The now infamous statement that “The first spade will start going into the ground on that [stadium] project by March ”, made by George Gillett, after he and Tom Hicks assumed control of the club, still resonates at Liverpool to this day. Although I do not believe this was a lie from the now much maligned former owners, more a misguided statement given that they hadn’t fully assessed the situation, the stadium issue is as pressingly in the mind of current owner John Henry, as it was for his predecessors. But with life on the pitch not going as smoothly as most would like, combined with the fact that only £37m in stadium-related borrowings are now left at the club on top of the money that has already been invested in the Stanley Park stadium, is it time to put plans for a new ground on the backburner and concentrate on footballing matters?
For financial growth, a new stadium, or a refurbishment of Anfield, is vital for Liverpool. But if things on the pitch are not rectified quickly, there may be many empty seats at a 60,000 seater stadium. The issue, as is the case with many clubs, is not whether Liverpool have the fan-base to fill a ground of that size, they do, many times over, but what percentage of those fans will want to pay to see a side not playing well and perhaps not even getting into Europe. It is a situation which is also in evidence at West Ham. While investing time, money and effort into securing a move to the Olympic Stadium, the side languish at the foot of the table. Again, West Ham have the fan-base to fill the stadium, however, how many will turn up to watch a side struggling in the Premier League, or even plying their trade in The Championship?
What is encouraging for Liverpool fans is that John Henry and NESV seem to want to make the right moves for the advancement of the club and not jump into commitments like the previous regime, highlighted by Gillett’s unfortunate ‘spade’ statement. On taking over the club Henry stated;
“We have to listen, learn, talk to the community, talk to the council, talk with the supporters. But the biggest issue of all is really what makes the most sense for Liverpool, long term.”
It is clear that Henry and NESV are not going to jump in head first with any decisions, and this may well be what is best for the club. They recognise the stadium issue as one that has to be dealt with, and Henry compared it to the situation he encountered when he took over at the Boston Red Sox;
“The stadium issue was a big issue in Boston. We went in there not knowing what we should do – build a new ballpark or refurbish, and we have the same issue here”
They eventually refurbished the famous Fenway Park in Boston and ditched plans to build an entirely new stadium, instead concentrating on the team. Henry and NESV would be wise to do the same at Liverpool, as a less than satisfactory start to the season has been combined with dismal performances and a general lack of ambition.
Although a new or refurbished stadium may well be on the agenda for Liverpool, it should be part of a long-term plan, with a short-term plan aimed at bringing success on the pitch, increasing revenue and allowing a sustainable period of growth during which the club can build a stadium fit for the future of a successful side. To concentrate on the stadium whilst neglecting on the pitch issues would be a gross oversight for the new owners, as more years in the wilderness would somewhat take the shine off a brand-spanking new ground.