How Liverpool have left Manchester United trailing on and off the field

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Manchester United walk out at Old Trafford - GETTY IMAGES
Manchester United walk out at Old Trafford - GETTY IMAGES

If you try to drive round Anfield at the moment, you won’t get very far. Anfield Road is blocked off to traffic as construction begins on the latest stage of modernising the stadium. By the first game of the 2022-23 season, a glittering new Anfield Road stand will lift the total capacity of the ground by 7,000 to 61,000. Following the extended main stand which opened for business in 2016, in just seven years, Liverpool will have increased the number of paying customers able to watch matches by nearly 40 per cent. This is a football club in a hurry.

Meanwhile, at Old Trafford, where Liverpool tore apart United on Sunday, there has been no new development since the quadrants were installed in 2006. Talk of restructuring the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand to lift the capacity above 80,000 remains just that: talk. Walk round Manchester United’s historic ground and you get the sense of a stadium that has been placed in a time warp, living on presumptions of perpetual greatness. Sound familiar?

It is not just on the pitch that United find themselves these days trailing to their despised red rivals. Off it too, Liverpool’s revenue has been playing a remarkable game of catch up. Back in 2010, when the Fenway Park Group rescued the club from the huckster ownership of George Gillett and Tom Hicks, Liverpool’s overall earnings were just 55 per cent of United’s: £184 million to £331m. Last season they were within touching distance. While United earned £643m, Liverpool turned over £619m. By the time the new stand is in full financial operation, the Anfield ambition is to have overtaken United in football’s monetary league. And it would be an unwise punter who bet against it happening.

John W Henry is shown around Anfield - GETTY IMAGES
John W Henry is shown around Anfield - GETTY IMAGES

It helps, naturally, if you are winning on the pitch. Since United last lifted a trophy, Jurgen Klopp’s side have won the Champions League and the Premier League. Victory encourages demand, in everything from tickets to shirt sales to wagers on the club’s official gambling partner’s app. But the thing is, in the past this was not a club renowned for its aptitude at exploiting that connection. Back in 2005, when Liverpool lifted Europe’s senior club trophy for the fifth time, a gang of enterprising locals worked overnight printing “Five Times” t-shirts ready to sell to the thousands lining the route as the team bus undertook its triumphal procession round the city. And sell them they did: the unauthorised entrepreneurs offloaded more than 5,000 t-shirts that day. Yet it took three weeks for any similar celebratory merchandise to appear on the shelves of the official club shop.

United, meanwhile, had long mastered the connection between success and revenue; through the nineties and noughties they milked it for all it was worth. When the Glazer family took control of the club 16 years ago, they reckoned little needed to change, beyond encouraging the sales team to sell more. Such was the development of the infrastructure by the previous regime, they could sit in Florida cheerfully counting the dividends without any need for investment. They didn’t have to upgrade anything when the commercial department could sign up plenty of official Far Eastern pot noodle partners on the back of the club’s legend. So far ahead of the pack were they, the assumption was no one could catch them.

United have a huge fanbase in the Far East - GETTY IMAGES
United have a huge fanbase in the Far East - GETTY IMAGES

It is proving a misplaced hope: Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City are all hot on their financial heels. And leading the chasing pack is Liverpool. What changed things at Anfield was when John Henry and his Fenway Park Group took control. Bringing their knowledge of how to monetise a sleeping giant of a sporting brand accrued from their ownership of the Boston Red Sox, they transformed everything. Not least the philosophy that held sway in the boardroom for years that Liverpool should be above the vulgar pursuit of cash. Under the stewardship of the chief executive Michael Edwards, the operation was turbo-charged. Hicks and Gillett’s fanciful plans to rebuild the stadium were quickly transformed into workable solutions. Revenue streams were updated, commercial opportunities exploited, the money lurking in the fans pockets ruthlessly chased.

Clearly the most astute move by the new regime was the one to hire Klopp. He brought the success on the pitch the rocket-fuelled the bottom line. It is indicative of the difference between the operational expertise of the two organisations that, before Liverpool were in the market for him, United failed to persuade the then Borussia Dortmund coach to bring his brilliance to Manchester. It probably didn’t help that when he came to Old Trafford for talks, the executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward greeted Klopp, one of football’s enduring romantics, with the words “welcome to Disneyland”.

For sure, there have been some woeful public relations missteps along the way by FSG. Trying to impose a £77 ticket price, looking to trademark the city’s Liverbird symbol, hoping to piggyback on the government’s furlough scheme, not to mention the European Super League proposal: such rapidly-ditched embarrassments were perhaps the inevitable outcome of the collision between ultra-capitalist owners and a hardcore support than prides itself on socialist traditions. But, such errors notwithstanding, nobody could argue with what the owners have delivered both on the pitch and off it.

If you want a measure of the scale of the booster Henry and his team have injected into the Anfield revenue streams, it is there in the assumed value of the club. When they bought it in 2010, admittedly from a beleaguered regime facing foreclosure from the banks seeking return on reckless debt, they paid £300m. In April this year the club was valued by Forbes at £2.96 billion. A near tenfold increase in 11 years: that is what you call a return on investment. And if Liverpool win the league this season, bettering United yet again, it will only add a few more noughts.

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