Standing one recent Sunday in the Kop, that section of Anfield stadium named for the site of a bloody battle in the Boer War, more than 12,000 of the Liverpool Football Club’s most fervent fans burst into song. This was not the ragged, rote recitation of patriotic doggerel customarily heard before many sporting events, but something ferocious and precise, its every undulation sung in deafening, largely male unison. Their voices reverberating throughout the storied arena, the fans proved Phil Spector wrong: it was Liverpudlians—and they, after all, know their music—who invented the “Wall of Sound.”
The song is the same one they’ve sung before every home game for nearly 50 years. It isn’t some Merseyside standard written by local boys named Lennon and McCartney, but a show tune by a pair of Americans, circa 1945. The performance that afternoon in early November was even more ardent than usual, for although two more hours would pass before Liverpool beat its archrival, favored Chelsea, the fans already felt they’d won. “Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart,” they belted out. “And you’ll never walk alone, you’ll never walk alone.”
The only question was whether they would come to love Henry and Werner as much as they loved Rodgers and Hammerstein—or would they toss them out, as they just had Hicks and Gillett?
For those without corporate scorecards: John W. Henry and Tom Werner, owners of the Boston Red Sox, are, as of mid-October, owners of the Liverpool Football Club, too. They bought it for $294 million from two other Americans, Tom Hicks and George Gillett—or, to be more precise, from their creditors at the Royal Bank of Scotland. After an extraordinary wave of marches, billboards, boycotts, videos, and what Hicks called “Internet terrorism” directed at anyone thinking of bailing them out, they were forced to flee.
So Henry and Werner now curate one of England’s most cherished clubs, and it’s been a jolt for them. “Two and a half months ago I knew nothing about the sport, or very little,” says Henry, who concedes he couldn’t have named five teams in the English Premier League, or even have explained what “offside” means. But to British fans they’re nothing new: foreign-born plutocrats, oligarchs, and sheiks have become as much a part of their game as midfielders and strikers.
What makes more sense in an era of globalization than moguls snapping up another country’s teams? And what sport makes more sense to buy into than the world’s most popular one? And what better place to do it than Britain, which is not just home to some of that sport’s most famous clubs, but whose own millionaires appear too poor to pony up the pounds themselves?
True, foreigners have infiltrated American sports—Europeans in basketball, Latin Americans and Japanese in baseball—but primarily as players. With owners, the U.S. remains a net exporter. As long as they’re benign—like Randy Lerner of the Cleveland Browns, who’s quietly owned the British soccer team Aston Villa since 2006—that’s OK with the fans. But when foreign owners are perceived, fairly or unfairly, as siphoning money out of their clubs rather than pumping it in, the fury can barely be contained.
Exhibit one is the Glazers, owners of mighty Manchester United (as well as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), whose precarious finances have petrified, and infuriated, United fans. Exhibits two and three: Hicks (former owner of the Texas Rangers) and Gillett (former owner of the Montreal Canadiens). Breaking their promise to build a new stadium, assuming debts that saddled the club, the pair quickly became villains in Liverpool. By the end, Hicks’s son found it too perilous even to venture into a local pub, where he was menaced by apoplectic Scousers, as Liverpool residents are known.
In that sense, Henry and Werner have an easy act to follow. But to allay any lingering fears, Henry (who’s described as “principal owner”) has done his homework. He has immersed himself in the history of the club; before meeting the man many consider Liverpool’s greatest player ever, Kenny Dalglish, he read his autobiography. Within days of the purchase the new owners met with team management, players, and fan groups, including the Spirit of Shankly, a 40,000-member band of loyalists named for the sainted manager Bill Shankly, who revolutionized Liverpool football just as Lennon and McCartney revolutionized music and, if anything, seems more esteemed here. “It’s very intimidating if you’re doing the wrong things,” Henry says. “That’s the way it should be. After we’re long gone, these fans will still be here. You can’t ignore whose club it really is.”
Simply by lifting the team’s debt, the new owners have lifted spirits around Liverpool and—after its worst start in 57 years—its fortunes on the field as well. “They’ve been very good for the club,” says Liverpool’s manager, Roy Hodgson. “They’re realistic people because they work in sport, and know you don’t turn things around with magic wands.”
Henry enjoys another advantage over Hicks, who became the more visible—and therefore more vilified—of his predecessors. A Texan close to George W. Bush, Hicks was at sea in a gritty working-class community that has not sent a Conservative to Parliament, or even to its city council, in 30 years. Henry, by contrast, donates to the Democrats. In the Flat Iron, the Twelfth Man, and other pubs near Anfield, one still detects residual skepticism of Americans. But if you have to have American owners, who better than the saviors of the Boston Red Sox?
A venerable but frustrated team in a historic (and heavily Irish) but increasingly marginalized city, playing before famously devoted and knowledgeable fans in a bandbox of a stadium: in some ways, Liverpool is a familiar saga for Henry, a 61-year-old who grew rich trading commodities, and Werner, 60, a TV producer who helped create The Cosby Show and Roseanne, who will be the team’s chairman. But in at least two respects, the “Reds”—a term that differentiates Liverpool from its in-town rivals, the “Blues” of Everton—and the Red Sox part ways.
One is historical. As the silverware in Anfield’s trophy room attests, until its recent reversals Liverpool has been one of the most successful soccer teams not only in England but in Europe. Its record more closely resembles, um, the Yankees. The other is the sheer intensity of its fans.
Located far from London and feeling slightly disrespected by it, Liverpool sees itself as a place apart—“on the margins of the English project,” as John Williams of the University of Leicester, who’s written a history of the team, puts it. “The capital of itself,” someone once called it. When England vies for the World Cup, the principal concern here is less whether the squad wins than that Liverpool’s representatives on it come back uninjured.
Liverpool followers make their counterparts in Boston seem like dilettantes, and Fenway sound like Wimbledon. Red Sox fans don’t generally follow the team en masse to Cleveland or Detroit, the way thousands of Liverpool partisans do to Manchester, London, or even Rome or Istanbul. Nor—like Chris Gladman, who prepared for the Chelsea game at the Flat Iron—do many name their only sons after their favorite players. For Red Sox fans, “tragedy” consists of a few fabled miscues on the field and in the front office, like selling Babe Ruth and failing (egregiously) to sign black ballplayers. Liverpool, by contrast, experienced genuine tragedy when 96 of its fans were crushed at a game in Hillsborough in 1989. Outside the stadium, next to an eternal flame, a plaque lists all the names; always, there are fresh flowers beneath it. Charges (unfair, it turned out) in the British tabloid The Sun that hooliganism rather than police ineptitude was to blame only intensified local resentment; Hicks’s apparent friendliness with Rupert Murdoch, the Sun’s owner, was yet another strike against him.
The trauma lent “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which was first sung at Anfield after another local band, Gerry and the Pacemakers, recorded it in 1963, a whole new poignancy; the words have even been incorporated into the team crest. At Henry’s request, Gerry Marsden himself returned to Anfield in October for an emotional rendition of the song. “Sweet Caroline,” which Sox fans have inexplicably taken to singing before the bottom of every eighth inning, sounds like a ringtone by comparison.
Thanks partly to Henry and Werner, who’ve brought two World Series wins to Boston, Red Sox fans have become what Yankee fans have always been: impatient, intolerant, entitled. And a bit paranoid—some are convinced that money earmarked to sign free agents like Carl Crawford or to resign players like Adrian Beltre will now find its way overseas. “Think Steinbrenner would ever buy a European soccer team instead of trying to win a World Series?” one poster to The Boston Globe’s Web site huffed not long ago.
But Liverpool fans, for all their recent anger, have a certain serenity; with a few centuries’ more experience, and disappointment, and humility, they seem to recognize the caprices of sports and of life. They also have more faith in themselves. Dating back to the 1960s, when, over tea and cigarettes in Anfield’s windowless “boot room,” Shankly and his disciples pasted together their teams, they consider their club as more scrappy and resourceful than the competition. “We don’t need the Red Sox, and they don’t need us,” says Kieth Culvin of the Spirit of Shankly.
There are, in fact, things Henry and Werner must do. As with Fenway, they must decide whether to expand or replace Anfield, whose small capacity (45,000), along with the city’s limited wealth, curbs revenues. This they can surely do. Anfield has no Green Monster, or much architectural charm of any sort; little of the 1892 original remains. And any new place would be built right next door—the ghosts of Shankly, Bob Paisley, Billy Liddell, and other Liverpool immortals wouldn’t have to float far.
And beginning in January the new owners must bid for topflight talent, as well as hold on to the few stars (Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres) they already have—a ritual that, compared with baseball’s more orderly procedures, Henry likens to the Wild West. While hoping to help pay for such signings by selling Liverpool regalia in Asia, Henry has stressed cultivating rather than buying talent.
He also prizes ingenuity: his new “director of football strategy” was hired at the suggestion of the general manager of the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane. Most British fans, and owners, know even less about baseball than Americans do about soccer, but Beane they recognize; after all, Brad Pitt is about to play him on the screen. At least for now, though, Henry insists, Moneyball isn’t coming to Merseyside.