John W Henry may have spent his final few hours in Liverpool thanking the club’s fans for their sterling efforts in helping rid Anfield of Tom Hicks and George Gillett, but he will no doubt have boarded his flight back to Boston on Monday more concerned with the immediate future than the recent past.
Henry met a succession of fans’ groups at the club’s offices in Liverpool, asking for their accounts of the travails of the last three years and congratulating Spirit of Shankly, the supporters’ union, on the tireless campaigning which expedited the end of the debt-ridden regime of his predecessors.
“If it was not for yourselves and supporters doing what you have, we would not be here now,” the principal backer of New England Sports Ventures, Liverpool’s new owners, told the group.
It is part of an aggressive, effective PR strategy designed to highlight the differences between the club’s new American overlords and the two whose chaotic departure last Friday prompted such relief at Anfield.
So, too, consulting with five local MPs. “I was quite impressed with the way they conducted themselves,” said Steve Rotherham, the MP for Walton. “We all fired questions about what the future of the club will be and they were open and honest.”
With hearts and minds won, it is to that future that Henry and NESV must turn. They have made it clear that this is a long-term investment, that they see patience as a virtue integral to the business of sport, and that they are prepared to listen and learn. In the coming weeks, though, they must start to do.
The first move is likely to be the restructuring of the club’s board. Commercial director Ian Ayre, managing director Christian Purslow and Philip Nash, Liverpool’s financial director, are expected to retain their places, though chairman Martin Broughton will depart after “a transitional period”.
They are likely to be joined by Michael Gordon, an investor in NESV, and hedge fund entrepreneur Jeffrey Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning NHL team and a minority owner of the Boston Red Sox. It remains unclear whether either Henry or Tom Werner, the Hollywood mogul and his partner in NESV, will be appointed chairman.
After raising the previously dismissed possibility of redeveloping Anfield rather than persisting with the club’s new stadium at Stanley Park, NESV must also begin to consider the issue of Liverpool’s home.
“We asked if there were any definite plans,” said Rotherham. “They said there are not any at the moment but that there will be a new stadium, whether that means a brand new stadium or a redevelopment on the present footprint.”
Henry, though, most likely did not raise the most pressing issue with Rotherham, his Westminster colleagues or any of the club’s fans. NESV, after all, has made it clear it will make no rash, knee-jerk decisions. After witnessing defeat in the Merseyside derby in his first game as the club’s owner, though, Henry will surely turn his mind to the matter of Roy Hodgson’s future.
The 63 year-old has managed just one Premier League win in eight games, condemning Liverpool to 19th place in the table. Should West Ham manage a point at home to Newcastle next week and Wolves avoid heavy defeat at Chelsea on Saturday, Hodgson may take his side into their game with Blackburn 24 hours later bottom. Such a performance is simply not good enough, either for fans who expect more or for owners so aware that success on the pitch translates to success off it.
Werner insisted before defeat at Goodison Park that Hodgson retained the new owners’ faith and that he would be given time, while the former Fulham manager himself remains certain he will not be sacked, insisting last Friday that his three-year deal would have to be paid up in full should NESV wish to replace him.
That, though, may not be the case. There remains some confusion at Anfield as to whether Hodgson’s contract, signed in July, contains a get-out clause in the event of a change in ownership. The manager denies it, but Broughton has intimated before that “certain provisions” were made for such an eventuality when Hodgson took charge.
NESV has set aside funding to be ploughed into the team during the January transfer window. The most important decision of the early days of its reign is who it allows to spend it. Henry may be determined that his first decision as Liverpool owner will not be a rash one. But it may have to be a quick one.