Roundtable Special: Discussing Fenway Sports Group with a Panel of Guests, part 1

It has been 23 months since Fenway Sports Group purchased Liverpool Football Club in what one distraught man described as an “Epic Swindle”. During their ownership of the club they have sacked Roy Hodgson, experimented with Damien Comolli, hired and subsequently fired Kenny Dalglish, brought in Brendan Rodgers, sold Fernando Torres and replaced him with Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez, overseen the club’s eighth League Cup triumph and flitted between hero and villain in the eyes of different sections of the Liverpool fanbase.

The jury is very much still out on whether or not John Henry, Tom Werner and their band of merry men are suitable owners for Liverpool Football Club  and there has been much discussion on the topic of their ownership in recent months, particularly in light of the mess which was deadline day when Liverpool failed to land a striker and have been left painfully short of attacking options until the transfer window reopens in January.

The Liverpool Word decided to ask a panel of well respected Liverpool fans to come together with myself, Dave Hendrick, and co-founder of this site Karl Matchett to give their views on Fenway Sports Group’s ownership of the club.

Joining us today are:

Sachin NakraniJournalist for the Guardian newspaper and a contributor to a number of well known Liverpool fansites including The Anfield Wrap.

Si SteersContributor to a number of Liverpool fansites including This Is Anfield and The Tomkins Times.

Tony Evans, The Football Editor for the Times newspaper, and author of Far Foreign Land: Pride and Passion the Liverpool Way.

Mike Jefferies, A Screenwriter and Film Producer best known for his work on the “Goal!” film franchise, and directing the fantastic Dear Mr. Hicks protest video.

and Jim Boardman, Founder of Anfield Road and contributor to The Anfield Wrap. 

All comments and views are personal and not necessarily the views of their respective employers or The Liverpool Word.


Question 1: Fenway Sports Group have owned Liverpool since October 2010; I think it’s fair to say that they have done a lot of good since they took over, but the prominent view amongst the fanbase is that it remains to be seen if they are actually good for Liverpool, or rather if they will be good for Liverpool in both the short and long term future. What is your view on FSG’s ownership of the club to date?

Sachin: It would be hard to give Fenway Sports Group anything higher than 7 out of 10 for the work they have done so far. It should never be forgotten that they rescued the club from the ruinous grip of Hicks and Gillett and, having brought Kenny Dalglish back as manager, sanctioned £100m-plus worth of signings. However, there has been a general sense of absenteeism in regards to their management of the club, seen most starkly during the Luis Suarez affair, and during the recent, calamitous transfer window, when Brendan Rodgers was left high and dry in his pursuit of a striker.

The lack of a clear strategy over transfers was shocking and John Henry’s subsequent open letter to the supporters raised more questions than answers. It appears FSG are more concerned about wage-cutting then signing top-level players, a stance which will not see Liverpool improve their league standing in the short to medium term. No youth players have not been signed at Kirkby since Damien Comolli left, which contradicts Henry’s insistence that the owners are fully supportive of youth development.

Si: I think Henry summed it up when he said “a difficult first two years of ownership”. If you judge the owners on what they have done you have to say it is a mixed bag. They have made a number of mistakes as they have tried to reshape and modernise the club. Bringing in Comolli didn’t work. Appointing Kenny unified the fans – sacking him has caused division. Following Hicks & Gillett hasn’t helped – it has magnified mistakes and they have inherited a cynical fan base that has developed a deep rooted mistrust to foreign ownership – especially those that eventually want to see a return on investment.

But – whilst owners can only be judged on what they have done – I think it is equally important to look at what they want to do. And that is where I retain the faith that they are the right long term owners for the club. I believe in the blueprint they are putting in place: a model of self-sustainability that will mean the club grows at a pace that is based on affordability, not debt. The key area of strength for FSG is business acumen – they understand how to grow an investment. Increasing revenue vs a balance sheet that has a sustainable wage bill will give the club the resources to compete in the mid-long term.

I also believe in what they are doing on the football side – the appointment of Rodgers is a commitment to a long term philosophy. They need to surround Rodgers with the right technical and administrative support – and back him with the resources the club generates.

I believe Henry is genuinely committed to transforming Liverpool, and he wants to learn from mistakes. I believe FSG have a clear roadmap for the club – that includes the stadium – how successfully they implement that (with or without FFP) may determine the future of the club for a generation.

Tony: It’s not been great, has it? They inherited a ton of problems from the Gillett & Hicks era but they’ve struggled to get a grip with football. They’ve employed and trusted the wrong people and there’s been little sign of a coherent, long-term plan. They don’t believe they need a new stadium. I disagree, even though I’d rather stay at Anfield. After two years, we are at crisis point again. So much depends on them being right about the manager and their philosophy of buying youth and building for the future. I’ve been a bit perturbed that the grand plans they had – the ‘football committee’ idea – haven’t been put into place. Even a bad plan is better than no plan. Don’t think they’re bad owners – United fans would swap them for the Glazers in a second – but it’s been a tough two years for them. The next year will show us what they learnt.

Mike: They’ve been better than the last mob, but not much better. Maybe they have a vision but they don’t have a plan. Maybe JWH started this journey feeling passionate and committed to rebuilding LFC, but he clearly doesn’t have a clue how to make it all happen. He and Werner massively underestimated the challenges when they bought the club, and it’s all gone wrong…

They were also very naive and so they’ve also been taken advantage of. They’ve been lied to and misled and they have also been (literally) mugged. They have trusted people who’ve let them down, and they’ve made bad choices against their better judgment which have spectacularly backfired. Succinctly, they have made mistake after mistake after mistake…

Jim - I think the key phrase there is ‘remains to be seen’ – we can make a number of predictions about how things will turn out under their control but we really do need to wait and see.

So far they’ve shown signs of not really knowing what they’re doing. Hiring Comolli despite him not having the best of reputations with those who knew of his work was odd. Hiring Kenny as a caretaker was a good move but after making that permanent they seemed unwilling to give him time, expecting an instant turnaround. They splashed the cash but not the patience.

Now they’ve stopped splashing the cash, but will they have the patience Rodgers will need if he’s to make a difference?

They seem to mean well but perhaps aren’t here enough to see the subtleties that are part of running a club like LFC.

Karl: I would say that so far, they have been verging on good. Transfers happened far more quickly originally than they had done in years, though fair to say that was not the case this past transfer window. That money was not spent wisely enough cannot, ultimately, be blamed on them. They made money available early in the summer of 2011 (Jordan Henderson, for £16 million, was signed very early in the summer) and it is justifiable to me that such large sums would not, or could not, be available again. In terms of the management structure I think they’ve been less impressive. Getting rid of Hodgson was a must, but hiring and firing Kenny Dalglish could have done much more damage than it ultimately seems to have done—that was a big, and perhaps unnecessary, risk. Saying that, I think Rodgers is the right man for the club and fully back him and his methods of playing.

Off the field, you have to say Liverpool are in a far better shape. How long is it since we used to visit Anfield and the main club partners, aside from adidas and Carlsberg, were the advertising hoardings around the pitch announcing the telephone number for Delta Taxis? We have now Maxxis, Jack Wolfskin, Garuda Indonesia, two betting companies and plenty more up-market brands who are international partners for the club as well as the record-breaking kit makers and sponsors deals. Commercially, the club must now be far more viable and self-sustainable than five years ago and for that, FSG—and Ian Ayre—have to be commended.

Longer term, it depends on their real dedication. We still don’t know what that is, despite their constant statements that they’re in it for the long haul, and I think the fanbase opinion refusing to believe that at present is perhaps indicative of their perceived level of commitment when and where it matters most.

They inherited an extra-ordinary mess. I’m sure they did their due diligence but I doubt they fully understood just how bad the situation at Liverpool Football Club had become under the previous ownership. I do think they’ve done more good than bad and I would hope that with a couple of key decisions made in the right way, they can become good owners of the football club. Tony’s point about them not following through with their plans for the football committee is one to note. It’s an example of FSG’s failures to execute plans properly. The lack of disclosure with regards to a decision on the stadium is troubling as well. We were told that in order for someone to buy the club there would need to be a guarantee of a new stadium or a rebuilt Anfield. Without being privy to the negotiations that took place between FSG and Martin Broughton et al we can’t say for certain what exactly was agreed upon, so that may have been scrapped in order to secure a quick deal. I’m of the opinion that if perhaps John Henry and Tom Werner owned the club without their partners in FSG they might be able to do a lot more. But of course, without their partners they may not have the financial resources to do what’s required.

Question 2: One of the major issues people have with the ownership is that they are absentee owners. It is obvious that a club like Liverpool need a leader on the ground, an experienced and qualified figure to run the football club who is based in the Liverpool area. Aside from the need for the appointment of a locally based CEO, ala David Dein or someone of his ilk, what in your opinion are the biggest issues that ownership needs to address in the short term future?

Si: There are a number of short term issues that need swift remedy – and they are all linked. The perception is that there is a real lack of leadership in L4. Ian Ayre is FSG’s current ‘man on the ground’ in Liverpool – but does he have the full executive power or experience to make critical decisions? It looks as though Ayre is guided from Boston.

The lack of leadership in Liverpool is creating a series of avoidable mistakes. The deadline day fiasco was as much about naïve decision making as anything. The Suarez issue escalated as nobody at the top of the club took ownership of the issue.

What FSG need is a presence in Liverpool – somebody that has the full executive power to implement the roadmap they have for the club. Somebody that can engage the fan base on direction and is a good communicator – Ayre is incredibly uncomfortable in front of the media.

An option for FSG could be to swap the roles of Billy Hogan and Ian Ayre. Putting Ayre back into a commercial role where he excels; and appointing Hogan as the FSG Executive responsible for executing the vision. Hogan is also a complete break from the past. In Boston Larry Lucchino is the CEO and President of the Red Sox – he is the front man – the decision maker.

For that to work the club would also need to appoint a senior football figure into an administrative function – somebody responsible for transfers and negotiations. There is a new footballing structure in the pipeline at Liverpool – and hopefully that will give the club better, more robust decision making when it comes to transfers.

The new structure may include the appointment of a SD at some stage – or a ‘figurehead’ that can act as an adviser to Rodgers. I think there will also be an administrator, similar to Brian Marwood at City that will manage the transfer process.

Tony: Leadership. There’s been a massive vacuum. It’s why the Suarez affair spiralled out of control and why the transfer window mess exploded. John Henry knows this is a problem. He knows he has to give Liverpool more time or find someone he can trust to run the show. There’s little indication that they’ve found anyone to do this, though. They are trying to rebuild the executive structure and the football staff in their own image but, as far as I’m concerned, they need to start at the top. Henry knows what’s wrong. But does he know how to fix it? Sorry to put it like this, but there are more questions than answers.

Mike:  One of their main mistakes was made in March 2011. After conducting an exhaustive – and seemingly successful! – CEO search via Spencer Stuart, they inexplicably turned inward instead and handed the ball to someone altogether unqualified.

Consequently, the lunatics were suddenly in charge, and the good ship LFC was steered into harrowing storms, furious white water and big jagged rocks, where it was battered upon and soulfully damaged – hopefully not beyond repair…

And now, eighteen months on, there’s still a complete power vacuum at Anfield. And there is still no one with real ownership of JWH’s vision. No one with a proper mandate to devise and execute a sound plan. No one with their finger on the pulse. And the astonishingly incompetent mishandling of Suarez-gate was a direct result of this.

Going forward, until they appoint an experienced, proven and successful CEO from the football industry – someone who can hold his own amongst all the sharks out there – they will continue to make more poor choices and will continue to make more mistakes and will continue to wheelspin…

Jim - The club needs someone capable of playing the game at Premier League meetings with the people running other clubs. I’m sure we’d all find it hard to put up with Dave Whelan and other PL chairmen or chief execs but if that was part of our job we’d have to do it. Falling out with other clubs hardly helps us in terms of transfers, for example, let alone other aspects of what goes on between clubs.

Ian Ayre did a good job in terms of the commercial role he came here to do but MD isn’t really something he seems suited to.

Karl: I think that is the issue they need to address, because with someone in place with proper power and authority, and based locally, comes someone to sort out any other issues which arise. Emails, conference calls and time zone differences wouldn’t need to be waited on; the person in charge takes on board whatever information is available and makes his decision based on those facts. And, of course, like any other aspect of the club, lives and dies professionally by those decisions. If the owners are determined to stay in control and are in it for the long haul, then it perhaps takes an amount of pressure off the identity of the person appointed; the decisions are FSG-structured and that CEO must know already their vision. He bases his decisions off that strategy. I fully believe in the need to have somebody in and around Liverpool all the time, and think that the so-called communication channel errors would be—or should be—eradicated when it happens.

Sachin: The lack of a FSG ‘man on the ground’ is a sizeable issue and one that feels pertinent in light of Liverpool’s non-action during the recent transfer window. Surely there is no way Andy Carroll would have been allowed to leave without a replacement coming in had a strong, executive presence been working directly alongside Rodgers during that crucial period. Comolli was a disaster and Ian Ayre is clearly not up to the job either, so if Henry and Tom Werner are going to continue to be based in Boston then it is imperative they appoint a strong CEO to be based in Liverpool on a full-time
basis, someone who can work as a direct link between manager and owners, lead a coherent transfer strategy and manage any problems that may arise.
Echoing the thoughts of the panel I can only repeat Leadership, Leadership, Leadership. Ian Ayre is a very competent Commercial Director who works well within the confines of a specific department. He’s simply not qualified to run a football club on a day to day basis. The other major issue I have had over the their time in charge was the lack of communication between the owners and the fanbase. This has largely been down to the lack of leadership at the club and a communications department which seemed to sway between incompetent and non-existent. The appointment of Jen Chang as Director of Communications has been extremely successful in my view and has solved many of the communication issues. However, the owners or their representative still need to disclose more information about the stadium issue and need to be more active in sitting down with the committee of supporters that they set up, as well as other supporters unions. Liverpool Football Club is a community, it can not survive without the fans. For FSG to be successful owners of this club they will need the fans on their side.
Question 3: Who would be your choice for the role of CEO at Liverpool?

Tony: I honestly don’t know. There are very few young CEO candidates in football. You can bring someone in from outside, but ideally you need someone who can operate at G14 level and know their way around the game. Man City went to Spain for Ferran Soriano. What is more interesting, though, is the way they’re involving Patrick Vieira in the business side of things. Long-term, he may become a Rummenigge type of figure. There are very few ready-made football administrators. City are already planning ahead. We’ve got no one to plan.

Mike: I’d go for a young, though vastly proven, football heavyweight like Jose Angel Sanchez Periañez at Real Madrid, or the ridiculously capable Umberto Gandini at AC Milan.

Jim - No preference as such

Karl: In the absence of working knowledge as to who FSG have been speaking to and been advised by on previous matters, I would have to say that it is difficult to pick someone. Two names who occur to me though would be Brian Barwick and Fernando Hierro. Barwick is and has been massively involved in football and knows the game inside out, is a Liverpool supporter and has been involved in very large corporations for decades. It also might help, or hinder, the Reds given his previous involvement with the FA.

Fernando Hierro has been grounded in a Sporting Director-type role at CF Malaga in Spain, though left his position last season. He is young, a thoroughbred football man who commands respect in the sport and played in England. Whether he would be able to hit the ground running in a high-powered role involving not only football decisions, and whether he would buy into, accept and implement the owners’ strategy though is not for me to decide or speculate upon.

Sachin: I would be intrigued to see if David Dein was interested in the post. He is recognised as having played a crucial role in Arsenal’s early success under Arsene Wenger and is a man who clearly understands the business as well as sporting side of football. Sadly, however, FSG are believed to be totally against approaching him.

Si: Initially I was keen on Brian Barwick or David Dein as CEO – but I don’t think that will happen – as I think FSG believe in the devolution of power and decision making. I think if we moved towards Hogan as a CEO with a footballing figurehead like John Barnes as SD for example, with an administrator below him that would be a solid structure.

Whilst many will rightly point out Hogan isn’t a football man – I wouldn’t expect him to lead on football decisions. But he will provide a direct link between the ownership and the club – and one of the biggest issues at present is there seems to be a gaping hole in FSG’s presence in L4.

The idea of Brian Barwick has interested me for a while, mainly because I did not think David Dein would be willing to work for another English club, which appears to be the case. Mike’s suggestions of Jose Angel Sanchez Periañez is a fascinating one and would be quite the statement of intent from FSG. It would likely take a big offer to convince him to leave Real Madrid but it would represent a huge leap forward for FSG’s ownership of Liverpool.

Check back with The Liverpool Word later today for part two of this discussion where the panel will give their thoughts on the stadium, as well as alternative ownership.


About Dave Hendrick

Cantankerous and Opinionated. Lover of defensive midfielders, sweeper based systems and Gusztav Sebes and his Mighty Magyars. Follow me on twitter @DaveHendrickTLW
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