Mike Gordon: The Quiet Man Who Makes FSG's Liverpool Vision a Reality
The crisis enveloping Liverpool in October 2010 ensured Mike Gordon arrived at the club unnoticed and unheralded. That will have suited the low-profile director just fine. A decade on, and at the moment of Liverpool’s title triumph, he was kept in the background again by UK quarantine rules that prevented the club’s Boston-based owners from witnessing in person the release of 30 years’ pent-up frustration. Not so fine.
The Fenway Sports Group president is fixed behind the scenes at Liverpool, seemingly by circumstance as much as choice, but few have exerted greater influence in recent times than the man whose appointment was confirmed by Companies House 24 hours before irate fans confronted Roy Hodgson following a 2-0 defeat at Stoke.
From New England Sports Ventures to FSG, the pervading threat of administration to world-record profits, gory under Hodgson to glory under Jürgen Klopp; Liverpool are unrecognizable from the club fought over in the high court almost 10 years ago. Anfield itself now stands as a symbol of long-overdue transformation.
As the established face of FSG, the principal owner, John W Henry, merits rich praise for achieving with Liverpool what he accomplished with baseball’s Boston Red Sox in restoring a storied but tired institution to the pinnacle of its sport. Likewise the chairman, Tom Werner, the more public voice of a company that took a well-calculated risk when acquiring the club from the near-ruinous hands of Tom Hicks and George Gillett.
But behind it all is the unassuming Gordon, a close Boston ally of Henry and Werner since they bought the Red Sox in 2002 and a Liverpool director with limited input during the muddled early years of FSG’s reign.
In 2013, the financier closed a hedge fund he owned with Jeffrey Vinik, the owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning ice hockey team. The following year, his role at Liverpool increasing, he was elevated to FSG president and top of the decision-making process at Anfield. A turning point for all.
The hiring of Klopp, the signing of Virgil van Dijk, the sale of Philippe Coutinho, and investment in infrastructure are among major calls Gordon has judged perfectly. His biggest successes, however, ones that have shaped Liverpool’s present and long-term future, have been backing a sporting model over a promising manager and untapping the club’s vast commercial appeal while keeping the fans onside. The latter is a delicate balancing act that the occasional high-profile error has jeopardized.
Gordon’s appointment as president did not immediately halt the mistakes and criticism that characterized FSG’s adaptation period. The flak intensified in 2014 when Luis Suárez was sold in the aftermath of the title slip and proceeds from his departure for £75m went on Mario Balotelli, Alberto Moreno, Lazar Markovic, and Rickie Lambert, among others.
Gordon, as those who work with him and his actions testify, is quick to learn from mistakes, to absorb information and make big decisions free of emotion, albeit while promoting strong personal relationships. That summer proved an invaluable education for the new FSG president and the beginning of the end for Brendan Rodgers as manager.
Rodgers was overruled by Gordon and the then director of technical performance, Michael Edwards, when pushing for Wilfried Bony to replace Suárez. Twelve months later, they ceded to the manager’s request for Christian Benteke in the belief that, should the striker not succeed, his value would hold in the English market. Benteke was sold for £27m to Crystal Palace 13 months after his arrival from Aston Villa for £32.5m.
A series of expensive failures fuelled the clamor outside Anfield for Liverpool to scrap their “transfer committee”. Gordon, part of the recruitment team, ignored the pressure, convinced the problem was not FSG’s model but having a manager ill-suited to it. Edwards, whom Gordon decided should run the football operation, was promoted to technical director in August 2015. Rodgers was sacked two months later.
The dismissal was not entirely results-driven. It was also a strategic call to clear the way for a manager comfortable with FSG’s system. The attraction of the charismatic Klopp, a two-times Bundesliga-winner, was obvious, and Gordon was sold on Rodgers’s replacement after making his first call to the holidaying coach. But part of the appeal was the 14 years Klopp had worked alongside a sporting director in Germany. Klopp’s relationship with Edwards, promoted to sporting director by Gordon in November 2016, is central to Liverpool’s revival, but not at the exclusion of the FSG president.
The 55-year-old Gordon remains based with his family in Boston, where he moved from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, as a student and made his name and fortune as a financial investor. Yet his involvement in the day-to-day running of Liverpool is forensic. Gordon speaks with Edwards, the chief executive, Peter Moore, club officials, and Klopp on a daily basis.
It is several times a day to Klopp, with whom he has developed a close friendship and working relationship. Contrasting personalities but a meeting of minds. Gordon stayed at Klopp’s home after flying in to seal the manager’s new five-year contract in December. Attempts to do so incognito were derailed when his private jet skidded off the runway at Liverpool John Lennon airport.
Klopp wants lucrative pre-season tours kept to a minimum to maximize what little time is available for a training camp. Thanks to Gordon’s sway with fellow investors in FSG, Klopp gets his way. Not every manager of a global club has that luxury.
The FSG president, the second-largest shareholder after Henry with 12%, insists everyone at Liverpool speak their mind. Less internal politics and paranoia that way, and the club has been riven by both in the past.
It was Gordon who smoothed relations at boardroom level between Liverpool and Southampton following the former’s aborted move for Van Dijk in the summer of 2017. Klopp, Edwards, and Gordon agreed not to sign an alternative central defender despite Southampton refusing to negotiate over their primary target and reporting Liverpool to the Premier League over an alleged illegal approach. Six months on, and communication reopened with St Mary’s, the three were more than happy to meet the £75m price for a player who would transform Liverpool.
Sanctioning Coutinho’s sale to Barcelona for £142m, the third-highest fee of all-time, and not buying last summer in the belief the European champions had more to give also reflect sound judgment at the top of the club.
Klopp’s impact has helped the FSG president oversee another significant feat – maximizing revenue without alienating a majority of supporters. Anfield is a more commercial stadium than ever, with double the number of corporate seats (7,000) in the new main stand. There have been 17 new commercial partnerships signed in the past two financial years and in 2017-18 Liverpool posted a world record pre-tax profit by a football club of £125m.
In less successful times, with less popular managers, the connection between club and fans that Klopp strived to rebuild from day one would have been undermined by such commercialism. Even with Klopp it has been challenged by several spectacular own goals, not least April’s decision to furlough about 200 non-playing staff. The move was abandoned 48 hours later following fierce criticism from former players and supporters.
The episode echoed proposals to increase £59 tickets to £77 in 2016 and a U-turn within 24 hours after fans staged a mass walkout against Sunderland. Attempts to trademark the word “Liverpool” ignited similar accusations of corporate greed and fan protests before the application was rejected last year.
Overall, however, supporters are more engaged with the club, and vice-versa, than for years. The open dialogue between the hierarchy and the Spirit of Shankly supporters’ union over the furlough and ticketing controversies is testament to that and to what can be achieved. Gordon recognized the need to work closer with a global fanbase. It was his decision to appoint Liverpool’s first fan liaison officer, the former Times journalist Tony Barrett, having seen the role at work in Germany and questioned why such a critical gap existed in England.
With the £114m main stand opened in 2016, a new £50m training complex due for completion in Kirkby in the coming months and plans for a £60m redevelopment of the Anfield Road stand, FSG has committed to the three most expensive capital projects in Liverpool’s history. Gordon has been instrumental in each, although the Anfield Road scheme has been postponed for 12 months because of the pandemic’s impact on the construction industry.
There was reluctance inside FSG to proceed with the Anfield Road rebuild as the return on investment is not as attractive as that from the main stand. Its president not only pushed for the redevelopment but, having witnessed the 750,000 crowd that welcomed Liverpool home as European champions last summer, he was the driving force behind scrapping the original plans for a more ambitious expansion.
Gordon’s decisions have strengthened Liverpool’s future and illuminated its present. He would prefer to go about his business unnoticed but his contribution should not go unheralded.