GUEST: The shaky – and getting shakier – case for FSG at Liverpool
By Max Gallagher (@maxgallwrites)
The following is a guest article by the aforementioned author – linked above – and is not necessarily a representative of opinions held by anyone at Empire of the Kop…
Recently, I posted a tweet expressing my support for Fenway Sports Group. They are by no means perfect, but I feel they’ve been getting a bit of a hard time lately. The tweet did not go down well. In fairness, I probably deserved more stick. FSG are testing the patience of most Liverpool fans at the moment. And, as we all know, Twitter is the kind of place where if you express your preference for marmite, somewhere a militia will form and threaten to come to your house to cut out your tongue and staple it to your forehead. Nevertheless, I am going to attempt to put an argument together here that John Henry and friends deserve more respect than they’ve been getting lately.
I’ve always had a soft spot for FSG. I still remember vividly how they saved our club. Within the first three months, they sacked Roy Hodgson and brought in Luis Suarez. That sentence still makes me feel warm and fuzzy. Alright, so I’m omitting some tall, ponytailed details from the north-east of England, but perhaps I am a little biased. In my opinion, Liverpool are currently enjoying the most sustained period of greatness they have had in the modern era. ‘Great’, by the way, is one of those words that is hard to define, and when deployed in the context of a sports discussion usually leads to ferocious debate. If you’re watching a game in a fancy Gastro pub and you try to suggest that someone either is, or is not, a ‘great player’, you will be very lucky if you don’t end up with a handful of hot chips shoved down the back of your collar, or a fork in your eye. Certain expressions are safer used in the privacy of your own home.
There have been great Premiership teams before. A great team under Rafa Benitez, and a great team under Brendan Rodgers – but they were all too easily picked apart by so-called bigger clubs who nicked our finer assets with as much ease as one might pick your favourite quality streets from the tin, leaving behind only the dregs of the toffee ones and some empty rappers. FSG have managed not just to create a world-class team – but to keep them together. Suggestions that FSG have not delivered on their promises to me don’t stand up to scrutiny. They delivered the first Premier League title in thirty years just eighteen months ago; they delivered the European Cup; and they extended the stadium. These were their major promises from the outset. They have also improved our corporate strategy, increased our global profile, aggressively extended our commercial reach at home and abroad, and, with the help of Michael Edwards, improved acquisitions and sales. All of these things were poorly – or very poorly – managed before Fenway came along. According to a recent analysis by data experts Nielsen, Liverpool are currently the most watched football team in the world.
Fenway are also often accused of not listening to the fans, but I also find this idea baseless. They appointed Kenny Dalglish as manager – not because it was a wise footballing decision, but because he was the fans’ choice. When deciding on how to expand our home ground, most owners would have simply bulldozed the stadium, and we would now be playing in the Coco Pops arena, probably in the shadow of Sellafield. FSG on the other hand chose to re-develop Anfield – not because it was a wise economic decision, but because it was the will of the fans.
Some people accuse the owners of lacking ambition, and caring only about their business model, but to me this not make the slightest bit of sense. Their business model can only work if there is success on the pitch. Even the most hard-hearted and greedy Capitalist wants to win, and to win all the time. Their strategies so far have at times seemed unorthodox, or even a bit stingy, but have been largely successful. After we won the Champions League in 2019, Liverpool could possibly have signed anybody in the world, but a disappointing transfer window followed in which we signed no one. Recently I’d heard someone suggest this was evidence of the owner’s lack of ambition. It’s a reasonable argument, and I remember feeling the same way at the time, but it is worth pointing out that the following season not only did we win the league, but we won the league by eighteen points, almost beating Manchester City’s points record in the process. It is very hard to argue with the decision-making that led to such an astonishing achievement. Only winners can achieve something like that.
At forty-one years old, I am the median age of a Liverpool fan. I don’t have a good grasp of statistics, but I think that ‘median’ means that most Liverpool fans are older than me, and most Liverpool fans are younger than me. I am not old enough to remember the halcyon days of the 1970s and 1980s when Liverpool swept all aside. Commentators still purr about the football that those teams played, and football purists – not just Reds, but of all colours and creeds – still wax lyrical about the moral character of those fine long-haired men who never ever farted or dropped litter. I believe this is a nostalgic view taken by a certain grumpy type of older football fan who gets upset at any sniff of modernity, from the way referees hold their yellow cards up these days, to the fact that the new car park is too flat, and the old sloping one with the gravel was much better. I am old enough however, to remember the sinking feeling when Graeme Sounness took over. There were some great players throughout the 90’s but Liverpool ended up mostly pot-less. I can remember the feeling of wanting to lock myself in the bathroom where no-one could hear me, turn on both taps and flush the toilet just so I could say out loud that I was better entertained watching Roy Keane and Paul Scholes play world-class opposition in the Champions League, because the team that I followed were so utterly shite.
The Gerard Houllier era brought trophies, but it also brought Bruno Cheyrou and Salif Diao. After that, came Hicks and Gillette, and a brush with oblivion. FSG brought in Brendan Rodgers in a bold and farsighted act; then brutally sacked him in a bolder and even more farsighted act to bring in Jurgen Klopp. The last six years have been a story of growth and success, mostly thanks to that tall, magnificent German. His magnificence seems to grow with every passing year, seeing, as he does, things that other people just can’t see, despite having recently lost his glasses. Basically, whilst I am not old enough to have seen it all, I am old enough to know a good team when I see one. I am old enough to recognise an era of greatness.
The conspiracy theories I’ve seen circulating on the internet about FSG are as hilarious as they are unsubstantiated. The idea that owners leaked stories about Gini Wijnaldum and Mo Salah to poison the fans against them break down if you do the slightest bit of research. Yes, the Daily Mirror published an erroneous story about Salah’s wage demands, but that was quickly dismissed by more reputable sources. Some fans are currently spreading stories about Fenway Sports Group at such a feverish rate that I am half expecting to hear on the news about a Liverpool influencer bursting into a Pizza Hut and demanding to see the basement where FSG are bioengineering new variant of coronavirus. The long and short of it is this: FSG are broke. Whilst the lack of investment is a huge concern for fans, it is not a crime to be skint. In fact, most people who I know are skint as well.
The pandemic has hit Fenway Sports Group hard. They have sold 15% of their company to Redbird for $500 million, just to cover the losses they have made since the pandemic began. With this new investment they are just about breaking even, and still plan to extend the Anfield Road end. However, there is not much money left for transfers. In January 2021 Liverpool suffered a defensive crisis that felt like our own mini plague. The powers that be had smote us with earthquakes, floods, locusts, and Jordon Pickford. There was a gaping hole in front of Allison Becker where our centre-halves used to be. Although this made it easier to share and rejoice in his handsomeness, it also made it easier for the opposition to shoot. Our defence, once as splendid as a chariot being pulled by four winged horses, now looked like a string of heavily laden mules trying to make their way across a slippery Bolivian mountain pass. FSG had the chance to buy a new defender in the recent summer transfer window and they did not. This I feel was a huge mistake. However, they are simply determined that the club remains self-sufficient and do not get in to any debt. Klopp truly respects and understand this. Any fans who are too young to know why, should google the name ‘Peter Ridsdale’, then read about Peter Ridsdale, and then go to sleep having nightmares about Peter Ridsdale. In order to get to sleep ever again you will have to think of cheerier things, like climate change, or Irish politics. Not knowing how long the pandemic was going to last meant FSG were terrified of spending money.
We are still in debt from the purchase of Diogo Jota, and although I was disappointed with this summer’s transfer window, I was well informed in advance that there would be no new signings without departures. Takumi Minamino, Divock Origi, Nathaniel Phillips and Naby Keita were all reportedly for sale, but not a single offer came in except for an alleged bid for Phillips from Burnley. Such is the state of the market at present. Our squad is huge and the wage bill is massive. The owners just could not afford to pay top class wages for a new player who would probably end up sitting on the bench. Our priority was to tie down senior players, especially Salah, on massive contracts, then wait for the turnstiles to start clicking and clacking again.
Despite the panic, the squad is in good shape. Although it is ageing, this is the same team that won the league just over a year ago. Wijnaldum is the only significant departure, but Thiago, Jota and Ibou Konate have been added. An outside observer might even make the argument we are stronger now than ever before, the worrying dip in form of Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino notwithstanding. The performance against Leeds United was Liverpool at their scintillating best. Some fans who are most desperate to be rid of FSG don’t seem to remember what life was like before they came along, and don’t seem to have a plan for who would replace them. They remind me of the section of Arsenal fans screaming at Arsene Wenger as he passed serenely out of the Emirates. This group of fans had become so used to success that they started to feel they had a divine right to win the league, but had forgotten that they owed all of that success to Wenger himself. Finishing in the top four every season and three FA Cups in a row wasn’t enough – they wanted Wenger’s head on a plate. They got what they wanted, and Arsenal, at the time of writing, are in 16th place. Across North London, Spurs fans were equally unhappy with their owner for their lack of signings. Daniel Levy commented in an interview in 2017 that he felt there was a ‘post Neymar’ transfer bubble, and that one day it would burst leaving many clubs in dire straits. Instead of falling into this trap, he focused instead on building one of, if not the greatest club stadium in world football. Spurs signed no-one truly impactful for four years and Levy suffered the abuse of many unhappy fans. Meanwhile, Barcelona spent over £100 million on their three most expensive signings of all time: Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann. Of the three only Griezmann was a success, but has now been loaned out as Barcelona sink under the weight of their debt. Spurs have taken a cannier route, solidifying their infrastructure. In contrast to Arsenal, one of the summer’s highest spenders, Spurs are currently sixth, one point from the top of the league, having already beaten Man City.
It may be that FSG have taken Liverpool as far as they can. If we are to get to the next level, we may need a mega-rich owner, but FSG know this and have been speaking to investors about a potential sale. They have pulled out of more than one deal due to ethical concerns. John Henry and Tom Werner want success for Liverpool – now and in the future. But as fans, we should be careful what we wish for. Billionaire football club owners are morally repugnant. They have mostly made their money from fossil fuels, and buy a club as a plaything while half the world starves. Often they want too much control of club affairs, interfering in signings, team selection, and in the case of Cardiff City, the colour of the team shirt. Once you sell your club it stays sold, and a part of your identity and independence is gone forever.
I was as disappointed as anybody to see Romelu Lukaku, Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho and Cristiano Ronaldo strengthen rivals this summer, compared to our meagre outlay. Of last season’s top four, Liverpool are the only team to not have made a statement in this transfer window. A new signing gives everyone a lift, and makes the opposition sit up and take notice. But I don’t feel that blaming FSG is entirely justified in the context of the pandemic. The hashtag FSGOUT just feels premature to me (based on lack of transfers). We owe them more respect for what they have achieved. Whilst it may soon be time for their reign to end, I’d like to see them put out to pasture with some grace and dignity, rather than hounded out in a way that is not in keeping with Liverpool traditions.
I am willing to give them at least one more summer transfer window to see what their ambitions and intentions truly are. Feel free to abuse me about this in the comments below, or on Twitter. It’s only fair. Internet wrangles are a part and parcel of modern life, after all. They should probably start teaching it in schools to give kids an edge in the job market, but I won’t sink to that level in this debate. That’s not who I am. For this season at least, Fenway Sports Group retain the placid support of this insignificant median-aged fan. I just hope they appreciate it, the ungrateful sons of a guns.
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