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Saturday, November 20, 2010

John Henry and Liverpool FC by Adam Howard

by Adam Howard for World Football Commentaries

Since John W. Henry’s New England Sports Ventures took over Liverpool FC on the 15th October 2010, the club experienced something of a mini-revival on the pitch. Having started the season with just one win in six games, the Reds tenure under Henry got off to the worst possible start with a 2-0 defeat at the home of fierce rivals Everton, but they quickly recovered to record three straight wins against Bolton, Blackburn and – significantly – Champions and league leaders Chelsea.

Significant Sports Management Background

Those familiar with Henry’s previous experience when it comes to owning and running a sports team, may not find this too surprising. After all, as Bloomberg reports, since taking ownership of the Boston Red Sox just prior to the 2003 season, “The club has won two championships... Its most recent title before then was in 1918”. Such success, according to Henry's IMDb’s biography, “Cemented Henry's legacy in Boston sports lore, and validated his ownership group's great work in such a short amount of time.”

It is no surprise then, that Liverpool’s board of management apparently favoured Henry’s bid for the club “because of his success with the Red Sox”. While Liverpool are one of England’s great clubs in terms of history, recent success on the pitch has been limited. A Champions League win in 2005 was a huge achievement, but little solace for the fans who have not seen their side crowned English Champions since 1990.

Bloomberg reported that Martin Broughton, Liverpool chairman before Henry’s buy-out, said of Henry’s achievements with the Red Sox that “They came in and made them winners... That’s what we want to see”. And initially, things seemed to be working out for Liverpool under the new owners. Three wins on the bounce saw them climb the Premier League ladder and even the previously lacklustre Fernando Torres had found his goal scoring form.

Since that heady win at Chelsea though, a draw away at struggling Wigan and a comprehensive 2-0 defeat at Stoke City has brought fans of the Liverpool jersey back down to earth with a bit of a bump. Questions continue to be raised about the suitability of manager Roy Hodgson, who despite his success at Fulham, who he took to an unlikely Europa League final last season, is seen by many fans to be too negative for a club with Liverpool’s prestigious history.

Taking Over After a Failed American Effort

Dreams of a quick turnaround from the poor start to the season then, have been somewhat quashed. Questions remain about the quality of Liverpool’s playing squad, and perhaps more than anything, some uncertainty lingers over the new owner. While his achievements with the Red Sox are much heralded, the Liverpool fans cannot entirely trust that American owners of their club can be all good news.

Previous owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett were fiercely opposed by the club’s fans, as they saddled the club with well over £300m of debt, put on seemingly indefinite hold plans to build the club a new stadium in Stanley Park, and were constantly linked with the need to sell star players like Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres in order to service their financial costs, paying interest on their massive loans. Perhaps they thought the Torres jersey sales too lucrative.

As the BBC reported, fans were engaged in creating a protest film against those American owners, and that celebrities like “Samuel L Jackson, John Bishop, Ian McCulloch and Daniel Craig” were rumoured to be involved while “Ricky Tomlinson [would] be the first to put his point of view on film”. There were even rumours that current players and boyhood Liverpool fans Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard were due to either appear in or lend their support to the film.

Of course, fans opposition to the ownership of their club is nothing new, but Liverpool’s fan protests often took on a rather xenophobic, anti-American stance. Bloomberg tells how fans protested by “burning the U.S. flag” and displaying “banners that said 'Thanks but no Yanks.' ”. Given that the man to rescue them from these hated American despots is American too, Henry will know that he has some work to do to win over the fans.

Can Baseball Success be Translated to English Football?

That may not be too much of a problem for him though. Initial relief at the rescuing of the club from Hicks and will see him heralded as something of a saviour and given that sporting fans can be fickle they’ll doubtless soon forget their prior anti-American leanings. What’s more, IMDb claims that “Under Henry's leadership, the Red Sox have turned into a very fan-friendly baseball organization” and on the BBC’s Football Focus the man himself said that “everything you do with regard to Liverpool Football Club, has meaning to so many people”, which suggests that Henry knows the importance of getting fans on his side. Of course, when it comes to football, there is a limit to how much popularity can be won off the pitch.
When it comes down to it, Henry’s success or failure at the club will depend on how his team fares in the Premier League. His success with the Red Sox again bodes well for Liverpool and the future success of the team, but it is worth remembering that football and baseball are two very different ball-games.

Again, speaking with Football Focus, Henry admitted that he “knew virtually nothing about football a couple of months ago”, but he does claim to have spent “almost every waking hour studying and learning” about the club and the sport itself. He is certainly saying all the right things, but that’s to be expected, what will be most interesting is his practical approach to revitalising the club.

Commodities Trading Background

Henry’s biography on Turtle Trader describes him as a man with the ability to “read between the lines. Discerning which sets of information have relevance to the future” and he has traditionally been painted as a man who takes a highly statistical approach to his ownership, though on Football Focus he challenged that, suggesting “that isn’t [his] main focus”. Either way though, Henry strikes me, from all I’ve read about him, as a man with an eye on the future.

In his time with the Red Sox he has changed the manager only once, something that will doubtless please Roy Hodgson, and in appointing Damien Comolli to work alongside the manager, there is the clear suggestion that the club will be looking for young talent to come in, that they’re building for the future. For me, this is good news for fans of the club, because while Directors of Football have had limited success in English football in the past, it suggests solidarity and continuity in Henry’s plans for the club.

He said on Football Focus that he finds it hard “not to be incredibly impressed by what Arsene Wenger has created at Arsenal, and of course what Sir Alex Ferguson has accomplished at Man United” and of course there has identified the two longest serving Premier League managers, men who have been given time to build a dynasty at their clubs, and who have each reaped the rewards of the trust that has been placed in them.

Clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City have operated on a different policy, and while Chelsea have had some success and Manchester City doubtless will, neither has yet established the same sort of tradition of success that we associate with Manchester United and Arsenal under Ferguson and Wenger. The expectation of instant success and the light handed treatment of managers and players that it brings is, in my opinion, no recipe for long standing, built-in success.
Naturally though, some things have to happen right away. Liverpool fans are an expectant bunch and they would not settle for simply the promise of a brighter future. They want success now, because for them 20 years has already been far too long an interval since they were last champions of England. So can they expect Henry to deliver a more competitive team in the immediate future? Maybe.
Henry has stated to the BBC that Liverpool “are definitely in the market for the highest calibre of players” and that they “need more depth”, which will be music to the ears of Liverpool fans. However, any owner of a football club is going to give those same assurances, and they act as no guarantee. Ultimately, the size of Henry’s immediate ambition will only be measurable once the transfer window opens in January and he has the chance to put his money where his mouth is.
I have to say though, and as a staunch Evertonian it hurts me to admit this, I think that – on the evidence available so far – Henry will be good news for Liverpool fans. I think that if he can see out this season, which is sure to be turbulent as the squad simply isn’t good enough to live up to the unrealistic demands of the club’s fans, without any major disasters, then he will be in a good position to build for the future.

Strong Track Record

He is a man with established success in financial and sporting ventures, and who appears to have the commitment to establishing a long term investment in Liverpool, as he recognises that the best way to make the club profitable for him is to make it successful on the pitch. His initial movements towards achieving this seem encouraging, as a sense of stability and an emphasis on youth are underrated strategies in modern football.

Ultimately, I think that John W. Henry’s tenure in charge of Liverpool FC is likely to see fewer losses to Stoke and more wins over the likes of Bolton and Blackburn, while challenging Chelsea for dominance in English football could well be a real prospect in the not too distant future. Whether or not they can win back the Merseyside bragging rights from Everton remains to be seen of course, but it certainly seems that under Henry, things may unfortunately be looking up for the red half of the city.

Referenced Articles

Bloomberg: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-11-10/john-henry-gets-steal-as-476-million-in-liverpool-may-double.html
IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1790365/bio
Turtle Trader: http://www.turtletrader.com/trader-henry2.html
BBC (Protest Film): http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-merseyside-11446785
BBC (Football Focus): http://www.liverpoolfc.tv/news/latest-news/john-henry-my-reds-vision
About the Author

Adam Howard
is the founder of They Think It’s All Over…

Adam Howard Archive

Editor's Note

Adam is a native of Liverpool, but supports Everton.

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The John W. Henry Interview with Red and White Kop: Part 2

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Steve Amoia said...


Thank you for your excellent work on this article.

Steve Amoia

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