x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Boston model, not Abu Dhabi's, is better for Liverpool

NESV has to contend with wiping away Liverpool's debt, providing money to buy new players and dealing with the issue of a new stadium.

Bill Shankly, the man who transformed Liverpool Football Club from a struggling second division team into one of the greatest franchises in the world, once said: "At a football club, there's a holy trinity – the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don't come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques."

What would he have made of the embarrassing boardroom squabbles that have beset his club in the past two years? The troubled reign of Tom Hicks and George Gillett at England's most decorated club finally came to an end in dramatic circumstances on Friday, with New England Sporting Ventures (NESV) paying £300 million to stop Liverpool from going into administration on deadline day.

Hicks and Gillet had bought Liverpool in controversial circumstances themselves, usurping Dubai International Capital's (DIC) bid at the 11th hour in February 2007. DIC had done all the early running, and after carrying out extensive due diligence, was hours away from buying the club before the Texas posse rode into town. Liverpool's board, tempted by an extra £8 million, changed their minds and went with the Americans. In hindsight, it was a catastrophic decision.

At the time of the takeover, Liverpool were only three months away from a second UEFA Champions League final in three years, after their sensational triumph over AC Milan in Istanbul in 2005. They were one of the most feared teams in Europe. Since then, the wheels have come off the club. The leveraged buy-out had laden Liverpool with massive debts, the one thing the owners had promised would not happen. The fans would never forgive this lie.

What may have been worse for Liverpool supporters is being forced to watch as Sheikh Mansour bought Manchester City and turned a formerly underachieving club into a formidable one that, in many ways, has replaced Liverpool as part of the Premier League's elite "Big Four", which also includes Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal.

But now Liverpool fans have new owners with an impressive history in running historic sporting organisations. John W Henry and NESV have achieved minor miracles with baseball's Boston Red Sox. Indeed, their task at Liverpool is more similar to the one they faced in Boston than the one the Abu Dhabi owners faced with Manchester City.

City already had a modern stadium at Eastlands, meaning that new owners could concentrate on football matters such as hiring a new manager, Roberto Mancini, and signing some of the best players from around the world. They have spared no expense in doing so.

NESV, on the other hand, has to contend with wiping away Liverpool's debt, providing money to buy new players and dealing with the issue of a new stadium. The company is thought to favour redeveloping Liverpool's current home, Anfield, as NESV did with Boston's Fenway Park, rather than build a new one.

The historical parallels between Liverpool and the Boston Red Sox are also hard to resist. Until Mr Henry and the NESV took over in 2002, the Red Sox had not won the World Series since 1918. The long-suffering fans had put it down to the "Curse of the Bambino", a reference to the sale of the legendary baseball slugger Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees.

Mr Henry, of course, famously turned things round in Boston, with the Red Sox winning the 2004 World Series against the St Louis Cardinals, having beaten the Yankees in the American League Championship Series on the way. After 86 years, the curse was lifted. For those 86 barren years, read the 20 years since Liverpool last won the League championship. And for the New York Yankees, read their biggest and most hated rivals, Manchester United, who have won 11 titles in that same period, equalling Liverpool's record of 18.

Can Mr Henry work the same magic at Liverpool? It is far too early to tell, but his declaration that he was "here to win" and his promise to listen to the fans are a good start. Unlike the previous owners, the understated Mr Henry has also not made any grand promises regarding a new stadium or buying players.

On May 25, 2005 Liverpool won the UEFA Champions League after defeating the Italian giants and heavy favourites AC Milan in what is now considered to be one of the greatest finals of all time. Those of us who were privileged to be there witnessed unprecedented scenes of celebration by thousands of fans who had turned the Turkish capital into a sea of red.

It is an indication of how badly things have got in the past five years that this season's greatest victory is being celebrated off the pitch. Liverpool fans have been through enough recently to know that it is only when events on the field of play are being celebrated that the club is truly back on the track.

Shankly famously said in a public address to Liverpool fans after they had lost the 1971 FA Cup final to Arsenal: "Since I've come here to Liverpool and to Anfield, I've drummed it into our players time and again that they're privileged to play for you. If they didn't believe me, they believe me now." If Mr Henry follows the same motto, then the future of Liverpool Football Club, could once again be glorious.

 

akhaled@thenational.ae