A Defining Season for the Fenway Sports Group at Liverpool FC
To many followers of the game, this one included, it is doubtful whether Kenny Dalglish was ever really the man that Fenway Sports Group (FSG) wanted in the first instance given their penchant, and the sounds that came out of the club even before the departure of Hodgson, for appointing a younger coach. Theo Epstein, for instance, was just twenty-eight when FSG appointed him as General Manager for the Boston Red Sox. With this in mind, the appointment of Brendan Rodgers this past June was of little surprise given his ability to fit the profile that FSG appeared to set for hiring Dalglish’s successor. It is arguable now that approaching two years following their arrival, FSG now has a manager in place that they feel comfortable with.
However, tremors are ever so slightly beginning to be felt from the Kop. Only slight, but strong enough to take a reading. The sacking of Dalglish was always going to upset many connected to the club given the emotional bond he holds with the supporters but the subsequent search for his successor angered more given the manner in which it appeared to be conducted.
The office of the manager’s chair once graced by the likes of Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Dalglish himself seemed to be hawked around European managers as though some kind of transatlantic beauty parade only to be knocked back publicly by some of the incumbents themselves to the indignity of the Liverpool supporters. It is telling that Rodgers himself refused talks with the owners unless it became clear that he were not one of a dozen or so that were asked to take the stage to be judged via a score card. His eventual arrival was greeted with a sigh of relief that the apparent fiasco was finally over. However, the process did little to reassure onlookers that FSG are finally getting to grips with the game they knew little about at the outset.
Perhaps of more concern to Liverpool supporters should be that in appointing Rodgers, FSG second guessed themselves by going against their instincts in deciding against appointing a Director of Football to replace the also sacked Damien Commoli. Commoli’s appointment in the first instance, appointed on the recommendation of Billy Beane, he of ‘Moneyball’ fame and the Oakland A’s baseball team’s general manager, surprised many and did little to dispel doubts regarding the steep footballing learning curve that FSG faced.
Every media outlet reported during the search for Dalglish’s successor that his replacement would be more of a ‘Head Coach’ type without overall responsibility for player recruitment. That particular job would be divided between a technical board so that one man was not ultimately responsible. The idea is more at home on the continent than in England where managers traditionally have control of this aspect. However, it is widely believed that this is the route that FSG had decided to go down. Louis Van Gaal was reportedly on the verge of assuming the DOF position.
Ultimately, it appears that in appointing Rodgers, whom was reported as refusing to be a part of this, they have decided to stick to the traditional British manager model in order to get the man the wanted. It has been met with some scratching of heads in that conducting a search for a man to fit into the model they were creating they then decided to tear this up again at the first signs of dissension. Whether they should have followed their instincts remains to be seen but they have aroused scepticisms of being indecisive in this regard.
More pertinently for many, the new stadium, or the redevelopment of Anfield, is still no closer to being confirmed. Something few would have imagined back in October 2010. It can be appreciated that John Henry and co have obstacles to overcome before anything can be finalised but this is of scant consolation to supporters, not to mention the residents in the terribly run-down Anfield community, whom have waited for years for this project to get going. It is clear that FSG will not invest their own money for a new stadium. The estimated £300m cost of a 60,000 stadium will not make financial sense for an investment company to justify for what is essentially 15,000 extra seats on top of Anfield’s current capacity. Only with a naming rights partner could a new stadium become a reality and that search has not yet born fruit.
FSG found themselves in a similar situation with Fenway Park once they had purchased the Boston Red Sox and ultimately decided to renovate and stay put at the historic old baseball stadium. This could be duplicated at Anfield if FSG are able to navigate through a mountain of red tape and moral choices concerning the fate of the neighbours in the homes immediately outside of Anfield, the expansion of which would see the purchase and demolition of some homes whose owners may not want to move, as well as the consideration to the ‘right to light’ law that an expansion may deprive others of.
There are no easy decisions to make in regards to the stadium question but FSG should be seen as making progress in this regard rather than treading water. Hicks and Gillett came promising ‘a spade in the ground’ within sixty days but, like many others, this turned out to be a false promise. With this in mind, the new stadium, or the expansion of the current one, has turned into a symbol of trust for the owners. The supporters and local residents are sick and tired of being misled by 15 years of false dawns and of grand looking plans that cost millions to design and are then torn up and begun anew. FSG must become more transparent with up to date information unless they wish to arouse fresh suspicions upon their motives as owners.
By the same token, it would help their cause greatly if they became more of a visible presence at Anfield. To many, the club lacked clear leadership off the field last season and the owners appeared to be missing in action as the club swung from one crisis to another. FSG could argue, perhaps justifiably, that the boots on the ground in L4 let them down last season but they did themselves few favours by appearing detached at crucial moments of the season. The decision to fly back to Boston to catch the opening games of the Baseball season rather than attend the Hillsborough memorial service won them few friends. If FSG wish to maintain the goodwill that has generally accompanied them thus far than they need to take heed of how such gestures are interpreted within a city like Liverpool.
An owners interest in their club is generally judged by how active they have been in the transfer market but Liverpool have been strangely subdued this time around. FSG have invested large sums in previous transfer windows but the sums received from departing players has off-set that to a degree.
Supporters disappointed by a risible eighth place finish last time around are understandably concerned by the lack of activity taking place. The names mentioned as possibly incoming, such as Clint Dempsey and Joe Allen, are good players in their own right but few could argue that they are of a good enough upgrade on the existing squad to bump an underachieving squad to fourth place and the Champions League. Patience, something lacking at Anfield since an arguably unjust guillotine landed on Benitez’s neck in 2010, will perhaps have to be found again lest the pressure on FSG and by definition Brendan Rodgers becomes heated.
The talk of major players departures are disconcerting to some that view the club as on the precipice of slipping away into sleeping giant obscurity once and for all. The departure of an Agger or a Reina would not go down well at present. However, the longer the club stagnates on the pitch then the greater the risk of losing the key building blocks to any successful side. With this in mind, FSG must think big if it wants to convince supporters that they are ‘here to win’ as FSG’s Tom Werner had assured.
Few have played the transfer market worse than Liverpool over the past four years but Football, to almost paraphrase Gordon Gecko, never sleeps. Investment has to be continual lest a club wishes to fall behind in the running. For Liverpool, falling even more behind the front runners could be terminal for the ambitions they profess to hold. For the Fenway Sports Group, both on and off the pitch, this is the season that they must deliver.