IT’S been four long years since Christian Purslow pumped his fist and bared his gnashers in triumph outside the High Court in London. Four long years since Liverpool Football Club passed from one set of American owners to the next. Four testing years since the club faced financial collapse and had to tolerate Roy Hodgson as manager. Four often fraught years since that rock hit that bottom. That was then. This is now.
Four years isn’t quite a presidential term. It isn’t quite the duration of those five-year plans you hear about. Still, it’s a fair old while. Long enough for there to have been sufficient evidence gathered. Long enough for the paying customer – the fan, the fanatic or the family – to say: “We’ve seen what you’ve done and tried to do, and here’s what we think.”
Judgement day then for the boys in the box seats.
Flashback: John Henry is interviewed in 2010:
The Fenway Sports Group promised Liverpool supporters nothing. Nothing, so that they might ‘over deliver’ on nothing. They set no benchmarks, no staging posts – just assurances that their conduct would at all times be fitting and their governing principles mature and prudent ones.
Four years on, and before the count is out, one thing can be said with certainty of the tenure of FSG – things sure didn’t get any worse. In fact they indisputably improved. From the lowest of low starting points admittedly, but still, of all the small mercies, the fact that LFC’s fortunes have only advanced from October 2010 onwards is not a thing to be taken entirely for granted.
From a fan point of view, there had been a perfect demonstration of just how awry ownership of your club can go when it is acquired as a financial investment/play thing of an organisation with no prior history, relationship, empathy, or understanding of your beloved institution. The FSG Bostonians no less fitted that profile in 2010 than the deservedly maligned Hicks/Gillett axis did in 2007. John Henry and co were men of baseball. Men of the media and of the stock exchange. They were American men. Men who in 2010 couldn’t possibly have known the offside rule. They were most definitely not men of football. The real game. The beautiful, world, one.
FSG arrived with sober words, timeless wisdoms and promises not to promise. Anything. They engaged, they listened, they went away, and did stuff. Stuff that, by and large, didn’t seem to change very much. If the prior Hicks/Gillett era had been characterised by great rises in optimism and then a terrible fall, then the FSG model, once all the back ground noise was muted, appeared to have revealed a Liverpool FC that didn’t appear significantly different from the modest, determined, but resigned-to-its-lot version of the David Moores/Rick Parry reign. A phase of Liverpool’s history that the intial sale to American owners was meant to yield an escape from.
Very recently FSG’s Bill Hogan passed self-congratulatory judgement on the four-year Bostonian LFC reign by hailing their financial achievements as something of an economic miracle.
“When Fenway acquired Liverpool, the club were days away from administration. The strides we’ve made since then have been phenomenal,” Bill boasted.
No doubt the accounts that surface next year, reflecting the 2014/2015 season, will tell the same story. If the current year’s figures show the turnover barometer again just edging north of £200million, then the figures for this new season should see an increase on that of something in the region of 50 per cent, such are the dividends of the new mega TV deal with Sky/BT in tandem with the loot to be earned from competing in the Champions League again.
Sustaining a Champions League presence with a top-four finish this term, and perhaps doing so at the expense of Manchester United, could complete a financial volte-face barely imaginable back in those heady fist-pumpy days of October 2010. With increased earnings from the vastly improved Champions League participation deal imminent for the 2015/2016 season, revenue boosts from the soon-to-be-due sponsorship renewal round, and earnings from a bigger stadium, it is not unimaginable that by 2016/2017 Liverpool Football Club will be heading towards being a £350-400m a year turnover outfit.
While rivals at the top of the European money tree will also reap the rewards of improved deals, they will not have come from LFC’s modest, non-Champions League participating, base. Manchester United have reportedly made some major strides with the sheer scale of the value of their new sponsorship deals, but should they again fail to make the Premier League’s top four this season, the reality is that the likes of Liverpool FC will be out-earning them in one key sphere by probably over £80m a year (once benefits of sponsorship bonuses from Champions League involvement are added to the direct earnings from being in the competition itself). Against this potential backdrop, Hogan’s proclamation sounds a statement of reason rather than propaganda.
There is another story to be told, though, and it may become closer to reality and the above revealed as optimistic future fiction. The fantasy of a Liverpool financially re-invigorated and beginning to tear past decades-long benchmark Manchester United relies on one simple proviso – success on the pitch. Essentially it’s all in the hands of Brendan Rodgers and the boys. Last season it was they who performed the (sporting) miracle in climbing from seventh place to within two points of the summit itself and in doing so created the platform for the optimistic picture now plausibly paintable.
No one really had a right to expect 2013’s LFC squad to secure a top four place, let alone nearly win the damn Premier League. Brendan Rodgers embarked on the 2013/2014 campaign having only strengthened his 61-point seventh-placed side with around £24m worth of net investment. The acquisitions of Aspas, Alberto, Moses and Sahko had none of the previous season’s top six quaking.
Sky Sports reports on John Henry’s open letter:
This context is key in passing real judgement on FSG. The sporting set-up in place in August 2013 was essentially all their work. Rodgers was their man, and the squad was replete with players who had (bar one or two luminaries) not been there when they acquired the club in 2010. Had this team and manager finished in a respectable fifth place (which all the clever money saw as Liverpool’s likely best case scenario) then the FSG bean counter’s dream of a £300m plus turnover business would remain just that.
What do these fine margins tell us about FSG then? Are they to be judged ultimately on the vagaries of sporting success, with all the attendant finger crossing and plain dumb luck that this implies? Liverpool Football Club is undoubtedly in a better place now, in every sense, than in October 2010. Is that fact alone enough for FSG to pat themselves on their backs and enough to justify Bill Hogan’s claim of ‘phenomenal’ financial success during their tenure?
Liverpool FC didn’t nearly win the Premier League and score 101 goals by luck last season, it must be stressed. They did it because as a collective they were good. Very good. The manager takes the spoils. It is ever thus in football. Those who appointed him have every right to feel a smug satisfaction at their choice. All hail FSG. They got the big one right. So far. A dive in the club’s fortunes on the pitch in an era after official best player, Luis Suarez, has departed is perfectly possible and remains a fear. If Liverpool finish fifth this season it will be seen as something of a disaster. Not just to fans measuring success in terms of trophy gathering (or at least on the right path to gathering) but to FSG and their shareholders and backers.
Ultimately, it is against this fragile picture that we try to assess the true worth of FSG’s first four years with Liverpool FC. If the fans had been polled in 2010 about their expectations to a man, woman and child they would have said that the club needed both substantial upfront investment in the team and a greater capacity stadium (primarily as a vehicle for making future investment in the team sustainable). Liverpool Football Club exists to win trophies. That fan wish list – better players, bigger ground – was aimed only at fulfilling that destiny.
On these simple criteria then how have FSG faired? It’s four years in and the first spade is in the ground towards the building of a bigger ground. It’s not going to be the 70,000-capacity behemoth of fantasies 10 years ago but it will represent a major and sensible stride forward, albeit a rather late one. FSG would argue the process of stadium expansion has been delayed because they took the prudent decision to move away from the vanity project that the once planned new home in Stanley Park represented and switched to a solution that saw the club remain within the footprint of its historic Anfield home.
John Henry correctly estimated that the cost of creating a new arena for hundreds of millions of pounds was not worth the incremental gain of only around 20,000 seats. Had they actually followed through with the plans of previous owners and built the Stanley Park folly then it is quite possible that the club would have become financially mired for a decade in the way that Arsenal had become as a result of their move to the Emirates. This too from a weaker base than the London club built from.
So, reservations about the scale and speed of advance towards the yearned for bigger ground aside, FSG deserve solid praise for their work around the stadium issue, and this will inevitably only be fully appreciated once the new Main Stand is complete and tangibly exists as a physical manifestation of a very sound strategy.
In overall terms, taking steps back from hard-nosed assessments of financial and sporting success measures, FSG are worthy of praise for their overall approach and respect for the institution they took custody of in 2010. Liverpool Football Club, its fans, its history, its image had taken a mighty battering during the last two years of the ugly Hicks-Gillett reign. FSG’s tenure, by stark contrast, has been characterised by what appear to be an ethical, honest and thoughtful approach to the tasks at hand. While charges that they have at times appeared to coast, rather than push forward with the ‘project’ are not invalid, in the broadest senses they have remained honourable and responsible owners.
2013/2014 has been a good year for FSG. They impressed all with the boldness in their determination to first keep the talismanic Luis Suarez, then show the requisite ambition by offering him a lucrative new contract, and then finally combining the handling his departure with minimal spectacle and solid financial backing of the manager’s player recruitment drive.
While FSG have never shown a willingness to provide a cash steroid to hasten the club’s sporting elevation – and this has at times disappointed supporters – they have honoured early promises to plough increasing revenues back into the playing squad.
The on-field success of the last campaign has yielded a massive hike in those revenues from TV deals and also renewed participation in the Champions League. Prior to the sale of Suarez, FSG had shown a willingness to spend virtually all this windfall on strengthening Rodgers’ squad. The fact that much of this was subsequently repaid from the proceeds of the Suarez sale shouldn’t be allowed to obscure this statement of intent and ambition.
John Henry interviewed on Radio 5 Live in April 2014:
In the final analysis, only continued participation in Europe’s top competition and sustained challenges for the top places in the Premier League will sate the supporters and keep Liverpool financially on track towards becoming an immovable European footballing powerhouse. This is the burden that falls heavily onto the shoulders of Rodgers and his charges. Success on football pitches is ultimately a factor of the quality of footballer you place upon them. Recruitment in football is all. FSG understand this principle clearly, but their reign has been characterised by far more failures than successes in the transfer market.
In this respect they may look to the appointees in charge of player buying and selling matters and reflect that they might not have done enough – that these functionaries need to improve in their work. It can be contended though that too many have tried now, and too many have failed for persistent failure in the acquisition process to be merely down to the shortcomings of individual recruitment staff (be they a Damien Comolli, a Kenny Dalglish, an Ian Ayre, a Brendan Rodgers, or some ex-Manchester City scouts).
The success of the Suarez transfer may have thoroughly misled FSG. They may labour under the misapprehension that the shrewd should seek to find the next world top three player by shopping in the £22m footballer supermarket aisle. The next ones may very well be available this coming January for £10-20m. Who can tell? There’s the rub. No one. It is incredibly difficult to see the next talent Tsunami coming. If these players were identifiable then they would immediately cost world record-breaking fees. This is how the modern transfer market works. James Rodriguez anyone?
This doesn’t mean a club should top trying to unearth tomorrow’s Messi or Ronaldo for today’s Lazar Markovic, Divock Origi or Emre Can prices. However, what FSG don’t yet appear to have strategically grasped is that a top side needs top players in the here and the now, and that requires a boldness of investment. Chelsea are not outspending anyone in net terms these days but they are focusing their transfer and wage spending towards bringing in as close to ‘sure things’ as can exist in the transfer market. Manchester United over-paid for Angel Di Maria, but it is a surprise to no one that he is fulfilling the one basic value requirement – he’s immediately become a top player (if not THE top player) in United’s team. He (thus far) represents far greater ‘value’ at £59m than Rickie Lambert does at £4m.
Make no mistake, Liverpool could have afforded to buy a Di Maria or a Costa or a Fabregas during the summer just past. FSG guided the club’s recruitment strategy towards a market a tier below these players. Liverpool bought players in greater numbers (Lovren, Lallana, Moreno, Can, Markovic, Balotelli) than their rivals. Will this be revealed as a shrewd quest for genuine value and nascent talent or something of a blunderbuss approach?
The coming season will answer this question to a significant degree and in doing so provide an opportunity to provide a fuller and fairer assessment of the FSG tenure. This time next year we’ll know if the Rodgers appointment was the masterstroke it has increasingly appeared to be. We’ll know how much the purchase of one player from Uruguay in 2011 directed the course of the club’s history and we’ll know if the on-going strategy of a commitment to scouting over financial brawn in the transfer market has been enough to keep Liverpool Football Club in the Champions League competition that will determine its short and long-term fate.
In truth, the five-year anniversary should prove far more revelatory than this one.
From issue 13 of The Anfield Wrap magazine. Click here to read it free.