Liverpool and Fenway Sports Group are in the middle of a time paradox


(This is a blog for the International Business Times. An edited version is also available on their website.)

Ten days have passed since the sacking of Kenny Dalglish as Liverpool’s seventh manager since their last league title in 1989. And apart from one season (2008-09) under Rafael Benitez, the club have been no closer to the Premier League title than when Dalglish left for the first time, and now look as far from it as ever. Like Erwin Schrodinger, Liverpool’s owners sit in the middle of two futures: ruin and reward. Both, it seems, are at this stage eminently plausible. In these days of seismic change for the club, decisions taken could render short-term success or long-term failure, or vice versa, but not both. The choice of new manager could have profound implications.

Fenway Sports Group (FSG), the club’s owners, are in the middle of a paradox: they have both all the time in the world, and none at all. These are crucial months. Liverpool are far, far behind the spending power of Manchesters City and United, Chelsea and also Arsenal who, despite being transfer market flirts rather than full blown seductive agents like City, can command a match day revenue at the Emirates that is some 125% higher than Liverpool’s. The plans for the new stadium are stalling and Liverpool are being outstripped and outspent by their rivals. Time is of the essence.

And here is the tricky bit. These days being spent raking the globe for suitable managerial candidates are critical for Liverpool’s short- and long-term future. This isn’t the Cuban Missile Crisis (no matter how much Andre Villas-Boas looks like JFK) but FSG are charged with an incredible task in these few days of uncertainty. The club, in lieu of a new stadium popping up before the start of the season, need a clear set of goals. A ten-year plan. Playing the long game could help to circumvent Manchester City’s annual dominance of the transfer market, help to grow the academy and build a team of players that extends into an identity, a legacy.

Kenny Dalglish had the identity. The greatest player in Liverpool’s history, he embodied the tradition and values of the club. What was missing was a plan. Too often under Dalglish Liverpool were reactionary, plugging gaps, steadying, not growing and moving forward. Signings like Jordan Henderson, Andy Carroll and Sebastian Coates hinted at a plan for the future of the squad. But, Coates (who made just 12 appearances all year) aside, as the season progressed it became obvious that these and other acquisitions were not good enough to be the basis of a title-winning squad. On top of that, Dalglish paid ludicrously over the odds for them, a mistake which shattered the owner’s confidence in him being trusted with a budget, and surely contributed to his job being lost.

Early indications are that FSG are looking to appoint a young candidate around whom the club can build a winning ethos and a real since of a dynasty, like the Liverpool of old. Roberto Martinez, Brendan Rodgers and Andre Villas-Boas (none of whom are over 40) have all been linked. While this is a fine plan of attack – a long-term plan is almost certainly Liverpool’s best option – there is also a contradiction. The club is running out of time. Without Champions League money and the ability to attract top players which that competition grants, Liverpool are standing still. Presuming the club’s better players like Pepe Reina, Martin Skrtel and Luis Suarez stay, which is by no means guaranteed, they still need heavy investment over the summer in order to stand a better chance of qualifying for Europe’s top tournament in 2013-14. Another season, or two, without Champions League soccer and Liverpool will be even further from Europe’s elite clubs and further still from that elusive nineteenth Premier League title.

Liverpool are delicately poised between dropping to mid-table and pushing on to compete for the title. If the owners emphasise the long-term, they risk worsening the club’s immediate and faltering present. If they kick the well-needed modernisation of the club into the long grass, they could find themselves presiding over a club that has lost its value and finally lost its place as one of the greatest and most iconic soccer clubs in the world.

Kenny is unsackable

A short point, but one that needs making. John Henry and the Liverpool board were right to move and sack Roy Hodgson in January of last year, but the decision to appoint Kenny Dalglish is looking perilously stupid. The problem was always going to be if it started going badly. After a decent back half of last season, Dalglish rightly took plaudits for turning Liverpool’s season from dreadful to respectable. But since taking over, he’s wasted millions on mediocre players like Carroll, Henderson and Downing. The owners will be unlikely to want to shell out again in the summer, but the squad needs a huge overhaul. There is an enormous lack of quality. After Suarez and an already-peaked Gerrard, there’s not much to be positive about.

The biggest problem for the owners, though, is that the man they turned to in desperation in January 2011 is the best player ever to have played for the club, a man whose status at Liverpool is utterly unrivalled, playing over 500 games and scoring a shed load of goals. After his resignation in the early 90s, there was a tragedy to be romanticised for Liverpool fans. For two decades he was linked to the club’s management post and was a perpetual shadow on the Anfield hotseat, especially when Rafa Benitez appointed him to the youth academy in 2009. Dalglish was asked to do a bit of a fix job in January 2011 and was awarded with a 3-year contract. But the decision to appoint him has proven to be extremely short-sighted. Now, FSG are left with a man who is unsackable. The club are performing poorly, but would have to collapse to astronomically awful depths for Liverpool fans to turn against him. Moreover, sacking him will look like a direct attack on the history and icons of the club – something the last American owners found all too easily. For now, there’s an impasse. A weak squad and the likelihood of very little transfer activity – not to mention speculation about the futures of Suarez, Kuyt and Reina – will mean another long summer for Liverpool fans.