Liverpool fans celebrate outside Anfield stadium after their team won the Premier League title in June, 2020. Photo: AFP
Tony Evans
Tony Evans

Liverpool owners must work hard to regain trust of disgruntled fans in wake of on-pitch struggles and Super League fiasco

  • Principal owner John W Henry may be reluctant to allow supporters to have two seats on the board and play a role in dictating policy
  • FSG are not bad owners – having hired Jurgen Klopp and overseen Champions League and Premier League success – but they are not the best either,

Liverpool supporters are angry, confused, unhappy and divided. The pandemic, a calamitous title defence and Fenway Sports Group’s (FSG) dalliance with the failed Super League project have thrown up questions about the club’s future that most Kopites would rather not ask.

The Spirit of Shankly (SOS) supporters union met Billy Hogan this week to discuss the idea of fan representation in the boardroom. The chief executive’s views on the Super League appear to be broadly similar to SOS’s – it was a bad idea.

How much sympathy Hogan has with the group’s request for two seats on the board and a “‘golden share’ or veto on the decision-making process” is quite another matter. FSG have performed a number of U-turns in response to fan pressure but allowing supporters the power to determine club policy is unlikely to appeal to John W Henry, the principal owner.

The reaction from other sections of the fan base, too, has highlighted a latent schism in the support. SOS is largely left-leaning and though its members have a wide geographical spread, many see them as Merseyside-based activists and distrust the organisation.

Liverpool fan Emily Farley sits outside her home. Liverpool owners have consistently misjudged their club’s unique character. Photo: AFP

The union, which was founded 13 years ago at the height of the battle with the former owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, has campaigned relentlessly and inclusively on supporters’ issues. They were referred to as “Sons of strikers” by a former club executive and labelled “the sporting version of the Khmer Rouge” in internal Anfield documentation. The union continues to fight for Liverpool’s identity.

Liverpool owner John W Henry and his wife Linda Petruzzi on the Wanda Metropolitano pitch after their Champions League triumph in Madrid. Photo: Reuters

FSG has consistently misjudged the unique character of their acquisition but they have not been bad owners. The Glazers have taken more than £1.1 billion out of Manchester United in fees, interest payments and other avoidable costs in 16 years. The fury of the United fans who stormed the stadium on Sunday goes way beyond the Super League. For all their flaws, Henry and FSG have not milked Anfield of cash.

After a number of false starts, the Boston-based conglomerate made real progress when they employed Jurgen Klopp six years ago. They have overseen a Champions League win two years ago and the ending of the 30-year-title drought last season. FSG provided interest-free loans to finance the building of the new main stand and are hoping to embark on a £60 million facelift of the Anfield Road end that will provide 7,000 extra seats.

From the time he arrived on Merseyside, Henry always said that FSG would not pump money into the club. Henry had no real interest in football – Liverpool were merely an undervalued asset – but he quickly came to the conclusion that Manchester City, in particular, and Chelsea posed a significant threat to the competitiveness of the Premier League and that Anfield could not enter a financial war with the Etihad.

Hiring Jurgen Klopp six years ago was Liverpool owner FSG’s best move since taking over. Photo: DPA

For Henry, the Champions League final between City and Chelsea is a living nightmare. One of the reasons that FSG allied with their traditional enemies United and conspired to create the Super League is that Henry and Joel Glazer saw it as a way of levelling the fiscal playing field with City, who are owned by Abu Dhabi royalty. Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea spent more than £220 million last summer when Covid-19 was cutting revenue streams. The Russian billionaire can bankroll his team in a manner that FSG are unable – and unwilling – to match.

Uefa’s Financial Fair Play regulations, which Henry hoped would prevent overspending by rival clubs, proved to be a shambles. The Super League’s aim from a Liverpool perspective was to derail City’s dominance and boost Anfield’s income at the same time. It backfired. Henry came to the conclusion that Kopites put trophies and success above all other considerations. He was proved wrong by the vast majority.

The Anfield stand is covered with Liverpool banners before their match against Crystal Palace in June, 2020. Photo: EPA

A minority take the opposite view. All they want is Liverpool to win and to hell with any collateral damage to English football’s pyramid. The “FSG out” brigade dreams of a sheikh buying the club. That is a very unlikely scenario. Henry values Liverpool at somewhere close to £2.5 billion. There are very few buyers at that price.

So the fans and FSG are stuck with each other for the foreseeable future. Much rebuilding is necessary. Internally, club officials are as shell-shocked as supporters at this month’s turn of events. “It feels like the aftermath of a bomb going off,” one insider said. Hogan has to pick up the pieces on Merseyside while Henry skulks in Boston.

Satisfying the different factions within the fan base is almost impossible. Competing in the transfer market will be equally difficult, especially if, as looks likely, the team fail to qualify for the Champions League. Klopp called his bosses “not bad people”. Cynics may sneer but the manager is right. FSG are far from the worst owners Liverpool could have.

Neither are they the best. Henry has broken the trust of supporters once too often. It will take some time for belief to be rebuilt. Against the backdrop of a troubled and unsuccessful spell for the team on the pitch, the mood could well turn more toxic before it gets better.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Owners must work hard to rebuild trust