Even in the Anfield boardroom, there is a sense of disbelief that the pieces have fallen into place so quickly that this weekend could take Liverpool very close to a coronation.
The equivalent weekend in last season’s calendar brought Chelsea to Anfield, too, but the home team went into that occasion seventh in the Premier League, 33 points adrift of Manchester United, before Luis Suarez took a bite out of Branislav Ivanovic and the club felt a very long way from salvation. It was several months before managing director Ian Ayre admitted at a business breakfast that Suarez’s conduct had damaged the club’s brand but that much was clear from the look on the face of John W Henry last summer when he discussed the American concept of “loyalty to the uniform” and how Suarez’s drive to get himself out of Anfield ran against any such notion .
That Liverpool should have toughed out that spell owes most to the man-management qualities of Brendan Rodgers – tough but adaptable, as he always is - and to the enduring commercial pulling power of the Liverpool name throughout their 24 years without a title. But the more remarkable story of Liverpool’s redemption reaches way beyond one player’s conduct. This is also a club which a mere three and a half years ago had been brought close to financial administration and was being dragged through the High Court by owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, after they were granted a temporary restraining order, forbidding a sale to the owners who would eventually provide a rescue.
That extraordinary occasion in Court 18 made a permanent legend of Lord Grabiner QC, every Liverpool fan’s favourite barrister. But while Ayre could reflect this week on how the occasion had brought an element of black humour – “we’re Scousers, after all” – it should be remembered that the Americans were pursuing him and other English members of the Liverpool board for personal damages of £1bn at the time. “Being told I was being sued for a billion pound” was the lowest point of all, Ayre reflects now. And though the Americans’ legal case was grossly incompetent – their lawyers even spelt the MD’s name ‘Ayer’ in the restraining order document – he says he really did feel that the club might be about to experience catastrophe.
“It’s like that TV programme, Seconds from Disaster,” Ayre says. “We were sort of in that vein. It was horrific to see the football club in that state. People sometimes forget how bad it was. I speak to people now and they have really short memories. When you think about that day when we tipped it over the edge and finally pulled it back, we have come such a long way.”
The source of the club’s salvation was waiting in the wings near The Strand, that October day in 2010. Ayre and Martin Broughton – the non-executive chairman whom Hicks and Gillett had brought in to find a buyer to their liking but who saw how they risked the ruination of Liverpool – ended the day in the London officers of lawyers Slaughter and May, signing off the deal under which Henry’s Fenway Sports Group (FSG), bought the club, and paid off £200m inherited acquisition debt.
It has been a bumpy road since. The Suarez/Patrice Eva incident heaped ignominy on the club. Roy Hodgson, the manager FSG inherited, was a failure. Kenny Dalglish, some of whose purchases have laid the foundations for this weekend, could only take the club a part of the way on. Ayre says it is the directness and brutal honesty of Henry, chairman Tom Werner and their people which has been transformative. “They are direct and tell you things they like and do not like. Their ability to consume information is unbelievable and they learn very quickly.”
Much of the commercial building up of Liverpool has entailed bringing the club somewhere close to the kind of machine that the Glazer family have developed at Old Trafford. Manchester United’s far-sighted establishment of regional and global corporate sponsorship deals began well over a decade ago, while Ayre arrived as commercial director seven years ago acutely aware of how the Liverpool club shop was closed on the day after the 2005 Champions League triumph in Istanbul. “There were all these stories [about that] and about us only having a couple of sponsors,” he reflects. Liverpool’s £25m-a-year Warrior kit deal reveals a financial pulling power that dwarfs Manchester City, for example, while partnerships with Dunkin Donuts and airline sponsor Garuda Indonesia, whose £16m also cover Liverpool’s training kit sponsorship, have borne fruit after 18 months of discussion. There is potential for more. “Never say never,” to the notion of a training ground sponsor, Ayre says. The vastly enhanced main stand, plans for which were revealed this week, seems ripe for a sponsor, too - perhaps Carlsberg.
Not taking the most popular option of building a new stadium may reap a commercial reward too, by not making Liverpool’s primary focus the repayments which held back Arsenal. “You have to make decisions sometimes people do not like,” Ayre says. “People say ‘why can’t you build a new stadium?’ but it’s taken a couple of years for us to think about that and the reason is it does not make financial sense.”
Substantial football decisions have been needed, too. Heady on Sir Alex Ferguson’s success, the Glazers stepped back and let United run itself, while Henry has confronted managerial turbulence, head on. The appointment of Rodgers – which feels like a masterstroke - required an unflinching decisiveness, because Dalglish will always be a legend here.
Liverpool’s struggles have created an in-built guardedness and an acceptance of how hubristic football can be. Their financial plans are predicated on some years bringing failure, too. “You'll have good years and bad,” Ayre observes. He says he has not discussed with his commercial director, Billy Hogan, whether the ‘new’ Liverpool brand – young manager, young team, thrilling football – is boosting the search for corporate partners. “I’m sure the market is a bit more buoyant now,” he says. “You have to think that since this year we’re thinking ahead to the start of next year. We will hopefully see the fruits of this year next year and beyond because we’re one of the biggest shows in town at the moment in football, playing great football, and everyone is excited.” The terrace chant ‘We’re not really here’ is sung by fans of Manchester City, up the M62, but as Ayre and Henry prepare for this weekend it feels more appropriate to their club more than any other.
Sturridge hopes to be fit to face Chelsea
Daniel Sturridge is optimistic of returning from injury to face his former team-mates and title rivals Chelsea at Anfield on Sunday in a boost for the league leaders Liverpool.
Sturridge injured a hamstring during Liverpool’s 3-2 win over Manchester City almost two weeks ago.
“Hopefully this weekend I’ll be back,” the league’s second top scorer with 20 goals, behind team-mate Luis Suarez’s 30, told children in a question and answer session at a sponsor event for the club.
“I’m not too sure if he’ll play me or not,” he added when asked whether manager Brendan Rodgers was likely to select him. “We’ll have to see.”
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