John Henry was under no illusion about the task he faced when his Fenway Sports Group purchased Liverpool Football.
“The perfect analogy is that the club is like an ocean liner… and you can’t turn an ocean liner around like you can a speedboat”.
Pessimistic? Maybe. Realistic? Definitely.
The magnitude of the challenge facing FSG since they committed that epic swindle a little more than three years ago cannot be overstated and it’s probably fair to say that feelings about progress made or not since their tenure began has been pretty mixed amongst the fans.
Acquiring a club that was already struggling to keep up with its major rivals off the field and which had dramatically fallen behind on it, represented the biggest career challenge that John Henry had without doubt ever faced. Some of the clubs best players had started to leave in Alonso and Mascherano, whilst Liverpool were now out of the Champions League with some huge earners on the payroll who quite frankly offered as much on the field as the Anfield cat did, Joe Cole and Milan Jovanovic anyone? Having just avoided the embarrassment of administration, Liverpool was in decline.
Some might have said that there was no pressure on FSG taking over then; having nearly gone bankrupt the only way from here for the club was up, right? Wrong. More than ever before FSG and Henry could expect every move they made to be analyzed and word uttered scrutinized as the fans, having been put through so much in the disastrous reign of Hicks and Gillett, vowed never to allow the same to happen again. A supporters union had been formed which had as one of its aims a vow to always hold those in charge of the club to account. In that way the pressure on the new custodians will have undoubtedly weighed even heavier.
But in John Henry Liverpool have a shrewd man at the helm who has a track record of performing just the type of sporting miracles some might say the Reds now require. A look across the pond at his other “Reds”, the Boston Red Sox, reveals a story not too dissimilar to the one Liverpool have faced since before FSG even arrived. Playing in the same division as the richer New York Yankees in the MLB, the Red Sox became all too accustomed to the familiar sight of the Yankees sweeping their way to success. Enter John Henry. In 2002 he bought the club and by 2004 the Red Sox had won their first championship in 86 years. Some might say the FSG blueprint for success, the Red Sox, are a symbol of what can be achieved against the odds.
The jury is still out on whether the Boston based owners have done enough in their three years to convince Liverpool supporters that they are the right people to make this club great once again. To most a fair summary might be to say that progress has been steady but do FSG get enough credit for what they have done?
The squad assembled now has a youthful exuberant look about it containing players with a point to prove, as opposed to featuring the “dead wood” players you just knew were not able to offer much but which the club were stuck with due to over inflated wages nobody else would be daft enough to pay. There is a great mix of youth and experience, whilst the implementation of contracts heavily dependent on bonus pay seems to have instilled a hunger amongst the playing staff to perform on the pitch. Then there was the absolutely sterling handling of the Luis Suarez affair in the summer and the refusal to sell “on the cheap” or be held to ransom, which provided a sense of what it meant to behave in the Liverpool way again. We got what we wanted but we kept our class as a club. One criticism levied at FSG might be that they are a little quiet and whilst it is acknowledged that you might be lucky to see Henry and Werner at one match a season, they are carrying out their business as we always did. As Bill Shankly once said of the club’s owners “They are only there to sign cheques” and should not be heard, leave that to the footballing people and it is nice to see FSG according to that.
Indeed I think there is much to be positive about FSG’s reign to date. It’s been a good period of ownership if not spectacular. The news of the redevelopment of Anfield moving a step closer this week will no doubt have helped convince even the most stubborn supporters that FSG can take the club to where it belongs. With just six houses left to acquire around Anfield and with the Counsel on side, “a spade in the ground” to coin a famous phrase, could happen sooner than we think.
Taking such a step off the field by increasing the capacity up to 60,000 whilst improving the surrounding areas would go a long way not only to earn the trust of the fans by coming good on their promises made regarding the redevelopment 12 months ago, but also to ensure their legacy is left as owners who did something at least to move this great club forward.
However in the short term I can’t help but think FSG will be judged in January when they could really set a marker and make a statement of their intent by showing their commitment to a manager and squad full of promise. A marquee player in the window could be the difference for this current team and I hope the momentum that the club is clearly building is not lost by inactivity on the owner’s part, especially when the opportunity is presenting itself to get this Liverpool liner sailing onwards once more. Over to you then Mr Henry.