ONE evening in the summer of 2005, Robert Kraft retired to his bed having made a monumental decision – he was going to buy Liverpool Football Club. Talks with David Moores, the then Liverpool chairman had gone better than he had expected and when the owner of the New England Patriots brought an end to what appeared to be a significant day his final thoughts were dominated by Anfield and the Premier League.
The following morning, though, Kraft awoke with a start. Something felt wrong. Here he was in Brookline, Massachusetts, planning to take control of a “sports franchise” which was based more than 3,000 miles away. The business magnate picked up the phone and immediately called Moores. He could not conclude the deal, he said. As far as Kraft was concerned, the limitations of being an absentee owner were such a concern that he feared being unable to do justice both to Liverpool and himself if he proceeded.
Fast forward to the present day and Liverpool are conspiring to make that decision seem particularly wise. Under American ownership – this time in the guise of Fenway Sports Group – the Merseyside club seem only to list from one crisis to another, with some being more serious than others, as their Stateside proprietors seem unable or unwilling to find a way of bridging the geographical divide.
Over the last week, a new farce has surrounded them, one which has caused deep and unnecessary embarrassment to a club which used to pride itself on doing things the right way; in their terms “the Liverpool Way.” It is a shambles which, in fairness, would not have been possible in a previous era but it was also one which was wholly avoidable in the present one.
Everyone knows about it by now as it has been played out in both mainstream and social media. But for anyone who has avoided the online madhouse that is Twitter or steered clear of newspapers for a few days then the basics are that Jen Chang, Liverpool’s communications director, has been accused of threatening a supporter by the name of Sean Cummins who had been operating a spoof Twitter account under the pseudonym of Duncan Jenkins.
Without going into detail, Chang denies the allegations and unless hard evidence is produced by Cummins it is hard to imagine how the shocking claims made against the FSG appointment will be upheld. But what is probably beyond dispute is that by tracking down and trying to stop the activities of a fan who was doing little more than tweet titbits of team and transfer news, Chang was guilty of the kind of naivety which has characterised Liverpool on far too many occasions since FSG took over the club two years ago.
The street smart route – one which would have been followed in the days when the late Kevin Dooley and more recently Richard Green provided legal counsel – would have been to look into “Jenkins’” tweets and then to accept that there are some things that go beyond the reach even of Liverpool Football Club. Basically, there are some fights that are worth fighting and some that are best avoided and a spoof Twitter account giving out information that was freely available in other areas of cyberspace, not to mention in the free world, definitely fell into the latter category.
The country’s biggest football clubs have decisions of this type to make on an increasingly regular basis. The difference between the Liverpool of today and the one which Kraft considered buying is that it seems to make the wrong moves more often than the right ones. A young manager making his first tentative steps in a difficult job? Make him the subject of a fly on the wall TV documentary. A top player accused of racially abusing a fellow professional? Don’t give him a QC. A desperate need to sign a forward? Allow deadline day to pass as confusion reigns.
It is one bad move after another and each failing has, to a greater or lesser extent, undermined the stature and reputation of a club which is in danger of becoming a bigger parody than the Twitter account which drove it to distraction. That all of these situations have occurred since FSG took ownership suggests that such cock-ups are not a coincidence and that there is a deep fault line running through the club.
Arguably the most plausible explanation is inexperience. John W Henry, Liverpool’s principal owner, confessed upon purchase that he had much to learn about his new asset and also football in general. He has strived to overcome this by studying football with a zeal bordering on obsession and resorted to a reliance on statistics in an attempt to make up for his lack of natural feel for the game, but he has still managed to make a series of decisions which he has later regretted and which have helped usher Liverpool into their current malaise.
Such inexperience would perhaps not be the debilitating problem that it is if it wasn’t for the fact that it is replicated throughout the club. Ian Ayre is Liverpool’s longest serving director but has only been at Anfield since 2007. Natalie Wignall, their legal counsel, dates back only to the time when Christian Purslow was in situ. Chang became director of communications last summer. Changes to their medical staff were made even more recently than that. In their pomp, Liverpool’s board of directors hardly changed from one decade to the next, now it is populated by newcomers, most of whom reside in the USA.
It is against this backdrop that Brendan Rodgers, himself relatively inexperienced at the highest level, must attempt to revive Liverpool’s flagging fortunes. At 39-years-old, he is Liverpool’s youngest manager since Kenny Dalglish stepped into Joe Fagan’s shoes at the age of just 34 in 1985. Unlike Dalglish, though, Rodgers is not blessed with a time-served board. If he wants to speak to his chairman he has to either call or email Tom Werner in Los Angeles, Dalglish merely had to knock on the door of John Smith’s office. He is also unable to call on the wise counsel of a Peter Robinson never mind a Bob Paisley. Liverpool do not boast such figures anymore, they are a brand new club in almost every conceivable way.
The radical changes that have been made at Anfield over the past two years may eventually pay off. Mistakes that are being made now may come to be looked back on as important lessons learned in the fullness of time. But the worrying thing from Liverpool’s point of view is that so many of their most recent problems have been self-inflicted and unnecessary. Rodgers needed a forward, he didn’t get one; he could have done without a fly on the wall documentary holding him up to scrutiny, but he got one; Luis Suarez needed a QC, he didn’t get one; Chang didn’t need to pursue a Tweeter but he did anyway.
How FSG put such failings right isn’t clear. They could sack some more employees and replace them with new appointments but that option has already been pursued with vigour and without any indications up to this point that it is ready to pay off. They could appoint a so-called football man with experience and street smarts but they appeared to throw the baby out with the bath water on that front when Dalglish’s ties with the club were severed last summer. They could appoint a respected former player or even an outsider to act as a buffer between Rodgers and the board, only the manager has already made it clear that he would not approve of the creation of such a position.
There are no easy answers to Liverpool’s current problems and the added complications caused by geographical distance, time difference and physical detachment are making it even more difficult for FSG to come up with the necessary solutions. It was such a scenario that helped prompt Robert Kraft’s change of heart and FSG’s ongoing struggles at Anfield are making their fellow American’s U-turn look like the kind of smart move that their club currently seems incapable of making .