It doesn’t feel like three years since John W Henry’s Fenway Sports Group took over Liverpool FC.
However, around this time three years ago, Liverpool were in London’s High Court undergoing a messy sale to FSG from the poisonous previous owners Tom Hicks & George Gillett, who seemed determined to sabotage the sale – and Liverpool’s fortunes – if it meant more dollars got into their wallets.
Luckily, Hicks & Gillett (or shall we call them Statler & Waldorf) are consigned to history. However, have FSG been good for Liverpool? Have Liverpool improved under their ownership?
Well, John W Henry’s Fenway Sports Group bought a Liverpool side in the relegation zone, on the back of a 2-1 home defeat to newly promoted Blackpool. Liverpool made a pretty horrific start under Roy Hodgson, and results continued to be poor, until FSG decided to get rid of Hodgson and bring Kenny Dalglish in as caretaker. Results instantly improved, and Liverpool finished 6th in 2010/2011, and King Kenny was given a permanent contract.
In February 2012, Liverpool ended a trophy drought that lasted nearly six years with the League Cup, Liverpool’s first trophy since May 2006 & the FA Cup. They almost won the FA Cup in 2011/12, losing out to eventual Champions League winners Chelsea in the final. However, Liverpool finished 8th that season, and also had the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra racism row to deal with, the condemnation of Liverpool’s public support of Suarez, the handshake row that followed and Dalglish’s staunch defence of Suarez which forced both into apologies.
FSG made the bold decision in May 2012 to sack Dalglish, with highly-rated Brendan Rodgers who’d just kept newly promoted Swansea in the Premier League comfortably. Whatever you think of that decision, and their treatment of a club legend (which I strongly disagreed with), it showed they weren’t frightened of making decisions like that. Rodgers has to be aware of that as this season is a massive one for him; last season was no better than 2011/12, as Liverpool finished 7th and won nothing, although they were in transition (that excuse won’t be accepted this season) and were playing some good football.
FSG have been strong, earning praise for the handling of the Suarez transfer saga. Suarez had disgraced himself with a bite on Chelsea’s Branislav Ivanovic that got him a 10-game ban and yearned for a move away. FSG showed leadership and said unequivocally that Suarez wasn’t going to go under any circumstances, especially not to one of the clubs linked, Arsenal. FSG & John W Henry showed a backbone that Arsenal didn’t show when Robin van Persie was sold to Manchester United in 2012. That saga also showed how brave they were: John W Henry famously tweeted “What do you think they’re smoking at the Emirates?” about Arsenal’s £40,000,001 bid for Suarez; if Suarez had moved to the Emirates, he’d have been left with a massive egg on his face.
FSG have also been prepared to put their money where their mouth is. FSG gave Dalglish £113.4 million on players (although it helped that Liverpool sold Fernando Torres to Chelsea for £50 million), and FSG’s spending under Rodgers is at £92.7 million and is likely to get higher. However, Liverpool’s lack of Champions League is hindering their ability to attract big names – Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Willian were some names linked this summer, but they joined Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea respectively.
Liverpool are under pressure to get back into the Champions League, but they face the question of doing it without the petro-dollars that Manchester City have. Competition is growing, through Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United & Tottenham. Some might argue that Liverpool are no closer under FSG to returning to the Champions League or winning the title for the first time since 1989-1990, although they have an excellent chance of doing it this year; Liverpool have started this season well enough, up to second.
Liverpool’s transfer strategy under Rodgers in particular is “out with the old, in with the young.” The likes of Dirk Kuyt, Maxi Rodriguez, Craig Bellamy, Pepe Reina and Stewart Downing are a few examples of high-earners that have left Liverpool under Rodgers, with younger replacements with high potential coming in. If you want to know how FSG operate with Liverpool, watch the film Moneyball and that could give some insight.
Liverpool have generally looked to younger players under Rodgers – Kolo Toure on a free being the exception to the rule. However, sometimes age is irrelevant. FSG made themselves look like fools when they refused to sanction a move for 29-year old Clint Dempsey in summer 2012, leaving Liverpool with two senior strikers for the first months of 2012/13 – although Rodgers’ decision to let Andy Carroll leave without a replacement brought in did not help. If there’s a good thing that they won’t spend too much on older players, it restricted Rodgers’ move for Swansea’s 29-year old defender Ashley Williams, a player who is not on the Christmas card list of Kopites after his derogatory comments about Suarez in his autobiography.
There’s also been concerns on the progress of Anfield’s redevelopment; FSG have decided to stay at Anfield instead of building a new stadium on Stanley Park. The latest hitch is that Anfield is a roosting place for bats – something Liverpool are required by law to take into account in their redevelopment of Anfield (http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/weird-news/liverpools-anfield-development-hits-snag-2366048). FSG last month said they had the £150 million to redevelop Anfield, raising its capacity from 45,276 to 60,000, once they sort out property acquisitions and other issues. Liverpool will submit their Anfield plans soon to Liverpool City Council, who the club are working with in order to redevelop the district of Anfield. FSG are doing what they did with Fenway Park, the iconic home stadium of another sports team they own, baseball’s Boston Red Sox.
In my opinion, I’m reasonably satisfied with FSG, even if there are a lot of things they do I don’t agree with. One is their decision to publicise Liverpool on that documentary Being: Liverpool, which was broadcast on FOX Soccer in the United States. The documentary was a peek behind the scenes, similar to what goes on with other American sports teams, but it was ill-advised over here, and stuff such as Ian Ayre cruising on his Harley Davidson was cringeworthy. It didn’t help the bedding in period of Brendan Rodgers as he struggled in the early months of his job. The decision by the owners to authorise Being Liverpool was baffling and ridiculous.
What’s undeniable is that even with their flaws, FSG are better than Hicks & Gillett (although Liverpool could have had Donald Duck owning the club and he’d still do a better job). The club is in a much healthier financial position than it was this time three years ago, but this is still a massive season for the owners of Liverpool. Liverpool aren’t any closer to the Champions League or winning the title and the pressure is on FSG to back Rodgers to get Liverpool back into a team that could be in next season’s Champions League and potentially fight for the Premier League next season.