Henry reaches first base with Liverpool faithful
Published 18/10/2010 | 05:00
On the fourth finger of John W Henry's right hand sits a bulbous, garish silver ring.
It is not the real thing, which is too large, too valuable to wear, but its message is clear. It is a facsimile of one of the two World Series rings he has earned as owner of the Boston Red Sox. This is a man whose obsession, whose compulsion, is winning.
That word has arisen in every interview, every sound-bite the former futures trader has given since he finally gained control of Liverpool last Friday.
Little wonder, then, that even in the afterglow of victory, he is irked by his predecessor Tom Hicks' assertion that the £300m deal, which brought his ruinous tenure to an end, was an "epic swindle."
Cheating, after all, is not winning.
"I know some people are saying this was a cheap price," said the 57-year-old. "There is no way we look at this as a cheap price for this club. We know how much work this is going to be, how steep the learning curve is. This is not going to be easy.
"We realise the challenge that lies ahead if we are to go toe-to-toe with three other big clubs. We have spent the last two months doing due diligence, and we know we have got our work cut out.
"There were big financial issues that we found, but in the end we made a decision that we really want to compete at this level."
It is here that Henry, his partner Tom Werner, the man behind 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' and 'Mork and Mindy', and the other 15 investors in NESV differ from what went before. Hicks and Gillett, of course, saw Liverpool as a cash cow to be fattened and milked. They thought only of the bottom line. Their replacements are more concerned with high achievements.
Such an outlook is fortunate. The lesson learned from a decade of foreign investment in the Premier League is clear: making money in football is harder than it looks. More than a dozen have tried.
That NESV are not in England for profit margins so much as victory parades suggests they are not about to join a growing list of failures.
"I do not think any thinking individual buys a sports franchise, or an English football club, to make money," said Henry. "Maybe a few, but they have their heads examined. It is about competing at the highest level in the world's largest sport for us. That is why we are here.
"The Red Sox have not given our partner in nine years a profit distribution. We have given a tax distribution, but we have poured every penny we have made back into that club."
Henry and Werner might be making all the right noises -- meeting with the club's disenfranchised fans, listening to the concerns of the players -- as part of a PR strategy designed to win hearts and minds broken and frenzied after three-and-a-half years of broken promises. There is, though, a cold, hard logic to their investment.
"We know there is a very powerful fan base for Liverpool in Asia," added Henry. "We are not embarrassed to say we want to exploit that."
The Kop, raised on the socialist ethos of Bill Shankly, should not shrink at the prospect of such unabashed capitalism, though. This is the future for football, as NESV see it.
Henry's wife, Linda Pizzuti, has played a significant role in pushing him towards the Anfield gates, and it was she who pestered him to walk up to Tom Hicks and ask him was he selling Liverpool, at a baseball owners' meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, in January.
"My wife kept bumping at me (at the meeting) and saying 'why don't you go ask Tom Hicks if he is selling Liverpool'," Henry revealed.
Liverpool's new owner admits he was uncertain he wanted the challenge -- "Oh, man, it's a long way away," he told Ms Pizzuti. But she persisted, "so finally I went over and tried to approach Tom but he was in conversation so I approached Tom Hicks jnr and I asked him."
That Hicks jnr replied with a flat "no" was hardly surprising, since his family have never really forgiven Henry for signing Alex Rodriguez, Hicks' world record signing at the Texas Rangers, while at New York Yankees in 2004.
Henry, who isn't sure why his wife was "more serious than I was" in Liverpool, but her enthusiasm was fateful since the club has kept coming across Henry's horizon over the past few years.
Two years ago Henry was on a flight with Mike Dee, the chief executive of Miami Dolphins, when Dee handed him the sales prospectus for the club.
"I thought 'Oh, oh, we have enough headaches'. This seemed like a lot of work and I just didn't think about it again until the owners' meeting."
But one of Henry's commercial executives at NESV, Joe Januszewki, emailed the boss to say he thought the club's appeal has certainly increased since it became clear that UEFA's Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules will prevent clubs sustaining huge losses under wealthy benefac-tors to spend on players on wages.
"I don't have 'Sheikh' in front of my name," Henry said from a seat in the Anfield boardroom on Saturday. But, he says, that does not matter if there's a level playing field. Henry was incredulous when it is put to him that City, Real Madrid or anyone else will find a way around those rules.
"You're cynical," he said. "If the FFP rules were ridiculous or not that strong, why was the transfer window down 25pc last year? The clubs have to comply."
His interest in Liverpool "would be less" if that regime were not imminent.
In the new landscape Henry and Werner are looking to apply the Red Sox model of driving up revenues through judicious spending because it has demonstrated that less may not mean more where investment levels and trophies are concerned. They see the big-spending Yankees as the Manchester United equivalent.
"You have to be smart about it," Henry said. "We will never have the revenues of the Yankees. They always out-spend us, about 50pc a year, so we have to be smart. We have to be more efficient. We cannot afford player contracts that do not make long term sense.
"When we arrived at the Red Sox, the New York Yankees were a juggernaut and it wasn't that much of rivalry. I believe we turned it into a rivalry where we have gone toe-to-toe. The Yankees' revenues keep going up, but we have gone up faster and we have got to the point where if you look at our wins and losses against them over the last nine years, we are almost dead even."
Though there as an open mind on the refurbish or rebuild stadium debate, it is hard to avoid the impression that refurbish appeals -- even though Liverpool can now draw on the experience of Red Sox chief executive Larry Luccino, who built Camden Yards, the fine Baltimore Orioles ballpark.
They are encouraged by fans' polls which show a sentiment for staying put and improving revenues at Anfield. (© Daily Telegraph, London)