Liverpool’s American owners have learned from their mistakes. Manchester United did not
As the main stand at Anfield grew larger, it was the cerebral fart of a reasonably influential figure then operating in the hallways of the stadium to suggest it should be finished with dominant signage at the exterior that read: Liverpool Football Club.
That didn’t happen, but a few months before the new structure opened in 2016, Jurgen Klopp managed Liverpool for the first time at Old Trafford, one of two venues the person in question had lifted and twisted his idea – the other being Celtic Park. .
A 1-1 draw with Manchester United in a Europa League quarter-final second leg saw Klopp’s side, who won the first leg 2-0, qualify.
Although the home of Manchester United, with its haunting red lights giving off a sense of grandeur, always claimed to be a theater where dreams are made, nights like this made me think otherwise.
Instead, I wrote, Old Trafford has been “reduced to a creaking stage by the presence of fading stars and those too green to cope with the enormity of its surroundings”.
Veiled beyond the illusory curtain that separated the pitch from the technical area sat Bastian Schweinsteiger, the legendary United midfielder-turned-sub whose supporting role that night acted as a metaphor for the club’s troubles.
Less than two years earlier, he had been Germany’s most influential performer during a World Cup-winning campaign in Brazil.
Months before that feat, his influence in their previous knockout stage game at Old Trafford had been significant: a second-half equalizer and a late red card for Bayern Munich in a 1-1 draw in the first leg of a Champions League quarter. -final his club would continue to win without him. Schweinsteiger’s subsequent decline was dramatic.
Although United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward was keen to announce shirt sales figures at sports retailer Kitbag when Schweinsteiger suddenly jumped from 33rd to fourth most popular player on the planet following his move to United , Bayern administrators have been wiser in assessing the condition and value of their icon.
Bayern’s ruthlessness and United’s bewilderment illustrated the difference between clubs and how far one had fallen. In Munich, sport created the platform for commercial success. In Manchester, they seemed to think it was the other way around.
That Europa League tie with Liverpool was just under three years after United’s last Premier League title, but it already felt like an eternity given the club had dominated English football for so long.
Those who understood the fall of empires were already worried, but it seemed key figures at United were complacent about the direction of the club.
After becoming champions in Sir Alex Ferguson’s 2012-13 farewell season, United finished seventh and then fourth. In 2015-16 they were close to finishing fifth when a colleague from Greater Manchester told me about a conversation with Woodward.
It’s not a stopper but I had written a book about Liverpool in the 1990s when the club began their 30-year period without a title. The reporter offered it to Woodward, to try and remind him of some of the mistakes that were made about 30 miles down the road. Woodward, however, seemed uninterested.
Perhaps he was concerned about the consequences of dealing with such precarious material in public and instead read it later. Maybe not. During that discussion, the reporter encountered the kind of attitude that a lot of people had at Old Trafford – an attitude that really says, ‘No, we won’t do that because, well, we’re United…’
Six years later, I doubt Woodward remembers that exchange. Although he has left his post, he takes some of the responsibility for United being where he is now. Bottom of the league. Even after just two of 38 games, only a crazy person would claim that United’s wait for that next title will end in the 10th year.
And anyone with connections to Liverpool FC will tell you how easily one decade becomes two. And then three.
United’s starting pair of centre-backs last weekend cost four times as much as the entire Brentford squad, but should a humiliating defeat like that really come as such a surprise when a new manager, little familiar with the league and the norm, names an XI that includes a goalkeeper and a four-man defense brought in by five different United managers?
At previous club Ajax, Erik ten Hag was employed by people who understood top-flight football.
Edwin van der Sar, the former United and Netherlands goalkeeper, remains as general manager. Ten Hag could also draw on the experience of director of football Marc Overmars, a former Arsenal and Barcelona winger and international colleague of Van der Sar, who sometimes gave players discreet advice on their game.
The latter has since left Ajax in disgrace but as recently as this year was considered one of the most capable operators in Europe.
Overmars took, according to Ten Hag, a “helicopter view”. He managed to take the pressure off by dealing with stressed players, pushy agents, nervous directors – and annoying journalists. His presence allowed the manager to concentrate.
Ten Hag is not surrounded by the same experience at United, where he will have to find a lot on his own and hope his voice carries quickly, like Klopp’s at Liverpool, only to spend a few months.
From their current position, qualifying for the Champions League in May would be a major achievement for United. Given all the noise, it’s perhaps easy to forget the basics, starting with the fact that this is a club that failed to qualify for the most famous competition in the world. Europe via their last league finish in five of the last nine seasons.
United have finished runners-up twice in that spell, but that doesn’t mean they’ve actually been fighting for a title since that triumph in 2013.
By comparison, Liverpool, as well as ending their own wait in 2019-20, also pushed Manchester City to the final day on three other occasions. Although there is no price for it, the Liverpool teams who finished second were much more competitive than those of United who did the same – they could only finish at 19 and 12 points. of the same champion, City.
In Europe, meanwhile, Liverpool have reached three Champions League finals, winning one. United, despite being once Europa League winners and beaten runners-up in the same competition (like Liverpool), have only appeared in one Champions League quarter-final.
Even for big clubs, such a performance would normally have an impact on what they spend in the transfer market. Still, that hasn’t been a problem at United due to the popularity of the Premier League, their popularity and the commercial revenue that both bring.
Despite the team’s decline on the pitch, the club’s value has risen – as a result, the owners are happy because that’s ultimately what they’re involved with.
This week alone, United’s stock price was revealed to be $0.02 more expensive than it was 10 years ago.
At Liverpool, the goal of Fenway Sports Group (FSG) is not so different: to increase the value of the club.
Given that FSG bought Liverpool for £300million in 2010 and some estimates now put it at more than 10 times that amount, the Boston firm, like fellow United owners the Glazers, stand to make a huge profit. every time she decides to sell.
John W Henry and Joel Glazer worked closely on the plans for the Big Picture project. Glazer visited Henry’s near Boston to talk about the idea as early as 2017. They talk on the phone and email each other. Henry even communicated with Woodward at times. This happens because the owners share motivations. It’s unimaginable that when each of these billionaires wakes up in the morning, the first thing they think of is Liverpool or United.
What differentiates them is heritage. It influenced what happened next. FSG’s involvement with Liverpool began when the club were in a much weaker position than United when the Glazers arrived five years earlier. The squad was mediocre, the stadium too small and, within 10 years, the training facilities had fallen behind the competition.
FSG took over a struggling asset as the Glazers managed a mega powerhouse, well ahead of their domestic rivals in just about every way. Sitting on this asset, as Liverpool’s former owners had done in the midst of a global financial crisis, was not an option for Henry, who understood that smart rather than unlimited investment could lead to a huge growth.
As the Glazers saw United get richer and richer through an economic cycle they barely influenced in a positive way, FSG invested in facilities and, after mistakes in the early years, hired the right manager to move the club forward.
After the main stand (minus suggested signage) was funded by low-interest loans issued by FSG, the owners approved (at Klopp’s suggestion) a new training center in Kirkby. Another new stand at the far end of Anfield Road will take capacity to 61,000 – although this is on the club’s tab, which the directors say is a sign of Liverpool’s improved budget.
As Liverpool have overtaken United on the pitch, they are also closing in, according to trade results. This month, search engine Brand Finance Football estimated that Liverpool’s £1.2billion brand is now worth more than United’s.
Crucially, FSG haven’t taken a penny out of Liverpool while the Glazers have benefited financially from their control of United, whose debt is now double Liverpool’s. In the last 10 years alone, United have paid out £165m in dividends, most of which has gone to the Glazers.
Even in better times for the team, it’s not a good look. In bad times, it seems dreadful.
Despite their size, United remain a club where ownership invites civic responsibility, particularly in the minds of a homegrown fan base that still has the ability to dictate the mood – evidenced by the postponement of a game against Liverpool in May 2021 due to protests following the European Super League debacle.
Henry and FSG made a lot of mistakes but they wanted to learn from some of them. The decision to enter the Super League, albeit a horrific idea conceived without input from key Merseyside workers including Klopp, has led to meaningful dialogue with fans through the Spirit of Shankly union. A new supporters’ council should, according to the union, create a “new era of commitment”.
At United, however, nothing has changed.
Like Liverpool in the 1990s, the club only attracts because of a glorious past and the machine created by this era; crashing like a failed superstate.
(Top photos: John W Henry, left, and Joel Glazer; Getty Images)