Why we still need to be cautious about NESV

John W Henry with female companion watches from the stands Liverpool 2010/11 Liverpool V Napoli 04/11/10 UEFA Europa League Photo: Robin Parker Fotosports International Photo via Newscom

When New England Sports Ventures (NESV) completed their takeover of Liverpool Football Club, it brought an end to the disastrous, bitter reign of Tom Hick and George Gillett and was greeted with a mixture of cynicism and triumph. It is a triumph, because the club is now virtually debt-free and does not have to service a leveraged loan. We are cynical, because we have been here before.

There are reasons to be excited by the NESV takeover. Their track record with the Boston Red Sox is excellent and they offer a tremendous winning pedigree. It was mooted in their promotional video how they totally transformed the Red Sox’s fortunes. They connected to the community, listened to the fans and carefully helped regenerate a grand old stadium. They are promising to take a similarly prudent approach with Liverpool, involving the fans in the direction of the club and committing to building a successful future.

The parallels between where the Red Sox were and where Liverpool currently resides are obvious. NESV’s desire to build a successful team is a nice story which will resonate with our long-suffering fans. It is not the whole story. Another key element is that this is a business deal and not a vanity project. NESV are in to maximize profits, not to try and be heroes. That is acceptable, as long as they look to re-invest in the team and become heroes by default. If they follow the same trajectory as the Red Sox, ticket prices for matches should increase markedly. That may alienate some fans, but the majority of fans would surely be prepared to see some price hikes if it helped ensure success on the pitch.

NESV may not be the “sugar-daddies” that some fans wanted – they will not open their wallets and spend ridiculously inflated prices for overrated players. That is sound from a business standpoint and will ensure the club will spend within their means. The problem with this, however, is that a few of Liverpool’s rivals will not restrict themselves in the market. They will continue to splash the cash, offering outrageous contracts and huge signing-on fees. Liverpool fans have been patient enough, so asking for more patience is worrying.

Traditionally, the clubs that spend the most money have the most success. That stands to reason. However, clubs like Manchester City demonstrate that you cannot buy success, passion or prestige. What Liverpool has going for it are, amongst many other things, a loyal fanbase, years of success and a worldwide brand. That is attractive for many players and, to a large degree, the club still sells itself.

Make no mistake about it and let no media spin detract from this: Liverpool Football Club is a fabulous acquisition for NESV. It is no burden to be in charge of such an illustrious and well-supported club. NESV are not here to help out. They are here to make a tidy profit. John W Henry seems a quiet and unassuming man but, for all that, you can certainly bet that he did not accumulate his wealth by being an all-round nice guy. There had to be a bit of ruthlessness and opportunism exhibited along the way.

John W Henry with female companion watches from the stands Liverpool 2010/11 Liverpool V Napoli 04/11/10 UEFA Europa League Photo: Robin Parker Fotosports International Photo via Newscom

It is crucial that the owners are ruthless on behalf of the club and not in how they attempt to profit from the club. It has to be a mutually beneficial arrangement, or it might end up as sour as the last ownership. Until some big strides are made and the owners do dip their hands in their pockets, cynicism will remain. That is completely understandable, as Liverpool fans have been burned once before and are now shy about directing too much enthusiasm towards new American owners. Hicks and Gillett were dramatically overthrown and, like much of the club’s recent history, that process was unnecessarily acrimonious. It should never reach that point and NESV would be wise to assess how to approach their role.

The new stadium or expanding the capacity of the existing one is crucial. NESV re-developed the Red Sox’s famous Fenway Park. If they can significantly renovate Anfield, that would be a nice bonus. It is a magical stadium steeped in history and it would be a shame to see it go. If this is no longer viable, work must begin on delivering the new stadium. The owners have been somewhat tight-lipped about which option they will take. It is vital that they commit to one of the options and inform the fans of which course of action they intend to take. Communication of this type would put a lot of fans at ease. So far, there have been mixed messages and there is a fear that this much-needed development will not take place as quickly as it should.

NESV have also given mixed messages about their intentions are for the January transfer window. At least John Henry has said that they intend to strengthen the team and keep Fernando Torres. That is a big plus and something to celebrate. Either they will give the manager a decent kitty or they will be frugal and ask him to pick up more bargains. On one hand, keeping your cards close to your chest is wise. In some regards, with the exception of some not-too-distant dramas, it was how the club has always conducted its boardroom business.

If NESV announced a kitty of £40 million, it would surely drive up the asking price of players the club is pursuing. On the other hand, it does not engender confidence in the fans when we simply have no idea whether we can look forward to exciting new additions or have to settle for journeymen or cast-offs.

The managerial situation needs to be properly addressed. Either NESV have faith in Roy Hodgson or they do not. There is a sense that we are in a stalling or “wait and see” pattern at the moment. It is almost as though the owners are waiting for Hodgson to fail before pulling the trigger. That is the common perception, largely brought about by the fact that he is not the man they signed, but it is a perception that is hard to shake. NESV may have backed him initially and recent results have certainly been more encouraging, but most Liverpool fans remain unconvinced by the manager.

John W Henry said they want the best team on the pitch and the best team off of it. Those are nice sentiments but, as a savvy businessman who has also rubbed shoulders with some of the finest sporting professionals in the world, it is questionable whether he would see Hodgson as being the “best”.

Liverpool/Chelsea Premiership 02.05.10 Photo: Tim Parker Fotosports International Liverpool Fans in the kop during the game Photo via Newscom

What is very encouraging, however, is NESV’s business model of wanting to bring in young players and then developing them. It harks back to the way Liverpool used to do things. In fact, before Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez, Liverpool managers often picked up players from the lower leagues or “diamonds in the rough” and helped turn them into superstars. That is not to dismiss the work of Benitez and Houllier. They both have a wonderful affinity for the club and achieved great things while in charge. They also signed some fantastic players for the club. Houllier was particularly instrumental in developing Steven Gerrard , Jamie Carragher and Michael Owen, to name but three . The point is that, to a large extent, we signed too many flops at ridiculous prices and let too many gems get away. Either the scouting system was flawed or the managers placed too much emphasis on foreign imports. Something was not working the way it should have been.

The rationale of developing young players is sound. The worry is that it is just a smokescreen for NESV to limit transfer funds. What is obvious, though, is how our rivals have stolen a march on us in picking up and bringing on their young talent. It is a great shame that Liverpool missed the boat on players like Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsay. Sure, they were not signed for free, but they were signed cheaply. While we were overspending in many regards, these players were being overlooked.

Maybe Bale is just “flavour of the month” and perhaps his development is freakish and unexpected. It still beggars belief that Liverpool missed out on him, especially as he would have given us the natural width we have been lacking for so long. These are the sort of players need to be signing.

Liverpool needs to be the preferred destination of talented young players. More importantly, the club needs to make that choice worthwhile for the players. There is no point in having a ragtag group of gifted young players wasting away in the reserves or sitting on the bench. They need to be developed and given a proper chance to shine.

Appointing Damien Comolli as Director of Football is also a polarizing decision. It does point to NESV wanting the manager to spot and sign some rough diamonds. It also represents direction. Comolli’s record is a mixed bag and he left Tottenham in less than glorious circumstances. He was responsible for helping bring some brilliant talent to the clubs he previously represented in England (Tottenham and Arsenal). He also recommended some duds and seemed to be too involved in Martin Jol leaving Tottenham and Ramos coming in. Political maneuvering will raise some concern and that sort of thing should have no place under the current regime.

In short, while this could turn out well, such decisions rarely have a positive outcome in the Premier League. Comolli is not a Liverpool man and it is doubtful he would be any better qualified for the role of spotting talent than someone like Kenny Dalglish. You cannot help but feel sceptical when too many suits or outsiders become involved in running such a close-knit club.

NESV have some big questions to answer. Their track record is sound and the sound bites coming from the new owners are encouraging, but the fans have heard hollow promises before. Promises are always hollow if they are not borne out by action. That causes frustration and anger. NESV’s promises mean producing a winning team and putting the club on sure foot. What will distinguish John Henry is not what he and his team promise, but on how and when they will deliver on these promises. Until we see the results, the jury will have to stay out.

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