Saturday 18 November 2017

'Our fans have expectations. We hope they are now matched by every player'

Liverpool owner John W Henry tells Duncan White about his hunger to deliver success, his admiration for referees and why a naming-rights partner is vital to building a new stadium

Liverpool owner John W Henry has launched a robust defence of the club's transfer policy, while taking a thinly veiled swipe at Chelsea and Manchester City for appearing not to take Uefa's impending financial fair play rules seriously.

In an exclusive interview, the American businessman insisted the Merseysiders had not over-spent on British talent after signing Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing for a combined outlay of around £71m since January.

He also issued a damning appraisal of Liverpool's former owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, made clear that his expectation is for a return to the Champions League this season, and revealed that he is looking for a naming-rights partner that could make Liverpool's much-needed new stadium viable.

What emerges from the interview is a picture of an owner who has immersed himself in the project of taking Liverpool from its debt-laden stagnant state back to the summit of European football.

You attended the opening game against Sunderland at Anfield. Talk us through your day.

I had spent the previous day in Munich studying the Allianz Arena -- a truly magnificent accomplishment by Bayern Munich. I flew in late Friday night and Tom (Werner), Ian (Ayre) and I met with our supporters' committee on Saturday morning.

Richard Scudamore of the Premier League and David Bernstein of the FA were there prior to and during the match, so it was an opportunity to speak with them. Both are very impressive.

What did it feel like watching this team you had helped build?

Tom and I spoke about how many players in the starting line-up had arrived after we had. The fact that Luis Suarez was there so soon after the Copa America shows how determined everyone in the dressing-room is this year.

This is a club with tremendous history and you want players who understand how important every match is to millions around the world. Our fans have expectations. This year those expectations are matched by every player.

Not every player wanted to be here when we arrived. Kenny (Dalglish), Steve (Clarke), Damien (Comolli) and Ian have turned that completely around.

What are your targets for this season?

Manchester United have done an incredible job of building a young, talented, deep squad. We've just begun to build and are years behind them so we don't expect this to be our year to win the Premier League.

Manchester City seem to have unlimited spending restraint and want all-star quality at each position. That will be hard to beat. This year our goal is to get back to the Champions League. But it won't be at all easy and no one is expecting that, as there are six big clubs -- among the best in Europe -- fighting for four spots.

In your first 10 months in English football what has impressed you?

The referees impress me in England. Football officiating is so subjective -- much more subjective than any other sport. But the more I watch -- and I watch too many matches -- the more impressed I am with officials.

The most amazing thing to me is how accurate linesmen are on offsides. I don't see how they can see when the ball is struck and at the same time determine from their angle if someone is offside. They are right 95pc of the time despite all of the complaining you hear about their performances.

What has surprised you?

The transfer system and how it works is a shock if you've come from American sports. The fact that a guaranteed contract means very little when another club decides that they want your player is surprising. The player suddenly 'has to go'.

And of course the sums of money that are spent on buying and selling players is remarkable.

When you first arrived in English football you made it clear you supported Uefa's Financial Fair Play concept. Are Liverpool on track to conform?

For a club to be sustainable for the long-term it is essential to live within those rules that we are about to see implemented.

What happens when large-deficit spending for a club suddenly stops after a long period of support? The record isn't very good in that regard. Quoting the players' union chief executive Gordon Taylor on billionaires: "History tells you that sometimes, like butterflies, they land on one attractive resting place then move on to another. I'm asking: when it's time for these people to move, is there a structure in place to enable their clubs to survive?"

What about other clubs? You recently raised doubts about Manchester City's sponsorship deal on Twitter.

The question remains as to how serious UEFA is regarding this. It appears that there are a couple of large English clubs that are sending a strong message that they aren't taking them seriously, yet large clubs in Italy are.

Maybe it's necessary for other associations to act. I believe the Football League has adopted these protocols. They have to be congratulated on that.

Do Liverpool need FFP to be properly applied if they are to compete at the top level?

We need time to build the football operation and we need to build our revenues. We did that in Boston and we still cannot come close to matching the revenues of the New York Yankees. But we match them competitively. We won't be near the top of Europe for a while, but we will get there in both regards.

Have you achieved your goals in terms of recruitment and sales this summer?

For a number of years players of quality were being sold and players of lesser quality were being purchased. The club wasn't being run by people with the kind of discipline it takes to be successful over the long term.

The worry seemed to be that we wouldn't spend. We intend to strengthen this club annually but that doesn't mean we will deficit spend. It's up to us to strengthen revenues. Only then will we be strong enough to compete in Europe.

A large share of the money you have spent on recruitment has gone on British players. Was this a determined strategy?

Everyone seemed to think that Liverpool was over-valuing British players this summer. But when the Premier League has the whole world to choose players from and there is a substantial homegrown rule, British players are going to be highly valued.

Look at the prices paid this year for (Connor) Wickham and (Alex) Chamberlain. At Liverpool we have purchased each player for a different reason, and are headed in the right direction.

Could you describe your personal involvement in the recruitment process this summer?

I have tried to be as involved as I could so as to learn as much as possible in a short period. I want to know why we are doing what we are doing on the pitch and over player acquisition. I wouldn't be doing my job if I wasn't able to make sense of the individual steps we are taking within the context of our overall philosophy.

Has there been any progress on a new stadium? Is a ground-share with Everton still off the agenda?

If a new stadium were to be built in Liverpool from a financial perspective -- which is the major issue -- a ground-share would be helpful for both clubs. But there doesn't seem to be any support for that from fans.

We would love to expand Anfield, but there are enough local and regulatory issues to keep that avenue stalled for years with no assurances that once begun it would bear any fruit. If Anfield cannot be expanded, a new stadium is a wonderful choice. But the fact is we already have 45,000 seats.

If a new stadium is constructed with 60,000 seats, you've spent an incredible sum to add just 15,000 seats. If the cost is £300m for an extra 15,000 seats, that doesn't make any sense.

That's why the search is on for a naming-rights partner. And that could well happen. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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