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Who is leading Liverpool behind the scenes?

February 12, 2012

Having been chided from all sides for a perceived lack of contrition during recent months, Liverpool today released a trio of apologetic statements from Luis Suarez, Kenny Dalglish and Ian Ayre, the Managing Director. These seem to have been well received and will hopefully serve to prevent the story from rumbling on far into next week. André Villas-Boas must be worried that media attention will turn back to Chelsea’s current form. Nevertheless, there are serious questions to be asked about why it took until today for the club to such direct steps to end the situation.

That Liverpool felt compelled to release these statements shows just how badly wrong Suarez got things yesterday. While it is possible to empathise with a man, a strong believer in his own innocence, who reacts angrily when faced with his accuser, it became increasingly clear yesterday that the Uruguayan had made the wrong decision in refusing to shake Patrice Evra’s hand before the match. How much better would Suarez have felt had he tormented the Manchester United left-back during the game instead? While the incident did not spark a violent match, it prompted scuffles in the tunnel (including, amusingly, Daniel Agger’s apparent offer to Rio Ferdinand to take matters outside) and almost certainly contributed to Evra’s celebrations after the final whilstle. It also forced Dalglish, who has been fiercely protective of his player, to defend him once more in a highly-charged post-match interview. He had commented earlier in the week that his number seven had agreed to shake Evra’s hand, so Suarez’s decision to renege on his word undermined both his manager and his club.

For Liverpool, however, there is (or should be) a wider concern about the handling of the Suarez affair, not just this weekend but ever since the allegations of racial abuse first surfaced. It seems absurd that a Premier League team owned by a group of investors who also run the Boston Red Sox, one of the biggest baseball franchises in the United States, has handled thing so poorly. John Henry and Tom Werner gave the impression that the investors who make up Fenway Sports Group (FSG) were a media-savvy bunch. It seems odd, in this case, that they should not have employed someone who specialises in media relations to advise the club.

Even if we were to give FSG the benefit of the doubt and say they perhaps became distracted by other things (such as the appointment of a new Red Sox General Manager and Manager), they presumably believed that the club was in safe hands under the control of Ayre. Here was a Managing Director who knew the club and English football well enough to offer a steady hand through any crisis. Sadly, his leadership has seemingly been lacking. Dalglish has been the only club employee – aside from the players – to publicly defend Suarez and there has been no sense that someone high up at Liverpool is in control.

But what of the message that club was putting out? Dalglish was combative in front of the press and the official statements released in the aftermath of Suarez being given an eight-game ban suggested that the club would blow the FA’s charge out of the water on appeal. While this tone was heartening to hear for fans, it was pointless and frustrating for the club to adopt such an aggressive stance only to then accept the sanction. If Dalglish was putting forward an agreed-upon message, why was the decision reached that such a message was appropriate? And if he was left to get on with it, why was that the case? Older, wiser heads have suggested that the club would never have found itself in this position under Peter Robinson. It is hard to argue with them.

The statements released today suggest that someone at the club has got a grip of the communications policy. Henry and Werner appear to have cracked some heads together, perhaps spurred on by the presence of the story in various quarters of the American press today. It seems far-fetched to say, as some have, that the owners only became aware of the story after the New York Times picked up on it, but the fact that it is being reported outside the UK may have set alarm bells ringing that no good was being done to the club’s reputation. The question is, why was this conclusion not reached sooner? Why did it not become obvious that some clear direction was needed earlier on?

Today’s apologies from Suarez, Dalglish and Ayre will hopefully allow Liverpool to concentrate on football again (particularly as Manchester United responded quickly and favourably) but there are significant lessons to be learnt. If football can move on from this particular issue (the Suarez-Evra situation, not the wider problem of racism in football) then so much the better. But while this nightmare may be over for Liverpool, certain individuals within the club should take a good, long look at where things went wrong.

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