So Liverpool are not up for sale after all, but perhaps some investment and structural changes will benefit them in a rapidly changing environment.
The timing was certainly a little odd, coming as it did just over 24 hours before one of those Champions League nights at Anfield. It might be tempting to think of it as a good time to bury bad news. But for whom might the confirmation that Liverpool are not up for sale be good news, and how does this fit into football’s now rapidly changing financial landscape?
On the pitch, there has been a sense that their season is starting to finally turn itself around. Doctor Everton arrived at Anfield to administer a much-needed three points and they followed this with a thoroughly retro 2-0 win at Newcastle, all of which has swung the needle on the Klopp-o-Meter firmly back in the manager’s direction, with talk gathering pace that they could yet be coming into form at just the right time for a surprising end-of-season assault on both a top four place and perhaps even a run further into the Champions League, Real Madrid notwithstanding.
What sort of distraction had all this background noise created? Certainly, the apparent confirmation that the club had been put up for sale in November didn’t seem to help matters on the pitch. But correlation doesn’t necessarily imply causation and when the news broke as Liverpool beat Spurs at the end of the first week in November, the team followed that with three further consecutive wins.
But as their form started to collapse again, so the talk of a takeover and its implications intensified. Was oil money and its inevitable accompanying sportswashing the only way in which Liverpool could challenge those already benefitting from it, and was this an ethical hurdle that supporters could vault, if it was? This is, of course, a conversation that is also going on with greater intensity elsewhere.
A lot of waters have been rowed back upon now, but it’s not particularly difficult to see why FSG have chosen to do so. A lot has happened in those intervening three months, and this season more generally. Manchester City were charged numerous times by the Premier League. Chelsea went hog wild in the transfer market without any noticeable improvement on the pitch. And Manchester United were put up for sale, which may even have directly affected Liverpool in reducing the pool of available Qataris willing to throw money at them.
This feeling of change isn’t limited to the top end of the Premier League, either. The European Super League has revived itself with a new ‘cool dad’ aesthetic, having apparently belatedly realised that Death Star chic isn’t a strong look in a battle for hearts and minds; talking of which, Juventus were docked 15 points for financial malpractice while Barcelona are being investigated over payments to a company owned by refereeing official.
In a news cycle that often feels as though it’s spinning into a blur, it’s been a rapidly changing market, but even with everything up in the air, for a club competing at the very top end of the club game such as Liverpool, there appear to be few downsides. If a European Super League happens, they will be invited. If the Premier League continues as is, they’re likely to be amongst its biggest players.
To an extent, there is no need for FSG to sell now. They ‘only’ paid £300m for the club in 2010 (£492m, adjusted for inflation), and its value is only likely to increase further, even if there were no takers at the £4bn overall price tag that was widely reported in November. Even if they ‘only’ sold for, say, £3bn their return on investment would be ten-fold.
It has been suggested that the investment that they would receive from selling a minority stake would be in the region of half a billion pounds, and this would allow the club to address its most pressing on-pitch concern, a squad of players that needs overhauling. If they could pay off – or even substantially reduce – the debt for the recent redevelopment of Anfield and the club’s new training ground at Kirkby, then all the better.
There have certainly been missteps along the way. Being one of the driving forces behind Project Big Picture was a big mistake, as was their signing up for the European Super League. And there have been others, including attempting to trademark the word ‘Liverpool’, putting their staff on furlough at the start of the pandemic, overpricing their tickets for the 2016/17 season, and the manner in which club legend Sir Kenny Dalglish was sacked in 2012.
But they have been in charge at Anfield for a long time and football is a rapacious world. Perhaps all this would have been inevitable in a clash between any billionaires and this particular club’s support over the course of getting on for 13 years. And it should be added that FSG have overseen many good things. The redevelopment of Anfield and the opening of a new training facility are the sort of infrastructural improvements that are worth getting into debt for, providing that debt is manageable. But paying it down or off would be better, saving money in the long term.
And although it would be overstretching things to say that the silverware has flowed since 2010, Liverpool have won every major trophy they could except for the Europa League (and they were runners-up in that in 2016) at least once since then. For fans, most importantly they managed to bring in Jurgen Klopp, whose arrival at Anfield in 2015 led to the team’s propulsion back towards the very top end of the club game.
Sensible investment in the money raised by the extraordinary £142m sale of Phillipe Coutinho to Barcelona in January 2018 put the finishing touches to a team that saw both the Champions League and Premier League return to Anfield, the latter for the first time in more than three decades. The Super Cup and World Club Cup were also added to that list. If FSG are ‘bad’ owners, it’s the sort of ‘bad’ to which supporters of most other clubs wouldn’t object – in terms of silverware, at least.
Perhaps FSG have been encouraged by the Premier League taking action against Manchester City. Perhaps they see the balance tilting back towards a European Super League, with UEFA wobbling as a result of the investigation into the near-tragedy that unfurled at last year’s Champions League final.
They might even have looked at the actual amount of money spent at Newcastle over the last year and remembered that judicious spending has a good chance of beating the hog wild. Whatever the causes, perhaps selling a minority stake in the club is a middle ground that will work best for both the club and its supporters.
There are plenty of good reasons for FSG to stay at Anfield, but those who may be breathing the biggest sighs of relief are those fans who didn’t want to be put in a position of having to chose between their morals and their football club, or having to contort the former in order to try and accommodate the latter. That football at this level will end up owned by the Middle East may even already be an inevitability, but at least that has been deferred at this particular club.
On the pitch, the last two Premier League games have shown the first signs of a Liverpool team that may be finally starting to come to life. Finally replacing that creaking midfield and paying down those debts would at least put the whole club back on an even keel again, and perhaps a season that had slipped into a slough of despond might end on something of a high, after all. Perhaps it was that thinking which led to the announcement being made so soon before the Real Madrid match in the first place.