With Liverpool languishing in lowly seventh, things are certainly looking gloomy over at Anfield. Not a day goes by without fresh reports surfacing from the press about the imminent sale of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard. Who can blame them? Liverpool is ripe for the picking at the moment with the talk of a new manager, nonexistent transfer funds, mounting debt, and a divided board room all casting the club in a highly precarious light.

The supporters of the club, renowned for the unity and loyalty, seemed to be divided into the “anti-Rafa brigade” and the “Rafa lovers.” The players hardly seem motivated, crashing out of competitions left and right, most recently in spectacular fashion to Reading on their hallowed home pitch. Nagging injuries to the club’s star players have revealed a troubling lack of depth and, with talk of Torres being shut down until the World Cup, the 4th spot will require a herculean effort.

All this brings us to “The Gerrard Question.” Few players to walk through the narrow Anfield tunnel have ever been more popular than this talismanic captain. His heroics are famous. If you listen to fans recount the amazing 2005 Champions League Final, you’d think he cannoned in Smicer’s shot for the second goal, converted Xabi’s penalty, and donned Dudek’s gloves for the penalty shootout. A scouser at heart, he and Liverpool have always seemed a perfect match. That is, until recently.

If you watched the Stoke game closely on Saturday, you’d have noticed the camera panned over Gerrard in the stands and he looked anything but pleased. His form has dipped this season and with it so has his leadership, constantly yelling at his teammates for errant passes and simply disappearing for large chunks of games. He has yet, to my knowledge, to publicly come out and throw his support behind Benitez, revealing his deep level of frustration at the quality of play.

Whether or not we Liverpool fans want to admit it, his best days certainly look behind him. He turns thirty this May, and in football these days that seems to be something of a magic number (see Michael Owen). Injuries have riddled his body, forcing him out of large chunks of games these past two seasons and one has to wonder if that will become a recurring theme. With every passing season and every niggling injury, his transfer value dips dramatically.

While I will always feel a certain connection to him, I support Liverpool FC first. Not Fernando Torres, not Rafael Benitez, and no, not even Steven Gerrard. Thus, while it pains me to say it, if it is in the best interests of the team to sell Steven Gerrard, then sell Steven Gerrard.

I’ve always been amazed how Arsene Wenger seems to offload players right as they start to deteriorate. When he sold Patrick Viera to Juventus for £18 million I remember smugly thinking to myself what a foolish move it was. Yet, as with Henry and countless others, he seems to have gotten it just right.

It makes me wonder what would happen if the club sold Gerrard now. Let’s say, for discussion’s sake, that he goes for £40 million (I chose that price because Liverpool apparently turned down a bid of that sum recently from Chelsea). Surely, even in this inflated transfer market, that is enough for one or two very strong players? Furthermore, his significant wages are off the bill and the looming question of “will Gerrard be sold?” can finally get off the club’s back.

I suppose at some point I must stop with the fence-sitting and present my opinion. I think the club should sell Gerrard, but only if they fail to finish in the top four. Here is why:

  • The Fans: As I mentioned earlier, the fans are already on their last straw. The lack of results and failure to build on such a promising 2008-09 season has challenged their undying optimism. Selling Gerrard would infuriate them beyond measure and it is impossible to predict what their wrath could lead to. His sale would seem like a concession that the club has given up on a chance at the top four and shifted towards thinking about the future, an approach the Liverpool fans are fed up with.
  • The Money: The money made from consecutive top four finishes has been enormous and instrumental in Liverpool’s recent mini-resurgence. To miss out on it this year would be a huge loss and with the likes of Tottenham, Villa, and Manchester City looking like persistent threats, one would have to wonder when Liverpool might crack it again. The money lost from a fifth place finish would almost force the club into selling Gerrard and rebuilding, and frankly, if they do miss out on that top four spot, I’m not sure rebuilding would be such a bad thing, however hard it is to swallow.
  • The Glory: It is no secret that players love the glory that comes with Europe’s top club competition. Wallowing in the UEFA Cup would severely test the allegiance the player’s allegiance to the red of Liverpool and could lead to unrest in the dressing room and some messy splits. It may be best for the club to simply cut ties with one or two of its players and focus on retooling. Moreover, to have any confidence of regaining the top four spot in 2011, the club would have to spend big, something that could only happen with the sale of the likes of Steven Gerrard.
  • The Precedent: The most recent precedent for the sale of Steven Gerrard is the sale of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid last summer. Look how that one worked out. The club cannot afford another disastrous season like this one and again, the fans would not accept it.
  • The Debt: Despite Christian Purslow, Liverpool’s Managing Director, constantly claiming the money crisis is under control, there is no doubt that the American owners are up to their necks in debt. With construction on a new stadium halted, the club is in dire financial straits. There is no guarantee that the money gained from a fire sale of top players would even go into the manager’s hands, especially with reports that regardless whom Benitez sells this January, his transfer kitty will remain empty.

Photo credit: Joe Miles.