LIVERPOOL, England — The first comparison a visitor can make between fans of Liverpool FC and fans of the Red Sox is also the easiest.
As stadium anthems go, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” blows away “Sweet Caroline.”
The sound system at Anfield Stadium times the song to end seconds before the match begins. As the echoes of the final “... you’ll ne-ver walk alone” refrain sung by 54,000 fans fade, the referee blows the whistle to start.
The roar that greets the first touch is louder than the singing.
Goose bumps grow bumpier.
Compared with the camera-mugging warbling that accompanies Fenway Park’s eighth-inning ditty — which is played even if the home team is trailing — this serenade, with its message of hope, community, and comfort, ignites the atmosphere at Anfield.
Odes will not be written about this particular midwinter Liverpool-Chelsea game — zero goals scored after 101 minutes played in near-freezing conditions inspires mostly amnesia — but it still afforded a timely moment to examine the sometimes-jealous ties that bind Liverpool fans to Red Sox fans.
Each franchise has racked up historic championships and bred a rabid fan base over a century-plus of playing in an ancient stadium in a small big city.
The two also are the crown jewels of Boston-based Fenway Sports Group. Liverpool, bought in 2010, is worth $4.5 billion according to Forbes. The Red Sox, bought in 2002, are worth $3.9 billion.
Last season, the Red Sox finished in last place in the American League East, then failed to retain homegrown favorite Xander Bogaerts in free agency. They came up with a franchise-record $331 million extension for their brightest young talent, Rafael Devers, but a vocal portion of their fan base is skeptical about the team’s outlook and cranky about its spending habits.
Across the Atlantic, Liverpool fans sing, with more volume and vibrato, a song in a different key.
But it’s almost the same tune.
Red Sox fans will recognize it instantly.
Ripe for gripes
Late-morning ales in hand, Kieran Falloon and Michael O’Neill look a little bleary after crossing the Irish Sea on an eight-hour overnight ferry from Belfast.
With an hour to go before the Liverpool-Chelsea game across the street, the two have found a quiet spot in a patio behind The Park Pub Anfield, where a rapidly lubricating crowd is chanting for the starting 11 and against Chelsea and the Tory government.
At the mention of Fenway Sports Group and the money the Red Sox spent recently to secure Devers, Falloon grows animated.
“That’s $331 million they could have spent on a midfielder here,” said Falloon. “Look at the stadium” — a 7,000-seat Anfield addition costing almost $100 million is expected to be ready next season — “they’re putting money into that but they’re not going to spend money on this team until the summer. They’re not putting money in the right places.”
The softer-spoken O’Neill is not on the same page as Falloon about FSG.
“We’re split,” said O’Neill. “They’ve done a great job, especially considering where we were when they first came in. This is the same team that came in second last year. They’re still strong. We just need a couple more players. We’re talking about how we maybe need to spend a little more money.”
A little’s not enough for Falloon.
“I like FSG, too, but they’re not spending money the right way,” he said. “It’s a business for them. You can’t win and then forget about the team.”
At just about the same moment Falloon and O’Neill were boarding their boat in Belfast, FSG principal owner John Henry, who owns the Globe, Red Sox president Sam Kennedy, and Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom walked onto a stage at a fan gathering in Springfield, Mass., and were greeted by boos.
This was 10 days after the Devers signing.
The Red Sox have been on a roller-coaster ride in the 21 seasons of FSG ownership.
Four World Series titles closed the book on the generational trauma inflicted by an 86-year championship drought.
With them, too, have come five last-place finishes in the last 11 years, steep dips that eroded some fans’ confidence in the Red Sox’ ability to settle on team-building philosophies that consistently provide championship contenders.
Liverpool’s performance under FSG the last 13 seasons has dodged that yo-yo effect. But this season has posed a major stress test.
Sale or no sale?
Liverpool has been among the three best clubs in both English and European soccer the last five years, a stretch that is beginning to resemble stretches from the franchise’s dominant period from the 1960s through the 1980s.
The first five seasons under FSG ownership were mostly middling for Liverpool, but hiring the charismatic and beloved Jurgen Klopp as manager (i.e. coach) in 2015 launched the team to heights not just in English soccer — it snapped a 30-year Premier League title drought three seasons ago — but also European soccer, winning the Champions League four years ago plus four other trophies.
After finishing second in the Premier League, losing in the Champions League finals, and winning two trophies last year, Liverpool looked primed to repeat.
However, an inconsistent first half to the season left the team looking old and flat. The uncertainty from November news that FSG was exploring a full or partial sale of the club caused a number of fans to direct their wrath the owners’ way.
The hashtag “#FSGOUT” was trending on Twitter for much of the winter, and before a March 4 game at Anfield against archrival Manchester United, a plane circled the stadium trailing a banner that read, “FSG out, Klopp in, Enough Is Enough.”
Liverpool wound up drubbing Manchester United, 7-0, but it returned to inconsistent form thereafter. It got bounced from the Champions League and now faces an uphill climb to reach the top four in the Premier League this season and requalify for next year’s lucrative Champions League.
Henry told the Boston Sports Journal in late February that the club is not for sale, and FSG is only seeking new investors. One possible outcome is that a minority share buy-in evolves over time into full ownership of Liverpool.
That scenario is one way to interpret Henry’s comment to Boston Sports Journal.
“Will we be in England forever? No,” he said.
One industry source with knowledge of the FSG mind-set put it succinctly this winter: “They love the Red Sox. They like Liverpool.”
Keeping an eye on FSG
“At the end of the day, [Henry] is a custodian of Liverpool Football Club,” said Joe Blott over a cup of coffee at the Turnpike Tavern in the Liverpool suburb of Broadgreen. “FSG are minding a football club for me. They don’t own the football club.”
Blott, a Liverpool native and a fan since the early 1970s, is well-qualified to speak about the view Liverpool fans have of the owners. He is the chair of Spirit of Shankly, the official supporters club of Liverpool FC, and of the Liverpool Supporters Board, the 16-member group created in the wake of the “Super League” debacle of nearly two years ago, when Henry joined a group of top European soccer team owners in a plan to supplant the Champions League with a new competition that would ensure an annual spot in the tournament for each team.
Two days of continent-wide howls of elitism and greed from fans and players forced the abandonment of the plan.
The storm prompted Henry to videotape an apology, which led directly to the creation of the Supporters Board, whose powers of engagement, consultation, and, at times, consent were written into LFC’s articles of association.
Blott makes it clear he does not speak for all Liverpool fans, but in thoughts voiced carefully and precisely, he provided a few prisms through which FSG’s 13 years of ownership should be viewed.
The first is that the team’s results have given fans “some significantly unbelievable journeys in the last four, five years.”
That context, though, “has to be seen in terms of FSG’s stewardship, which is about balancing the books. I think if there’s a common frustration, it’s about not seeing enough investments on the pitch.
“You see the financial results and they look impressive. But they don’t appear to some people to be transferred to the football pitch itself when they see other clubs spending on this, that, or the other.”
Henry’s apology fits a pattern that does not boost the trust fans have in FSG, Blott said.
“They’ve made some horrendous mistakes over the years,” he said, ticking off a failed 2016 ticket-price hike, a failed attempt to trademark “Liverpool” in 2019, and a failed attempt to furlough 200 staff members in the early days of the 2020 pandemic.
As Blott spoke, a TV broadcast of a Klopp press conference caught his eye.
“There may be five or six people in their bedrooms who don’t like him, but I haven’t heard one word said against him,” said Blott. “His name is sung many, many times. He’s the man for Liverpool Football Club.
“If he shows that ownership is not backing him, that’s when I think fans will challenge, because the reality is Jurgen Klopp is the closest thinking and achieving manager to what we had with Bill Shankly [the legendary manager from the 1960s to mid-70s]. He’s united the fans and the team and himself, and that’s a hugely strong triangle of support.”
You’ll never spend alone
The grip that the rich and layered history of the soccer team has on this 800-plus-year-old port city on the River Mersey is tight.
Not to give short shrift to the city’s most famous export, the Beatles, or the other soccer team in town, Everton, but it’s the fortunes of Liverpool that have long been the city’s central diversion.
The grandparents of the Beatles were children and the Red Sox were still nine years from birth when the team was founded in 1892.
Over the course of 132 years, the team has combined to win more league titles and assorted English and European trophies than any other English team. Liverpool’s heyday began with the iconic leadership of Shankly before a decades-long lull began with a pall.
In 1989, 97 fans were crushed to death at Hillsborough stadium, a disaster, caused by police, ambulance, and stadium failures, that seared itself into fans’ psyches. An eternal flame flickers at a memorial at Anfield.
Outside of the fiercely tight Liverpool community, the fans — and, to a large extent, FSG — are caught up in global economic forces they don’t control and can’t ignore.
European soccer leagues, in which financial fair-play rules have been mostly toothless, are far less focused on parity than their North American counterparts.
American investors (most recently Clearlake Capital and Todd Boehly with Chelsea) and oil-rich Middle Eastern sovereign states or individuals like Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (Newcastle) and United Arab Emirates (Manchester City) — are spending on players the way Steve Cohen has with the New York Mets.
Liverpool adheres to the business model FSG applies to all of its properties: Spending should match revenues. Liverpool has not skimped on payroll. Since 2017-18, it has moved from fifth to fourth place among Premier League teams, its payroll nearly doubling in that period, and it has invested $300 million in renovations and improvements to Anfield and its training grounds.
In that same span, its revenue rankings in the league have been in the top three.
FSG’s partial-sale exploration has not been a reaction to this season’s struggles, but this season’s struggles highlight the impetus for that exploration.
The search for new investors is an acknowledgment that it needs more resources to compete with deeper-pocketed owners, and it comes at a time when the team’s performance has inspired alarm more often than expected.
Based on recent comments from Klopp and the prospect of more cash, FSG perhaps has accepted the need to make a splash or three this summer.
The ballad of John and Fergal
John Kelly is quick with a nod to Klopp.
“He’s like a god, we love him,” said Kelly.
Klopp’s presence is a salve after the listless 0-0 tie with Chelsea witnessed by Kelly, a lifelong Liverpool resident, with his friend Fergal O’Neill.
“They need to invest in Liverpool,” said Kelly in a downtown hotel bar. “As you can see now, they’re getting beaten on a regular basis. They’re not the same team from two years ago. I’d like an investor to come in, because now we’re like an ordinary team.”
O’Neill, whose day began in Limerick, Ireland, at 3:30 a.m. with a bus/plane/taxi connection to Anfield, is no less frustrated with Liverpool’s current state. But he does not trace the problem to FSG’s front door.
“I don’t have a massive problem with FSG, to be honest with you,” he said. “Good businessmen, 100 percent, but I wonder if Klopp actually puts enough pressure on them to make bigger signings, the ones they should make.”
The signing of Devers, that qualifies as pretty big — if O’Neill had heard about it.
“There’s no visibility about the Red Sox here,” said O’Neill. “A $331 million signing? Wonderful. But I wouldn’t know that. We’re very focused on football. We’re not into baseball.”
Kelly weighed in again.
“They need to spend money,” he said. “They need to spend $200 million. It’s an aging team. The players are not world class.”
Spending on Devers, spending on Anfield stadium — none of that truly matters, said Kelly, whose thick accent suddenly sounded much more Bostonian.
“We’re not very happy,” said Kelly. “The only way you keep a fan happy is you keep winning things.”
FSG is trying to keep a lot of fans happy. It could use some wins.
Michael Silverman can be reached at email@example.com.