BOSTON — When, back in 2004, the Farrelly brothers chose to make an American film out of “Fever Pitch,” Nick Hornby’s memoir of his tortured life as an Arsenal fan, they substituted baseball for soccer and a Boston Red Sox lifer for the long-suffering author.
But the real-life Red Sox proceeded to take all the acid and angst along with most of the humor out of the movie by winning its first World Series in 86 years before it even was released.
For all the futility that both Arsenal and the Red Sox displayed in preceeding decades, the two teams weren’t all that well matched. Arsenal was a London team with all the attendant glamour of an international capital, while the Red Sox evidenced all the characteristics of a second-city squad as it chased its hated and envied New York rival.
So when Red Sox ownership team, led by John Henry, decided to venture across the pond and buy an English Premier League team, they found a far more suitable Red Sox proxy in beleaguered Liverpool.
Liverpudians are a good match for Red Sox nation in mad, unbridled passion — with the same second-city chip on their shoulders. (Liverpool does, however, boast a far superior anthem: “You’ll Never Walk Alone” easily trumps “Sweet Caroline.”) And just like the Red Sox when Henry took over, Liverpool plays in an antiquated and undersized stadium — Anfield was built in 1884, 28 years before Fenway Park — that is in desperate need of replacement or renovation.
Liverpool Football Club, also like the Red Sox, has a storied history, though one with considerably more success; it is tied with Manchester United for most league titles, 18, and has captured the European crown five times, most recently in 2005. But things have turned sour in Liverpool and the ascension of Henry’s group there is a rescue act of a team on the brink of collapse on and off the field.
The previous owners, who went to court unsuccessfully this week to block the sale to New England Sports Venture — they termed the $476 million price an “epic swindle — had a loan of much of that sale figure due at the Royal Bank of Scotland on Friday. Default, which appeared a certainty under the current ownership group, could have led to penalties that might have helped propel Liverpool out of England’s elite soccer league for the first time in almost half A century.
The sale, which was sealed today, will stave off that default disaster. Still, even without any financial penalties, the team — heading into a critical game against crosstown rival Everton on Sunday — appears in dire straits. A perennial near the top of the Premier League table, Liverpool has won just one of its first seven games, and sits among the bottom three in the standings — a spot that would, at season’s end, result in relegation to a lower division.
Relegation is a slippery slope. Once-mighty Leeds United was relegated from the Premier League in 2004 and hasn’t caught a whiff of the top tier since. So one might think that Henry’s last-second bailout would earn him the huzzahs of all the fans in Liverpool. But given that the previous ownership group was American and also led by a Major League Baseball owner, Tom Hicks, the New England baseball brass is being greeted with more than a little suspicion.
The Henry group is familiar with that kind of reception. Lacking any New England ties, it was viewed with suspicion bordering on outright hostility when it took over the Red Sox before the 2002 season. However, there is no comparison between the two. Unlike Hicks, whose tenure with the Texas Rangers was a failure on the field and wound up in bankruptcy, Henry’s Red Sox have won two world championships and earned the respect, indeed gratitude verging on undying love, of Red Sox fans everywhere.
A spokesman for Henry told reporters that the new ownership wants “to help bring back the culture of winning to Liverpool FC. We have a proven track record, shown clearly with the Boston Red Sox. We will bring the same kind of openness, passion, dedication and professionalism to Liverpool FC.”
There is every reason to expect that the hallmarks of Sox ownership will be repeated in Liverpool. It has spent liberally on talent and will almost certainly replenish the depleted ranks of Liverpool, stripped of much front-line talent during the recent financial crisis. Liverpool will also become a cutting-edge team in use of statistical analysis, a management tool that is just emerging in soccer, long after it became fashionable in baseball.
Sentiment, however, will remain the currency of the fans rather than ownership. The new bosses will market sentiment, but prove more than willing to make tough decisions on players, even those with a lengthY Liverpool pedigree. If the Red Sox could dump the beloved Nomar Garciaparra, then not even Stephen Gerrard is safe in Liverpool if his play ever appears in decline or his attitude is viewed as lacking.
Fans in Liverpool may be hoping for a new stadium to replace the state-of-the-19th century Anfield. But if the economy proves a hindrance to such an initiative, as it did in Boston, Red Sox ownership has worked miracles in transforming the decrepit Fenway into a reasonable approximation of a modern ballpark. And with a shrewd eye for a balance between the buck and the historic, Fenway has become not just a local monument, but also a national sports shrine and a Boston civic attraction to rival the Freedom Trail.
It may be too late to salvage Liverpool’s 2009-2010 season, but the team should at least be stabilized and likely revitalized — enough to keep it in the Premier League. And resurrection as an English contender and European giant should eventually follow. At the very least, Liverpool fans will find reason to believe that they no longer walk alone.