Time to put the politics to one side

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A view as to why Liverpool fans should reserve judgement on FSG at this point.

It has been another week of political turmoil at Liverpool Football Club. The decision to remove Kenny Dalglish as manager has split the fan base right down the middle. There has been so much noise since the decision; with very little substance. There has been an incredible backlash against FSG; with some parts of the fan base openly questioning the direction they are taking the club.

In the absence of fact people have been desperate to fill in the blanks. Everybody wants to know what the future holds, what the ‘grand plan’ looks like. It is well documented that the style of FSG is to canvass opinion and insight from different sources to help bridge the knowledge gap. They are on a steep learning curve; and they favour a strategic and analytical approach to business.

In the 18 months they have been at Liverpool they will have got to understand what needs to be done at the football club. After the initial appointments of Comolli and Dalglish there was always going to have to be an external viewpoint of validating the performance of the team given the lack of knowledge within FSG. And the one currency Henry deals in, is knowledge. It is widely accepted that FSG have spoken to some influential people from within the game such as Johan Cryuff, David Dein and Brian Barwick: all very credible football people.

Following a disappointing league campaign, and the ‘Suarez’ row, the owners have taken the decision that the club needs fresh direction in order to progress. The decision hasn’t just been to change personnel; it is part of a wide ranging re-structure. FSG are firm believers in a collective approach to decision making; they want a team in place that will bring innovation and a competitive edge through knowledge into the club. That is progressive thinking; that is what they are all about.

Where the big failure has been is engagement with supporters. There has been a lack of communication and narrative on the journey the club is taking; and that has led to a chasm of information that has been filled by rumour and speculation: and all of that leads to a breakdown in trust. I think FSG have underestimated the complex cultural environment of Liverpool Football Club. Twitter has given rise to a number of key ‘influencers’: all with differing views and opinions on how the club should move forward.

With great power, comes great responsibility

There are a huge number of Liverpool fans that have turned to blogs to share opinion (me included!). There are a number of Liverpool forums where every single snippet of gossip is dissected and analysed. Within the Liverpool fan base there are some very credible bloggers / writers and journalists that all have a powerful voice amongst supporters.

The vast majority take that responsibility seriously. They understand that they can shape opinion in sections of the Liverpool fan base; and will not indulge in sensationalism. One of the most pragmatic Liverpool writers is Paul Tomkins; his balanced and statistical based opinion is well respected both in the Liverpool fan base and the broader footballing community, including the media. It should be no surprise that the analytical nature of Tomkins work attracted the interest of John.W.Henry. Tomkins is as qualified as any Liverpool fan to comment on the club; the recent over reaction to his conversation with Henry has been blown out of any kind of proportion.

FSG like to canvass opinion, it is the way they operate. They source factual insight on which to make decisions. Sourcing views from people inside the fan base and outside of the club in my view is an excellent way to operate. The reaction to Tomkins being asked for a view misses the point that FSG want to listen, they want to understand.

What FSG need to get better at is fan engagement. There are a number of key influencers within the Liverpool fan base: the likes of Tomkins, the guys that write for the Anfield Wrap, Brian Durand. They are all credible voices within the Liverpool community. I believe it will be part of Jen Chang’s role to build formal relationships with some of these influencers; including the Spirit of Shankly union. I didn’t agree with the recent statement and letter; but I do believe in SOS and they have a strong voice amongst the core support.

The logic of engaging these influencers is simple. At the moment, the club is releasing a number of communications through Ian Ayre. Ayre is setting the scene for the appointments that are set to be made; but the message lacks credibility. FSG have to sell the vision for Liverpool Football Club; and they want people to buy into that vision. Some of these messages will have far more credibility if those that influence opinion in the fan base are involved in the process.

Club politics & communications

I have spoken a lot before about the complex culture at Liverpool. How our traditions and values are barriers to football in the modern age. The politics that exist within the fan base are divisive. The traditionalist support from Liverpool are very much guardians of the club’s identity. The culture of the club is moulded in Shankly’s socialist instincts; and is reflective of the people of Liverpool. So much about the modern game risks diluting the club’s identity: finding the right balance between Shankly’s Liverpool and the modern game is a huge challenge. The two ideologies are in direct conflict; but we have to make it work.

This piece on the cultural complexities of Liverpool Football Club gives my insight into how I define the different views that sit within the fan base.

I welcome the appointment of a new Director of Communications at Liverpool. I believe that the role of DoC is incredibly important to our future. Communications is the driver to shifting out culture: it is the DoC that will be the person responsible for managing change and shifting culture. The role goes far beyond the media: it is at the heart of the political challenges we face.

In light of recent events the focus on Liverpool’s communications capability has never been greater. But the fundamental challenge for Liverpool is to take ownership over its messaging and narrative. The Club has to be setting the narrative; too often at the moment it is the media or supporters that are filling in the gaps.

I welcome the recent exposure of Ian Ayre. It is obvious that FSG want Ayre to have more profile; to be seen as the Leader. I expect we will see far more of Ayre this season as the club takes a more pro-active approach to communicating. In recent days Ayre has been refreshingly frank in his appraisal of providing context to decisions. The admission that the FA cup would have made no difference to the fate of Kenny Dalglish was a surprising, but very honest and frank message. It made it clear that the owners vision isn’t influenced by the instant success and euphoria of a cup win. It is about looking long term and aiming for the very top.

I don’t agree with every decision that FSG have made; and I feel that they have made a number of errors in communicating and engaging with stakeholders. I felt that Dalglish deserved more time, and I have concerns that new communications appointment is very media focused when the remit is far broader. But I do believe they have a very credible vision for where they want to take the club.

Whatever that picture looks like, I will give them time. Whilst a lot of the focus on the moment is on the new manager, I think the structure at the club has to be viewed as a collective, as a team. Whether it is Martinez, Villas Boas, as the public face (I think it will be one of these two) or somebody else I think the owners are looking to put the right people in place to take the club forwards.

Finally, there has been so much noise about Liverpool lately, with little substance. If there was one suggestion I would make to the club at the moment, it would be to issue a message from John.W.Henry that says:

We understand that supporters are concerned as we undertake work to re-structure the football club. It has always been our intention to give supporters a voice within the club; and we are committed to listening to supporters views. It was with that in mind that we set up the supporters committee early on.

We fully appreciate that Liverpool fans are some of the most passionate in the world. We will be reviewing the supporters committee in the summer to make sure it is the right mechanism for supporters to feed into the clubs future. We recognise that there are many supporter groups; and all have a passionate view on wanting the best for the club. We share that aim.

We understand that change can breed uncertainty; but we would urge patience for all Liverpool fans. We have some exciting plans for the club; and we have worked with experts that include David Dein and Brian Barwick to identify the right structure to take the club forward.

We will soon be making announcements on new appointments. We have set our standards incredibly high; we are aiming to get Liverpool back amongst the elite in world football. The decisions we make are all focused on that aim. We are excited about the future for Liverpool; the club is on a journey, our supporters will always be the most important part of the football club, and we look forward to working together as one to get the club back to where it belongs.

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