False Nine editor James Dutton offers a candid assessment of Liverpool owners’ Fenway Sports Group on their two year anniversary…
Two years ago this week Liverpool chairman Martin Broughton negotiated the protracted sale of Liverpool Football Club to the owners of Boston Red Sox; New England Sports Ventures, led by John W. Henry and Tom Werner. The new American owners won instant approval across the city for simply not being their predecessors – their national counterparts Tom Hicks and George Gillett, the most despised parasites on Merseyside since Kelvin MacKenzie.
Their dramatic takeover on a Friday afternoon in the middle of October capped off the most dramatic fortnight in the Liverpool’s history; only in the aftermath did it become clear how close the club had come to administration after endless court battles. In contrast to the media fanfare and grandiose promises that marked Hicks and Gillett’s arrival on Merseyside back in 2007, Henry and Werner only promised to listen, preferring to ‘under-promise and over-deliver.’
Two years down the line, can the re-branded Fenway Sports Group (FSG) be regarded as a success at Anfield? The tumultuous events that have engulfed England’s most decorated football club since October 2010 suggest that the owners’ tenure remains a work in progress. Though they are not on a par with the Abu Dhabi group that owns Manchester City, who possess both the resources and the aptitude, they far outstrip Venky’s, who have run Blackburn Rovers like headless chickens.
An appraisal of their performance as owners can not be formed without a recognition of the mess that they inherited, most clearly represented in the immediate removal of mounds of acquisition debt heaped on the beleaguered club by the previous incumbents. Off-field boardroom chaos and alienation amongst the fan base was highlighted by the decision that summer to replace a Champions League winning manager with a man who had won nothing outside of Scandinavia. The extent of the on-field problems facing the club were laid bare by a woefully lacklustre performance during the 214th Merseyside Derby, the first which the new owners presided over and which then manager Roy Hodgson incredulously claimed to have been the best of his tortured reign.
The owners waited almost three months to relieve Hodgson of his duties when it was plain for most to see that the current England coach was chronically out of his depth, illustrating the indecisiveness that has marred the club’s recent progress. Hodgson’s beleaguered tenure as manager is not the only demonstration of inertia from the Boston-based owners.
The Luis Suarez and Patrice Evra affair was particularly poorly handled by FSG, who were conspicuous by their vacuous anonymity throughout the entire process, leaving a club legend hopelessly exposed and isolated. The long drawn-out saga was compounded by a lack of senior authoritative figures based on Merseyside who could prevent the issue spiralling out of control in the way that it did. Kenny Dalglish’s image and reputation, untarnished amongst Merseysiders, was damaged across the country as FSG failed to act either decisively or responsibly.
Their failure to properly support Dalglish aggravated the Scot’s second-reign as manager. Sure, Dalglish was well supported in the transfer market – the figure of £113 million was well publicised throughout the mainstream media, more so than the rather modest net spend of £40 million – but a top-four finish was then demanded by Henry. Liverpool and their batch of over-priced new arrivals proceeded to fall spectacularly short as their 2011-12 season nosedived from the turn of the year.
The shackles that now inhibit Brendan Rodgers’ spending ability are a direct consequence of Dalglish and former Director of Football, Damien Comolli’s, disastrous transfer-policy of 2011 – a policy that sought to build a side around the 6ft 3inch frame of record signing Andy Carroll, who never managed to string together three successive appearances. Comolli represents perhaps the most catastrophic acquisition of FSG’s 2-year stint on Merseyside – failing to find value in the market whilst pursuing a reckless yet unambitious ‘Buy British’ transfer policy.
The club is now, however, undeniably in better shape under Rodgers in 2012 than it was under Hodgson in 2010. The austere times at Anfield represent not only the owners’ commitment to Financial Fair Play but also to a long-term stability, which can be provided by the vibrant youth setup currently in place – the calibre of players emerging from the Academy now, headed by Raheem Sterling, Suso and Andre Wisdom, are the brightest in a generation. FSG have proved themselves highly adept at improving Liverpool’s commercial fortunes, including the record-breaking partnership with kit-supplier ‘Warrior’, but it requires more than business nous to successfully run a football club; leadership and decisiveness are two ingredients which Liverpool’s owners have patently lacked.
The on-going failure to appoint a CEO has influenced many of the club’s catastrophic failings – most damagingly in the Suarez-Evra affair and during the recent transfer window. Given the vast resources and its enormous global reach, FSG’s reign has so far seen the club punch well below its weight. The club has been in an almost permanent state of flux in the last two years and only now does it look as if stability is within reach thanks to a consistent footballing philosophy that is now in place.
FSG appear to still be getting to grips with running a football club, though, and it has taken two years for them to issue a commitment to redeveloping Anfield, a saga which has undermined previous regimes at the club since the turn of the century. Though it is encouraging that progress in that area appears to finally be underway, the stadium saga has taken so many twists and turns that until work finally begins, the club and the residents of Anfield will remain in limbo. By not just redeveloping the stadium but regenerating the surrounding area FSG hope to raise over £100 million in annual match-day revenue, far surpassing the £41 million that was accrued in the 2010-11 season, bringing them closer to a level playing-field alongside their Premier League rivals whilst aiding their self-sufficient principles.
In avoiding the grandiose pledges that Gillett and Hicks churned out – most memorably the one that a spade would be in the ground within 60 days – FSG can not be accused of broken promises. But that should not ignore the fact that FSG have underwhelmed and underachieved in their first two years at Liverpool. The club remain as far from Champions League football as they were in 2010, but under Rodgers they are on the right trajectory, albeit a rather laborious one. A regime that has hitherto been concerned with cost-cutting and increasing commercial revenue must now seek to gain significant progress on the football field, where success is truly judged.
Follow James Dutton on Twitter: @jimbodutts