Ask the Expert: Liverpool FC Historian John Williams

Sociologist-turned-football historian John Williams gives his take on Liverpool FC and its fate in John Henry's hands.

Though he has a day job in the sociology department at the University of Leicester (UK), John Williams may be better known as the author of soccer histories. In particular, he’s written several histories involving our new sports brethren, Liverpool FC. Last fall, he published his definitive book, Red Men: Liverpool Football Club — The Biography. To learn all the team’s heroes and villains, as well as a social history of the city itself, eager new fans should look no further than these 430 pages. Unfortunately, the book came out mere months before Fenway Sports Group bought the team, so it ends abruptly with the chaos and uncertainty of the Tom Hicks–George Gillett ownership. Fear not, Williams says, a paperback version should be out in the US in August, updated to include the advent of John Henry and pals.

As we at Boston have gotten a little obsessive about our new adopted team, we couldn’t wait until summer to hear what his thoughts are on the new ownership and the future of the franchise:

MRB: How bad was Liverpool’s situation under Tom Hicks and George Gillett, and how do you rate John Henry and Fenway Sports Group’s ownership so far?

JW: The situation was very bad – the worst most of us could remember. The perception here was that the last owners did not care at all about the club, but only about establishing a ridiculous and unattainable price at which they might sell in order to balance financial losses elsewhere. There was no respect for the owners who were widely seen not just as money grabbers but as inept businessmen. The interest payments on their loans meant money which could (and should) have been spent signing players was rendered unavailable and the Liverpool players and manager had no sense of a common direction and a secure future. A number of them — Fernando Torres for one — had obviously become disillusioned and this showed on the pitch. [ED. NOTE: Torres was the disgruntled Liverpool forward who left the team for Chelsea in midseason.] This general alienation and uncertainty was also deeply felt among the supporters. Finally there was a general sense of public shame that a club with this history and stature should have been reduced to a commodity, a “product” to be hawked around potential suitors.

So far the new owners have shown some commitment and good sense – and they are benefiting from the car crash which went before. Their presence at matches is welcomed and their buyout is no leveraged deal. People are cautiously optimistic, but their willingness to invest the necessary capital will be a major test.

MRB: From a marketing and business standpoint, what are the most important things Fenway Sports Group should do to boost Liverpool FC?

JW: Get the team winning matches and back in elite European competition again and resolve urgently the question of stadium development. Liverpool fans are not wedded to the concept of a new stadium, but it is clear that increasing capacity and improving and extending facilities is crucial from a commercial standpoint when we look at our closest rivals. So the owners need to grasp this question and decide which route now we are going to take — redevelop Anfield or new build — and then get the process moving rapidly with a realistic completion date. This will also demonstrate that Fenway are here for the long haul.

MRB: From a sports standpoint then, what are the most important things Fenway Sports Group should do for the team?

JW: Appoint a capable new manager in the summer on (at least) a four year deal to provide some job security and continuity and then provide him with a reasonable budget to spend in the summer. At least £50 million [about $80 million] will be needed to build on recent progress — [forwards Luis] Suárez and [Andy] Carroll are excellent recent signings — to sign up to four new players, with others leaving the club. We have some promising young players coming through, but the current elite squad is badly unbalanced; it was left in a mess after the chaos of the previous administration. The atmosphere inside the club is positive again but rebalancing and reinforcing is urgently required — which means excellent judgment in player recruitment is going to be critical for future success.

MRB: What’s your take on the Kenny Dalglish situation? Would you want him as this new manager secured with a longer contract, or would you advocate a clean slate? [ED. NOTE: Perhaps the most popular player in team history, Dalglish is the current manager who took over Liverpool FC in midseason and turned the ship around. He is not signed past this season.]

JW: On the Kenny situation I think I’m agnostic. At least I would like to see what the possible options are. But if the owners decided now that he had done enough it would be difficult to dispute that and everyone would at least know where we stand for the future.

MRB: What are the biggest mistakes that Fenway Sports Group should avoid in its ownership of the team?

JW: They must avoid becoming labeled as “absent” owners who look as if they have invested only for a fast buck. This means they have to “engage” with the fans and share their pleasure and aspirations: This is sport after all – it matters to people. Finally, they need to stay in the background and leave the football side of the business to the experts.

MRB: One major fear is that Liverpool could permanently slip just out of range of the global brands like Manchester United, Arsenal, and (viz. Fernando Torres) Chelsea. Such a fear resonates in the U.S., where major league teams in small markets — particularly in baseball — are mostly fated to second—tier status. Despite its historic fame, these days Liverpool FC needs to avoid being seen as a smaller market, at least by European standards. Can Fenway Sports Group help the team avoid this fate, and how?

JW: These are real dangers, especially if Liverpool becomes uncompetitive in European competition for an extended spell. Top players now demand Champions League football exposure. But the club also has a very powerful and resilient global brand value – much stronger than Spurs [Tottenham Hotspur], Chelsea and Manchester City, for example – so winning trophies again and challenging for the title will help sustain the club’s historic advantages in this area. But this needs to happen soon.

MRB: What’s your outlook for Liverpool in 1 year, 5 years, 10 years…and why?

JW: Next year: to challenge credibly for a top four position (and so Champions League status) and to win one of the two knockout domestic competitions.  Within five years:  to have won the Premier League title, to have a redeveloped/new stadium, and to be playing regularly again in Europe. Within 10 years: to have won the Champions League and to have become the dominant club in English football once more. We can dream can’t we?