the most prestigious annual competition in all of world sport, and turned it into a money making racket that would have had Don Corleone and co. squirming with embarrassment.

When Liverpool last won the title, they were still banned from Europe, so there was a suggestion that Aston Villa would take our place in what was then the Champions Cup. Lennart Johannsen, the president of Uefa, took grave exception to this idea. “The Champions Cup is only for Champions,” sniffed Lennart. The only thing that has changed in the meantime is the threat of greedy clubs – including Liverpool – to take their ball and play elsewhere if they didn’t get their way.

The best reasons for competing in the Champions League are almost entirely negative. It is extremely satisfying to deprive Leeds and Ipswich of the place. It’s obvious why we would want Leeds to miss out. For a club that spent £30 million in one season on two players to miss out on the cash jamboree that is the Champions League could be terminal to that clubs progress. But why, you may ask, would I want cuddly, plucky Ipswich to miss out? Because their fans were so obnoxious to us when it looked like they would finish ahead of us, that’s why. Nine points ahead of us at one stage, they were crowing like a rabbi at Hitler’s funeral. You should have made sure the corpse was dead before you shovelled dirt onto the coffin, shouldn’t you Tractor Boys?

And then, from our point of view, there’s the money element. Probably the loudest celebrations after our victory over Charlton were in Uefa headquarters as they realised that one more of the great clubs of Europe were going to be competing in their monstrosity, not Nobby Nobodies like Leeds or Ipswich – and if anyone points out to me that Leeds are in the same league as Liverpool, then I simply say that you need your head examined. Many fan reports from Dortmund commented on the veritable United Nations that had descended on the city to follow the Reds, something no other English club (with one unmentionable exception) could bring to the party. If we get past the qualifying round, and our performances in the Uefa Cup this year suggest that shouldn’t be a problem, we’ll have enough money to make top European players think that Merseyside is a more attractive place to live in than Milan, that Bootle is the next best thing to Barcelona, Toxteth more appealing than Turin…enough of the sarcasm, I’m sure you catch my drift.

Upon reflection, that’s probably what has Le Grand Fromage so excited about playing in the Champions League. Top players – I’m not going to name any names, but you can have lots of fun plucking them out of thin air a la the tabloid press – are only interested in playing in the Champions League. And the presence of top players at this club brings us one step closer to the true Holy Grail: the League Championship. If being in the Champions League brings ‘our bread and butter’ back home, then I suppose it will have been a good thing.

Of course I’m being a complete hypocrite. I’d still love to win the thing, and when you consider the thrill winning the Uefa Cup gave us, the Champions League will surely be one step better. But I don’t think I’m exaggerating the sheer dreariness of the Champions League as presently constituted, and I’m not alone. No less a luminary than Lennart Johannsen has expressed doubt about whether the Champions League can be sustained in its present format. He wants to go back to the days when it was a tournament reserved for champions. If he succeeds, I’ll be the first to applaud the restoration of the prestige of that most elite of contests.