Borne out of the ashes of the Hicks/ Gillett era, the purchase of Liverpool Football Club by the Fenway Sports Group (FSG) marked a significant day in the history of the Premier League club. An escape from the tumultuous relationship between fans and the board prompted optimistic belief that this could spell the return of the club to the heights of English and indeed European football again.
The American group took over at Anfield in October 2010 having had no previous experience of football, with their primary interest being in Baseball. Managing Director Ian Ayre, whilst talking to Sports Illustrated, described the first year for FSG as “a leap of faith”, with the new investors canvassing opinion largely from other people. Their first transfer window saw the now infamous acquisitions of Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll for a combined fee exceeding £50m. Ayre saw this period as somewhat transitory suggesting to the American magazine that:
“Within that year we then get to a situation where the dust has settled and people start to see what is and isn’t working.”
“I think the fundamental shift particularly around player acquisitions and disposals was that we took the view that it needs to be more of a science.”
“Your biggest expenditure line can’t be the whim of any individual.”
Lessons learnt by FSG during that first year in charge manifested themselves in the transfer policy of today. Current policy dictates that there will be no transfer expenditure on players over the age of 30. Instead there is now a continued focus on cost effective youth recruitment, with players of perceived future talent passing into Melwood. The hope being that the likes of Raheem Sterling and Coutinho will be the stars of successful Liverpool teams in the future. Contrast this to buying purpose built players at the peak of their powers or those that have previously proven their worth but are now approaching the latter stages of their careers. The sentiment of FSG is something to be applauded, with the clamour for a youth-centric base already in evidence amongst many fans. However, is this utopian brainchild simply a naïve attempt by an American sports franchise to revolutionise football in this country?
Strict adherence to the policy laid out by FSG will unfortunately lead to an inevitable period of short-term mediocrity for the Merseyside club. In an era of instant gratification this has naturally led to many harsh criticisms, with many fans unsatisfied with a mid table standing for a club of their stature. By sacrificing short-term success at the club, FSG is aiming to trade off the rebuilding period with a goal of long-term success for generations to come. Borussia Dortmund fans will have faced exactly the same anguish during their rebuilding years, and hopefully their current successes are something Red’s fans can look to for inspiration.
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Youthful teams often exhibit their potential when circumstances are favourable but are often rudderless in the face of adversity. The trials and tribulations of an exceptionally promising Aston Villa side this year illustrate the fact perfectly. Many that actually support their ambition rightly criticize FSG here for their inflexibility. If the side could contain a balance weighted towards youth whilst containing a few older players, the transition for the club could be a lot less painful. Supporters seem baffled that the likes of John W. Henry appear totally unaware of the key influence that legends such as Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher have on the fortunes of the club. These extend further than simply in a playing capacity, with the aforementioned icons able to inspire a generation off the pitch.
On the other hand it is worth considering whether Liverpool are actually missing out by not signing older players. Are there actually any feasible over 30 options for Liverpool to consider? In reality the options are extremely sparse in the current transfer market. Over age players that are currently being touted include Xabi Alonso and David Villa. With asking prices reported to be in the region of £10m, the clubs owners would likely block both moves. Would a non-recoupable outlay reaching into the tens of millions represent good business? In the case of Alonso it is important for FSG to remain detached from the emotional side of any prospective transfer and to react with their heads rather than the clubs hearts. Aside from these players, the over age transfer market is pretty bleak and I suspect may Red’s fans would baulk over a potential move for a player of Scott Parker’s ilk.
Liverpool fans may contend this policy by looking at clubs who have found success in an older squad. The Abramovich era Chelsea squad has been littered with older stars such as Lampard and Drogba, which have seen the clubs ambitions totally transformed. However, at a club like Chelsea money seems to be no object when those at the helm are unconcerned with making losses on players. Liverpool like many other clubs simply cannot afford to conduct their business in this way. Avoiding crises that include the decade long collapse of AS Monaco is shrewd business and not something to be criticised for a lack of ambition.
With wages in the modern era ever encroaching on turnover, the precarity of football clubs is financially unprecedented. Whilst FSG’s policy is stifling instantaneous success at Liverpool, they should be applauded for bringing an era of stable growth to the club. In 5 or 10 years time Liverpool fans may not look on this period with angst but instead with a sense of gratitude for forging a successful future for the club.