November 05 2011
There is no prouder football club in Britain than Liverpool and no more iconic ground than Anfield, home of the Kop. But for all their passionate support and storied past, which includes 18 league titles and five European Cups, Liverpool’s recent history has been dogged by financial chaos off the pitch and underachievement on it.
In February 2007 the club was sold for £435m to Tom Hicks, sometime owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team, and his business partner George Gillett. Not short on chutzpah, the duo walked out on to the pitch at Anfield wearing red scarves and behaving like GIs in the second world war, showering the locals with cigarettes and nylons. They promised the fans that work on a long-promised new stadium would begin within 60 days. But the Americans, supposed masters of the leveraged buyout, had borrowed heavily to buy the club, and were borrowing more to fund the purchases of new players. The impending financial crisis blew their extravagant plans out of the water. By April 2010 they had accumulated £237m worth of debt to the Royal Bank of Scotland and, despite their objections, mighty Liverpool had to be sold once again.
The eventual buyer, who shelled out £300m for the privilege, was another American – but nationality appears to be just about the only characteristic John W Henry shares with the previous incumbents. The 62-year-old Henry made his fortune in the US as a futures and foreign-exchange trader. But he’s also had considerable experience of running a successful and historic sports club. His company New England Sports Ventures owns the Boston Red Sox baseball team, which it acquired for $700m in 2002. The many similarities between the Red Sox and Liverpool are fascinating, and may offer Merseyside fans a glimpse of the future. Just like Liverpool, the Red Sox were another proud and famous club with devoted support and a tendency to live on past glories. And there was talk of them moving away from their much-loved but rather dilapidated home, Fenway Park, and building a new stadium. Henry thought about it but then scotched the idea, preferring to upgrade and refurbish Fenway on the basis that the atmosphere and history that it symbolised was priceless and could never be replicated elsewhere. There was investment in players and coaching staff too, and in 2004 the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years.
Rumour has it that Henry feels Liverpool would be equally unwise to abandon Anfield, and that refurbishment is also the key. He’s certainly been more than generous in the matter of recruiting new talent. Between January and August of this year the club’s manager, Kenny Dalglish, spent more than £100m on new signings and, unlike Hicks and Gillett, Henry – so far, at least – has been the equivalent of the Seventh Cavalry riding to Liverpool’s rescue. He doesn’t expect his team to regain the Premier League title this season – and I would lay them in that market at around 54-1 on Betfair – but he’s made it clear that a return to the lucrative Champions League in 2012 is an absolute priority. Hopefully, Henry’s business acumen will bring back the good times to Anfield, perhaps beginning with the FA Cup next May, at 10-1 with Ladbrokes.