The news of an imminent take over of Liverpool has understandably been greeted with a combination of elation and relief by the Anfield club’s fans who have long campaigned for an end to the reign of the current American owners. So far all attention seems to have focused on the prospective bid of Jian-hua “Kenny” Huang despite the insistence by Martin Broughton that the club have received at least six bids in the last week. Since Mr Huang’s interest was first reported there has been a media frenzy ranging from claims that he is personally responsible for the decision of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres to remain at the club, having contacted them directly last week, to promises of huge investment in both the team and infrastructure, including the completion of the long awaited stadium.
While the fans will of course be forgiven for getting carried away in the media storm, having endured three years of broken promises by Hicks and Gillett, there is reason for caution. Firstly, there is no guarantee that Huang’s will be the preferred bid when the board make their decision at the end of next week. There has so far been little detail of any of the other bidders with the exception of Yahya Kirdi, the former Syrian footballer who is said to be fronting a bid by a consortium from the Middle East. Secondly, the promises of investment bear echoes of those made by the American pair when they took over in February 2007 which have failed to materialise to the levels suggested.
If Huang’s bid is successful a deal could be concluded quickly as he has been linked with an approach previously which could reduce the time required for due diligence. However, it is thought that rather than backing the bid personally Huang is fronting an approach on behalf of a sovereign wealth fund, namely the Chinese state. The link to China has already led to cries of “You’ll never wok alone” from Liverpool’s poor blue rivals across the park but the Chinese link does not diminish the bid in any way, in fact it should provide added credibility, but fans will want the ownership of the club to be completely transparent.
Of considerable reassurance will be Huang’s track record of stewardship and investment in sport. His capital market experience has lead to major sponsorship deals in Basketball and Baseball and could extend Liverpool’s reach into the highly lucrative Chinese market as well as the US where Huang conducts a large share of his sporting business.
Ultimately, whoever takes control of the club they will be subjected to severe scrutiny by the fans as a result of the Hicks and Gillett legacy and will need to deliver on their promises to win over the loyal Kop supporters. Huang could offer significant new revenue to the club and the fact that he is reported to want a quick resolution to enable Roy Hodgson to strengthen the team in this transfer window will be seen as a very positive sign. If he can do this and continue to invest in the club while providing Hodgson with the means to deliver results on the pitch then he will be welcomed by the fans and could provide the kind of long term stability that the Anfield faithful have been craving.
When Liverpool announced the signing of Roy Hodgson in July 2010 there were some fans who questioned the ambition that the club was showing. Despite his recent Europa League success with Fulham and undoubted European experience he was not the glamourous appointment that some had craved. In reality Liverpool were unlikely to be able to attract a manager of say Mourinho’s celebrity with their limited transfer budget and failure to qualify for the Champions League, but this misses an important point. The Anfield club have done well to avoid the additional pressure and limelight that such an appointment would have attracted and, at a time when a no nonsense steady hand was required, they have made exactly the kind of appointment that was needed.
Few can fail to have been impressed at the speed with which Hodgson has settled the squad and sought to put the remnants of last season’s disappointing campaign behind them. Within weeks of taking the reigns at the club he has seen both Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, two players who have consistently been linked with moves away from Anfield this summer, commit their futures to the club. He has stated his ambition through the acquisition of Joe Cole from under the noses of the clubs who will be doing their utmost to compete with Liverpool for a top four finish this season, including two from Cole’s native London. The re-signing of Fabio Aurelio, a player who many fans were disappointed to see leave the club during the summer, demonstrates that there is an optimism among the players that the club is embarking on a new direction this season and will give Hodgson some temporary relief in the left back position which had become a problem following the departure of Andrea Dossena earlier this year, Aurelio himself and the impending transfer of Emiliano Insua.
The differences between Hodgson and Benitez are striking. For all of his tactical expertise, Benitez was often criticised for his lack of man management, the ability to put his arm around a player and really motivate them to perform. While most would agree that Albert Riera’s “sinking ship” outburst was both inappropriate and very ill timed, coming as it did on the eve of an important Europa League game with Lille, many would also concede that regarding Benitez’ management style the winger may have had a point. In this respect the two managers could not be more different. Roy Hodgson is famed for his man management and anyone who doubts his ability to get a group of players playing as a team need only look at his success with Fulham last term.
Hodgson has also proven himself a canny operator with the media. Many fans have been impressed with how he has handled the press in his short tenure so far. Always comfortable, he has been careful to reveal just as much as he wants to about his plans. Enough to whet the appetite of the loyal fans while keeping his major cards close to his chest. It is a welcome return to the behind-closed-doors policy for which Liverpool were famed in the past. It is difficult to imagine a repeat of the infamous “facts” outburst of the previous regime.
Of course the foundations that the new manager is now working with were put in place during Benitez’ tenure. While there was criticism of the strength in depth of the squad the pre season campaign has seen some impressive displays by the youngsters brought to the club under Benitez. David N’gog, Daniel Ayala, Jonjo Shelvey and David Amoo have all been singled out for praise and have the makings of decent first team cover this season. While there have been pre season defeats to Kaiserslauten and Borussia Monchengladbach the performances in both games have been controlled and mature despite the absence of several key first team regulars. Liverpool managed to record a good 0-2 first leg win against the FK Rabotnicki in Macedonia in the Europa League qualifier last week without these players and with their expected return for the second leg at Anfield on Thursday qualification should be a formality.
Key to his long term success will be the extent to which Hodgson’s plans are supported by the board and the early signs are that the board are fully behind their manager. Chief executive Christian Purslow has had a hands on role in recruiting both Joe Cole and Fabio Aurelio and if this support continues then more signings will follow.
The biggest test for Hodgson will come when the anticipated sale of the club, which we believe is imminent, finally occurs. A wealthy new owner with their own plans may prefer to bring in their own man, but with a club that has been though a roller-coaster ride in the last 18 months and is now crying out for stability this would be a mistake. In his short time at the helm Roy Hodgson has shown himself to be a steady hand who is able to attract top players and get them playing together. Through his actions he has begun to repair the reputation of the football club and given both fans and players cause for optimism. It is not unrealistic to expect a top four finish this season as long as he can keep the core of the team fit and continue to strengthen the squad. After that there is no reason that he cannot go on to surpass Benitez’ achievements and bring the long awaited league title back to Anfield. That would surely make him an true Liverpool legend for years to come.
By Mark Stevenson