The curious case of FSG: where now?

Paul McCabe offers his views on the fallout from the transfer deadline day and FSG’s business this summer in general.

The transfer window deadline day was a mixture of mild calamity and shocking mismanagement. It left Liverpool shipping out several fringe players, attempting to offload Jordan Henderson and ultimately ending up with a shortfall of attacking options. On the whole, though, the club did some good business in the window.

Joe Allen has started very promisingly, Nuri Sahin has clear quality and Fabio Borini has potential to be a good addition. Perhaps most importantly, the club managed to hold onto Agger, Skrtel and Suarez. However, the way the window ended was extremely disappointing, as the manager’s confidence about landing more attacking players was all in vain. From the outside, it looks amateur and has amused a media that often delights in the club’s failure. The club’s record signing, seriously undermined in recent weeks, is now playing for West Ham. Clint Dempsey, a known target, was allowed to sign for Spurs. FSG are now playing a PR game, trying to make amends for a failure to conclude their transfer business correctly and continuing questions about their level of commitment to the club.

In situations of crisis (perceived or otherwise), it is common to look for someone to blame – the manager, referee, owners, poor defending. Football fans tend to be fickle and reactionary by nature. If things go badly, we skew to the negative. When our team wins, it feels as though anything is possible. Even though we try to be rational, we apply a bizarre logic to proceedings. This is part of the frustrating emotional pendulum of being a Liverpool fan, that annoying inconsistency that’s permeated the club for years.

Liverpool were very impressive against Man City, so it gave plenty of reasons for optimism. Then, the team scraped past Hearts and performed poorly against Arsenal. As such, it is hard to see where a goal or win is coming from and it feels all very gloomy – especially with Sunderland and Man Utd next on the fixture list. The truth is, it is still too early to make any sweeping generalisations about where this season is heading. At the moment, however, one point from a possible nine makes for worrying reading.

The people who were blamed last week were the representatives of FSG and Ian Ayre. Ayre has been at the club for a number of years and, while he has helped boost commercial revenues, he simply has not convinced in his role as Managing Director. Not only does he look ill-at-ease in his role, Ayre has held influential roles within the club during the dismissal of Rafa Benitez, Kenny Dalglish and the hiring and firing of Hodgson. These are negative associations. There have been numerous PR disasters during his tenure – namely, trying to explain how a Champions League-winning coach could be replaced by Roy Hodgson and how Kenny Dalglish could be so unceremoniously discarded just four months after Ayre told the Liverpool Echo:

“That’s one of the reasons why he’s the right man for the job. He genuinely cares and he’s passionate about everything: the club, the city…”

Ayre’s quote came after Liverpool ended a nearly six-year wait for a trophy. Months later, Ayre was insisting that Kenny was fired by virtue of the results in the league campaign. It would not have mattered even if Liverpool had won two trophies last season. After all, silverware does not matter…even though the brass claimed it did.

Perception holds a big influence, and the perception of Ayre is that he is an empty suit. He might be a lifelong Liverpool fan, but Liverpool fans know when they are being spoonfed hollow corporate speak. He lacks the leadership qualities of authenticity and trustworthiness. Rodgers, on the other hand, exudes leadership and convinces because of it. Ayre has been caught indulging in a fair degree of doubletalk, backtracking and inconsistency. It has verged on embarrassing and reflected poorly on the club. All things considered, you could argue that keeping Ayre as Managing Director is as ludicrous as having Kenny Dalglish as a one-man defence when one of the club’s star players is facing a racism charge and being pilloried from all quarters. Oh, wait, that actually happened.

It is conceivable that Ayre has been put in an impossible position of doing FSG’s bidding and explaining their confusing rationale. This is no easy feat, but a competent CEO could surely handle this more deftly. There have been some staggering changes in direction, after all. Forgetting all the delays on a stadium announcement, FSG hired Damien Comolli, sang his praises, promoted him and then fired him. They hired Kenny, sung his praises, gave him a season, flew him out to Boston to give his account of the season…and fired him. It makes it difficult to understand exactly what they want – beyond success on an unrealistically tight budget.

Their public face of FSG is affable and charming. The owners say what the fans want to hear about a commitment to success, tempering it with “economic reality” about living within their means. This is commendable, of course, but it is not clear what those “means” are. The hierarchy has trumpeted increased revenues, commercial partnerships, being able to compete financially with the elite and yet has turned its nose up at signing some good players on what would seem to be reasonable terms. There is no doubt that the club did not much “value” in the 2011 transfer windows. FSG endorsed serious overspending on the likes of Downing, Henderson and Carroll. This is a well-documented “strategic error.”

Whether the “strategic error” was Kenny Dalglish‘s, Damien Comolli’s or FSG’s, it should not have been allowed to handicap Brendan Rodgers and his plans. Sadly, at this time, it has. To give FSG the benefit of the doubt, it is possible that they are trying to alter the perception of Liverpool, making them more robust in negotiations. In fairness, while some players were released at a loss, the club stood firm on Agger and was not prepared to be bullied by Newcastle this summer over Carroll.

For years, other clubs have been overcharging for players as soon as Liverpool declare interest. Perhaps the latest episodes of cost-cutting are just to show that the club will not be held to ransom anymore, and that the manager can pursue his targets in January and get better “value.” We can but hope.

More conspiratorial Liverpool fans might argue that Dalglish was fired and Benitez side-stepped, because they would have been making more fervent demands in the transfer market. Rodgers is a great communicator, but he does not enjoy the same standing in the game as some of his predecessors. This is his first big job; he naturally wants to keep it, be a success and win the league (a distant dream at this time). Playing politics against the owners is not something that would benefit Rodgers or the fans. The fans can see he has been let down, but he just has to endure the disappointment for now and, like the fans, hope that the owners will let him pursue all his targets.

So many good people have been allowed to leave the club and, while there cannot be a place for everyone, you cannot help but feel that they could be an asset to the club. Effectively, however, the likes of Rafa Benitez and Kenny Dalglish have been frozen out of the club. THEY could help a young, relatively inexperienced Liverpool manager. As good as Brendan is in dealing with the media, they are not his friends and most of them do not want him to succeed at LFC. At the very least, FSG might see the value on calling on their advice.

Then, there was the way Steve Clarke was discarded. It might have been that Rodgers wanted Clarke moved on, or that FSG wanted him off the vaunted wage bill. Either way, it was Ian Ayre who was responsible for delivering the bad news. Like any strong executive would, he apparently instructed his secretary to phone Clarke to tell him he had been fired. Stay classy!

Regarded as one of the best coaches in the league, Clarke had drilled the Liverpool defence into being one of the tightest in the league. That was one of the successes of last season. Certainly, we are only three matches into the new season, but Clarke’s WBA have kept two clean sheets and conceded only one goal. By contrast, Liverpool have kept no clean sheets and conceded seven goals already. Last season, the team had only conceded 12 goals in the league by the end of November. So, yes, you could certainly think that Clarke might be an asset.

Ultimately, it is easy to be wise after the facts. While there is no crisis, FSG have some big decisions to make and they would be best advised to keep the fans fairly informed of these. Mistakes have been made and John W Henry has acknowledged this. However, he has not acknowledged what those mistakes were, so it is uncertain whether he is completely in sync with the fans or whether he has learned from said mistakes. Fans want success on the pitch and, while it is good to hear that FSG have raised revenues and cut costs, that is only success on the balance sheet. Liverpool is a huge global club and the fans demand high standards and to be competitive with other top clubs. Henry and his team must know, and REALLY know, that they have fallen below them at times. They still have the power, means and support to turn it around.