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“It has exceeded our wildest dreams,” Tom Werner admits.
The Liverpool chairman is reflecting on the journey since Fenway Sports Group (FSG) bought the club nearly 12 years ago.
The first game of FSG’s tenure was a wretched 2-0 derby defeat at Goodison Park that October, which meant only goal difference kept a Roy Hodgson-managed side off the bottom of the Premier League table.
On Saturday, American television producer and businessman Werner will take his seat in the Stade de France for Liverpool’s Champions League final against Real Madrid. Victory in Paris would complete a cherished treble for Jurgen Klopp’s men this season, following their Carabao Cup and FA Cup triumphs.
“When we bought Liverpool, we were trying to figure out how many years can we be in the Champions League out of five, or 10? How many years can we make top four?” Werner says.
“The fact that this will be our third final in the space of five seasons is remarkable. We could never have imagined that. Yet we’re very humble about it. We know how competitive it is. We’re grateful for where we are on this particular day. Whatever the outcome in Paris, it’s been an extraordinary year for the club. It will really stand the test of time.”
During a wide-ranging exclusive interview with The Athletic, Werner discusses:
- Klopp’s inspirational leadership, and his decision to shelve plans for a sabbatical in 2024 and instead sign a new deal.
- The legacy of outgoing sporting director Michael Edwards, and why Julian Ward is the perfect successor.
- The owners’ desire to agree contract extensions with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane.
- The rivalry with Manchester City, and the hope that new financial sustainability regulations will be properly enforced.
- How Chelsea’s likely new American owner Todd Boehly has turned to Liverpool’s owners for advice.
There’s also a vow FSG remains firmly committed to Liverpool for the long-term and a promise it won’t ever consider signing up to a breakaway league again.
FSG principal owner John W Henry and its president Mike Gordon were alongside Werner in the Anfield directors’ box for the drama of Sunday’s final day of the Premier League season.
Manchester City’s late fightback from 2-0 down to beat Aston Villa at the Etihad meant that for the second time in four seasons Liverpool were pipped to the title by a single point as their own 3-1 win over Wolves was in vain.
“The margin couldn’t have been narrower,” Werner says. “When Aston Villa scored their first goal, I thought, ‘Oh my, this could actually happen’. The roar of the crowd was quite remarkable as the news from Manchester passed from person to person.
“In the end, the prevailing thought I had was of pride in what the team did on Sunday, and all season long. Making the title race go down to the final day of the season was an achievement in itself. The fact we’ve also won two very important trophies and we’re on our way to the Champions League final, it’s been a magnificent ride.
“There have been important contributions from so many players. Our fans have been critical to the success. I know the players and Jurgen pay tribute to them after every match. Football without fans is like a sandwich without the meat. It’s really been exciting to see the fans back (after pandemic restrictions kept them away from Anfield for more than a year).
“I take this season as being not just a special one for the success Jurgen and the players have had but what the club has achieved across the board. The women’s team were crowned champions of their league. We’re hard at work finishing the Anfield Road redevelopment and we’ve done enormous things in the community with the work of the LFC Foundation.”
At the heart of Liverpool’s thrilling challenge on all fronts over the past nine months has been Klopp. His energy and personality radiate throughout the club.
After the struggles of last season, when Liverpool salvaged Champions League qualification with five straight wins on the run-in after their title defence was derailed by a winter injury crisis, the German has led them back to competing for, and winning, the biggest prizes.
“Jurgen has really instilled a sense of being relentlessly competitive,” Werner says. “We’ve played an enormous amount of matches (Paris will be their 63rd this season across four competitions). What Jurgen has done keeping the squad fit and focused on the next game has been magnificent. Credit to (assistant manager) Pep Lijnders, the physios and all the staff too as the number of days lost to injuries is a fraction of what it was a year ago.
“I’m somewhat of a historian by hobby, so I know the successes that preceded Jurgen. From the tenures of (Bill) Shankly and (Bob) Paisley, through to (Kenny) Dalglish and (Gerard) Houllier. I’ve been privileged to see up-close the job that Jurgen has done. It ranks certainly as one of the great achievements of the club. I know there’s a new song that’s been dedicated to Jurgen by the fans and I think it’s very fitting.
“Recently, I was chatting to the CEO of Siemens, the German technology company. I was talking to him about the talents of Jurgen. He would be a brilliant CEO wherever he landed. What I find about him is that he’s obviously a great strategist and handles the players so well. But his personality is just so warm and embracing. He’s kind, he’s got a keen sense of humour, he’s humble.
“Football is obviously critically important but he’s able to put it in perspective. We live in a very complex world. We’ve all had to deal with the ravages of COVID and what’s going on in Ukraine. It’s a joy to know Jurgen.”
Until last month, Liverpool’s owners had faced the daunting prospect of needing to identify a successor for Klopp in two years’ time.
The manager had long planned to take a sabbatical following the end of his contract after the 2023-24 season. However, a conversation at the Klopp kitchen table in Formby with wife Ulla, who made it clear she was happy and settled after seven years in the UK, led to a two-year extension being swiftly drawn up. For FSG, it was the most welcome of surprises.
“I want to give some credit to Ulla. She was very helpful in suggesting to Jurgen that he should extend his tenure at Liverpool,” Werner says.
“Mike Gordon talks to Jurgen a number of times every day. He kept us updated on the fact that Jurgen was considering an extension. But until it happened I just held my breath. It’s wonderful that he’s going to be with us for a few more years. I was so pleased, because there’s such a sense that nobody wants to think of the day when Jurgen is no longer manager of this club.”
There will be one significant change in the Anfield hierarchy following Saturday’s meeting with Real Madrid as Edwards steps down from the role of sporting director. He initially joined Liverpool as head of performance and analysis in 2011 before being promoted to the top job five years later.
Edwards negotiated deals for Mane, Salah, Andrew Robertson, Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho and Alisson among others. He also managed to secure bumper fees when it came to off-loading unwanted talents including Christian Benteke, Mamadou Sakho and Jordon Ibe. The £142 million sale of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona in January 2018 effectively paid for the transformative duo of Van Dijk and Alisson that same month and the following summer respectively.
“I want to acknowledge Michael’s reign as sporting director. It will end after Paris. He’s been instrumental,” Werner says.
“You could point to player after player who was identified before they became superstars. Going back to Mohamed Salah, Michael identified him.
“He’s very quiet about the way he goes about his business but he’s really been critical to our success. We’re competing against clubs who spend massive amounts of money on transfers. One of Michael’s correct strategies once we’ve identified players is making sure there’s an extension of those contracts.”
Ward, who was formerly Liverpool’s loan pathways and football partnerships manager, is being promoted from the assistant sporting director role he’s held since December 2020. There has been a gradual handover of responsibilities from Edwards this season and Werner is convinced they have the right man for the job.
“We’ve been impressed,” he says. “Julian has been part of Michael’s group for a while and a big decision-maker. I think he’s ready to step up. His promise has already been apparent over the course of this year. The transition has been seamless.
“Julian has been part of our shrewd recruitment. The rest of the team in those key positions — Dave Fallows (head of recruitment), Barry Hunter (chief scout), Ian Graham (director of research) — will continue.
“I have a great deal of confidence that we will continue to move forward with this group. Look at the difference that Luis Diaz has made almost immediately. I think we’re poised to be very successful in the future too.”
It was Ward who managed to hijack Tottenham’s move for Diaz at the end of the January window, as he thrashed out a £50 million deal to get the forward in from Porto. Liverpool had initially intended to wait until this summer before targeting the Colombia international, who has given Klopp’s frontline a new dimension in the second half of the season.
“It’s a pleasure to watch Luis play. He’s enormously talented and creative,” says Werner. “He smiles in a way that’s very infectious. I know he loves playing at Liverpool. Winning these cups means a lot to him personally. It was a dream of his to play for a club like Liverpool. I’m just thrilled, as a fan, to watch him, because he’s so special.”
The squad will be further bolstered by the arrival of exciting youngster Fabio Carvalho from Championship title winners Fulham for an initial fee of £5 million when he officially joins on July 1.
Can Liverpool supporters expect a busy summer in the transfer market?
“I’ll leave the answers to that to Jurgen and Julian,” Werner laughs. “They are very astute. I’m sure they will continue to make excellent acquisitions.”
One of the big challenges for Ward will be sorting out the futures of Salah and Mane in particular. Both attackers will enter the final year of their existing deals in July, and both will be in their 30s when next season kicks off the following month. Liverpool intend to reopen talks with the players’ representatives after the Champions League final.
“I’d like to keep those conversations confidential but obviously we’ve articulated our desire that they remain. Beyond that, I’ll leave that to Julian,” Werner says.
Is it a difficult balancing act trying to retain elite talent without ripping up the wage structure that has served the club so well?
“Football is in a tricky period. We’re competing against some very successful clubs. We have to be strategic in our decision-making,” Werner says. “But I’m proud of where we’re at — here we are talking about preparing for a Champions League final when most clubs are on their summer vacations.”
One source of frustration for FSG throughout its Anfield reign has been the failure of Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules to be properly enforced.
Manchester City had a two-year ban from European club competitions overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport before last season because most of the evidence fell outside of a time limit. UEFA, European football’s governing body, had initially ruled that City had committed “serious breaches”.
German news outlet Der Spiegel’s publication of leaked emails suggested that City’s commercial figures had been inflated to circumnavigate FFP rules.
City have strenuously denied any wrongdoing, and a Premier League investigation into their financial dealings has so far spanned over three years.
The rivalry has intensified between the two dominant forces in English football today. But is it a fair fight?
Data from the CIES Football Observatory on clubs’ spending on transfers since the summer of 2012 shows City have splashed out nearly £1.5 billion on signing players with a net spend of £842 million. Over the same decade, Liverpool have spent £965 million but their net spend is just £297 million.
“They certainly have more resources than we do, but we have the heart and soul of Liverpool on our side,” Werner says. “We’re competing in a very tough league. But I think our performance speaks for itself. We certainly have made it clear that part of the reason that we came into this over 10 years ago was that FFP would be with us.”
Last month, UEFA’s executive committee approved new financial sustainability regulations. Clubs will only be allowed to lose €60 million over three years and spending on wages, transfers and agent fees will be capped at 70 per cent of a club’s revenue.
“UEFA is working on strengthening the regulations and it’s important for us that people observe the regulations,” Werner says.
“I’m hopeful that they will be strengthened, because it allows all clubs, not just Liverpool, to compete under a very fair system. Certainly, it hasn’t been a deterrent for some, but we work at it.
“Behind the scenes, our team is headed by (chief executive) Billy Hogan, who is on the Premier League strategic advisory committee. We have a lot of work to do to not just be the best league in the world but to strengthen our position and to make sure all clubs are sustainable.
“I just want you to know there’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes. I’m on the broadcast advisory committee. I’m proud of the fact that in the next cycle, the international revenues will actually exceed the revenues of the domestic deals we have with stakeholders.
“To go back to your initial question, I certainly hope that the league continues to follow the intent of FFP rules and that clubs are regulated.”
How does FSG view the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United late last year and the imminent arrival of another American ownership group in the Premier League with Boehly’s consortium poised to complete their purchase of Chelsea?
“Again, it comes down to the issue of financial regulation. It doesn’t matter who invests in it if teams are subject to the rules then we welcome their inclusion into the league,” Werner says.
“John Henry and I have known and admired Todd from his association with the Los Angeles Dodgers (FSG is a fellow owner in Major League Baseball (MLB) at the Boston Red Sox).
“I’ve had a couple of conversations with him in the last week. He was just picking my brain. I think he will be good for Chelsea. I know they are working right now on a stadium solution. I think he will prove to be an excellent owner.”
It’s just over a year since Henry issued an apology to supporters after deciding to sign Liverpool up to the doomed Super League. It collapsed within a week after a furious backlash from fans.
Since then, however, a new Champions League format has been agreed from 2024-25 onwards which will see the number of teams in the group stage rise from 32 to 36. Each club will play eight rather than the current six group-stage matches.
Is the Super League officially dead?
“It is certainly off of Liverpool’s agenda. We have acknowledged that it was a mistake. Beyond that, it’s in our rear-view mirror,” Werner says.
“We are happy about certain aspects of the new Champions League format. We continue to express our concerns about the football calendar and it’s only going to be more complicated with the World Cup coming up (in November and December, in the middle of the European season).
“To the degree that it seems slightly more likely that five teams from the Premier League may be in the Champions League that’s obviously a good thing for Liverpool. But we’re delighted that the group stage is only going to be eight games rather than 10.”
Liverpool have shown a self-sustaining business model can deliver glory at the highest level, without the financial might of a nation state behind you, if you get the structure right, spend wisely and develop players.
“Certainly this year we’ve been proof of that,” Werner says. “In every way, I think it comes down to talent. The talent of Pep Lijnders, the talent of the nutrition team led by Mona Nemmer, the feeling that players now want to play at Liverpool.
“When we came in, one of the real challenges we had was that we wanted to sign a few players, but we actually lost players because they didn’t feel that Liverpool was an environment they could excel in. It’s taken a lot of hard work by a lot of people. We’ve got such excellent talent everywhere that we can compete with anybody.”
Off the pitch, the £80 million redevelopment of the Anfield Road Stand continues to gather pace. It’s on course to be completed in time for the start of the 2023-24 season, adding 7,000 extra seats to increase Liverpool’s home-game capacity to around 61,000.
“I remember the early days of our tenure trying to negotiate with some of the people who owned plots of land on the neighbouring streets. It was ‘one down, 27 to go’,” Werner says.
“When we look back, I’m very pleased with our commitment to how we built the new Main Stand and our commitment to increase capacity with the new Anfield Road. I think we’re going to do it in a way that, when it’s finished, people are going to be very impressed and proud of the execution.
“It’s exciting. If you compare it to the challenges Chelsea have in front of them… We took this on. I said that we would under-promise and over-deliver. The experience at Anfield now is as good as at any stadium in Europe.”
The brilliance of Klopp’s side on the pitches across Europe and beyond has helped in the mission to increase commercial revenues which are then invested into the club.
“We signed 13 new partners over the past year, which is extraordinary given the challenges of the pandemic,” Werner says. “Billy Hogan has done a magnificent job continuing our relationship with partners and bringing in new partners.
“One of the things I learned early on was this idea of the virtuous circle. Our on-pitch performance helps our sponsorship revenue. And the success of our sponsorship revenue allows us to be ploughing those revenues into recruitment of players and a new training ground.
“We have obviously protected and enhanced the brand of the club. Our club has millions of supporters around the world, not just in the UK — across Asia, America and Africa. I ran into someone the other day who just wanted to shake my hand because he was from (Mane’s homeland) Senegal. To just be able to say hello to someone who knows Sadio Mane was a wonderful moment in his life.
“We acknowledge that we are only as strong as the success we have on the pitch but the team we’ve built has quietly really strengthened Liverpool in every possible way.”
Werner is a trustee of the LFC Foundation and is passionate about its work. The foundation helps and supports people in the local community each week through a variety of programmes. It swung into action at the height of the pandemic.
“I want to compliment Linda Henry, Billy Hogan and Gavin Laws, who are also on the foundation’s board,” he says.
“It’s work that is not as well known, but I feel like we’ve made a great impact and positively affected thousands of lives. There was one programme we did where with our chefs we cooked over 50,000 meals that were delivered by volunteers. Our players and other supporters of the foundation raised over £300,000 going to families in need of food. Our work is continuing.”
FSG sold an 11 per cent stake in the company for $750 million to RedBird Capital Partners last year and subsequently bought a controlling stake in top-flight NHL ice hockey team the Pittsburgh Penguins. That sparked speculation about its plans. Werner has ruled out the prospect of FSG adding another football club to the portfolio.
“No, we don’t have any plans to do that,“ he says. ”I’m aware, only from reading the papers, that RedBird itself may be in the process of trying to acquire AC Milan, but that’s their own group. They have been excellent partners of ours. They were helpful in our (FSG) making of a deal with LeBron James and Maverick Carter (the NBA star’s business partner). I’ve known them for a couple of decades.”
With Klopp now on board for the next four years, Werner insists FSG isn’t going anywhere either. “Yes, we still see it as a long-term project. We are hungry to win more trophies for the club,” he vows.
On the wall of Werner’s plush office at the Boston Red Sox’s Fenway Park stadium, there is a large framed photograph from the 2019 Champions League final win over Tottenham in Madrid. Captain Jordan Henderson is in the middle holding the trophy aloft as the ticker tape rains down.
It brings back special memories.
Werner finally bowed out of the club’s jubilant private party in the Eurostars Hotel that night at 4am before later flying back from the Spanish capital to join in the trophy parade through the streets of Liverpool in front of over half a million fans.
What would it mean if Henderson lifted the club’s seventh European Cup this weekend?
“Just asking the question makes me smile! He can never lift that cup enough for me,” Werner says.
“There is always space on the wall in my office for one more trophy.
“Real Madrid are a magnificent club. I’m not surprised that they are in the final. Hopefully it will be Liverpool’s day but we know it’s going to be a very competitive match.
“Nothing would make me happier to have a sleepless night in Paris come Saturday.”