ON Sunday morning, as I readied myself to be put through the wringer of the Merseyside Derby, I allowed my mind to drift to an idea for an article I had been turning over for a few weeks. Next week will mark five years since New England Sports Ventures, now Fenway Sports Group, took over at Liverpool.
Pre-Brendan Rodgers sacking, I had wanted to look back at those years to try to find a way to best measure the success (or otherwise) of John Henry, Tom Werner Mike Gordon and co. I had wanted to talk about sabermetrics, the Curse of the Bambino, the transfer committee and everything in between.
Even after the Derby; a match that followed the standard Liverpool pattern of the season so far of looking good, scoring, conceding and looking a bit shaky, my mind fell back to this idea and how I was fairly sure I could — and should — tease an article out of it.
Then, at 6.30pm, word broke and stayed broken. It spread everywhere, permeating every crack and orifice. Brendan Rodgers had gone. Sacked. No matter how much it was expected, it still came as a surprise. The more tweets and articles I read, the less and less important my FSG idea seemed. Not when this had happened.
This was obviously the story, the only news that really mattered. However, as the surprise wore off a bit, FSG crept back into my mind. Maybe now was not the worst time to think and talk about the owners. Maybe now was (and still is) the exact time we should be discussing them. Because managers are judged by trophies won and league positions attained. Owners, on the other hand, should not be judged by results on the pitch but rather by how they facilitated those achieving (or not achieving) the results. In short, I had found my measurement of FSG; their managers.
On October 15, 2010, FSG agreed a deal to buy Liverpool Football Club and, in effect, saved it from going to the wall. That’s how stark it felt then. It seems odd to even type those words but it was that bleak. Hicks and Gillett had drained the club of cash, enthusiasm and fight. And while it may be true to say that it could have been any consortium to buy the club, it was FSG and any criticism meted out to them must be viewed through the prism that just five years ago, in one of the darkest times in the history of the club, it was they who stepped in.
It would be mawkish and ridiculous to become gooey-eyed about an ownership group that would sell the club tomorrow if the right offer was made but I feel it’s worth remembering. But enough qualifying. To the matter at hand.
There was much talk when the new owners first arrived about what they had done when taking over the Boston Red Sox and how much of that situation could be applied to Liverpool’s plight. The Red Sox were one of American sport’s most storied and decorated teams, enduring one of the most infamous droughts in baseball history. From 1918 until 2002, when Henry and Tom Werner bought the team, the Red Sox had not won a World Series. Just two years later in 2004, the ‘Curse of the Bambino’ was broken as Boston celebrated their first World Series in 86 years.
The FSG-Liverpool story wrote itself. They already owned one team from a city famous for its wit and passion, steeped in an Irish influence and well known to be unafraid to wear its heart on its sleeve. What is more, that team had endured a long period without success having previously been the most successful team in their sport. It all seemed meant to be. Alas, as we all know only too well, our ‘curse’ has yet to be broken as we still await the Reds’ first league trophy since 1990.
FSG came into Liverpool amidst a disastrous season. Hicks and Gillett had made another one of many, many poor decisions in appointing Roy Hodgson as manager. We all know the sorry story well enough that I need not rake over old ground once more, but it became apparent that FSG’s first major act as owners of the club would be to replace Hodgson.
The axe duly fell — eventually — in January of 2011. Mere months into their ownership, still feeling their way into the unique culture of English football and even more unique culture of Liverpool, Henry and Werner turned to as close as they could find to the soul of the club and asked him for help. Never being one to turn down the club or the city, Kenny Dalglish stepped once more into the breach as Liverpool manager.
It felt almost surreal. For older fans, it was a sight that they surely never imagined seeing again. The club’s greatest servant, who quite literally broke himself in the time of greatest grief in the club’s history, had come back. For younger fans like myself, it was a chance to experience, finally, a living reconstruction of the glory days. That first half a season was fitful to begin with but by the end, the team was purring and the Kop was rocking to the sound of King Kenny’s name once more.
Hindsight is 20:20 and it is so easy to say this now, but perhaps the summer of 2011 brought FSG’s first misstep. Swept up in the tidal wave of emotion surrounding Kenny, they made his position permanent. It was not a misstep because he did not deserve the job. It was a misstep because there was surely no way that this second coming could end with smiles. The football played at the back end of his caretaker season suggested some of the old magic remained in Kenny but to ask him to lead the club on a longer term basis was making oneself a hostage to fortune. There was always the chance that it would not work out.
It ended messily, with it being pitched that Kenny was asked to pick his own successor, or at least be involved in the recruitment process. Fans murmured (and shouted) their displeasure at how a club legend, the club legend, had been foisted from his job.
Kenny had been a steady hand at the tiller — a comforting presence in a disconcerting time for fans and owners alike. The man to follow him could scarcely have had a more different profile.
In a bold move from FSG, Brendan Rodgers came in aged 39 with only one season in the Premier League to his name. Some lamented the lack of ambition in appointing him. I was enthused. He may have been young and inexperienced but he felt like a Liverpool manager. He was ambitious, played an attractive style of football and, from the off, embraced the size of the job. Where Hodgson had talked it down, Rodgers built it up, thriving on the responsibility. He felt like a kindred spirit.
It has been covered in wonderful detail just how intoxicating 2013-14 was under Rodgers. It felt less like a season of football and more akin to one long, unending parade. The team showed up, scored a bagful of goals and carried on to the next stadium, next team, next victim.
In the thrill that it brought, cracks were being papered over and only as the dust settled and the hangover lifted did things become apparent. Recruitment of players appeared to be confused at best. As Rodgers moved further away from the spring of 2014 and more things began to go wrong, the more often the finger was discretely pointed at the fabled transfer committee.
Henry and FSG professed to be disciples of the Church of Sabermetrics — a revolutionary statistical approach to recruitment in baseball pioneered by Billy Beane at the Oakland Athletics. Essentially, sabermetrics attempts to identify an undervalued skill that can be predicted to deliver winning results and from that find a player with this skill (who will be similarly undervalued).
When first taking over at Liverpool, FSG stated that they intended to follow a similar recruitment pattern for Liverpool. What they perhaps failed to see then, but which their current behaviour suggests that they recognise now, is that isolating an under-valued game-changing talent in baseball is easier than in football.
In baseball, a player can have an on-base percentage of 40 per cent and end up contributing greatly to a winning team (I’ve read Moneyball so you can trust me on that one). In football, however, what metric can one use? What skill could be both undervalued and game-changing? Retention of the ball in passing? We already have a player who almost never gives the ball away in passing; Mamadou Sakho, who plays most of his passes short and into midfield or across to his centre half partner. And guess what? It has not yet won us the league.
FSG’s recruitment strategy now reflects the difficulty in imposing sabermetrics on football. The transfer committee, featuring Mike Gordon, Ian Ayre, the manager and scouts, is more akin to the ‘war room’ gathering of scouts before the baseball draft described in Moneyball than Billy Beane and his Harvard graduate with his computer full of statistics.
While it is hard to define a pattern in Liverpool’s recruitment in recent years, it can be broadly said that they are following the generally accepted pattern for clubs in their position of buying young players with potential and, in the worst case scenario, a high sell-on value. It is hard to escape the feeling that perhaps FSG learned the hard way not to be too clever for football.
And so, finally, to the most recent misstep FSG have made. Sunday’s decision has been coming since the final day of last season at least. Losing 6-1 to Stoke should surely have meant Rodgers losing his job. Instead FSG decided to give him one last chance. The only problem is we could all see that this chance would be used up quite early this season. And so it has come to pass.
Now, eight games into the season, after another summer of rebuilding, the man who in theory had final say on all the signings during the transfer window has been sacked before most of the new players had picked a favourite seat in the Melwood canteen. It feels like another season of transition, another year slipping away, wasted again.
The last five years under FSG have not been perfect. Far from it. League finishes of sixth, eighth, seventh, second and sixth, show that. There have been mistakes and growing pains. Kenny was removed when perhaps giving him the full-time job again made that inevitable and Rodgers was kept on when removing him appeared inevitable. Transfer policy has been unclear and uncertain at best.
However, there have been positives as well. Regardless of how it all ended, seeing Kenny back in his tracksuit, bellowing instructions from the Anfield bench again was, at least for a time, a transcendent sight. The 2013-14 season has been the obvious highlight of the FSG era. Whatever else is said about Brendan Rodgers, FSG appointed the man who came closer than anyone else to ending our very own curse by playing the most magical football seen at Anfield for many, many years. That will leave them in credit for a time. And, still there in the background, rattling around in my head is just how close all of this was to something much worse just five years ago. They bought the club and put it on the straight and narrow again. That must count for something.
As for how FSG rate thus far, though it may be a cop-out, their next managerial appointment will be the deciding factor. Be they altruistic thrill-seekers just looking for the glory of trophies or hard-nosed businessmen with one eye on a sale in the coming years, it is pivotal that they make the correct choice.
Hindsight tells us that they did a good job in selecting their first two managers and that it was in their removal that FSG faltered. Pick wisely this time — and most would regard favourite Jurgen Klopp as wise — and they may not come across that problem for quite a while.
Pic: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo