I had the opportunity to visit the home of Liverpool FC in Anfield for the Standard Chartered Trophy 2016 courtesy Standard Chartered Bank Ghana and have some thoughts based on my experience. It is however important to note that I'm in no way suggesting that football stakeholders in Ghana are hardly doing anything to develop the sport. The suggestion is to move at a faster pace and expand our horizon of thinking so we can bridge the enormous gap.
Here in Ghana, we keep talking about how our football is not developing at the desired pace, yet the names and faces who are have been tasked to run the sport are not replicating what we see with the advanced establishments.
By this I'm not in any way suggesting a complete carbon copying of what is done out there since we find ourselves in different parts of the world. We may have slightly different people, methods and other demographic factors that may require that we do things a certain way. But at least if we are following the example of the English who have a story history, continuous growth and pace setting in football and the way it is run.
Our first point of call is to identify football not just as the "Passion of the Nation" but also to see it as the untapped platinum mine or an economy within our economy. I was for instance surprised to learn that that Liverpool Football club employs 500 people (250 male and 250 female). There are also an estimated 1000 match day roles which can create extra opportunities for the people.
TRAINING GROUND AT MELWOOD
I met the club's tour guide Alan Herr, who also started following the club during his formative years. He is fulfilling a long standing dream of being a part of the internal set up of the club. He gave a lot of insight into the structures at Melwood and some of the interesting stories behind them. "Melwood is a combination of two last names of priests (Father Melling and Father Woodlock) who taught at St Francis Xavier, a community school which owned the pitch, and helped the school kids to play football." It was named after them for their hard work. The club's Melwood training Ground has a lot of history to it and has evolved from a regular boot room with sand based pitches around it into an ultra modern training facility and administration block. Today the facility has training pitches, offices for staff, a sports science department, gymnasium, dressing rooms, leisure area, kitchen, dining area, a board room amongst others. It is situated within a residential area in West Derby, Liverpool. But of course one of the Manager's who played a key role in its development is Bill Shankly who managed the club from 1959 to 1947 – a period during which he brought the club for the second division into the main league. The pitches are a mixture of natural and artificial grass which enables a faster game and also stability Liverpool were to become major force in English football. The good example from Ghana is Dansoman based Liberty Professionals who under the leadership of the late Alhaji Edward Sly Tetteh built a club house with an administration block, gymnasium, dormitories, kitchen and dining area and a swimming pool. The club also has its stadium Carl Reindorf Park may not be the most ideal stadium but is a good start. The late Alhaji Sly Tetteh also had academies in Kenya and Togo – the latter of which I had the privilege of visiting. The first phase of the Academy had standard facilities including three pitches at the time I visited. Alhaji Sly Tetteh's kind of vision is what we require in Ghana football.
What struck me about most of the managers I learnt about are their disposition towards leaving notable legacies. Bill Shankly for instance aside identifying and developing the Melwood training facility also took decisions that got the whole vicinity to feel a part of the club. H opened the training ground up for fans to watch training sessions this grew till it started attracting about 40,000 fans per session. It was at this point that Shankly cancelled public viewing of the training sessions – a measure which was understood by the people. Aside these he also made major achievements with the club ( 3 league titles, 2 FA cups, and one UEFA Cup/Champions League). Many others came before and after Shankly but he made massive impact
Of course Gerrard Houllier during his tenure significantly influenced the additions made when the millennium Pavillion of Melwood was being constructed.
Brendan Rogers for instance may not have made big impact with results and titles but introduced the idea of a sports science department. His reason was simple – that the modern game required the technocrats to have a thorough idea of the players who play the game and the real reason behind phenomena on the pitch. This clearly is one of the biggest legacies for the club.
Rafael Benitez won the club's last and 5th UEFA champion's League title and also has a special place in the club's history. Benitez instituted the redesigning of the main foyer of Melwood to have the Champions League trophy which is the last to be given out for keeps by UEFA. The trophy is placed in a plain glass case and fitted within the wall partitioning design at the Reception. The reason for this is not because Benitez won it but to give every player (newly-signed or existing) daily inspiration as they walk in and out of Melwood.
Jurgen Klopp who is affectionately called 'Mr Klopp' by Melwood staff likes to train in the afternoons after he has addressed news conferences. The simple reason is that he is able to have the most current state of the playing body before meeting the media. He has also introduced a new pitch area which is yet to be fully constructed. It is unclear what exactly Mr Klopp will do with the new pitch but that surely be his legacy for the club.
The first question you are likely to be asked on a Sunday is Ghana is did/will you go to church? In Liverpool the question will be Did/Will you watch the Liverpool game? The club is part of the skin of the people in Liverpool and has sold the city to the rest of the world more than any other institution including legendary rock and pop band The Beatles. It is one big family who hold the club close to their hearts and follow the club and its players game in game out. The club also understands the crucial role its fans have played over the years in its existence and this is well understood by the club. It is amplified in the way it has paid respected to the souls of the 96 fans who died in the Hillsborough tragedy and a recent price cut in ticket rates after the fans complained about the rather exorbitant rates.
The fans also sure do know how to show appreciation to their players and former managers. One example was the 2-2 draw between Liverpool and Newcastle on April 24 at Anfield. The home fans chanted Raafa Ra-fa-el, Raafa Ra-fa-el, Raafa! Ra-fa-el Rafa-el Beniitez! at the start of the game and also after the game when one would have expected them to be disappointed with surrendering a 2 goal lead to draw. Coach Benitez also gracefully acknowledged the cheers with a wave on both occasions. Clearly the fans at Anfield are eternally grateful to the man who guided them to their fifth UEFA champion's league win.
Again there a great lesson of sportsmanship and show of gratitude which we can learn. It promotes the beauty of the game and inspires the younger generation to want to serve the club with their all.
A recent decision by the owners of the club, Fenway Sports to scrap the intended ticket price hike to £77 is an indication that the club clearly understands that the fans can make or break the club.
CONTRIBUTION TO THE ECONOMY
The club has as many as 500 employees with on almost equal male-female split terms. In fact, during recess in the Liverpool-Newcastle game , an announcement was made about new job opportunities at the club. Also one big contributor to economic growth in Liverpool is sports tourism. Fans from all over the world visit on a weekly basis and this contributes to patronage of local goods and services. So all sectors from banking, through leisure, food and beverages, hotel to transportation and many others are able to cash in on the large numbers of tourists who travel in and out of the city.
Situated in Kirkby, this is the nurturing ground of talents. My brief conclusion after touring the academy is that it a vast area of land developed into a conducive learning environment for the beautiful game of football. The football culture at the club and the thorough system of development of talent has ensured the production of many names including Jamie Caragher, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard.
One of the key physical structure within the academy is the indoor training pitch which is used during extremely cold weather.
THE USE OF TECHNOLOGY
Technology plays a great part in the everyday delivery of everyday work. The sports science department is the biggest testimony to this. Thorough training analysis is done one each player using gadgets which are fitted in their training apparel. So after each training session, the sports science department makes available a specific player's performance with colour bars which could either mean poor, medium, hard or above hard.
The pitches at Melwood are hybrid and known as Desso, same as that of the Anfield Stadium. The roots of the natural grass intertwine with the fibre. This is said to have better drainage and optimal playing comfort. So the days when big patches of grass could come off and make the pitch uneven are over.
WHAT STRUCK ME AT ANFIELD STADIUM
The stadium is a big edifice of recognition for those who have served the club. From the 96 fans who lost their lives in the Hillsborough disaster to players who have done their bit as well as notable results recorded in the clubs history are captured in various parts of the stadium.
Match day organisation is smooth and policing/security is at its best – a clear indication that the lessons from the Hillsborough Disaster have to a large extent informed the way things are done security wise.
In the corridors of the main stands are portraits of some of the best squads, big moments brilliance in specific games, and full time results of games. Also printed on the walls are quotes from great players and managers of the club.
The levels of acknowledgement are worth emulating around the world. I am talking about the acknowledgement of those who have and continue to break their backs to serve the club. Portions of the stadium like boxes stands demarcated areas within the premium lounge are named after greats. Examples are the Klopp noodles Bar and Paisley Gateway. Knowing what such massive acknowledgement does to human psychology, everyone who walks through the corridors of the clubs home stadium will get the sense of duty and allegiance to the club.
For now only a few of our clubs own their own stadia, therefore it becomes difficult to replicate these ideas directly. There surely are other ways I will randomly mention Ghana and Hearts of Oak legend Mohammed Polo, who magical exploits ensured a turn-around 3-0 win against Zambia's Mufulira Wanderers at the El-Wak Stadium in an African Club Championship quarter final game which was later christened the 'Miracle of El Wak'. A six-year old boy in Ghana or in Accra will hardly know Mohammed Polo because we hardly have a sports museum or an established system of recognition. His many exploits are not captured at any physical address by Hearts of Oak or in any known publications aside the national newspapers and to an extent the internet. So without these we as a people cannot even accord him the needed courtesies when need be.
I was also struck by the fact that the chairs in the main stand are made of wood and have never been changed since the stadium was built 132 years ago. The lesson therein is the maintenance regimen. That's once we are committed to maintaining our structures, they will last the decades.
The few lessons for our Ghanaian Clubs
We have competent minds some of who have great ideas. Interestingly on my return to Accra I saw ex Kotoko Board Chairman, Dr K.K. Sarpong. His idea of an alliance with Sunderland could have brought loads of benefits to the Kumasi-based side. If the partnership had been executed to the full, Kotoko could have ended up being a feeder club of quality players of the EPL club. I was also imaging how much exchange there could be in terms of technology, technical expertise, logistics and general strategy. We need to properly document some of these and adopt when we can to aid the process.
It is also gratifying to note that we have minds like Kurt Okraku, the Executive Chairman of newly-promoted Dreams FC in the Ghana Premier League. He happens to have been trained at the University of Liverpool in Sports Marketing. His clubs use of the Dawu Park in the Eastern Region since the start of the 2016 Premier League Season has brought immense economic boom to the locality. Of course, all this is as a result of the branding and good association.
Recognize the business value and work towards it, court the fans and let them build loyalty. We also need to properly document happenings in the club and ensure a system of proper acknowledgment, to inspire the younger generation to apsire to playing for the clubs and leave retired players grateful.
We also need to identify the needs of football within the context of science and technology and gravitate in that direction. Don't know if any philosopher said this but retired footballers are first amongst the best people to run football. Relating this to our clubs – they have to make full use of their retired players and legends. Retired players of Liverpool for instance are involved at various stages of the club's operations. I admired the way the Liverpool involved its legends like John Barnes, Ian Rush and Gary McAlister during the Standard Chartered Trophy.
The journey is surely a long one but the thought that these big clubs started on very modest notes just inspires a lot of confidence in us. But it requires a calculated aggressive approach from us all.
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