Year Zero: Time for the talking to stop and to support Rodgers’ vision

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Paul McCabe discusses FSG’s first two years as owners of LFC and why they and the supporters must show their backing for new boss Brendan Rodgers.

Many observers insist that this is something of a year zero for Liverpool Football Club, that everything starts again and we can expect another transition season. It sounds underwhelming, but there has been a lot of talk about and from the club in the last few years; there have been false dawns, raised expectations and dashed hopes. Maybe it is time to look at all the “talk” and consider whether the club is finally heading in the right direction.

Fenway Sports Group (FSG) has done a lot of talking since saving the club in 2010. Tom Werner and John W Henry have made a lot of noises about moving LFC in the right direction – increasing revenues, building a new stadium or regenerating Anfield and returning the club to the top of the table. It is good PR and, while it is true that the club is bolstering its commercial portfolio, there remains a fear that FSG are not being realistic in how they expect the club to return to the lucrative position of the top four.

A debate has waged between many fans and a division can be seen. There is a division, a division between where some fans think the club should be and where others accept its current position on the totem pole. It is a division between those who back everything the club does, to those who have become jaded, cynical and somewhat hysterical due to several years’ worth of broken promises and massive upheaval at the club. As ever, it is best to try to reconcile both of these views.

Some of the expectations are being unduly lowered (“it will take time” etc.), but there are harsh truths to consider. Without Champions League football, Liverpool is just is not as attractive a proposition for top players as it was several years ago. It is sobering to think that, always looking for the next indication of success, many fans took those glorious European nights masterminded by Rafa Benitez for granted. A top four finish became a formality, and naysayers took Benitez’s “failure” to lead the club to a title as legitimate failure. In truth, he made the club a force amid a backdrop of turmoil. It is easy to become spoiled. Now, the club finds itself trying to get a top four place when it used to come so naturally.

FSG set Kenny a target of a top four finish last season. The principal owner announced this publically, only confirming what the costly influx of talent in 2011 was designed to achieve. That is fair, of course. It was their money (even though a lot of it was recouped by outgoing transfers) and, forgetting net spend and all the other semantic arguments, they still invested serious money in the club. They were not unreasonable to expect a better “return on investment” in the league.

What does not seem fair is that Kenny Dalglish, a manager with a track record of getting things right, was fired after one very disappointing league season, but FSG seem to hold Brendan Rodgers to a different standard. He should be held to the same standard, surely, and does not seem to be the sort of man who wants to be let off the hook easily. However, John Henry recently said that Brendan is not expected to lead the club to a top four finish. It is a desire, but not an expectation.

On one hand, FSG’s support of the new manager is laudable. Publically, they have taken the pressure off and it should make the transition from Swansea to Liverpool smoother. On the other hand, it hints at a lack of ambition, resignation to underachievement or, at least, inconsistency in targets. So far, Brendan has not enjoyed the most lavish of budgets. Again, the worry is that there is a sell-to-buy policy and the manager will be compelled to do more “asset stripping.”

The club cannot sustain many more seasons without Champions League Football. For this goal, they need more quality players in the mould of Luis Suarez and Daniel Agger. Both of these players are great professionals who enjoy a unique bond with the fans and, unlike some in the squad, would grace many of the top teams in Europe. Indeed, many of the players in the squad have “gone missing” in recent years and need to learn from some of the top players in the team. Keeping Suarez represents a great piece of business but, if Henry and Werner are serious about making Liverpool a force again, it is crucial to retain all the top-quality players who want to play for the manager (that would certainly include Daniel Agger very prominently.) Moreover, they need to add quality to this group. Meanwhile, a firm decision on the stadium would certainly be beneficial and definitely seems overdue.

Brendan Rodgers is FSG’s first true managerial appointment at LFC, and someone who looks at sport in a similar way to them. Kenny was instinctual, while Brendan is methodical. Kenny did not enjoy speaking with the media, while Brendan is effusive. Neither way is necessarily better than the other, but Brendan’s approach seems more in tune with FSG’s than Kenny’s was.

Worryingly, FSG also made the right noises about Kenny and were often full of praise for the job he was doing and how he had rejuvenated the club. They were so effective in communicating this that the previous management team had apparently drawn up a list of summer transfer targets. Indeed, just a month before dispensing with his services, Werner was saying they were totally behind the manager. Ian Ayre later said that Kenny would have been fired even if he HAD led the club to the FA Cup last season. These contradictions will not inspire confidence in the fanbase and, even though most fans will accept that management have to keep their cards close to their chest, the PR strategy seems strangely amiss.

With all the lies and doubletalk over the last few years, it is little wonder that fans have become cynical. Whether it is a “spade in the ground in 60 days” or being “positively delighted” with a manager whilst plotting his removal, the club has grown less transparent and more political. That, at least, is the perception and FSG would be wise to address this. It is not a particularly pleasant culture, because it is not quite known whether the owners are in for the long-haul and to what extent they will continue to invest.
There are other causes of concern. Anfield support has rarely seemed so muted given the club was saved from the brink of financial ruin, and that was with a legend in charge. The last few years of uncertainty have clearly taken their toll.

“They’re not Hicks and Gillett” becomes a weak defence when FSG are questioned. Henry and Werner do not legitimately bring to mind the previous owners, but it seems an unfair barometer anyway. They have done some things very well and the soundbites, less frequent these days, have often been upbeat and positive. They have been forthcoming enough with fan websites. Talk, however, falls behind action. FSG would be wise to keep fans informed of their intentions and, more importantly, act on those intentions. Things can be better.

Without doubt, the owners are astute businessmen and will keep their cards close to their chest. They know their figures and want the club to spend within its means. What frustrates fans is that some of the clubs who are ahead of Liverpool are not spending within theirs. Big signings guarantee nothing, but they signal intent.

There is always a risk of being perceived as negative, of not being supportive, or of having an agenda. Really, though, some questions ought to be raised. You can support the regime, but still express concerns about its direction. The fans have a right to know, beyond the feel good rhetoric, where exactly FSG intend to lead the club. There is surely a way of being just that bit more transparent and not giving their competitors an edge.

Brendan Rodgers has certainly made his case, showing a unique charisma and pitch-perfect understanding of the job expectations already. He can communicate the job at hand better than most. He is ambitious, yet realistic and clearly has something powerful in his character.

Many fans wanted Kenny to stay, because they recognised the team were very unlucky in many instances last season. They also suspected that Kenny would have turned it around. It was one season, and traditionally Liverpool fans showed more patience than that. Instant success is now expected by many, but there WILL need to be more patience for the new regime. Maybe Brendan will sign players who fans do not think is a big enough “name” for Liverpool, or unworthy of the badge. Maybe fans should remember that the likes of Ian Rush, Kevin Keegan, Sami Hyppia and John Barnes were not amongst Europe’s elite players before joining Liverpool. There has to be a certain amount of trust here and, at least, that Brendan will unearth some gems in the market. He is doing what he believes is right, imprinting his vision on the team.

What all of us fans have to realise, deep down, is that managers like Brendan Rodgers do know more than us. They will make mistakes, of course, but we judge these without all the facts at our disposal (e.g. injuries to players, contractual disputes, transfer budgets) Although he is relatively young, Brendan Rodgers is a student of the game and gets glowing praise from anyone who has worked with him. He seems authentic, and Liverpool fans ought to recognise he will do better with their full support.

Fans who grew up watching Kenny probably had a better appreciation for his talents and manner than those who might just have seen him as the prickly guy on TV. Kenny had no time for the media and fans who knew him appreciated that his defensiveness was protecting the club and his players. When Rafa Benitez did the same, the media defined him as uptight and uncooperative. These managers probably did not help their media relations or future job prospects, just because they could see how the game was being played. Indeed, you could say that Rafa’s reputation as an upstart (rather than a tactical master who has won trophies everywhere he has managed) cost him an opportunity of returning to the club.

It is easy to be wise after the fact, so it would be refreshing to be wise before the season starts. When Liverpool lose a match, it is inevitable that some fans will ruminate on how Rafa or Kenny would have approached the game. Brendan will be called “out of his depth” by some, for sure, such is the level of knee jerk commentary provided by Twitter. There will be times when he is accused of being naive or idealistic, and perhaps even rightly so. He might even be bested by one of the new Premier League managers, in much the same way as his Swansea bettered the likes of Man City and Arsenal last season. Even if this does not happen, it should not stop the fans from supporting the manager. Chanting Kenny’s name during a particularly woeful home game will not serve anyone well.

Brendan Rodgers does not have an unblemished record, of course. He does not have as impressive a CV as some of the coaches that were linked with the job. However, he had shown enough to be linked with other big jobs. This is certainly not to undermine his appointment. His 180-page manifesto is said to have impressed FSG immensely, stunned by his vision and the lengths to which he has travelled to learn his trade. He speaks with passion and conviction, is well-regarded by some of the best coaches in the game and he overachieved with Swansea. It was only one season in the big league, but it was an excellent advertisement for Rodgers’ brand of football. He will just have to do so much more in one of the toughest jobs in Football.

Rodgers will make mistakes and perhaps, in being so open about the players he might need to sell, he already has. He has openly acknowledged this inevitability. He is a young, idealistic coach. However, he does not seem to be a “yes man.” He seems to be his own man, but nevertheless a man who is desperate to succeed at and for Liverpool. For that to happen, the fans really have to get onside and turn Anfield into a formidable cauldron again. The effort on the stands needs to be matched by the effort in the boardroom. Both of these commitments are a necessity to move the “project” forward. Moreover, the manager needs FSG to truly back his vision and support him in the transfer market – preferably without him needing to sell players he wants. He talks a great game but, without proper support and a bit of fortune, it might just remain talk. Liverpool fans are tired of that.

Paul McCabe

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