Black cloud hangs over ailing Liverpool

LIVERPOOL, England, Oct 4 (Reuters) - Bill Shankly's statue outside Anfield served to remind Liverpool fans on Monday that dark days do not last forever but the 18-times English champions were struggling to cope with life in the relegation zone.

The club have made their worst start to a season for more than half a century with bitter off-field controversy over their ownership, out-of-sorts key players and mounting fan protests adding to the gloom over the once mighty club.

"Things are looking really, really bleak. It has been said that if you are in the bottom three, you are in a relegation fight, and I would have to go along with that," manager Roy Hodgson said after Sunday's 2-1 home loss to promoted Blackpool.

The Merseyside club have picked up six points from the first seven Premier League games to sit 18th in the standings and have also suffered an embarrassing League Cup defeat by League Two Northampton Town.

The last time they made such a poor start to the season was in 1953/54, when they were eventually relegated to the second division. They stayed there until Shankly arrived in 1959 to transform them into English champions and a major European force.

Fans posing for photos next to the statue of the man they consider their greatest manager pondered what he would have made of the current situation 30 years after his death.

"He'd be turning in his grave, he'd soon whip them into shape," Ian Slack, who was taking his son on a stadium tour, told Reuters. "But after dark times, there's good times."


Some fans have blamed Hodgson for the miserable start, saying the former Fulham manager is not up to the job, but many believe the blame lies squarely with the club's owners since Rafa Benitez's successor has only been in the job since July.

Some 7,000 supporters marched to Anfield on Sunday waving banners and chanting in the latest of many protests against American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, who put the debt-laden club up for sale in April.

"The problems on the field now are a consequence of what Tom Hicks and George Gillett have been doing for a number of years now," James McKenna, a representative of the Spirit of Shankly supporters group, told Reuters.

"We could have spent the extra revenue and income to go towards paying for new star players and instead the revenue and income that we've generated has gone towards paying off the debt that they burdened the club with.

"We will be planning further demonstrations for as long as the situation goes on," he added. "The situation at Liverpool is one of the darkest in its history."

Five-times European champions Liverpool owe their major creditors Royal Bank of Scotland 237 million pounds and servicing that debt has left little money in the transfer pot.

The lack of new players has meant the responsibility to perform has fallen to a group of players who were at the heart of a team challenging for the title only a couple of years ago.

Star striker Fernando Torres is enduring a terrible season in which his confidence and scoring touch have vanished and on Sunday he limped off early with a groin injury.

The players were booed off at half-time when they were two goals down against Blackpool and newspaper stands in the city centre displayed front and back pages declaring "Rock bottom", "A sorry state" and "Nightmare".

Liverpool's next league game on October 17 at least offers a chance to restore a bit of pride, locally at least, when they play the Merseyside derby at Everton, whose season has been going little better than their neighbours.