Written by: Mootaz Chehahde
15 October 2010. The date that FSG completed their takeover of Liverpool FC. The announcement on this day was met with euphoria among Liverpool fans. The club was finally wrestled free from the clutches of Tom Hicks and George Gillett, after a London High Court ruling. The pair had brought LFC to its knees in their three-and-a-half years of being self-proclaimed custodians of the club. From here on, the future was looking bright. The acquisition debt accumulated and held against the club was wiped, and from then on began the rebuilding process. I would like to look at how things have gone, football-wise, during FSG’s reign across 7 seasons at Liverpool.
It is important to assess how seasons have panned out since they took over the club:
2011/11 and 2011/2012
The first transfer window under the new ownership in January 2011 saw the controversial £50m transfer of Fernando Torres to Chelsea. Liverpool bought Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll in to fill the void left by the Spaniard. We ended FSG’s first campaign in 6th place. Kenny Dalglish’s return galvanised the club into a temporary resurgence after the Roy Hodgson era. The first summer transfer in 2011 saw another pendulum of ins and outs; with a net spend of around £35m. We ended the 2011/12 season in 8th place and won the league cup after a penalty shoot-out against Cardiff. We also lost the FA Cup final against Chelsea that season.
Kenny Dalglish was then sacked and we found ourselves rebuilding again under Brendan Rodgers in the summer of 2012. His first season at the club saw a net spend of around £43m, with another attempt underway to improve fortunes on the pitch. We finished Rodgers’ first campaign in 7th.
The following season saw Brendan Rodgers almost do the unthinkable, and delivery an unlikely Premier League title success to Liverpool. A lack of European football and a world-class striker in Luis Suarez was something that worked in our favour. Ultimately, however, we could not see it through and this turned out to be a one-off shock title challenge that nobody saw coming. We had a net spend of around £20m this season and finished 2nd. It was a massive leap from the previous campaign but we failed to build on this.
The 2014/2015 season came after Luis Suarez was sold to Barcelona, and our failure to replace him led to a miserable season where we finished 6th and had nowhere near the same spark as the previous campaign. FSG were aware that Suarez wanted to leave for an entire year and there was ample time to find some manner of a replacement. Now, of course, you won’t find another Luis Suarez in world football. We all know that. To sell Suarez, however, and sign the likes of Lazar Markovic, Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert was insanity. We knew for an entire year that Suarez did not want to be at the club, yet no plan was put in place to sign a respectable replacement. This sums of the poor planning, lack of ambition and negligent decision making that has become far too commonplace under FSG’s ownership. Net spend this time around was roughly £38m.
Raheem Sterling left Liverpool in the summer of 2015 and Brendan Rodgers was sacked by October. Around £28m was the net-spend during his final summer as manager. In stepped Jurgen Klopp, as we yet again began another rebuilding process. We finished his first campaign in 8thplace and fell short in the League Cup and Europa League finals.
Jurgen Klopp’s first summer saw the club sign six players and sell twelve. We entered the season with a positive net spend of around £6.5m.
A number of themes can be picked out from the seasons since FSG’s takeover:
The first theme is the narrative that Liverpool are constantly rebuilding. We found ourselves rebuilding in 2010 when the change of ownership took place. This was natural and expected. The club had been plunged into financial turmoil and it was a fresh start. We were also rebuilding in 2011 when Kenny Dalglish returned as manager. We were rebuilding once more in 2012 when Brendan Rodgers’ reign began. Rebuilding continued in 2014 after Luis Suarez left and we had lost the spark from the previous campaign. Rebuilding then continued in 2015 when Jurgen Klopp took over as manager. If a club is continuously in a position where they have to start again and rebuild so often, should there not be questions directed at those overseeing this?
Another theme that can be picked up on is that we tend to sell our best players. Torres, Suarez and Sterling all left the club to fulfil ambitions elsewhere. Now, as badly as the Torres and Sterling exits were, we cannot simply dismiss as a coincidence that our best players usually end up wanting to leave the club. They wish to leave because spending every season simply competing to reach the Champions League is not good enough for your most valuable players. We have reached the Champions League once in 6 previous seasons under FSG, and we exited with a whimper at the group stages. Is it any surprise that they all wanted to leave? As much as I detested Torres for leaving to join Chelsea, his comments about FSG since departing make for interesting reading:
“They wanted to bring in young players, to build something new. I was thinking to myself, this takes time to work. It takes two, three, four, maybe even 10 years.
“I didn’t have that at the time. I was 27-years-old. I did not have time to wait. I wanted to win.
“Here we are five years later and they are still trying to build – around the same position in the league as when I left.”
Can we dispute what he has said? We spend every season rebuilding and have failed to progress or have any manner of consistency between seasons. A solitary and over-achieving title challenge, surrounded by consistently falling short and an average of 6th place cannot go unquestioned. The reality is that if we continue along the same standards FSG have set, our best players leaving will continue to happen. Coutinho may have signed a new deal, but we all know that contracts mean little more than securing value on the player. If a club able to compete consistently at the top level makes a mammoth bid in the next few years, why would he say no? Sentimentality only takes you so far in football. Careers are short, and if the best we can offer is challenging for a top 4 place every season, Coutinho’s departure will be inevitable.
A third theme that is noticeable is that the club has constantly fallen short when on the verge of success. This began in the 2012 FA Cup final. We did not turn up for this final until 2-0 down. By then, it was too late. In 2014 we could not see through our title charge, when it was in our hands with just 3 games left. As unfortunate as it was, it was disastrous at the same time. We then did not turn up for a Wembley semi-final against Aston Villa in the FA Cup. We even led in this game, but were deservedly beaten. The following season we fell short in 2 cup finals. Losing on penalties in the League Cup final is a lottery, but if you dissect the performance itself, it is another big occasion at the brink of success that we did not turn up for. The Europa League final effectively summed up Liverpool over the past few years. We surrendered a half-time lead over Sevilla and capitulated to a 3-1 defeat in Basel. It can be seen that this Liverpool team cannot handle any degree of pressure, and capitulate when on the verge of achieving something. What makes this worse is how this has been normalised by many Liverpool fans. Reaching finals is now lauded as an achievement. As promising as it is to get to the verge of success, if you are effectively failing on every occasion then that is nothing to be proud of. It is nothing more than a painful memory for players and fans. Mental weakness and lack of leadership can be discussed as potential reasons behind this.
FSG’s way of operating in player recruitment is usually based on resale value, low wages, and potential. Signing Milner was an exception, but this can be attributed to the fact he was a free transfer. This ethos had led to a lack of leaders in the Liverpool squad, a lack of winners, a lack of experience, and a lack of game changers. What makes this worse is how this has been normalised by many Liverpool fans. Reaching finals is now lauded as an achievement. As promising as it is to get to the verge of success, if you are effectively failing on every occasion then that is nothing to be proud of. It is nothing more than a painful memory for players and fans. Failure has now become acceptable and justifiable.
The absence of leadership, winners, experience and game changers has exposed the bad state of the Liverpool team over a number of years. Leaders that have moved on from the club during FSG’s reign includes Gerrard, Carragher, Agger, Reina, Suarez and Kuyt. There is no disputing that many of these players declined or had no future at the club. The key thing to consider is that they were all high earners; and when they were sold, the club only signed lower wage alternatives. Lowering the wage bill and cutting costs has been a priority of FSG for a number of years, and they were more than happy to get these big names off the club’s books. The leadership has been sucked out of the Liverpool squad under FSG, and there is little sign of this returning. Milner and Matip have shown positive signs, but when the going gets tough, the entire team bows down to any kind of pressure. There is not enough game changers, match winners or players that stand tall when it matters most. FSG’s desire to have a squad requiring less expenditure is the ultimate cause behind this. Their cost-cutting regime may be perceived as necessary to balance the club’s books, but the Hicks and Gillett era has conned fans into thinking that little investment is a necessary approach.
Our revenue is among the top 5 in the Premier League and we are among the top 10 richest clubs in the world. Yet, FSG have fooled Liverpool fans into believing that a positive net spend is acceptable simply because we have a great manager at the club. Is it fair on Jurgen Klopp that we have a positive net spend? The poor state of the squad has been exposed midway through the season, yet our owners have stood by and done nothing to rectify this, at such a pivotal stage of the season. Many will say that Klopp is against transfers and prefers training players. I disagree with this, firstly, because training players is not a new phenomenon. All managers train players. It is effectively a prerequisite for managing at the top level. Klopp was happy to spend £34m on Sadio Mane in the summer because the money was made available to him. It is clear that he will spend what FSG allow him to spend. A manager that is against transfers would not go ahead with spending £34m on one player. Additionally, if Klopp was against transfers and spending, he would effectively be ruling himself out of ever managing a top European club in the future. Could you imagine a club such as Real Madrid putting £150m on his lap and asking him to spend it, only for him to say ‘no thanks I prefer training’? Let us be realistic here. FSG are the root cause of the lack of investment, and Klopp is merely abiding by what they allow him to spend. He has missed out on a number of targets during his time at the club. If they did truly back the manager, this would not have so often been the case.
The current wage structure in place, along with the propensity to low-ball clubs or players has routinely led to missing out on transfer targets on a regular basis. There also seems to be a defeatist atittude among Liverpool fans, whereas not being able to attract players to the club is perfectly fine. Also, that if we were to offer a few extra million to secure a target, that the club will end up in financial turmoil again because it is deemed wasteful. There does not appear to be a middle ground between spending very little, and spending to the levels that clubs such as Man City do. It seems to be that it must be one extreme or the other. A few extra million or a slightly higher wage offer can be the difference in securing a target and improving your chances of a better season. Reaching the Champions League, as an example, would more than earn slightly extra outlay back.
These are the sort of small-scale risks that are the fine margins between success and stagnantion. Unfortunately, the FSG attitude is that we simply will not spend, in the instance that a player commands slightly higher wages, in line with market value. It is as if they believe football is a risk-free game, and that playing it ‘safe’ is the only option. It isn’t. It is the only option to them because it requires least outlay on their part.
John Henry’s comments in the aftermath of the FSG takeover in 2010 read:
“We’re going to do a lot of listening, we have a lot to learn, and we’ll walk this path together [with the fans].
We regard our role as that of stewards for the club with a primary focus on returning the club to greatness on and off the field for the long-term.
We are committed first and foremost to winning. We have a history of winning, and we want Liverpool supporters to know that this approach is what we intend to bring to this great club.”
Firstly, it is important to look at the part about listening. Many look to the whole ticket fiasco of last year and suggest that FSG do listen to fans because they backed down over introducing £77 tickets. What often gets overlooked is the fact that FSG spent an entire year in talks with supporters’ groups over ticket prices, who had hoped to prevent this from happening. Despite this, FSG ignored fan concerns and went ahead with the increases anyway. They only backed down due to fearing a further backlash after the walkout against Sunderland. It was a PR exercise after they were backed into a corner. Their business interests come before the interests of fans so we should not kid ourselves into believing that they consider the interests of fans as paramount.
If you have watched Liverpool since 2010, overall, you would also find the statement about being “committed to winning”, difficult to believe. We have had a hugely surprising and solitary title challenge in their time here. We fell short and we did not build on 2013/14. We crumbled at the Champions League group stages and have not been near reaching those heights again. Also, FSG’s ‘moneyball’ regime is premised on developing players and then selling them for profit. Not only is this a flawed and limited method, it does not allow the club to progress on the pitch. Selling our best players is a huge setback, and because we do not offer competitive wages to replace them, we find ourselves back to square one once more.
Liverpool are not competitive on the pitch, nor off it. We are not an attractive football proposition, and in offering targets lower wages, compared to more competitive clubs, we are resigned to continuously missing out. It is easy to dismiss players such as Draxler as money grabbers. The bottom line is that at PSG he will play in the Champions League every season, will get paid more, and will win more. Why would he accept lower wages to play for a club that may or may not reach the Champions League once every 5 seasons? Is there supposed to be an incentive there? If you think sentimentality towards Klopp or a like for Liverpool counts for more than wages and competitiveness, you are mistaken. Careers are short, and there is little room for sentiment. It is the club’s duty to ensure that Liverpool is an attractive football proposition. During FSG’s time at the club, this has not been the case.
FSG, understandably, did have a lot to learn when heading into English football. They had plenty of experience in American-based sport, but were effectively football novices. How much have they learnt about football between 2010 and 2017? Not enough. Could part of this be down to a lack of desire or interest in doing so? We seldom see them at games other than ‘glamour’ fixtures, such as against rivals. They understand the business side of the game and how to explore and expand club revenue through commercial, how to protect their own interests. In terms of the football side of the game, however, they still appear as novices. Are they novices, though? Or, do they just have very little interest in success? They may have not particularly progressed the club on the pitch in over 6 years, but I believe they have come to realise that they can make a lot of money from Liverpool without having to do very much.
Now that we have a great manager at the club, FSG appear to be under the impression that they can simply take a back seat, spend nothing, and expect Klopp to achieve miracles with no money and a thin squad. Klopp’s high-intensity pressing and playing style is one that visibly takes its toll on his players. By January, our small squad have appeared to run out of steam. This comes without European football and an absence of a winter break, as he was accustomed to getting in January with Dortmund. The bottom line is that we all saw last summer how the squad was too small and lacked the quality to sustain Klopp’s way of playing, across a full Premier League season. By January we ran out of steam, lost Mane for a few weeks, and suddenly the wheels have come off. FSG watched this happening from the very beginning of the month but have stood by and done nothing. Our season effectively ended in the space of a few weeks and all they have done is ‘re-sign’ Gerrard and hand Coutinho, Gomez and Lallana new contracts. They believe that PR covers their tracks.
I am by no means suggesting that Klopp should go, or whatever else some may similarly believe. I know that FSG are the heart of the problem, and that is important. Klopp is just so good a manager that FSG think that they can invest nothing and expect so much from him. It is unfair on him and unfair on the fans, too. Fans support their club unconditionally, yet after bad results, it is them who often get the finger pointed at them for Anfield being quiet. The Anfield atmosphere is a trivial issue. The atmosphere has not been great. That is something that we can all agree on. But have you ever asked why? If Liverpool were a competitive club, the fans would be buzzing every week. Constant disappointment is damaging for everybody. The club cannot expect premium fan support when they deliver mediocrity on the pitch. The fans already give plenty, and is it important for the club to give them something back. We would not see fans of other clubs welcoming team buses, with such a spectacle, ahead of big games, like Liverpool fans do. We are expected to turn from doubters to believers, but it is fair to say that we need to be given something to believe in. Constantly rebuilding under a flawed regime that is premised on ‘moneyball’ cost-cutting, low wages and forever in transition is not something to believe in.
Let me stress that I am not taking anything for granted. I am well aware of the dire financial state Liverpool were in when Hicks and Gillett were in charge. I do not, however, consider FSG to be the saviours that many others seem to think they are. They pounced on a vulnerable Liverpool to acquire the club for cheap. It was an investment opportunity, and no more. They were not the only interested party. They did not swoon in and buy the club as some kind of charitable donation, out of the kindness of their hearts.
It is clear that FSG are not the same or as bad as Hicks and Gillett, but this does not absolve them from accountability or questioning. If the expectations we have for ownership is that you merely have to be better than Hicks and Gillett (bottom of the barrel owners), what does that say about the standards we have for our club? The knowledge that they only have to be better than previous owners is precisely why FSG feel under no pressure to invest in making Liverpool better on the pitch. A ‘redeveloped Anfield’ turned into a ‘redeveloped main stand’ because FSG expected fans to finance a further Anfield Road expansion. The main stand redevelopment was financed by a loan, that fans will ultimately be paying back. You cannot tell me that they have ambitions for Liverpool, when they are not willing to spend, in order to help the club grow and progress.
What is the constant factor in what we have seen at Liverpool since 2010? Amid 4 different managers, numerous transfers in and out, and the club failing to progress with any consistency. FSG. Their lack of understanding about what makes a successful football club; their lack of willingness to learn from past mistakes; their flawed policy of buying players for the future, to save money; and their lack of ambition to invest in making the club more successful on the pitch, have and will continue to hold us back. A manager can only do so much with the quality of players that is available to him. The Premier League is more competitive than the Bundesliga. Jurgen Klopp is the best manager we have had under FSG, and will likely be the best we ever have under their ownership. If he can’t take us to the next level while they are in charge, who can? Klopp is here under the expectation that he has to overachieve with very little. Is that sustainable in the long-term? No. How many Jurgen Klopp’s are in world football, and how many could we attract under FSG? Probably none. What happens when Klopp leaves and we are still stuck with FSG? The accountability rests with them.
FSG have never been truly made accountable for their running of Liverpool. They have always found somebody else to scapegoat. Whether it is Damien Comolli, Brendan Rodgers, Colin Pascoe and Mike Marsh. There is always another fall guy when things go badly. The one mainstay is them. We have seen enough across 7 seasons to realise that FSG cannot take Liverpool any further. Also, that they do not want to. They have come to the realisation that they can make a lot of money from Liverpool without having to do very much. Progress and success on the pitch is considered secondary to this. I do not think I am ‘entitled’ to Liverpool being great again, or anything similar. I do, however, think that my club deserves better than the ownership it has had to endure for many many years. This is not a knee-jerk reaction to the team’s for for the past month, either. The same old issues appear reccurently every season. Even Klopp can’t stop the rot. We all know that lack of investment is hurting us. FSG may be businessmen with their own interests but they are managing a football club, which is more than just a business. We are under no obligation to accept this. When something is not working, we should challenge it. Blind support of everything is counter-productive. If you value the interests of Liverpool FC above that of some self-serving businessmen, you will agree that it is time for change. It is time for FSG and the club to part ways. If we ever want to see Liverpool at the top level again, we won’t stand for mediocrity any longer.