Wednesday, January 12, 2011 by Paul Grech
Once bitten twice shy.
When Tom Hicks and George Gillett bought Liverpool FC back in 2007 there were many who looked at their track record, didn’t like what came up and promptly dismissed it.
It is easy to blame David Moores for not looking enough at how they carried out their business – and, indeed, he had the responsibility to do that part of his job better – but the truth is that most of us had heard about how Gillett had gone into bankruptcy because he had over extended himself with loans or of the mismanagement at the Texas Rangers but no one was willing to put the pressure on. The warning signs were there for all to see. Yet the over-riding argument at the time was that these were businessmen who had made millions so they obviously knew what they were doing.
If anything, what has come out strongly so far is the consistency with which they handle similar issues meaning that it is easy to trace an outline of their managerial philosophy.
It is this thought of using what they have done at the Red Sox to predict how they may handle issues at Anfield that drove me to buy a 2005 book by Steve Goldman called ‘Mind Game: How The Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series, and Created a New Blueprint for Winning’.
For over eighty years the Red Sox had hidden behind a series of myths – the curse of the bambino being the main one - to excuse their failures. In truth it was mismanagement at all levels of the organization that were at the root of their problems.
It is the same at Liverpool. We quickly dismiss Manchester United’s success as being exclusively down to their spending power when it is clear that, although it is a great help, it is not the sole reason. And that’s only one example.
It seems unlikely that FSG will hide behind any such excuses. As an average, the New York Yankees spend 30% more on salaries then the second highest spender in American baseball (which happens to be the Red Sox) yet Boston have won two World Series during the past decade. Such a sustained degree of success, especially in a sporting culture designed to avoid having a single dominant team, can only be the result of a philosophy that has an edge on the rest of the league.
This is something that comes out clearly in Mind Games. And, if you read carefully, you can make out the main tenants of NESV’s philosophy and link them to what they might do at Liverpool. Which is what the rest of this piece will be dealing about.
They Won’t Use Anfield as an Excuse
“John Harrington, the last ruler of the Red Sox before the Yawkey Trust finally sold out called the team a small-market ballclub whose efforts to compete were handicapped by their small ballpark. There were no magic spells at work, only failures of intelligence, concentration and imagination”
One of the more pronounced is the stadium issue.
When NESV took over at the Boston Red Sox, the popular perception was that they would push to move out of Fenway Park so as to be able to command greater gameday revenue. Yet they did nothing of the sort, opting to redevelop Fenway Park and increase revenue in other ways.
There’s no guarantee that they will do the same at Liverpool but at least there should be the awareness that they won’t hide behind the size of Anfield (and the resulting shortfall with other clubs) to justify any form of failure. Any decision made will rest purely on its merits and not because the rest of the world expects them to make it.
They Know Value of Building a Squad
“The loss of any one player, no matter how great, is not enough to derail a competently run franchise.”
Although Curt Schilling played a huge role, the 2005 World Series wasn’t won because of the talent of any one individual but rather because there was a good unit with players of different abilities capable of slotting in when their time came.
For years, Liverpool have been almost entirely dependent of two or three players. If anything happens to any one of them, then the team struggles to cope. Although star players obviously help success can only be achieved if the rest are, as a team, capable of playing on their own if need be.
They Won’t Buy Players Just for the Sake of It
Although it would be unfair to deny that his signing generated a fair degree of excitement when it was announced, it is becoming all too clear that Joe Cole was signed largely to placate the fans. Whatever the intentions, Cole is a player who isn’t adding anything to the side other than greatly burdening the pay roll. He might turn out to be a very good player for Liverpool, but he wasn't bought for his playing abilities. There will be no repeats of such signings.
They’ll take their time deciding on management
Upon taking over at the Red Sox they removed the unpopular GM Dan Duquette. But it was the off-season (although too late to start hassling other owners about their GM). For the first season they made do with Mike Port, who knew the industry very well even if he wasn’t their first choice, not because they really believed in him but because they wanted to take their time and get someone they really wanted.
The same applies to the club’s coach. Grady Little was allowed to stay at the club but when he proved to lack the imagination and share the strategy that the club was trying to follow, he too was removed and this despite a not too shabby record. This greatly echoes what they tried to do with Roy Hodgson even if, ultimately, they were forced by circumstances to get rid of him.
The situation with Theo Epstein (the Boston Red Sox’s highly regarded GM) is also indicative. Initially, Epstein was tasked with finding the man capable of being the organisation’s GM (Billy Beane of Moneyball fame was one of the three main candidates) but when none of the people they wanted were willing to join, they turned to Epstein himself to take the role. Shades of what Kenny Dalglish’s situation perhaps?
Once Right Structure is In Place Things Will Really Kick Off
"After moving into the office which he had been trying to find an occupant, Epstein was given free rein to aggressively solve the team’s roster problems"
Already, there have been one or two impatient calls enquiring why they are taking so long to appoint a CEO. Yet the truth is that this isn’t a position that is easily filled or that can easily be changed if the wrong person is appointed.
It is only once such an appointment is readied that they will be able to define a strategy and act on it.
They’ll Spend Money If Needed
Although they try to be intelligent in the who they get and how they build their roster, there is the realization that you need to spend money to get the players that help add another dimension to the team’s play. When they identified Curt Schilling as a pitcher they wanted to get, they had to compete with the New York Yankees to get him. On this occasion flexed their financial muscle and won. It was a decision that paid rich dividends in key games.
They Learn From Their Mistakes.
The failure (to sign Alex Rodriguez)had a powerful positive effect as well: A-Rod’s non arrival proved to the club that the front office had built a team robust enough to withstand the loss, to its sworn enemy no less, of the league’s very best player.
There is an added reason why Tom Hicks was so hacked off at seeing his club ‘stolen’ by NESV and it had its root in their previous dealings. In 2003 they had been negotiating over Alex Rodriguez whom Hicks had famously overpaid (without providing a good supporting cast) at the Texas Rangers. Negotiations were difficult not least because they needed to get the approval of the Players’ Association since it meant renegotiating Rodriguez’s contract.
After weeks of working on the deal and being frustrated when progress seemed to be getting made, Larry Lucchino (one of the owners of NESV) went public in blaming the Players Association and claiming the deal as dead.
Negotiations went on but the deal eventually fell through and Lucchino’s comments were seen as having played a key role. A few weeks later, A-Rod moved to the New York Yankees with very little mentioned in the media.
It was a bitter defeat but one that taught them some important lessons:
Keep a Unified Front
There will be no repeat of Hicks and Gillett who fell out very publicly and left a power vacuum at Anfield;
Don’t Burn Your Bridges
Even if things aren’t going your way, at least leave alive the hope and possibility of turning everything around.
Don’t Do Your Negotiating in the Media
For all the informed sources, how many people knew of the deal to buy Liverpool before it was announced on the club website? Practically no one. Same goes to the appointment of Damien Comolli. And, probably, the same will go as far as the CEO is concerned with everyone learning who it is when it is officially announced and not earlier.
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