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How Michael Gordon, the quiet part owner of the Red Sox, turned around Liverpool FC

Michael Gordon and Liverpool FC players celebrated after winning the UEFA Champions League at the parade on June 2, 2019 in Liverpool, England.
Michael Gordon and Liverpool FC players celebrated after winning the UEFA Champions League at the parade on June 2, 2019 in Liverpool, England.Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

Michael Gordon was pushing a lawn mower across the expansive front yard of the substantial house he and his wife had just moved into in Brookline when a woman walking her dog approached.

“Excuse me, young man,” the neighbor said, assuming the person sweating in front of her was not her new neighbor, a 35-year-old multimillionaire hedge-fund manager, but one of the landscaping crew. “Do you know if the new neighbors are home?”

She might be forgiven her mistake in such a privileged enclave, where some of the region’s richest and most influential people live — and few tend their own yards. More surprising, and the reason one of Gordon’s friends likes to tell the story, was his wry and low-key reply.

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“I think they’ll be home later,” he said.

That moment 20 years ago had no lasting significance, but people who know and work with Gordon say it speaks to the essence of a man who avoids attention of almost any kind, even when it might benefit him. Now 55 and the third-largest stakeholder in Fenway Sports Group, the multibillion dollar sports conglomerate that owns teams including the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool Football Club, he has become a powerful voice in that organization. But while names like John Henry and Robert Kraft and Wyc Grousbeck are well-known in sports-crazed New England, Gordon lives almost entirely out of the public’s sight. Until recently, he never spoke to the media on the record. (He consented to several interviews for this story.) He has no Wikipedia page. If he can give credit to someone else, colleagues say, he will.

“He doesn’t enjoy the spotlight,” said Sam Kennedy, president of the Red Sox. “He doesn’t even enjoy credit. He’ll be quick to defer and deflect.”

Gordon doesn’t wear a suit or tie, unless he can’t avoid it, preferring a T-shirt and sneakers. He habitually chews Trident Tropical Twist gum and doesn’t shave regularly. On game days at Fenway, “Mike wanders into the stadium, and he talks to the people who work in the stands, he talks to the people who work on the field,” said Harvard president Larry Bacow, a longtime friend of Gordon. “They all know him. They come up to him. But a casual fan would never in a million years know who Mike Gordon is.”

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You would never know it from his bearing, but this, at least in the world of sports, is Gordon’s mountaintop moment. He took on a daunting project eight years ago that has now been acclaimed as a spectacular achievement: the resurrection of Liverpool Football Club, one of the most storied teams in European soccer. After decades of dysfunction and disappointment, Liverpool is now one of the best soccer teams on the planet, having won in a 13-month span the Champions League, the European Super Cup, the Club World Cup, and, in late June, the prestigious Premier League for the first time in 30 years.

“He’s just the brain behind all the things at Liverpool, that’s how it is,” said Jurgen Klopp, the team’s charismatic manager. “He will probably tell you ‘It’s not like this’ — I won’t say he’s a liar, but he’s misjudged the situation slightly then. Because that’s the way it is.”

Other smart people had tried and failed to return Liverpool to glory before Gordon came along.

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The difference with Gordon, those close to him and who’ve known him the longest say, comes from qualities hard to see.

“The reason that he is so beloved at Liverpool,” said FSG chairman Tom Werner, ”is that he cares so much about what he does and is so honorable and ethical.”

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Gordon greeted Liverpool player Sadio Mane after a Premier League match in May 2019.
Gordon greeted Liverpool player Sadio Mane after a Premier League match in May 2019.Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

With his scruffy beard and friendly eyes, Gordon can seem to blend into a room. But as far back as high school, he made an impression. A Tufts University professor who sat with him for 20 minutes some three and a half decades ago, when Gordon was a 17-year-old trying to pick a college, said Gordon still stands out in his memory.

“He was deeper waters than the others,” said the professor, Sol Gittleman, who taught Yiddish literature and German expressionism. “He was mature. Usually, 17-year-olds, they’re kids. He was a very analytical kid, very thoughtful, a little different.”

Gordon grew up in the Midwest, in Milwaukee, and some see in his roots the source of qualities like his basic friendliness and discomfort with acclaim, even a discomfort with money.

The fact that he later made a fortune as an investor seems more accident than plan. He graduated Tufts with high honors and a joint degree in classical studies and economics but no clear vision of what he wanted to do, he says.

He applied to an entry-level program for college undergrads at Fidelity Investments’ equity research department. He liked the idea of investing, he said; the notion of buying a piece of a company and having a stake in its success appealed to him. And though he had dabbled in investing in high school and college, he had no formal training for the job he was applying for.

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Fidelity took a chance on Gordon anyway.

The work of a research analyst is intense and competitive, with long hours spent gathering and processing reams of information that must be boiled down to judgments about a company’s value ultimately reflected in the movement of its stock price. Fortunes ride on such decisions, and under that kind of pressure day after day, many burn out. But Gordon thrived, rising through the department’s ranks over the course of a nine-year career at Fidelity.

Along the way, he maintained something rare in that world: collegiality.

“People who are hired into these analyst jobs are not hired because they’re charming,” said Abigail Johnson, who worked alongside Gordon in the equities department and is now Fidelity’s chairman and CEO. “Mike stood out as being a guy that people really liked and wanted to be around.

“He’s one of these really unusual people who inside his head, he’s all Type A, like, everything is completely analyzed and understood and processed and modeled out, but on the outside, he’s all Type B. He has a really unique ability to just always kind of be sort of laid back.”

Jeff Vinik, another Fidelity colleague, said Gordon’s capacity for calm in the face of great financial risk was extraordinary. “I think I’m stable, but he’s very stable,” Vinik said. “My wife says I have no pulse. I don’t know if his wife says that about him, but Mike is stable.”

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Gordon eventually left Fidelity to work with Vinik and his hedge fund, Vinik Asset Management. The move helped lead Gordon to a passion he had not yet found a way to indulge in his career: sports.

Gordon loved all sports, especially baseball. Growing up in Milwaukee, he hawked brats and popcorn at the Brewers’ sparsely attended County Stadium games. When he met with Gittleman at Tufts as a high school student, the two discovered a mutual obsession, and the professor helped entice Gordon to Tufts by noting the university’s proximity to Fenway Park.

Shortly after Henry and Tom Werner led the group that bought the Red Sox in 2002, Gordon and Vinik were bought in as limited partners.

Gordon’s voice behind the scenes gradually grew after the Red Sox’ historic return to a World Series victory in 2004. His stake in FSG increased — he now has a little under 10 percent, with Werner around 12 percent and Henry at approximately 40 — as did his role. After FSG purchased Liverpool for $493 million in 2010, Henry and Werner essentially ran the team but knew the job required another hand.

One night in the summer of 2011, at a gathering on the terrace at Henry’s house, which sits across the street from Gordon’s, Henry (who also owns the Globe) made his pitch to Gordon and his wife, Christina.

Henry talked with Gordon about their many years staring at quote machines, the data-filled computer terminals investors rely on. Henry, who, like Gordon, had made his fortune running a hedge fund, said he was getting tired of it and was thinking of winding down the fund. He wondered if Gordon might be thinking something similar.

After closing the Liverpool deal, Henry publicly vowed to fans he would “do whatever is necessary” to win. But the team wasn’t winning, not in the way he wanted it to.

“I urged Mike to consider taking a bigger role with Liverpool,” Henry said.

Gordon did consider it, and in March the following year, he officially assumed control of operations, fully aware, according to Henry, of “exactly what he was getting into.”

***

Gordon with John Henry and Tom Werner with the 2019 UEFA Champions League trophy.
Gordon with John Henry and Tom Werner with the 2019 UEFA Champions League trophy.John Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

What he was getting into was this: The team, in Henry’s words, “was really a mess.” When Fenway Sports Group bought it, Liverpool’s business side couldn’t even provide accurate financials. On top of that was the matter of Liverpool’s fans, deeply devoted, hypercritical, and impatient for victory.

If there was a city that rivaled pre-2004 Boston in its thirst for restored greatness, it was Liverpool. Theirs was a historic team that played at a historic stadium, 128-year-old Anfield. In a golden age of dominance during the 1970s and ’80s, Liverpool brought home 11 league titles and sat at the pinnacle of English soccer. The decades since were a hard fall, marked by close calls, humiliating failures — and no league titles. A previous American ownership group ran up millions in debt in pursuit of wins.

Fans would surely savage any more missteps. And they wouldn’t wait long for results.

The problem was that winning was harder than it looked; Liverpool was up against teams with so much money — some owned by Russian oligarchs or Middle Eastern sheikhs — that it simply got outbid for the best players. In 2007, the Kraft Group, owners of the New England Patriots, thought hard about buying Liverpool but turned away from a deal at the last minute because they saw no way to compete.

“You saw the passionate fan base, the great history, and, as a business person, you get excited about it,” said Jonathan Kraft, the Kraft Group’s president and a close friend of Gordon. “But we didn’t have the confidence that we could do it.”

He is, however, entirely unsurprised that Gordon, whom he admires in every dimension, figured it out. “I’ve never met anybody who is as intellectually capable and talented and humble and empathetic and philanthropic as Mike,” Kraft said.

Gordon did indeed find a way, though he had little experience in soccer — apart from being a fan and a coach for some of his kids’ youth teams. But he did know something about how to build value into wealth.

***

The Liverpool FC ownership group at the opening event at Anfield in Sept. 2016.
The Liverpool FC ownership group at the opening event at Anfield in Sept. 2016.Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

His first day on the job, in March of 2012, Gordon flew to Florida for a day of meetings at Henry’s sprawling lakefront estate in Boca Raton There, he met Michael Edwards, a former player who was on Liverpool’s analytics staff.

Gordon quickly gathered that Edwards was sharp, quick-witted, and unafraid to express his opinion with a blunt directness. Like Gordon, Edwards lives for data, but prefers to stay out of the limelight. With the use of analytics growing in European soccer, Gordon found a kindred spirit.

Gordon and Edwards understood the Premier League battlefield. Liverpool could not win a spending spree among the league’s financial heavies, who could outbid the rest of the sporting world. Team-building in European soccer is an entirely different enterprise than American fans are used to. The “transfer” system that governs transactions is in effect a global bazaar with no spending caps: Teams pay other teams sometimes exorbitant transfer fees to buy out a player’s existing contract before lawyers and agents hammer out new contracts and advertising and publicity splits. The most well-heeled clubs tend to snag the game’s biggest stars.

The path to sustained success, Gordon and Edwards believed, required a different strategy, similar to investing in the stock market: Buy players who were undervalued and sell players who were overvalued. And then, do it again, and again.

In order to gain an edge, Gordon needed Liverpool to take risks and hire risk-takers.

“Risk is not a bad thing. It’s a tool,” said Gordon. “Using it well and to your effect will generate results that are outsize to what you would expect.”

To be successful — and hedge those risks Gordon needed to know what players were worth, with precision, both in the present and the future. Edwards would help teach him.

In the coming months — working from Boston, rising at 4 in the morning, Gordon began to put the pieces in place. He and Edwards and the data analytics department set about creating and expanding data sets on players, assigning values to their skills, even their temperaments and personalities.

As Gordon saw it: “Value has to be assigned in numerical terms for every player. They have to be ordered, ranked. It has to fit within what you might consider the broader portfolio, which is the team.”

Success would not come quickly. It required years; Gordon and the owners endured their share of criticism over such missteps as a “transfer committee,” derided by some, that made expensive misses on players such as Mario Balotelli and Christian Benteke; and the club backed down and apologized after a ticket-price hike announcement led to an in-game walkout of some 10,000 Anfield fans chanting about the “greedy bastards” at FSG.

But it came.

Boosting revenues was critical. Gordon, working closely with Liverpool’s chief financial officer Billy Hogan, increased capacity at Anfield, with neighborhood development plans in the works.

As he examined every aspect of the organization, he also set a new tone. Gordon traveled to Liverpool several times a year, inspecting and gaining familiarity not only with the team’s operations but also its employees: the groundskeepers, scouts, analysts, coaches, and players. He asked a lot of questions, and by example demonstrated he wanted every available mind working creatively on the problems they faced, most especially the players they needed and the strategies they should pursue to get them.

“Candor and risk-taking,” was the style required by Liverpool, Gordon said. Twinning the two in a highly pressurized atmosphere required a deft touch. Gordon deferred to the subject-matter experts, said Hogan, and “ultimately we arrive at decisions because he doesn’t take all of the oxygen out of the room.”

***

Gordon, right, with Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp after winning the UEFA Champions League in 2019.
Gordon, right, with Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp after winning the UEFA Champions League in 2019.Andrew Powell/Liverpool FC via Getty Images

In 2015, with a better roster of players to help entice a new level of talent, Gordon fired the manager who had resisted his collaborative approach and Edwards’s data-driven recommendations and hired Klopp, a German superstar who coached an all-out style of play and embraced working alongside an analytics team.

Liverpool was now at a critical point in its development — in striking distance of assembling not just a good team, but a dominant one. “We were close enough where we weren’t really just building for the future,” Gordon said. “We were in a position to try and finish the job.”

So they embarked on a new plan. During the 2016-17 season, Liverpool brought in rising offensive talent Sadio Mane, hoping he would continue to blossom into a world class forward. The following season, they replicated the move, acquiring Mohamed Salah, another offensive player who looked to be on the cusp of greatness.

Both players did well, and with the offense thus fortified, the team was in position for a bold and high-stakes gamble: selling one of Liverpool’s biggest offensive stars, Philippe Coutinho, who had made it known he was looking to play on a new team, Barcelona.

Coutinho was a marquee player, a standout who was worth a lot of money, the kind of stratospheric sum Liverpool would need if it was to execute the next step in its plan.

But Coutinho was wildly popular among fans, so much so that when a deal was announced in January 2018 to sell Coutinho — for $180 million, an astounding 15 times what Liverpool had paid five years earlier — they revolted. The outcry was incendiary enough to rattle Gordon.

He itched to go to the media, to explain to fans and the public the reasoning behind the deal. Klopp talked him out of it. It would set a bad precedent, he told Gordon. He shouldn't have to publicly justify every move fans disagreed with.

Gordon eventually acquiesced but reluctantly.

It wasn’t long before fans forgot the controversy, or forgave. Within months, Liverpool had purchased two players considered to be among the best in the world at their positions, defenseman Virgil van Dijk and goalkeeper Alisson Becker, and began to start winning in a whole new way.

Liverpool dominated European soccer in 2018-19, winning three trophies and coming within a single tantalizing point of taking the cherished Premier League title. A year later, this July, after a season of start-to-finish dominance, it finally gained the title.

Gordon, kept stateside by the coronavirus pandemic, was watching the deciding game with his family at their summer home in New Hampshire when the final whistle blew. They jumped out of their seats and yelled and hugged. Congratulatory texts started rolling in. There were elated calls with Henry and Werner.

Then, for the rest of the night, Gordon scrolled through contacts on his phone, one by one calling Liverpool’s coaches, analysts, support staff — virtually everyone on the team’s payroll — to thank them.

***

Gordon, true to his nature, deflects much of the credit for Liverpool’s victory. If pressed, he might talk of his father, who ran a commercial food distribution company in Milwaukee.

His father was modest, hard-working. and selfless, Gordon says. And he cared about the welfare of his employees.

Gordon’s father died of lung cancer when Gordon was 17, just as Gordon was thinking about going off to college. Gordon says he has tried to be to be true to his memory of him.

When travel restrictions allow, Gordon will fly to Liverpool, where he can still walk the streets unrecognized. He says he prefers it that way.


Michael Silverman can be reached at michael.silverman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeSilvermanBB.