Henry in a landmark debate
Stadium’s future Liverpool’s concern
LIVERPOOL, England - Anfield, the storied ground that is home to Liverpool Football Club, has been compared with Fenway Park, even more so since the team was purchased by Red Sox owner John Henry.
Now Henry and his Fenway Sports Group are facing a question similar to when they bought the Red Sox a decade ago: build a modern stadium or upgrade the iconic old one?
Early sentiment here among Liverpool fans was that Henry will do at Anfield what he did at Fenway - upgrade and add on, but keep the basic confines of the original.
Last week, Ian Ayre, Liverpool’s chief executive, tried to downplay suggestions that the team has already decided that building a new stadium was more realistic than redeveloping Anfield. He told the BBC the team would not be rushed into making a decision.
Ayre’s insistence that a decision had not yet been made came after Henry noted on Twitter that there were “many obstacles’’ to adding on to Anfield.
Joe Anderson, leader of the Liverpool City Council, said Liverpool fans and residents simply want closure, one way or the other. Like other city officials, Anderson believes an improved Anfield, or a new stadium, will help regenerate the surrounding neighborhood.
Opened in 1884, Anfield originally was home field for Everton, the city’s other Premier League team. But after Everton decamped for nearby Goodison Park in 1892, Liverpool Football Club moved in and has been here ever since.
There’s more history, and certainly more human remains, scattered around Anfield than just about any other ground in English football. If it is still slightly unusual, and usually unsanctioned, for someone to have their ashes scattered at Fenway, it’s a regular and official occurrence at Anfield.
“We scatter someone’s ashes here at least once a week, sometimes more than one,’’ says Kevin O’Shea, an assistant manager at Anfield. “An awful lot of Liverpool supporters can only find eternal rest here.’’
But as much reverence as there might be for the dead - including the 96 Liverpool fans who died at the Hillsborough disaster in 1989 and who are remembered with a shrine at one entrance to Anfield - it is what to do with the living that is occupying the relatively new owners.
What’s noticeable walking around the stadium is the rather cramped confines. There’s no such thing as a bad seat among the 45,000. But neither is there much room to move around. During a match, there are no hawkers selling food, drink, or souvenirs. The aisles simply aren’t big enough.
More concerning to Henry, as he tries to increase revenue flow to pay for better players to get Liverpool back to the top four finishers in the Premier League, is the limited space for corporate boxes and hospitality.
Anfield has just 30 boxes. They’re small, with room for just 10 spectators. Compare that with Liverpool’s hated rival, and perpetual Top Four finisher, Manchester United. Old Trafford, Man U’s equally iconic ground, holds 76,000 spectators and is ringed with 200 corporate boxes. Even Chelsea, whose Stamford Bridge stadium holds just 42,000, has 100 corporate boxes. It doesn’t hurt that Chelsea’s owner, Russian businessman Roman Abramovich, is one of the richest men in the world.
Liverpool diehards get sensitive about talk of revenue streams.
“Chelsea has five-star chefs, but they don’t have five European Cups,’’ says O’Shea, who as a boy worshipped the Reds, as LFC is known, and can tell you the dates and every possible fact about those five European championships, not to mention Liverpool’s 18 league championships. Man U just won its 19th league championship, a sore subject here on Merseyside.
But O’Shea and other Liverpool diehards know that while you can relish history, it doesn’t put good teams on the pitch today.
“We turn away about 20,000 people for every game,’’ O’Shea said. That would pay for a decent midfielder or two.
The famous loyalty that Liverpool supporters show goes both ways. They limit season ticket-holders to 23,000, and there is a waiting list of 60,000.
“The club takes very seriously the notion of being able to get a ticket on game day,’’ said Stephen Done, the curator of the Liverpool Football Club museum, which is housed inside Anfield.
“We have season ticket-holders who live in Scandanavia and travel here for every home game,’’ he said.
It’s that kind of loyalty that makes replacing Anfield with a modern, bigger stadium more than a matter of mathematics.
Done said under a plan to build a 73,000-seat stadium in adjacent Stanley Park, “The old Anfield would disappear. The area around Anfield would be rejuvenated. It would help the locals.’’
But it would come at an emotional cost.
“A lot of people live for this team,’’ O’Shea explained. “For over 100 years, generations of the same family have been coming here. A lot of people’s ashes are spread here. Some clubs take payment to spread your ashes. We don’t do that. We’d never build on the pitch, no matter what happens regarding a new stadium. If I had to guess, 90 percent of supporters would want to stay here.’’
Even if Fenway Sports Group decides to build a stadium, the common local consensus is that politics and regulation would make it virtually impossible to get it done, at least any time soon.
Anfield’s amenities are spartan. The press box is just that: a box with a couple of dozen seats, smack dab in the middle of the main stand. The visitors’ dressing room looks impossibly small and basic. You can’t call it a locker room because there are no lockers.
Liverpool Football Club and its supporters are deeply aware and respectful of tradition, but they are not Pollyannaish. In 1978, the team became the first in the Premier League to splash a sponsor’s name across their jerseys.
Like left field at Fenway Park, Spion Kop, the famous section of Anfield named after a battle in the Boer War where more than 300 Liverpudlians were killed, used to be a green grassy hill.
Like Fenway, Anfield is a tourist attraction. More than 150,000 people take the stadium tour every year.
Beyond expanding the seating capacity, especially corporate boxes, Fenway Sports Group will be able to add advertising.
In the pubs that surround Anfield, fans worry that ticket prices will rise, as they did after Henry bought the Red Sox. Right now, the average ticket costs about $70.
“Look around,’’ said Jimmy Little, a Liverpool fan, an hour before a game against Manchester City. “No one here is rich.’’
But the history is, and that’s the balance that Henry will have to find. Liverpool fans hated the previous American owners, but he has has impressed the locals with his grasp of their history. Done said he was showing Henry around the museum and was surprised when Henry pointed at a photograph and knew that one of the men in it was Bill Shankly, the manager credited with bringing Liverpool back to the top after it had fallen to the bottom in the 1950s.
“Mr. Henry knows his stuff,’’ said Done.
Liverpool fans hope he knows his limits, and theirs, too.
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com