By Kevin Koczwara
It has been a busy week for the Spirit of Shankly and the supporters of Liverpool, and the chaos doesn’t look to be slowing down. Liverpool’s chairman and board decided to sell the club to Boston Red Sox owner John Henry this week without the consent of Tom Hicks and George Gillett. The board overruled the American owners with a 3-2vote in favor of the sale before Hicks could switch around some of the members more to his liking. Now, there is a courtroom battle for control and neither side is budging.
Before the sales and the backroom drama, I started speaking with the Spirit of Shankly about the supporter group’s protests and the type of message the group wants to send to Hicks and Gillett, then owners. Things have changed, so our interview naturally changed. The sale has come and gone and the group couldn’t be any happier because Hicks and Gillett will no longer be digging their hands into the coffer that is Liverpool Football Club.
But the group still has its misgivings about the new owner and the direction of the club because the Spirit of Shankly (and many other supports groups) feel that the fans – the people driving the club, purchasing the tickets, uniforms and beer – should have more of a say in the proceedings.
Here is a transcript of an interview with Spirit of Shankly President, Francis Stanton.
Why does this club mean so much to you, and so many other fans? What makes Liverpool so special and different from other clubs?
We have a unique bond, something that goes beyond success or glory, financial excellence or extra disappointment. Like many supporters of a football club, it’s like a religion, something that even if you wanted to, you can’t quite give up.
As Liverpool Supporters we have been fortunate to see many great things, but we don’t feel as though we are spectators, watching from afar. We feel a part of it, the famed 12th man, and supporters are just as much ingrained in the history and fabric of the club as the players, managers and trophies are.
Hicks and Gillett are on their way out, whether they like it or not, and the Spirit of Shankly had a hand in their demise. What will the final verdict of the group be after this mess?
We would hope it is positive. We campaigned long and hard to get rid of Tom Hicks and George Gillett because we had to. Hopefully, if we are successful, supporters will recognise that we do have a voice, a voice that if we all stand together as one, can be heard clearly. Then we can truly be represented and heard by our football club and the authorities who run the game.
Hopefully other supporters of other clubs will follow the example of our union.
How will the group operate with new owners? What do you expect of the new American owners?
The supporters are not as naive as they were in 2007. For one, Spirit of Shankly is a vibrant and demanding representative organisation of its members and we will expect to see full details of how any purchase is to be financed and what difference any new owners will make in terms of recognising how supporters see the future of the Club. We expect owners to follow through on any statements they make, and show the fans honesty.
I live in Worcester, Mass. A city 45 minutes outside of Boston. I am a Red Sox fan and I am a fan of what Henry has done with the team. Do you think he will be able to replicate the success he has had with the Sox’s?
We certainly hope so. It won’t be easy, but with the right owners and the right plans, Liverpool Football Club can perform excellently both on and off the pitch.
Henry has a track record of surrounding himself with smart people, up and coming people in the business like a Theo Epstein, people who understand the value of a good farm system (academy in soccer). What do you want to see from Melwood going forward?
Due to the financial restrictions placed on the club during the tenure of Hicks and Gillett there has already been quite an upheaval at Melwood and the Youth Academy. There has been an investment in youth for lower levels of money, compared to the transfer fees for players expected to go straight into the first team squad. There is quite a buzz around some of the youth teams and talent at the moment. The only worry has been that once any of these prospects get anywhere near the first team they will be sold, with the fees going towards debt and interest repayments. Hopefully with a new ownership structure in place, the talent we have will be given a chance to develop and go on to save the club millions of pounds in transfer fees as we bring more and more players through from the Academy.
Bringing players through to the first team has to be the main priority for the Academy, rather than making sacrifices just to win youth competitions. The Academy will be judged by the talent coming through to the first team. If the Academy is developed in the way planned it will go some way to making the club self sufficient.
On that note, is Hodgson the man to get Liverpool out of this mess? Can he keep the key players around? His movement in the transfer market and understanding of his players has been poor thus far, can he improve this (I am thinking of playing Poulsen and moving Meireles out to a wing when he is a box-to-box center midfielder with a nose for the ball and a good passer, not an attacking midfielder)?
All supporters have opinions, and say a manager should do this, or should do that. It’s clear the players have been affected by the ownership situation, and so has the manager, and hopefully with changes off the pitch, we will move forward on it.
If Hodgson wasn’t your first choice to come into to manage the side, who was and why?
Spirit of Shankly have always stated that we support the role of manager, no matter who that individual may be. Every single employee of Liverpool Football Club — from the Managing Director down to the tea ladies — should be pulling in the same direction to ensure whoever the manager is has the right tools at their disposal to do the job to the best of their ability. For some time that has not been the case, whether it was down to personality clashes or the manager having to do the job with one hand tied behind his back due to the financial constraints placed on him. People may say the manager should still be able to motivate the players to play once the whistle blows, but it is evident there has been a huge grey cloud over all of the club due to the ownership. The players have been lied to just like the fans, told there would be considerable investment to bring in new colleagues. Jamie Carragher was also told his testimonial would be one of the first matches played at the new stadium the owners would build – his testimonial game was played some weeks ago now. Hopefully with a change of ownership the clouds will be lifted from the club and all those at the club can concentrate on one thing only – being successful on the pitch.
The Spirit of Shankly will have to move on with another American owner, how does the group feel about this? Does it still have a sting to say the club is owned by an American?
Not at all, Spirit of Shankly will hold owners to account whether they are from Boston or Bootle (district of Liverpool). The owners will be judged on their actions rather than the location of their home.
With Gillett and Hicks out, now the group can turn its message to a positive one, what will be going on in the coming weeks to support the team in a positive way, a way to bring the players back to life? Anything special?
Spirit of Shankly have never been anti-club, just anti Hicks and Gillett once we realised the massive flaws in their business model and how they failed to deliver on all the promises they made.
We are sure Liverpool fans as a whole will feel a huge weight lift from their shoulders and be cautiously optimistic about the future of the club – fans will be relieved to go to the match and be able to talk about who is playing left-wing, instead of discussing the ins and outs of leveraged buy outs. Liverpool fans are famous around the world for the backing they show to the team, we tell them “You will never walk alone” no matter how trying times may be. Hopefully we as fans can start to enjoy going to the match and concentrating on matters on the pitch rather than the boardroom, and with owners, the board, the manager, the players and the fans all pulling in the same direction it won’t be too long before we are enjoying success
The group had a special part in helping move the Hicks and Gillett mess along, what would your message be to any other groups around the world trying to remove an unwanted ownership?
Stick to what you believe in, no matter what outsiders may say. For the best part of two years we were told to concentrate on matters on the pitch, or that it was all down to the manager and players. We were being told this by a media who often had their own agenda to drive. Once the previous manager left the club the whole media changed and decided to print what we had been saying for over two years.
To anyone in a situation where they are dissatisfied with the owners who do not have the best interest of the club at heart, sooner or later there will come a time when everybody else realises too, and the information you have been publishing will become popular opinion.
The supporters ARE the club, without the supporters there is no revenue from tickets, no replica shirts being sold, no food and drink being purchased in the stadium. The supporters always have the best interest of the club at heart, which cannot be said for some owners. Stick to what you believe in.
What does this “victory” for the group mean in the bigger context of things?
Throughout the history of Spirit of Shankly there have been times when we have received platitudes and pats on the back, but we believe “victory” will not be achieved until supporters have genuine representation inside the club, supporters owning a significant stake in the club and having a say on the board regarding matters that affect the club. We do not expect to be hiring and firing or playing fantasy football with players, but any owners need to recognise the role supporters play in this Club. We would like to work together in a positive relationship with the Club.
Kevin Koczwara is a contributing writer and editor for The Soccer Guys. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.