The inside story of how Fenway transformed Liverpool from chaos of 2010 to record-breaking runners-up

Chris Bascombe
Liverpool have made vast progress over the past eight years

Anfield was deserted when a slender, bespectacled figure arrived at the Shankly Gates and requested a preview of his new home.

John W. Henry’s team of investors had purchased Liverpool and, having taken a private tour of the club museum, the American wanted an early morning stroll around the stadium. 

“I came out here and walked the pitch alone,” he said, contradicting Gerry Marsden’s anthem. “I love Anfield when the place is empty and the sun is coming out.”

The symbolism of Henry enjoying his new dawn back in October 2010 has aged well. There is Liverpool before Fenway Sports Group. And there is Liverpool now.

There is the club purchased amid High Court rancour - the ragged aristocrat stumbling around the local tavern, searching for pennies while boring passing acquaintances with tales of old glory – and the corporate and sporting behemoth, incrementally rebuilding with impassioned dexterity.

There are years of recruitment errors bringing down outstanding managers and there is the winning streak of exceptional signings facilitating Jurgen Klopp’s revival.

In 2010, Liverpool had their name, one upheld by recent European success, a smattering of world-class talents, a global following and enough cup success to nourish optimism that a title win was a few more signings away.

What they did not have was an infrastructure befitting that reputation. Instead, by 2010, Liverpool was the smallest of big clubs - one that had fallen off their perch more than being knocked off.

Until FSG's arrival, administrative power at Liverpool was essentially focused on the chief executive, authorised by a chairman and generally supportive board members. In 1990 Liverpool had Noel White and then David Moores who would defer to the advice of a trusted lieutenant - Peter Robinson until the turn of the Millennium and then Rick Parry, the latter having helped form the Premier League in 1992 and the natural fit to lead the club into the modern age. 

All those charged with executive responsibility had to contend not only with the extraordinary footballing legacies of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, but a restrictive and widely supported conservatism which claimed the Liverpool way was the only way.

John W Henry is a popular figure at Anfield Credit: Getty images

It meant even routine changes to structure, methods or coaching personnel could be interpreted as risky, radical or ruinous, not just by shareholders, but supporters. Liverpool is a club, after all, where Graeme Souness turning an unused boot room into a press area is still chronicled by some as desecrating sacred ground.

“When you have been so successful there is the temptation to stick with a formula,” said Parry, who took over as chief executive in 1999. “You want to hang on to what you thought was good. But across the 90s the external environment was rapidly changing – the Premier League, increased revenues, Bosman, the revamped Champions League. Perhaps we were not completely geared for it.”

Ian Ayre was appointed Managing Director just after Moores sold in 2007. A lifelong fan, his experience upon walking into Anfield as an employee was common for those whose perception of the club at that time clashed with the sobering truth. 

“I was shocked by how small the infrastructure was,” said Ayre, who left the club in 2017. “The overall staff was around 200. Retail and hospitality was outsourced. What proved a hard part of the journey was everyone within the club knew what had to happen to expand the club, while at the same time there was going to be a negative reaction to commercialisation. But we had to do it. We were getting left behind. 

“You need all the components right to compete – the commercial revenue, the stadium – it creates a virtuous circle you need to have the funds to build a team. For a while the club completely lost its way.”

Structural changes

Liverpool were, it is true, at this time playing a never-ending game of catch-up, particularly when Chelsea took transfer expenditure to extreme levels in the early 2000s.

“At the end of Gerard Houllier’s reign [in 2004] and the start of Rafa Benitez's time in charge, we would often talk about Chelsea. Not only did they have no weaknesses in their first XI, they had two quality players in each position,” said Parry. “Having the resources to get to that position was tough.”

Alex Miller, who was appointed to Liverpool’s technical department under Gerard Houllier and served as a coach under Rafael Benitez, was also dealing with the challenges of competing with domestic rivals for the most coveted players.

“We identified a lot of top players early under Gerard and Rafa, but sometimes things go against you,” he said. “We met Ronaldo, Pablo Aimar, Dani Alves – who we first saw at a youth tournament in Dubai. We knew all about Petr Cech, who was outstanding as a 16-year-old in the Czech Republic side, playing well below his age group in the under-20 World Cup.

“There could be multiple reasons deals did not happen - lots of agents being in the background, prices going up as soon as you showed interest. Finance did come into it. The big money was being handed out. This was the start of era where you could be offering a player £100,000 a week and you knew they would be out the office and straight onto the phone to another club telling them what you had offered and trying to get more."

One ex-Liverpool coach tells the story of being out for dinner with an Arsenal scout and discussing a player of interest. The scout called Arsene Wenger and within 30 minutes David Dein was on the phone arranging a meeting with the player’s representatives.

“I thought to myself, ‘they are quick. I wish we were able to do that,'” he said, ruefully.

Ironically, Benitez's reign at Anfield was ultimately undone by the arrival of owners in George Gillett and Tom Hicks who promised much but - off the field, at least - delivered only chaos. The club was perilously close to financial catastrophe until FSG challenged the legality of Hicks and Gillett’s ownership when they defaulted on their Royal Bank of Scotland loans in the autumn of 2010.

The key for Anfield's new regime was - as Parry has since identified - patience. “What I admire about Fenway is they have stuck to a plan and been prepared to take a longer view," he says. “We always had that sense of expectation going into every season that it is time to win the league again. If there is one lesson I think would have stood us in better stead it would be to show more of that patience, concentrating more on quality in each transfer window and building over a longer period.”

Ayre confirms that strength of purpose. “When you believe in what you are doing – although you can never be rigid – you have go with it. They have,” he says. “Even when criticism came, they did not waver from the plan. You can’t run Liverpool and expect to be popular.”

There have been problems. Damien Comolli’s appointment in 2010 cost time and money, while the decision to retain Kenny Dalglish in a permanent manager's role in 2011 contradicted the promise to find a more youthful figurehead – which they eventually did in Brendan Rodgers a year later.

There were numerous PR catastrophes, most notably the handling of Luis Suarez’s indiscretions and ticket pricing. They wasted millions on Andy Carroll, Mario Balotelli and Christian Benteke and there was a time when it seemed FSG was delivering apologies more frequently than results.

In the summer of 2012 when the club refused to overpay for Fulham’s Clint Dempsey, principal owner Henry published an open letter to appease fans disgruntled by lack of major signings. It read more like a manifesto.

“The transfer policy was not about cutting costs. It was - and will be in the future - about getting maximum value for what is spent so that we can build quality and depth,” he wrote. “We must comply with Financial Fair Play guidelines that ensure spending is tied to income.”

Following this statement, Liverpool’s executive structure changed. FSG President Michael Gordon and a recruitment team led by Michael Edwards, later promoted to Sporting Director, assumed greater authority. All have shunned the limelight yet their analytical approach to recruitment oversaw a quiet revolution.

“Michael Edwards’ transition worked out really well,” says Ayre. “Initially he was managing the technical and analytical side as we went into deals and he is now handling more of the negotiations. He likes to keep a low profile because he is the type of person who will acknowledge how many others are contributing, like Dave Fallows, Barry Hunter and Ian Graham. 

“Ian is the real scientist of the group who has made a massive contribution to recruitment. He built an analytics system specifically for Liverpool, taking in all the information to give them a more rounded decision on which players they should be looking at. 

“Fenway bought into that very quickly. In 2010 they knew they could not go straight in at the top end for players. It will always be just as important to be finding Andy Robertson as signing Virgil van Dijk. It’s not how much you have to spend but how you spend.”

Recruitment strategy

John W. Henry’s picturesque dawn stroll back in 2010 disguised the fact he was staring at ground zero. In his first few days in charge, he met supporters, journalists, players, current employees, former employees and just about anyone with an understanding of what had become of Liverpool Football Club, building a sense of what had gone wrong since the last title.

No Harvard academic was required to conclude that player recruitment was at the tip of the pyramid. This had been an issue ever since the decision to strengthen the title-winning side of 1990 with Millwall's Jimmy Carter and Coventry's David Speedie, and taking in mis-steps from Nigel Clough to Julian Dicks, Stan Collymore to El Hadji Diouf.  

Klopp was happy to wait to sign Virgil van Dijk rather than change target Credit: Reuters

“If you break it down essentially that is right but there are many components around that you need right to compete,” says Ayre. “You have to improve the commercial revenue, the stadium, the whole infrastructure so you have the funds to build a team. Had Hicks and Gillett been what they said they were, Liverpool would be in the position they are now much sooner.”

“What you have to remember about those first few years under FSG is we had debts coming out of the Hicks and Gillett regime which took time to claw our way back from,” says Ayre.

“For a while you are trying to plaster over the cracks left behind. People see a player sold and think, ‘why haven’t you spent the same on someone else?’ but it is not so simple. It took time, chipping away under a few different managers. You make decisions and buy players which, with more funds, you might not have.”

Rodgers almost delivered in 2014 as Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho showed how transformative clever signings could be. But rather than provide the platform for another title push, that too fell apart. Ayre admits the recruitment challenges did not got easier.

“Take the example of Alexis Sanchez, who we tried to sign from Barcelona in 2014. I know for an absolute fact Arsenal did not offer more than we did. At some point the decision came down to the player and he chose Arsenal,” said Ayre.

“We put in a lot of effort and did not get him. As a result of that you look around and the determination to get someone in can lead to a bad decision…”

Jurgen Klopp has been the missing piece in the puzzle Credit: Getty images

Ayre recalls another transfer deadline day when he was stuck in civil war Ukraine for Dinipro’s Yevhen Konoplyanka. “We met the clause, agreed to pay up front and on the time set, did the medical and had it all done. Then the president disappeared and we never saw him again and the deadline passed. You would not believe how much needs to go right to get a deal over the line.”

After a downturn precipitated Rodgers’ exit, Klopp’s appointment in 2015 was the missing piece. “Jurgen fits the plan because he fits the club,” says Ayre. “With him you had someone who trusted and believed in it. It makes me laugh whenever I read something saying, ‘the recruitment strategy changed with Klopp’. There is no difference in the system now than there ever was. What is most important is that everyone believes in it, and he does.

“Compare what happened with Sanchez to the Van Dijk situation. Where Jurgen was so strong is when that deal initially fell away he did not do what other coaches might do and ask for someone else so he could have another body in the dressing room. He was prepared to wait to get what he felt was the right player.”

Over the last three years Liverpool have developed the uncanny knack of finding the right player, assisted by the swollen budget of commercial expansion and Champions League progress.

“It has been about progress,” says Ayre.“At first that was getting into Europe again, then into the Champions League and then finally you want a team you know can win trophies. All the managers, whether it was Kenny, then Brendan and then Jurgen have been part of that journey to help get the club where it is today. Now they have caught up.

“I honestly believe they have all the right ingredients now. The challenge is the scale and depth of that Manchester City machine. It is hard to see how or when that stops.” 

Henry, back at Anfield on Sunday for the season finale against Wolverhampton Wanderer, cannot bookend his journey until that title returns, but he can take another solitary and even more poignant walk around his stadium. He might wait for dawn over that new Main Stand built with a £100 million FSG loan, contemplating what has been achieved since 2010.

Liverpool Football Club is not yet back on that perch. But they are not staggering around talking about the past anymore. 

There is no escaping the narrow failure of 2019 adds to a catalogue of agonising disappointment. The silver lining may come in Madrid on June 1

When Henry joined Sunday's lap of appreciation alongside his coach and players, he could at least be consoled by golden skies.