Liverpool FC: Two Years In with John Henry and Friends

LFC expert John Williams weighs in on the rocky two years since our local moguls purchased the Premier League soccer franchise.

Anfield Stadium, Liverpool FCPhoto by Vincent Teeuwen on Flickr

Today the Red Sox report for another day of spring training in Fort Myers, while the Liverpool FC soccer club is in Russia for a Europa League match against Zenit St. Petersburg. Both events are of vital importance to John Henry, Tom Werner, and friends, a.k.a. Fenway Sports Group. After all, it was in the fall of 2010 that the Sox brass went over to the UK and snapped up the legendary but floundering Liverpool FC soccer team for a reported $476 million.

At the time the strident Sox hadn’t yet guzzled down chicken and beer in the locker room, and Henry & Co. were hailed in Liverpool for saving one of the world’s most renowned sports clubs from financial and competitive ruin. Since then, however, such promise has clattered down a somewhat rocky road, as both teams face questions about FSG’s financial and emotional commitments. They both also go up against more successful and more spendthrift teams with bigger stadiums, whether it’s the Yankees and Angels here or Manchester City and Chelsea there.

And here’s another parallel that came to a head this week: Liverpool fans think Henry is just as distracted by the Red Sox as Sox fans think he’s distracted by Liverpool. Maybe that’s why he took the rare opportunity to talk to the Globe this week, where he admitted that his fellow Sox partners thought he was distracted by the soccer franchise and then went on to brag that “the last time I was in Liverpool I think was in May of last year.” Imagine how Sox fans would feel if he said that about not being at Fenway?

To get an overview of Henry and FSG’s first two years as Liverpool owners and the current state of the soccer club, we returned to an expert, the University of Leicester’s John Williams. Williams is the author of Red Men, the definitive LFC history, and The Miracle of Istanbul, a minute-by-minute account of Liverpool’s improbably amazing 2005 Champions League title. His take is politely guarded, to say the least:

On Monday, John Henry spoke to the local media about the questionable state of the Red Sox and how Liverpool is not a distraction. He was very particular about this, but of course, his words mean something very different on the banks of the Mersey versus the banks of the Charles. What is your take on his comments, and how the Liverpool supporters might take it?

The very word “distraction” in the same sentence as “Liverpool FC” will irk some fans. The notion that the question has to be asked in this context—is LFC distracting from the fortunes of the Red Sox?—will raise eyebrows for sure. The owners just have to show their long-term commitment: Get the stadium reconstruction [of Anfield] started to show they are here for the duration and get their faces seen a little more on the banks of the Mersey.

It’s now been just over two years since Fenway Sports Group bought the team. They’ve been trying to right the dire financial situation, which is good, while at the same time they’ve botched a bunch of transfer windows by buying failed players or by being cheap and indecisive, which is bad. What’s the view over there? Feel free to be honest about our local guys, as all of Boston is waiting for them to right the Red Sox ship over here.

As the question implies, I think the view here is mixed. There is concern that the general absence of the owners and the fiasco over the Head of Communications indicates that the club still lacks effective leadership, on occasions, in the UK.  The initial transfer window bungle — not signing the USA’s Clint Dempsey — made the club a laughing stock, and only good fortune in missing injuries and the great form of [striker Luis] Suarez has kept us afloat since. There is some disquiet at what is perceived to be club’s “Moneyball” policy on transfers—only young players with likely sell-on values can be brought in it seems. This can produce unpredictable performances and results. The manager [Brendan Rodgers] has been talking about a lack of leadership on the field, hinting that experience is also important. This came to a head when a very young Liverpool team was recently humiliated and knocked out of the FA Cup by a virtually bankrupt small outfit, Oldham Athletic. But since that low point, a more experienced Liverpool has had two excellent draws, at Arsenal and Manchester City, and there is general perception once more, I think, that the manager is making real progress. A week can change a lot of things in sport.

Speaking of the manager, it’s the start of the Brendan Rodgers era, and there’s been delight, dismay, and a whole lot of questions about just where this team is going. What’s your take on his job so far?

There has been some criticism from hardcore fans, and plenty of ups and downs. The style of play worries some—too obsessed with possession, not enough penetration. We still have not beaten a team in the top half of the table. But our home form is better than last year—we have been comfortably defeating the lower orders—and despite the Oldham disaster, the very recent results have shown us in our very best form. Among the real optimists, there is still wild talk that Liverpool could even reach fourth place and thus challenge for the Champions League places. The manager is talkative—too talkative for some—but is also hugely respectful of the club and its fans, which can cover a multitude of other failings. He has also brought forward a number of very young players—Suso, Raheem Sterling, Jonjo Shelvey—so the “work in progress” qualification can be used with some justification. But in the end, managers are assessed on their judgement of players and on hard results. Again there is a mixed picture. [Forward Fabio] Borini—conclusively—and [midfielder Joe] Allen—less so—have been disappointing. But against this, both Jordan Henderson and Stuart Downing have been given a new lease of life under Brendan Rodgers and new signing Daniel Sturridge already looks a winner and fans’ favorite. Frankly, we had a terrible start, so sixth place and a decent Europa Cup run would be seen as a reasonable return. But much more will be expected next time …

The January transfer window just closed, and Liverpool’s big scores were Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho. Sturridge has been showing good form, while Coutinho has promise and even been likened to a Ferrari—but both are young. How do you feel about these signings and the youth movement in general?

See above. All fans like to see young players do well, but spending quite large sums on young players exclusively can mean it is high risk and always a case of “jam tomorrow.” We still lack a hard core of tried and experience regulars and some of our previous stalwarts Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher (ageing) and Pepe Reina and Martin Skrtel (inconsistent and recently error prone) all have their issues. The LFC transfer policy seems, to many, to be too rigid and even wrong-headed—Randy Lerner seems to be doing the same at struggling Aston Villa, with potentially disastrous consequences for them.

The rumors about superpriced superstar Wesley Snijder this winter brings back the usual question. If they took the chance on him for a veteran presence and to make a statement, should they do so when another player of his ilk comes up, or should they stay the course of getting the maximum performance from manageable wages?

I am sure the owners will say they are mindful of UEFA’s new financial fair play regulations and that “value” can best be found in recruiting and developing younger players. Fair enough. But I think most supporters feel that the strategic buying of a few highly experienced, proven players can offer more certainty and more immediate returns (note, van Persie at Manchester United). This can be difficult, of course, if the club is not routinely competing in the Champions League. But the owners need to remember that Liverpool has not won the title for more than 20 years, so constantly telling fans that success lies in the future will not easily wash. LFC has a global network of fans and the 8th highest financial turnover in Europe, so these fans expect returns now—as well as diligent building for the longer term. The balance here is important. Gerrard will not be around forever and the challenge of simply finding someone to fill his huge boots is enough to concern any manager in the short term.

Will the upcoming enforcement of the fair play rules help Liverpool against the Man Citys and Chelseas of the world, or not much?

It all depends how tough UEFA will really be with clubs such as Chelsea and Man City. I await to be amazed.

What’s the latest situation with the stadium?

You tell me. We know (or think we know) we are staying at Anfield, but it has all gone quite again on the stadium front. An announcement was made in October 2012, to general approval, that £150 million will be needed to redevelop Anfield to a 60,000 capacity stadium. So far so good. The club has already written off £50 million spent on the dumped re-location plan, but most fans want to stay at Anfield. This stadium issue has been going on now for almost 20 years as other clubs—notably Man City, United and Arsenal—have leapt ahead. As far as I know, there are still no reliable dates for work to begin. Moving this ahead quickly and with real purpose now would score very highly locally for the owners.

The February 3 Man City game was, to me, a prime example of Liverpool’s season so far: Down by a goal, then up by a goal, then a boneheadedly aggressive move away from the net by goalie Pepe Reina let in the equalizer, and the Reds end up with a tie rather than the three points. They play right up to the top of the hill but can’t get the season rolling smoothly. Is this a matter of wait-and-see for next year, or can Liverpool make any run for the Champions League this year?

It is a frustrating story. His detractors say the manager can talk and play “pretty” football well enough, but he lacks the ruthlessness to deliver at the highest level. His supporters say we are climbing steadily up the hill and will soon be on the summit. All agree we need to beat some top clubs soon. Our recent Anfield form is excellent and we have home games left versus Everton, Spurs and Chelsea. If we beat those three there will be more belief that we have really turned a corner—and that realistically we can challenge next season.

Come summer, are Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez staying at Anfield, despite all the transfer rumors? (Please tell me they’re staying.)

Gerrard will stay—he is 32 now and is giving out all the right messages. Suarez is saying the right things too, but his time is ahead: if Barca or Real Madrid come in for him all that may be just talk. He has had a tough time here and his fellow Uruguay man Sebastian Coates may not stay. The seductions of a Hispanic country and Champions League football may be too much to resist. He would be sorely missed, but it will take £50 million to buy him.

So last week Jamie Carragher announced that he’ll retire at the end of the season. His phenomenal path—growing up in Liverpool and playing for the local side his whole career—is rare in the UK but completely unheard of in the U.S. Tell me what he means to the identity of the team, and how they might (or might not) be able to fill the void he leaves behind.

As you suggest, Carragher almost seems to come from a different era of sport. He is local, talented but not overwhelmingly so, ‘ordinary’ in the sense that he always thought it was an honor to play in this city and for these fans, and loyal, yes. But, given that he clearly thinks, like the fans, that this is the most significant football club in England if not in Europe, with the best supporters and the greatest history, he had no incentive at all to leave. Also no top club would even try to sign him—they knew he was rooted here. Finding another will be no easy task. Maybe that era has passed now, sadly.