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FSG- Managing decline or managing expectations at Liverpool?

’81 was a funny old year for Liverpool.

While the streets of Toxteth were burning and Alan Kennedy was securing Liverpool’s third European Cup in Paris against Real Madrid a meeting was taking place in 10 Downing Street.

It was a meeting of the Cabinet, and the then Chancellor,Geoffrey Howe, was recommending to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher the ‘managed decline’ of the city of Liverpool.

We know this because Cabinet papers were recently released under the ’30 year disclosure rule’; a quaint system whereby bad news can be buried until all the protagonists are off the scene.

In Liverpool, at the time, we all knew what Government was up to. We just couldn’t prove it.

The only surprise,thirty years on is that a Cabinet member could actually and actively articulate such a strategy for a major British city.

On release of the papers Geoffrey Howe denied it of course, in a sheepish sort of way ;….. Taken out of context etc etc. He would say that wouldn’t he?

So what’s all this got to do with Liverpool Football Club in 2013?

Well, at the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, if you swap the Chancellor (the guy who looks after the money) and the city of Liverpool for Fenway Sports Group and Liverpool FC you at least have some kind of parallel.

So ,am I suggesting that Fenway Sports Group are presiding over a ‘managed decline of LFC ?

Well,not exactly, but the vacuum of communications coming out of Boston doesn’t help matters.

What is the FSG strategy for LFC ? What’s the big picture?

When Brendan Rodgers (or Saint Brendan the Navigator as I prefer to call him) was appointed he was quoted as saying that his remit was ‘to be competitive’. A strange thing to say.What does that mean ? To be in the top four? To challenge for the top four? To challenge for trophies?

It can only refer to the Champions League and Premiership,of course because,amazingly Tom Werner has publicly rubbished the ‘minor’ trophies. It says a lot for the faithful that they still turn up in their droves for competions that are discredited,but then FSG’s ticket pricing policy for these games is one of the few shrewd moves made behind the scenes. We still have our agenda,Tom has his.

The UEFA Cup is only marginally ahead of them in the pecking order as it gives sponsors some kind of exposure to hang their hats on.

So,back to the strategy;the big idea. What is it ?

Is it the cult of youth ? Replace a 63 year old icon with a promising 39 year old. The jury’s still out on that one.

Replace a fairly anonymous 50-something Communications manager with a 23 year old American ? Well that one ended in farce in a Manchester restaurant. The plot sounded like something even Willy Russell and Alan Bleasdale would have rejected over a pint as being too fanciful to be plausible.

Appoint a young talent spotter to oversee transfer policy maybe? That one ended in tears.As it turned out he wasn’t so much directing transfer policy as signing the cheques when Kenny called. It takes an awful lot of money ball to get added value out of £35m . Very quickly stories began to leak out that credit for his previous conquests were not as clear cut as Messrs Henry and Werner were led to believe.

So, now we are about to embark on one of the strangest transfer saga’s of any club in recent years – the purchase of Tom Ince.

This is a lad who we sold not much more than a year ago for £250,000. We, allegedly, are prepared to buy him back at ,reportedly, £6m .

OK, even allowing for the 35% sell-on clause we inserted in the original sale, that’s about £3.75m we are paying to send him to Blackpool for a year. That’s the equivalent of paying him £70,000 a week to play for someone else ! At this point don’t forget it’s not a world-beater we’re talking about. It’s a 20 year-old lad with promise. We have a few of those at Melwood . Is there another club out there that would pay us £70,000 a week to take one of their best prospects off their hands?Now,that may not be much in JoeColeWorld but in the real world it’s the economics of madness.

Is there more to this than meets the eye ?

Is there internal point-scoring going on between administrations ?

Kenny was reluctant to give the young lads their head despite giving Raheem Sterling his debut, because he was under pressure to produce results. Therein lies the rub. You can’t have it both ways. Development or trophies? Which is it to be?

The Jordan Henderson saga was another very strange one. The captain of England under 21’s – the very kind of pedigree we would target at the moment – offered as a £4m ‘makeweight’ in a deal to sign a 29 year-old American.

This is where the cult of youth theory comes under some stress. A player we paid £16m for offered as a £4m ‘makeweight’ . To add insult to injury the ‘signing’ of Clint Dempsey was heralded on the FSG website before his club was even consulted , leading to a humiliating and undignified apology ! All proof that FSG are learning ‘on the job’.

Somewhere in all this sanity broke out. Maybe one of the country’s best young midfield prospects put his foot down and refused to budge ? Let’s hope so.

The bigger picture,though, is that there appeared for a while to be an obsession for cleansing the club of the previous administration in order to score political points, not to strengthen the club.

Tom Ince aside, those days appear to be over.

Incidentally,the Ince transfer raises interesting book-keeping questions.

Is the £6m fee discounted to £4m ?Or, more correctly,do LFC pay Blackpool £6m and receive £2m commission from Blackpool which,incidentally, will be subject to tax like any other income? I’m glad I’m not sorting that one out.

Back to the strategy.

We can all understand the stadium decision even if there does appear to be a certain amount of ‘post-justification’ about it. Playing the ‘heritage card’ was always going to be an easy sell for John Henry, even though there’s hardly a brick or piece of concrete left at Anfield from when I first went, let alone 1892. The stadium doesn’t reside in the bricks and mortar. It resides in the fans. And they aren’t going away.

So, we have a ‘refurbishment’/’extension’/’upgrade’/whatever at Anfield.

The logic used by Ian Ayre for not building new is that we are only getting 15,000 additional seats(increasing from 45,000 to 60,000). This,he argues,will not support the cost of a new stadium. There’s some merit in that although he’s being a little disingenuous as he’s pricing those seats (for the ‘post-justification’) as normal seats (at say £50) as opposed to corporate seats at ,say, £150.

That extra £100 per seat is equal to £1.5m, or over a 20 match home season £30m extra revenue.

When this debate started in the late 90’s construction costs equated to c£1,000 per extra seat. Now it’s between £5,000 – £10,000 per seat.

An extended Anfield to 60,000 would cost between £75m-£150m. The figures stack up even allowing for some loss of revenue in a phased construction.

But where is the news on the stadium ?

Planning Permission is the bogey man that the club is hiding behind. Yes,it does take time,but where there’s a will there’s a way. Some Liverpool fans are beginning to wonder whether there’s a will for even an extended Anfield.

Do FSG have a 80-20 rule ?

If you can get 80% of what you’re after with 20% of the resources is it worth risking breaking the bank for the extra 80% to achieve the extra 20% ?

Or is ‘being competitive’ enough?

2012 will go down in history as one of the greatest years in Liverpool’s history.

Not for anything that happened on the field, but for the dignity,honesty and transparency of 96 families in their pursuit of justice.

FSG could learn a thing or two from them.

Start by letting the fans know what the plan is.

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