Part 2: Vindication for Fenway Sports Group
As much as this season has been a triumph for Jürgen Klopp and his players, it has also been one for Fenway Sports Group. They arrived an unknown quantity, and there were stumbles as they figured things out, but Liverpool are stronger now than they’ve ever been in the Premier League era and that’s largely thanks to them. We wanted to know a little more about how TLO’s writers felt about the club’s owners—today, in the past, and moving forward.
Those #FSGout folks have to be feeling pretty silly right about now. Sure, it’s easy to look at the big, shiny European Cup and say, “See!” but looking at the steady on-pitch and off-pitch improvements, I think they’ve been unlucky to have taken this long to win something major. There’s an alternate reality somewhere where Liverpool under FSG has won two Premier League titles, two Champions Leagues, two League Cups, and a Europa League and FA Cup just for kicks.
And even in this reality where they’ve only gone and won the biggest prize in club football (and also a League Cup), they’ve also renovated and expanded the Anfield Main Stand, increased revenue, are planning on further Anfield renovations, and are building a new combined youth and senior training facility in Kirkby. Most importantly, they’ve largely united what was a very divided fanbase when they took over.
Sure, it hasn’t always been a smooth ride. There were mistakes along the way as the new owners adjusted and learned from those mistakes. But they were relatively quick learners. Not only that, they had a clear, long-term vision for the club, one that does well to ignore the hot takes and punditry from footballing dinosaurs. They were patient in waiting for the right moment to land Jurgen Klopp. And they’ve been patient in landing the players that they knew would improve their performances. They’ve done more with less, and I’m not sure how much more you could reasonably ask from them.
Looking back, it seems obvious that FSG had a clear vision of how they wanted the club to be run from day one but no idea how to execute it. The issues around Damien Comolli and Brendan Rodgers’ clashes with the transfer committee felt like growing pains in trying to run the club in a way traditional football people are unaccustomed to. What it needed was everyone to be on the same page, and since that’s happened, the club has been flying.
Michael Edwards gets so much praise now that it’s easy to forget that promoting a guy with no experience in the role to sporting director was a big risk FSG took. Yes, he was doing work behind the scenes they liked, but to take over the big job? Many others would’ve tried to put a safe pair of hands in place above his head, but the club knew what they wanted and that he was the guy to do it. For a number of years, there was a lament that FSG “aren’t as clever as they think they are.” There were frustrations along the way, but I don’t think the last 2 seasons can be seen as anything other than a total vindication of the FSG model.
I feel like FSG definitely deserve a lot of credit when it comes to getting this whole project pointed in the right direction. They replaced Hodgson with Kenny, brought in Brendan, then elevated Michael Edwards, then signed Klopp. All good decisions in terms of that consistent progression from the quagmire they inherited and decisions that, when they maybe didn’t quite work out as well as hoped they showed they could learn from. Still, I have to admit I’m still just a touch conflicted here.
Because I’ve also lowkey hated the way they’ve treated people on the way out. As owners it’s something they’re become known for in Boston, and I can’t help but feel they did it a little with Torres and Sterling in particular. I might be wrong—I don’t know everything that goes on behind the scenes—but if there was ever any lingering doubt in me regarding FSG it’s with their history of how they treat people on the way out more than with whether they can handle a sporting institution well more broadly.
Despite that, I do think they’ve been terrific stewards of the club to this point and would be absolutely happy to keep them around provided those sorts of shenanigans don’t become a regular occurrence with Liverpool.
Despite not following baseball closely, I was well acquainted with FSG’s success here in America. They bought a team that hadn’t won a World Series in a billion years and turned them into the best team in baseball almost instantly. Successful American owners don’t necessarily translate very well to English football (*cough* Arsenal and United *cough*), but I always felt like this was going to be a good move. Even during the Rodger’s era, I felt like they approached things well enough, especially since they seemed to learn from their mistakes.
Going forward from where we are now is actually where I have the biggest question mark. I don’t know what the answers are, but FSG have shown time and time again that they make the right decisions. Still, I’m a little worried their recent hit rate might not be sustainable—it seems the law of averages would suggest something has to go wrong soon. But maybe not.
I think they’ve been instrumental in shaping Liverpool into what it is today. Honestly, they’ve made good on almost all of their promises, they’ve brought in players who know the values and destinies of the club, and they’ve trimmed out the ones that didn’t want to stick around. I have no complaints about FSG whatsoever and am happy that they’re at the helm, and 2018-2019 definitely wasn’t a bad year for them.
I’ve been on record about my positive FSG feelings since the early days, and not just because of the dire situation they pulled the club out of with their glorious epic swindle. The made some early—and costly—missteps, but they’ve consistently put their money where their mouth is—even if their brain has been elsewhere on occasion. They listened to fans on the stadium issue, they’ve done right by fans on ticketing prices, and as they’ve gotten the structure in place that they wanted, success on the pitch has followed.
I see no reason to be skeptical of FSG—their model or their intentions—at this point, and think they should be praised more often than they are for assembling the structure that allowed this delightful team to be built.
I like FSG. Liverpool were in a terrible state when John and Tom took over. Words like “administration” were being thrown around at the time. I had to look up what it meant. Bad things. Roy Hodgson was the manager then. If you weren’t around at the time, Hodgson was abysmal. We lost to Northampton Town in the League Cup that season. FSG got rid. A+ work there. They brought in King Kenny Dalglish to right the listing ship, a masterstroke of unification from the owners, but tactically Liverpool were still well behind. Damion Comoli didn’t help things but he’s a blip.
Then came Brendan Rodgers with a real plan and some impressive attacking football. Liverpool nearly won the league but the team still needed defensive improvements and a manager with greater football acumen and a larger than life personality. FSG provided. We tracked Klopp’s plane to Liverpool we were so excited.
And all along the way we’ve heard from Liverpool’s managers about their great relationship with FSG. Klopp, in particular, praises the ownership group when he has the chance. They are doing everything you want from owners. They are putting money into the club, not taking any out, improving the club’s facilities, supporting transfers and rewarding excellent players for excellent work. We just won the Champions League. It’s been a long rebuild but it feels good to know that Liverpool’s success this season isn’t a one-off. The team’s prowess is sustainable. That’s thanks to FSG.
FSG Out does feel fully and finally a thing of the past, and as someone who always looked at the club’s current owners and thought they were about as good as it gets in the modern game if you don’t like the idea of becoming the plaything of an oligarch or the PR wing of a human-rights abusing petrostate, that’s certainly an added bonus to this year’s success.
I don’t know if I ever fully realised along the way—while people were talking moneyball without ever fully understanding it and Damien Comolli was buying up players based on chance creation stats that didn’t pay off—precisely what the real end goal for them looked like, but it’s a credit to FSG for having one and sticking to their guns despite those early stumbles while they got the right people into position and then trusted them to do their thing. Even if for a while, at least to those of us on the outside, their thing seemed to be fighting about transfer deals in the press via briefed journos.
In retrospect—and even a little at the time if you were paying close attention—the transfer committee of the Brendan Rodgers era was on the right track. FSG got the backroom set-up, at least as a broad idea, right first. Then they ditched Rodgers and got a manager who could work with them and who also happened to be one of the best man managers in the world and tactically astute and to have a cult of personality that helped to reinvigorate the fanbase. Now they’re at the forefront of analytical recruitment and out there hiring throw-in coaches to gain an edge over their less progressive—but often richer—opponents.
Looking back, it seems clear they had a vision from the start, even if at the start they maybe didn’t quite know how to implement it. They deserve credit for that—and for sticking with it until it clicked.
I don’t know that I’d say that things with FSG are perfect, but I have very few complaints. Past issues of tapping-up and horribly botched transfer attempts were hopefully learning experiences so that they can avoid making them again, and I appreciate that FSG seem willing to pay top dollar when the manager and recruitment staff deem it necessary. I also like the faith they seem give their managers—Klopp now, obviously, but even with previous managers there has been a lot of faith and leeway given..
It’s been an interesting experience, watching our owners find their feet in the football world, but it was clear even from the beginning that the goal was to recruit the best to help them figure it all out. It may have taken some time for that to happen, but it looks now like they’ve really got the right mix of people working together towards the same goal.