We Need To Talk About FSG – Again

Football club ownership is one of the most complicated topics you can write about. It might not seem like it, but it is. In large part I think it’s as complicated as it is because of the refusal of some supporters to see things in anything other than black and white terms. Nuance is dead when it comes to discussing football related matters nowadays. Oh you can have sensible conversations with a select few, of course, but the proliferation of social media means that every argument has to boil down to 140 characters or less. There is are very few topics in any subject that can be summed up so succinctly, yet we all try to present arguments in a bitesize portion, regardless of the complexity of what we’re trying to say.

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Even knowing all of that I’ve still been dismayed recently by the attitude towards Fenway Sports Group. It’s not that I’m particularly desperate to defend them, either. Constructive criticism is always valid, as long as it’s balanced and fair. Jumping on the back of the owners is the easy thing to do for some people, refusing to believe that problems at the club or issues with transfers might not actually be down to John Henry, Tom Werner et al. So, having said that nuance is dead and that’s impossible to explain things in 140 characters, I thought it only fair that I should explain my feelings on the owners more fully so that I can direct people here in the future…

They’re Not The Best Owners – But They’re Not The Worst Either

FSG haven’t got every single thing right since they arrived at Anfield a little under ten years ago. The thing is, I’m not sure that they’d claim they’ve got everything right themselves. They admitted when they took over the club that they didn’t know much about football but were determined to learn and pretty much everything they’ve done since then has proven that to be true. You can criticise them for being green, but it would be grossly unfair to suggest that they haven’t tried to learn and develop. If you want to look at an alternative then go and see what Randy Learner did at Aston Villa, for example. It’s true that we can’t always point to Hicks & Gillett and say ‘well at least FSG aren’t them’, but it’s also fair to point out that we have had bad owners and are current ones aren’t that.

As much as we might not be willing to admit it, both Manchester City and Chelsea fans will have criticisms of their club’s owners. For the old fashioned fan, the idea that both clubs have bought their success in recent years will forever taint the trophies that they’ve won. They know that neither side were even on the radar of top teams before Sheikh Mansour and Roman Abramovich rocked up. For supporters that aren’t as bothered by that, the way they’ve hired and sacked owners seemingly on a whim won’t sit too comfortably. Remember the anger and disappointment when José Mourinho was sacked for the second time; supporters didn’t turn on Abramovich, but that’s only because they didn’t want to anger their sugar daddy.

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Take a trip to the Emirates and see how Arsenal fans are feeling at the moment. Their club was being ripped apart from the inside out because of Arsene Wenger last season, so how do some of the supporters feel now that he’s been given a new contract? I can tell you one thing for certain, Stan Kroenke isn’t exactly the most popular chap in North London. If you don’t believe me then have a read of David Conn’s Guardian piece, which uses these words in its headline, “investor, owner, leech”. Even one of the most stable clubs in the country, Tottenham Hotspur, has problems, with some fans questioning the club’s decision to move to Wembley Stadium for the year this season.

In fact, if you look at most of the top clubs in the Premier League, few supporters are actually 100% happy with their owners. Everton might be for now, but at some point some of their fans are going to start to ask questions about Farhad Moshiri. The only supporters who are genuinely happy are the likes of Bournemouth fans, where expectations are nowhere near as high as top six clubs so it’s much easier for them to be met. My point is, be careful what you wish for. Every new owner makes out as if they’re going to be the next Sheikh Mansour, but very few actually are. More often than not you’re likely to get someone who either doesn’t understand the club or simply doesn’t care.

They Are Learning

One of the biggest criticisms of football club owners is that they don’t listen to supporters. They will blithely do their own thing and those who have spent years following the club will either have to put up or shut up. It’s totally fair to criticise FSG for allowing things to get to the point back in the early months of 2016 where Liverpool fans felt that they had to protest against ticket prices, but at least they listened when we did. They’ve also noticed that fan engagement hasn’t been on the level it should have been and so they moved to correct it, appointing a local journalist with long ties to the club into the role of Head of Club and Supporter Liaison. Yes, it took them a long time to act. But more than a few owners wouldn’t have even bothered.

One of the biggest criticisms of the owners, without question, is their approach to transfers. Yet it has to pointed out that they’ve tried several different ways of doing things since they took over. They tried the Director of Football method with Damien Comolli, only to have their fingers burnt by the £35 million transfer of Andy Carroll. They tried a more stat-based approach too, but in the last year or so appear to have realised that that doesn’t work as well in football as it does in baseball. You can criticise them for a number of things, but to suggest that the way they’ve approached the acquisition of players hasn’t changed since they came in would untrue. In fact, there’s an argument that they’ve moved from one way of working to another too quickly, without ever really giving one of them long enough to develop.

There’s also another factor that supporters are quick to dismiss – until now they’ve been unhappy with the manager. When they took over at Liverpool the manager was Roy Hodgson and no one wanted him here. They were obviously never going to give him a big kitty to work with. They brought in Kenny Dalglish on a temporary basis and probably felt that they had no choice but to keep him at the club permanently when he did so well and changed the mood around the place. As much as I love Kenny and believe he was given a rough ride by the owners after taking us to two cup finals, the football we were playing in the league was turgid and uninspired. The King might have turned that around if he’d been given another season, but there was no guarantee and they likely didn’t fancy spending more money on another Carroll, Adam or Downing.

When Brendan Rodgers took over the owners did their best to support him in the market, but it quickly became clear that the Northern Irishman didn’t necessarily think like a Liverpool manager. The longer he stayed at the club the more their relationship with him soured and they wouldn’t have felt comfortable allowing him to spend the sort of money that Jürgen Klopp is rumoured to have been given this summer. I would suggest that it’s only since the German arrived at Anfield and proved his worth that the owners have felt truly comfortable in loosening the purse strings. Yes, they finished last summer in profit when it came to transfer spends, but they also spent a good whack of money on players and made a decent amount back. They’ve learnt when to trust a manager and when not to, something supporters might want to do, too.

Transfers Aren’t That Simple

The other big thing that Liverpool fans are quick to turn a blind eye to is the fact that transfers are complicated things. There are so many moving parts all of the time that you can lose sight of just how difficult it is to get these things over the line. There’s the selling club, the buying club, the player, the player’s representatives, the player’s family who want the best for him and other clubs who might also want to buy him. Supporters might be quick to criticise Liverpool for ‘constantly leaking to the press’, but any number of people within that group I’ve just mentioned could tell members of the media something if they felt it might benefit them. Despite what their critics might wish, it isn’t always the club, and by extension the owners, who are making mistakes.

Taking a look at Kylian Mbappe this summer will give you a good sense of what I mean. By all reports Liverpool have been talking to the player for around a year, speaking to his family and preparing the ground. The club might well have been able to bring him in this summer quite cheaply because of that, only for Mbappe to play out of his skin and a whole host of clubs to become interested. The Reds have made clear that they want to be part of the conversation should the player decide to head to England, yet what can they do to persuade him that Anfield is where he should be playing if he and his advisors have decided that Real Madrid is his destination? Throwing money at him won’t do the trick, as Real can afford to pay him whatever he wants.

Conclusion

As always with these things, the people who need to read this sort of piece won’t bother and the people who do read it are most likely quite reasonable to begin with. All I’m trying to say is that criticism of the club and the owners has to be fair and measured. It doesn’t make any sense for FSG to want us to be anything other than successful, but neither is it clever to chuck money around the place willy-nilly and be convinced that that will make us winners. Ask Leeds United how that one worked out. These aren’t apocryphal tales, they’re true stories of clubs that tried to live beyond their means and ended up in turmoil and trouble.

As I said at the start, I have no desire to protect or defend FSG. When they get things wrong, as with the ticket pricing, then I’ll be the first to level appropriate criticism at them. What I dislike, however, and what I don’t think is helpful is people who want them out of the club no matter what and refuse to accept that levelling non-stop criticism towards John Henry, Tom Werner and co won’t actually do any good. As always, nuance is key and seeing things in black and white will only ever give you a false perception of there truth.

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