Cautious optimism over Anfield - but FSG must deliver

Posted by Kristian Walsh

Anfield foggyGettyImagesThe future of Anfield is no longer shrouded in uncertainty

Father Time can have a curious disposition. Two years to the day that Fenway Sports Group became Liverpool's new American owners, they made their most important announcement so far; an announcement that will define their entitlement as custodians to one of football's most cherished institutions. The issue of the club's new stadium is less of a millstone around its neck, but an anvil-weighted padlock. FSG become the third group to claim they have the key.

The issue of solving Liverpool's stadium problem seemingly separates the wheat from the chaff, the competent from the incompetent and the sincere from the surreptitious.

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David Moores and Rick Parry searched for investors after their plan to expand in 1999 was scuppered by local residents' protestations and the city council's refusal to back the club. That search brought the disease of Hicks and Gillett, who gnawed away at both the finances and pride of the football club. The spade they claimed would be in the ground within 60 days for a new 60,000-seater stadium served as nothing more than a tool to dig their own shallow graves.

There is no spade in the ground this time, nor is there a glut of futuristic designs, breathtaking figments of an architect's imagination. Instead, a mere promise and FSG's cards on the table: Liverpool Football Club will stay at Anfield, their home since 1892. They must make good on their pledge.

You cannot blame Liverpool supporters if Monday's announcement is met with trepidation, even if it was confirmed what most wanted to hear. There is little else to digest. The stadium's capacity will increase to 60,000 in a project which will cost £150 million, with an extra £25 million being granted to the council to regenerate the surrounding dilapidation. It is hoped work will begin in 2014.

These are the details that concern supporters - not where the hotels will be located, or how much it will cost to carry out compulsory purchase orders on the houses nearby. But the decision to remain at Anfield, and not desecrate their place of worship with blasphemous bulldozers, will buy the American owners some time.

It is a stadium that has been the leaseholder to opulent history. No longer will the goal David Fairclough struck the ball into against Saint Etienne be demolished; the Kop, with thousands of characters and stories seated and standing, will remain intact. The ground Dalglish, Barnes and Gerrard have played on, that Shankly, Paisley and Benitez surveyed, will continue to provide the stage for generations.

At a club where sentimentality is a proud - if sometimes strangulating - ideal, to remain at the site of so much success will keep those who take their place on the Kop content, and will allow those next in line to experience the oft-repeated anecdotes first hand.

The extra 15,000 seats will also allow some opportunity to dwindle the bulging wait for a season ticket, although a gluttonous portion will be given to corporate clients. The redevelopment will also see them join the upper echelon of stadia in England, and safeguard the future of the football club. For the furore over Andy Carroll, Clint Dempsey and others this summer, this is what truly matters. Only a select breed of player avoids the revolving door of Anfield, but Anfield will be there forever.

Or at least it will be if FSG stick to their plans. They do have previous of renovating an existing old stadium with Fenway Park, home of their Boston Red Sox. They also have the knowledge of what happened the last time an American ownership reneged on their Anfield plans.

Monday's announcement gives the owners breathing space, their second end-of-year report boosted - but they must hope the dewy-eyed sentimentality of staying at Anfield keeps the wider picture distorted. Such is the clamour to remain at Anfield, all thoughts of alternatives are scrunched up and thrown to the floor.

An expansion of 15,000 seats and £150 million is a conservative move from FSG, shadowed by the estimated £390 million spent by Arsenal when they moved to the Emirates Stadium. The financial situation is far worse now than in 2004 granted, and the naming rights were an impossible option in the current climate. But 60,000 seats displays a moderate ambition, and the prudence in which FSG usually conduct business.

The question of whether there would be room for yet more expansion is still unanswered, as is the eternal wrangling over whether the stadium's atmosphere needs a rethink. That, however, is more reflective on the people inside than the surroundings outside.

But it is both inside and outside the stadium that these plans will eventually be judged. When FSG took charge of Liverpool, it was not just a football club they controlled - it was a community and city, too. For too long Liverpool Football Club has failed the local community, allowing the surrounding to become derelict for years with no real endgame in sight.

Anfield on match day is a hive of activity. The constant buzz of pre-match chatter, tinged with excited youngsters scuttling towards the stadium for their first ever look with the smell of chips invading the nostrils is enough to stir emotion in the most morose. But when the football leaves for another fortnight, little else is left. Improving this, and creating jobs and business opportunities throughout the area, is as important as what happens inside the stadium.

But what happens inside the stadium matters too, of course. Though the extra 15,000 is expected to appease corporate seating, the effort to bring the next generation of Liverpool supporters to Anfield must be increased. Currently, the pricing ranges from expensive to non-existent for young Liverpool fans; the modified stadium gives a chance to rectify that.

There are a lot of caveats to the expansion; ifs and buts not yet considered due to the cautious nature of the announcement. It will not markedly improve the club on the pitch and help it reach new levels of affluence, but it can improve a lot off the pitch. But first, it needs to happen. Right now, the fans are simply on a promise from American owners about the future of the stadium.

It's rare for a club so enriched with success, but for once, their supporters will hope they don't relive it. That's the hope of FSG as well, their tenure as custodians depending on succeeding where others have failed. The clock is ticking.

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