For all his billions, John Henry is poorer than any of us imagined

Liverpool owner John W Henry (Getty Images)

Liverpool owner John W Henry (Getty Images)

There are many things that John W Henry does not understand about English football. Liverpool’s principal owner has never been able to comprehend why clubs like Burnley benefit so much from the Premier League but – at least in his mind – contribute so little.

The Boston-based billionaire has believed, from almost the first moment that he took charge at Anfield, that the finances of the domestic game are unsustainable. His is right. Project Big Picture (PBP) was his hamfisted attempt to bring about change. When that initiative was scuppered mainly by the 14 – the Premier League clubs outside the ‘big six’ cabal that are meeting to discuss a response to the European Super League (ESL) plans – the mindset changed. Henry’s prospective allies in PBP came from the Football League. After that he switched tack: it was time to align Liverpool with the superclubs.

Six months on from PBP, there was no sign of anyone in English football trying to change the status quo. Coronavirus offered the opportunity for the game to ask big questions and reset itself. Instead of doing this in public and involving all the stakeholders, the discussions took place in backrooms.

Henry’s lack of visibility was, and remains, a problem. He is socially awkward and reluctant to speak publicly. Perhaps he could have saved PBP by facing his critics and defending his plan. One of the big sticking points, the voting rights of Premier League clubs, was barely consequential in the overall scheme. Yet the 71-year-old remained holed up in Massachusetts, wordless. He is unlikely to emerge now to explain his latest decisions.

The knock-on effect of this is dangerous. Jurgen Klopp and James Milner had to field questions about the Super League after the 1-1 draw against Leeds United on Monday night. The German’s discomfort was obvious. He, like the fans, was shocked by developments. Other managers and players will have to undergo a similar ordeal as the week goes on. The owners care little for collateral damage.

Henry has a history of being receptive to protests. The Anfield ticket fiasco five years ago is the most obvious example. Liverpool supporters will attempt to resist. It would be a surprise if Henry bends in this battle for the game’s soul.

Even though all the ESL conspirators are briefing to a greater or lesser degree that they were forced into involvement in the new competition for fear of being left behind, they are disingenuous. They would all like to point the finger at each other in a never-ending circle of blamethrowing. Manchester City and Chelsea would like their fans to believe that they were backed into a corner. It is a bit rich for clubs who have bullied their peers with money for years to claim they have been strongarmed. Everyone involved wanted this development, no matter how queasy they claim they are.

The template for owners going forward is the Glazer experience. The initial reaction to the takeover of Manchester United was hostile. “Green and gold until it’s sold” became the catchphrase around Old Trafford. Protests withered when United won titles and a Champions League. The lesson has been learnt in the boardrooms of the ESL clubs.

Even if traditional fanbases are harmed, there is always the promise of the ‘fans of the future.’ American owners, in particular, come from a franchise environment, where clubs can be picked up and moved at will. Never mind fans, entire cities are disposable. For more than a decade Henry paid lip service to English football’s traditions in a way that the Glazers never did but the owners of the northwest’s two big clubs have gravitated together.

There are some who think that the proposed breakaway is posturing. That is a mistake. The time for compromise has passed. The fissures are too wide. There is not much trust between Premier League clubs at the best of times but there is little chance of rapprochement now.

War has broken out in the game. There is no going back. The owners, like first world war generals, will be far from the battlegrounds of a sport that they only understand in terms of profits. They are remote from the carnage that they are perpetrating.

Henry and his ilk are overseeing the death of the People’s Game. And they do not even have the decency to front up and explain why. They leave managers and players in the line of fire. That is cowardly.

Liverpool’s owner understands money but he will never fathom what makes the sport and his club special. For all his billions, he is much poorer than any of us imagined.

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