AP Interview: John Henry on reviving Liverpool
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Preparing for the pride and angst of watching Liverpool contest the biggest game in club football, John Henry is ready to take stock of the often-fraught, eight-year journey as owner.
The perilous plight of the club he inherited: The early mistakes as the Boston Red Sox ownership group found its feet in soccer: The challenge of restoring the team to the pinnacle of the European game: And the toughest decisions of them all: Reluctantly selling players adored by supporters.
“Maybe it’s because I’m an American, but I have a difficult time understanding why anyone would want to leave Liverpool,” Henry told The Associated Press in an in-depth discussion of the club carried out by email. “The club is so rich in history and tradition, supported by so many millions around the world, in virtually every country of the world.”
That global standing wasn’t enough to prevent Barcelona twice in the last four years tempting Liverpool’s star forwards, paying around 240 million euros ($280 million) for Luiz Suarez and Philippe Coutinho.
“You don’t want to be in the position where players want to go somewhere else, even if it is a great club like Barcelona,” Henry said. “It’s hard to understand why players would want to go to a league where the competition is so weak. They must play 30 or so meaningless matches per year waiting for Champions League matches.”
When the final of the Champions League is played on Saturday it will be Liverpool taking on Real Madrid in Kiev’s Olympic Stadium. For Coutinho and Suarez, the Champions League ended in the quarterfinals.
“They’ll be watching this weekend and could have been playing,” Henry said. “But (part owner) Mike Gordon, (sporting director) Michael Edwards and everyone in our scouting department have done a terrific job in making the best of those two difficult situations.”
The squabbling and financial strife of the previous American owners — Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr. — left Liverpool facing not just relegation from the Premier League but bankruptcy in 2010. It took a court battle instigated by the Royal Bank of Scotland in the midst of a global financial crisis for Henry’s Fenway Sports Group to be able to wrest control of the debt-ridden club.
In the heat of the October 2010 Merseyside derby — Henry’s first game as principal owner — the hazardous state of his new asset was brought home by taunts from rival supporters. Relegation was looming after a 2-0 loss to Everton left Liverpool only off the bottom of the Premier League on goal difference.
“Evertonians were chanting ‘You’re going down,’” Henry recalled. “We were 19th at the time, but we managed to stay up despite a lot of early mistakes.”
Such as when then-director of football Damien Comolli oversaw the 50 million pounds generated by selling Fernando Torres to Chelsea in 2011 being reinvested in paying 35 million pounds on an unproven Andy Carroll, who was blighted by injuries.
“Football isn’t easy,” Henry said, “and building from that squad, if you remember that squad, took a lot time.”
TRANSFORMING THE CLUB
While fan unrest was dissipated with the return of an Anfield hero as manager, Kenny Dalglish was only a short-term fix. Unity had been restored but it took Brendan Rodgers to come within touching distance of winning the Premier League in 2014.
Rodgers was fired in October 2015, but FSG was working behind the scenes to create an appealing environment to attract Juergen Klopp, one of the new generation of super coaches who won the Bundesliga twice with Borussia Dortmund.
“It took Michael Edwards winning more and more of the battles internally to get us to the point that when we met with Juergen he said, ‘I really want to coach this group. This will be fun,’” Henry said.
Boisterous on the sidelines, Klopp ensured his team was similarly expressive on the pitch with high-energy, attacking football.
There have been setbacks: An eighth-place finish and Europa League final loss meant Liverpool failed to return to the Champions League in 2016. But given Liverpool has not even featured in the Champions League in consecutive seasons over the last decade, it represents unexpected progress under Klopp.
“He has done a tremendous job getting us into this position,” Henry said. “He has been just as effective in inspiring not just our players but everyone who loves this club. He is an inspired, natural leader who is sensitive to what some might see as small things, but are very important over the long term.”
Few expected Klopp to be able to find a way past Manchester City in the Champions League quarterfinals. But Liverpool won home (3-0) and away (2-1) against a formidable City side that went on to win the Premier League by 19 points.
“On European nights I felt like the supporters at Anfield pushed the club past opponents to the point that we were just unbeatable on those nights,” Henry said. “On away nights the resolve and effort of this group of highly talented players got us to the finals.
“Being in the final is a reflection of the incredible support this club gets at Anfield and the ability (of) Juergen and the entire staff to put our players in the position to be successful. You can do all of that but the players have to step up and they have.”
For all the mistakes Henry acknowledges have been made at Liverpool, decisions can be made with unexpectedly fruitful consequences. None more so than the 50 million euro deal to sign Mohamed Salah from Roma last year. After struggling to make an impact at his first Premier League club — Chelsea — the Egypt forward has been the revelation of the season, netting 44 goals in 51 games for Liverpool to sweep the board of domestic individual honors.
“His record-setting scoring became one of the biggest stories in England this year,” Henry said. “Perhaps my favorite Anfield songs ever are a couple about Mo. We are proud of more than what he has meant to us on the field. It is highly significant for a global club with a particular set of values to have a huge star who personifies what can be accomplished with unity rather than the divisions among people we see so often these days.”
While Liverpool has more European titles than any other Premier League club, it won the last of its 18 English league titles in 1990 and has been usurped as the most successful domestic team by 20-time winner Manchester United.
“Liverpool has a history in European competition and it may be more important to many of our supporters,” Henry said. “Is a European championship bigger than an English championship? Most people would say, ‘Yes, much more so.’ However, in many ways the Premier League is the world’s Premier League — there is nothing like it.
“Viewership dwarfs other leagues. Interest in the Premier League is far greater than the Champions League until the last month of the season. Probably because the vast majority of Champions League matches are not compelling for the first few months of the competition.”
There’s no doubting the final will be captivating when Liverpool’s players try to dethrone Madrid, which has won the last two Champions League titles.
“They’ve been on a mission,” Henry said. “I expect that will continue this weekend in Kiev.”