Tuesday, October 19, 2010

John W Henry Facing Dilemma On Roy Hodgson's Future At Anfield

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.

How Joe Januszewski's Love Of Liverpool Helped Spark American Rescue Mission

Joe Januszewski, the senior vice-president who runs the corporate sales team at Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox, sent an email to John W Henry, owner of NESV, suggesting the company look into buying Liverpool.

“It was as a fan, really, but also as a businessman who follows sport,” he said. “I told him that we should take a look at this opportunity.”

Henry’s interpretation is rather more blunt: “I thought it was more like ‘save my club’!”

Januszewski’s is no passing fancy. His first game was a 1-0 Anfield defeat to Manchester United in January 2005 and, crucial to his credentials, he was in Istanbul five months later to see them win the Champions League. His support, though, is much more deep-rooted.

His interest in football springs from living in what was then West Germany during the 1974 World Cup, and his first connection with Liverpool came from seeing news footage of the Hillsborough disaster after his return to the United States.

“I remember my mother crying,” he says. “I do not have to tell you about the horrific imagery. There was a Liverpool emotional connection, as a child who grew up loving football and having a dad who loved The Beatles.

“Then, one night at university, I was in a bar with some English expats and they were extolling the virtues of the mighty Reds. You get wrapped up in the history. I am a sports fan. I love the passion that comes with it.

“My first game, [Wayne] Rooney scored a soft goal in front of the Kop.

"Everyone was screaming at him and he pulled the Shrek ears. I was in the Main Stand, hearing You’ll Never Walk Alone and thinking to myself ‘I’ve picked the right club’.

“People walk into my office at Fenway Park and there is a solid Liverpool representation on my wall. There’s souvenirs, tickets. They look at me to ask what the deal is, and I tell them baseball is my business but Liverpool is my passion.”

New Liverpool Owner John Henry & NESV To Spend Wisely'

Liverpool's new owner John Henry has warned he will not throw money at the club in a bid to solve their problems.

Henry, whose NESV group sealed a £300m takeover on Friday, watched the Reds slip to 19th in the Premier League with Sunday's 2-0 defeat at Everton.

"I don't have 'Sheikh' in front of my name," said the American, referring to Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour.

"When we spend a dollar, it has to be wisely. We can't afford contracts that do not make long-term sense."

He added: "We have to be smart, bold, aggressive."

The takeover of Liverpool by Henry's New England Sports Ventures (NESV) eliminated the acquisition debt placed on the club by previous owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

But on-field troubles persist and the derby loss at Goodison Park leaves Roy Hodgson's side second-bottom of the English top flight with only six points from their opening eight games and a goal difference of minus six.

Key players such as Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres have struggled for form, while summer signings Joe Cole, Christian Poulsen, Raul Meireles and Paul Konchesky have yet to make an impact.

Off the pitch, meanwhile, funding issues have delayed the start of work on Liverpool's proposed 60,000-seater stadium in Stanley Park.

But despite the club's current plight, Henry has refused to give assurances over transfer budgets or plans for the new stadium.

"What am I thinking? How much work this is going to be. How steep the learning curve is going to be. This is not going to be easy," said the 61-year-old, whose company NESV also owns the Boston Red Sox baseball franchise.

"We realize the challenge that lies ahead if we are going to go toe-to-toe with the other big clubs. We are not asking for a long honeymoon. This is a contact sport we are in and the going can get rough sometimes. We realize that.

"We are not going to make any promises but we are going to listen and consider."

NESV, Liverpool and their major creditors Royal Bank of Scotland were accused of an "epic swindle" by Hicks, claiming the club had been severely undervalued.

Henry, whose history with the Red Sox suggests there will be significant investment to come over the coming months, denied that was the case.

And although he may not have access to the same level of funds as City's owners, the Abu Dhabi United Group , he plans to make money and not waste it on interest payments as the previous owners did.

"There were big financial issues but in the end we made a decision we really wanted to compete at this level," Henry told the Liverpool Echo.
"I know some people are saying this was a cheap price. There is no way we look at this as a cheap price for this club.

"When we arrived at the Red Sox, the New York Yankees were a juggernaut and it wasn't that much of a rivalry. I believe we turned it into a rivalry where we have gone toe-to-toe with the Yankees even though they have got a much higher revenue. They keep going up but we have gone up faster.

"When we looked at Liverpool, the first thing that struck us was there are opportunities here to really build a winner.

"The revenue potentials around the world - it is a global football club - and especially with the financial fair play rules, it is really going to be revenue that drives how good your club can be in the future.

"That is one thing that we think we are good at."

NESV is backed by 17 investors and Henry stated: "I don't think any thinking individual buys a sports franchise these days - or an English football club - to make money.

"Maybe a few, but they should have their head examined. It's about competing at the highest level in the world's largest sport for us, that's why we are here."

On Monday, Henry and fellow co-owner Tom Werner met with local MPs and supporters' groups to discuss their plans for the club.

"It was great to finally get to work," said Henry. "We met with supporters' group. No, we didn't give any assurances. We are here to listen and to learn from them and we learned a lot today.

"I think the biggest issue was a sense of disenfranchisement and their sense of not being part of their own and that is what we discussed. This was a big first step today."

Charles N'Zogbia '£12m Liverpool Transfer' To Be Funded By New Owners

Liverpool are considering hijacking Charles N'Zogbia's proposed January transfer to Birmingham by improving on the Wigan winger's £9million price-tag from the summer.

Reds manager Roy Hodgson is set to be handed a 'significant' transfer kitty to improve on his squad after Christmas.

And although Birmingham are being tipped to rekindle their interest in N'Zogbia, the Frenchman's form so far this season is said to have alerted the Anfield scouts.

N'Zogbia almost completed a £9m move to St Andrews before the transfer window closed at the end of August, but the deal collapsed at the last minute.

And Latics boss Roberto Martinez claims his value has increased off the back of the 24-year-old's string of remarkable performances - which included a brace of goals against old club Newcastle United at the weekend.

'Charles' value will go up because he is only 24 and playing for the national team,' said the Spaniard.

'But he's someone we don't want to lose.

'Last season Charles took his ability to another level, and this season he has carried on. He's improved a lot.'

N'Zogbia made his France debut in a friendly against Norway in August.

In addition to giving Hodgson more options on the left wing, N'Zogbia is also capable of filling in on the left side of defence.

Joe Cole Admits He Is Struggling To Find His Form

Joe Cole believes it is up to Liverpool's players to find a way to grind out a victory after admitting his lack of form and the club's struggles are unfamiliar territory for him.

The former Chelsea midfielder was expected to make a significant impact after his summer arrival but has found himself involved in the club's worst start to a season since 1953-54. Under that pressure, very few of the players have reached anywhere close to their best but Cole insists the squad are united behind the manager Roy Hodgson, who has endured a difficult time since replacing Rafael Benítez in July.

"The right thing to do is try to grind out the first win, then take it from there," Cole said after the 2-0 Merseyside derby defeat extended the run of matches in all competitions without a win to six.

"We are right behind the manager. We all believe in the team and in the club. We have just got to stick together. We are doing a lot of things right but we have got to cut out what we're doing wrong.

"It's disappointing to lose such a big game but in these situations, the worst thing you can do is start pointing fingers at each other. We have got to look at ourselves.

"It's encouraging now that the club has got a direction to go in [after the £300m takeover by New England Sports Ventures]. We are happy with that. The thing is to keep going and keep our heads. We have got to do better – everyone at the club."

Defeat at Goodison Park was Liverpool's fourth in eight Premier League matches, leaving them in 19th place with six points and only escaping the ignominy of being bottom by West Ham's inferior goal difference.

In his post-match comments, Hodgson said the second half against Everton was the best they had played in his short reign. But Cole admits the team – and him personally – are a long way short of what is expected.

"We are not playing well. I'm not playing well. I know that. I expect better from myself," he told the Liverpool Echo. "I'll just try to do what I can do to get back to it. I need to find my form somehow. I'm sure I will and it will come soon.

"Every minute of every day I'm thinking about how I can get there again. I'm desperate to do well for Liverpool. I've never had a period like this before and it is all new territory for me but it is a challenge and life is never easy."

How Much Time Will Liverpool's New Owners Give Roy Hodgson To Save His Job?

Liverpool's new owners insisted on Saturday that Roy Hodgson's job is safe and vowed he would be given time to turn around the club's dismal start to the season.

After hearing their manager describe Sunday's 2-0 defeat at Everton as "our best performance of the season", John W. Henry and Tom Werner could be forgiven for already changing their minds.

So much for the feel-good factor in the red half of Merseyside, so much for that fresh start and stability after the end of a courtroom drama to rival anything that could be dreamed up in Hollywood.

This was reality brought into sharp focus for everyone who cares about Liverpool. The club's dire straits on the pitch will take more than a change of ownership to resolve – certainly a change of playing personnel and maybe a new manager.

Werner, the chairman of New England Sports Ventures, who bought the Merseyside club for £300 million at the end of last week, has already talked about providing Hodgson with funds to invest in the side when the January transfer window opens.

But just how long does the former Fulham manager have to arrest a depressing slide that leaves his team 19th in the Premier League on six points, having recorded just one victory from their eight league outings this season.

The trope coming out of the NESV camp ever since their bid for the club was first made public just under two weeks ago is that they are 'winners', that second best is not enough. How does a relegation battle sound, then?

'Going down, going down' chanted the gleeful Everton supporters, all the more poignant a reminder to Henry as he sat in the stands of his new acquisition's bitter local rivals. Maybe he bought the wrong Merseyside club.

Nearly a quarter of the season gone and Liverpool are down there cavorting with the likes of West Ham, Wolves and Birmingham. Even a baseball fan must know they are in a relegation scrap.

When NESV bought the Boston Red Sox in 2002, they wasted little time in firing the general manager and the manager, a ruthless decision but one that set them on the path to two World Series victories after 86 years in the wilderness. More results like this and surely Henry's hand will start twitching on the trigger. The question is, how long can he afford to wait?

People say that little can be gleaned from local derbies, but it is not the result that will be worrying Liverpool supporters but the performance. No ideas, no inspiration, no guile and limited passion, despite a to-be-expected rally after they fell two behind.

What needs to be ascertained is who is more to blame; the manager or the players.

Hodgson certainly does himself no favors by suggesting that performances like Sunday's are in any way impressive. As individuals the players tried to battle, but as a collective team there was a distinct lack of passion, drive or spirit.

It was an approach to the game that allowed Everton to swarm all over their visitors in the first 30 minutes like bees after honey, denying the Liverpool players time to play the ball and build moves together. After a few half chances early on, Cahill's opener was almost inevitable.

That Hodgson cited his side's comparatively gung-ho approach in the second half also demonstrates a misunderstanding of the game. Everton were quite happy to sit deep, soak up the pressure and play on the counter-attack, asking Liverpool if they had a way past them. The answer was emphatic: they didn't. Never did Tim Howard's goal look under any serious threat as Steven Gerrard and Co. toiled to no avail.

To his credit, Hodgson made his substitutions earlier than in previous matches, but he needs to take note of what everyone keeps telling him; that Liverpool are not Fulham, that draws are not good enough, that uninspiring defensive tactics are not acceptable. He may be a veteran at 63, but the best managers, even the oldest and wisest, are able to adapt.

Not that it looks like happening any time soon. “It is insulting to suggest that because you move to a new club, your methods suddenly don’t work when they’ve held you in good stead for 35 years and made you one of the most respected coaches in Europe,” said Hodgson earlier this season. “It’s unbelievable.”

Hodgson will argue that he needs time – eight games is not enough to put his stamp on the team – and more importantly a transfer window to turn the club's fortunes around.

Liverpool ‘Flop’ Alberto Aquilani Is Reborn As Juventus Revival Continues

On the weekend where the crisis of England’s most successful club went from bad to worse with yet another defeat to Everton in the Merseyside Derby, a result that sees Liverpool floundering in the relegation zone, out-on-loan Reds midfielder Alberto Aquilani poured yet more salt into an already sore wound with an indomitable performance for an increasingly improving Juventus side.

While there is no doubt that Liverpool erred in splashing out €20 million on a player who has had more injuries than a Nigel De Jong torture victim, especially as he was signed as Xabi Alonso’s replacement, all this talk of the 26-year-old being an unmitigated ‘flop’ is rather, well, premfaced. Not only did Aquilani play very well in virtually all of his admittedly low number of 26 games for Liverpool last season, more importantly the 2007 Champions League finalists are crying out for a commanding midfielder of his ilk just now.

Juventus were already laughing all the way to the bank when they managed to sell the worst player to represent the Bianconeri for at least a decade – Christian Poulsen – to Liverpool for €5.5m, their merriment increased even further when they were handed Aquilani on loan in return, with the option to buy him permanently. In the space of a few months Liverpool have gone from a midfield of Mascherano-Aquilani-Gerrard to one including Poulsen, the equally awful Lucas and Raul Meireles. No wonder they are in the relegation zone.

The Roman has gradually been implemented into the Juventus starting XI, and the last few weeks has demonstrated that if he can stay fit he will be a top-class – potentially world class – midfielder for the Old Lady. He confirmed his impressive showing against Inter a fortnight ago with another super display in the 4-0 thrashing of Lecce yesterday afternoon. Aquilani opened the scoring with a 25-yard thunderbolt, and controlled the middle-of-the-park alongside fellow reborn team-mate Felipe Melo.

The Brazilian had an horrific first season in Turin last term, following his big-money move from Fiorentina where he had been the best midfielder in Serie A in 2008/09, but Luigi Del Neri has rediscovered the 27-year-old. Melo tucked away the non-existent penalty Juve were awarded yesterday with an impudent ‘Panenka’ chip down the middle of the goal, an execution that symbolised his form and confidence. As well as his renowned defensive work, Melo was even surprisingly spraying 50-yard Michel Platini raking-passes around the pitch.

With Milos Krasic once again unstoppable on the right flank, and centre-back duo Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci blossoming to earn a second clean sheet in a row, there is no doubt that Juventus are growing in stature. Finally, the Bianconeri have a recognizable system and style of play.

It is unlikely that the Old Lady will challenge for the Scudetto this season. There are still far too many weaknesses such as the full back positions, the left midfield role, and the absence of a top-class forward. But, if Juve maintain their current form then a top four spot at least should be a guarantee. And that will enable them to fill these holes with Edin Dzeko-calibre stars and really challenge for major honours from 2011/12.

Just like Liverpool now, Juventus recently hit rock bottom both on-and-off-the-pitch. But the signs are there, with a new president who shares his grandfather’s values, a new stadium on the way, a ‘new’ group of promising players such as Aquilani, Melo, Krasic and Bonucci, and a new, clear system, that Italy’s most successful team are on the road to success again sooner rather than later.