As Newcastle United settle into life under new stewardship, James Noble looks at Liverpool’s ownership situation – 11 years to the day since the High Court ruling which gave the green light for FSG’s takeover.
On Thursday October 14, 2010, the club won a second High Court case against then owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr. The following day, New England Sports Ventures – who would soon change their name to Fenway Sports Group – completed their takeover.
Takeovers are on topic. It could justifiably be argued that they are never off-topic.
Especially now, though, in the wake of Newcastle United’s change of ownership just last week, it feels at the forefront of many minds.
The methods. The morality. The money. For all football club owners, that all goes under the microscope – or should, at least – when considering this uniquely wide-ranging element of the game.
Plenty of that has already gone on – and will continue to go on – in relation to Newcastle’s takeover by a consortium led by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund.
A parallel that can be drawn between the change of ownership on Tyneside on October 7, 2021 and that on Merseyside on October 15, 2010, is that one of the primary emotions amongst supporters was relief.
More specifically, relief that the previous ownership’s time at the helm was at an end – Mike Ashley for the former, Hicks and Gillett for the latter.
Back in the autumn of 2010, debts had grown under the stewardship of the American duo – who took over at Anfield in February 2007 – and the purchase of the club by FSG helped relieve it of that strain.
As is well known, that was a strain which could have led to administration.
Ashley’s 14-year ownership of Newcastle United, meanwhile, was one that saw the club grow increasingly stale – in terms of ambition, infrastructure and footballing achievement.
An admittedly brief outline on both fronts, but one that should paint some picture of the grimness associated with those respective ownerships.
Said grimness, it could be argued, dealt FSG a stronger hand 11 years ago and has done likewise for the Saudi Arabian-led consortium as they take the reins at St. James’ Park.
Those previous owners weren’t, in LFC’s case – and shouldn’t be, in Newcastle’s – hard acts to follow.
It’s one way of looking at it. A somewhat cynical way, in isolation, but it is just one element to factor in to the wider equation.
In Liverpool’s case, this is now an equation with 11 years’ worth of happenings to include.
Whatever FSG had done in the time following their takeover would, in truth, likely have been painted in a kinder light thanks to the predicament they helped the club out of.
What they have done has been wide-ranging – as actions virtually have to be for owners – and has garnered varied success.
The team and club, though, is inarguably in a healthier place than it was when they found it.
This is a club that is enjoying its fifth successive season of Champions League football – a run only bettered between 2004/05 and 2009/10.
A club that has finished second, first and third in the past three domestic campaigns – ending the 30-year wait for a league title in the process.
That – alongside the Premier League – has won a sixth European Cup, fourth UEFA Super Cup and first Club World Cup within the last two-and-half years.
That plays in a stadium that’s capacity has grown from a little over 45,000 to a little over 54,000 – courtesy of the new Main Stand, opened in September 2016.
By the start of 2023/24 – if all goes to plan – the extension of the Anfield Road End will see it rise to over 61,000.
A club that now operates from a new state-of-the-art training ground in Kirkby, which means the men’s first-team work on the same site that the academy sides have since 1998.
Not a club, a team or an infrastructure that could be described as stale – if highlighting a contrast is necessary on that front.
So much of this has been built on an increasingly savvy, sustainable approach to football operations.
Which has seen data become an increasingly central component of recruitment and other areas. Saw Jürgen Klopp become manager in October 2015. Saw Michael Edwards promoted to sporting director in November 2016. Saw game changers like Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah brought in for fees below £50m and saw bigger money well spent on Virgil van Dijk and Alisson Becker.
There is so much to be pleased with here and, in truth, to be grateful for. You don’t need to look far for evidence that this isn’t always how things go.
That, nonetheless, is not to say that things can’t be better. And couldn’t have been better. Because they could.
You can look at the wonderful new training ground, for instance. It still feels like such a missed opportunity that Liverpool FC Women were not incorporated into these plans.
That’s not to say that they can’t still be in future. Hopefully the club will find a way.
Having the men’s and women’s first-team and academy set-ups on the same site is a genuinely exciting prospect.
It is, admittedly, so much easier said – or written – than done but it’s something that is a reality for the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea, whose respective women’s teams continue to go from strength to strength.
After LFC Women’s unfortunate relegation to the second tier via points-per-game in 2019/20, 2021/22 will hopefully bring promotion back to the FA Women’s Super League and signal the start of a resurgence.
Confirmation at the start of this month of Russ Fraser’s appointment as Liverpool FC Women’s first managing director, meanwhile, also represented a promising step forward.
The fact that progress for the women’s setup has been so comparatively slow is highly disappointing but reversing that trend in the coming years has the potential to be such a plus for FSG and the club as a whole.
There are plenty of other bookmarks where things could have been handled better.
Many of these are somewhat familiar, by now, but they continue to represent significant reference points.
There was the proposed £77 ticket in the new Main Stand.
FSG backtracked on this in the days following a supporter protest which saw thousands of fans leave Anfield 77 minutes into the 2-2 draw with Sunderland on February 6, 2016.
Ticket prices have remained frozen in the years since.
There was the misguided – and ultimately unsuccessful – attempt to trademark the name ‘Liverpool’ in the summer of 2019.
There was the original decision to furlough non-playing staff in April 2020, in the midst of the first national Covid-19 lockdown.
Another scenario where the response of supporters led to a fresh reading of the mood and a U-turn.
Then, of course, in April 2021, there was the failed launch of the proposed European Super League involving Liverpool and 11 other clubs.
Something which, by all accounts, followed next to no consultation with either supporters’ groups or those within the club.
Which left Klopp and the players out in the cold to answer questions about it as they travelled to face Leeds United less than 24 hours later.
Which led to those players issuing a statement opposing the planned breakaway competition the following evening.
And which saw John W. Henry, the morning after that, release a video apologising to supporters for the fiasco.
He wasn’t the only owner who put their club in that predicament, of course, but those few spring days arguably represented the most ill-judged mess of any of the aforementioned faux pas.
Faux pas that, in many ways, are made all the more frustrating by the amount of good work FSG has done – and goodwill they have earned – in other areas and through other actions, many of which are referenced above.
They have, in fairness, generally been willing to recognise and learn from their mistakes, too. The fact that such misjudgements have continued to crop up suggests the learning process often hasn’t been thorough enough, however.
There has also been notable frustration within some of the fanbase in recent months over the lack of money spent on new recruits during the summer.
There have been several contract renewals in that time, of course, and more may not be far off.
That feels a reflection of the model the club has worked with in recent times, in truth, and that it has enjoyed great success with.
It feels difficult to legitimately criticise, or praise, the recent approach until we are at least a few months – or perhaps even a couple of years – down the line.
Which maybe just goes to prove the point touched on at the start.
Football club ownership – now, more than ever – feels like a topic that will never truly be off-topic.
We needn’t look far to see plenty of evidence of the positive change FSG have brought to the club in their almost 11 years at the helm.
Neither need we look much further to see elements that could be further improved. That feels a reasonable enough base to build on.
A critical eye is as necessary as ever, but there’s reason enough for there to be a glint in it.
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