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Hardball in Liverpool

New American owners might find these soccer fans a pretty tough crowd

By Alex Beam
Globe Columnist / December 7, 2010

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Correction: Because of a reporting error, Alex Beam's column on Tuesday in the "g" section mischaracterized the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster involving Liverpool soccer fans as a "riot." The official investigation into the disaster, which cost 96 lives, placed the blame primarily on poor crowd control and inadequate stadium design.

Two months ago, Red Sox owner John Henry and his partners in New England Sports Ventures purchased Liverpool FC, historically one of Europe’s greatest soccer teams. Obviously, Henry, who admits he knows nothing about English soccer, is hoping to turn a few quid in the globalized sports marketplace.

So far, Henry’s brief stewardship has been uneventful. The team is having a bad year under a mediocre coach, but its problems redound to the previous, despised American owners. Tom Hicks and George Gillett generated huge debts, public relations debacles, and no Premier League championships. For now, the Red Sox PR machine is pumping out happynews about Henry’s visits to grotty Liverpool — Worcester without the glitz — and about his wife’s inane Twitter messages to the fans, e.g. “Wow! Anfield [the team’s stadium] really is a special place!’’

The few sane people I have talked to about Liverpool understand that these are early days for New England Sports Ventures and that meaningful changes probably won’t come until Liverpool’s season ends in May. None of those sane people are in Liverpool, however. Even by the deranged standards of European soccer, Red fans are totally bonkers. Their excitable Internet fan sites are still agonizing over a 21-year-old soccer stadium disaster that killed 96 people. (The original version of this story mischaracterized the event as a riot.) One website, Thisisanfield.com, is publishing yet another exhaustive history of the incident, and still actively promotes a boycott of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid The Sun, two decades after the paper accused Liverpool fans of pickpocketing the corpses, and other outrages.

In a lengthy interview with one of the fan sites, Redandwhitekop.com (kop refers to a part of Anfield stadium), Henry confined himself to boilerplate Belispeak: “This club needs everyone on the same page every day. Every day. We need everyone focused on what needs to be done in the next match facing us and during that match,’’ blah blah blah. He comes across as bloodless and dispassionate, talking about soccer in the same breath as his auto racing interests and baseball — one management template for all. That kind of talk won’t sit well by the Mersey, believe me.

Thisisanfield.com is also publishing a generally positive, three-part history of the Red Sox under Henry & Co., written by an anonymous Bostonian who is a rabid Liverpool fan. He praises Henry’s work with the Sox and with Fenway, but warns of “some startling, and potentially worrying, differences’’ between the Sox and Liverpool: “Liverpool is in a precarious situation with regards to finances. And we’re a bit, shall we say, passionate about winning, and have never been losers. Ever. . . . Can NESV navigate the minefields of English football? Too early to say.’’

There are other worrisome facts: It’s impossible to imagine a high-gloss player-franchise, a la David Beckham and his appalling wife, moving to doggy Liverpool. Likewise Premier League financing rules will change next year, not necessarily to Liverpool’s benefit. I suspect my friend Steve Stark may have it correct, writing on the Atlantic magazine website: “Just like their precursors, these Americans will eventually be run out of town too, wondering what the hell they were thinking when they bought Liverpool FC.’’

A worthy rant Get to a computer and read Brandeis biochemistry professor Gregory Petsko’s brilliant, hilarious, vituperative, interminable open letter to George Philip, president of University at Albany, State University of New York, who just shuttered many of its humanities departments. Here are some quotes from the letter Petsko — an undergraduate classics major, by the way — posted on Genomebiology.com:

“Aesop is credited with literally hundreds of fables, most of which are equally enjoyable — and enlightening. Your classics faculty would gladly tell you about them, if only you had a Classics department, which now, of course, you don’t . . .

“There’s so much to learn from [Dante’s “Divine Comedy’’] about human weakness and folly. The faculty in your Italian department would be delighted to introduce you to its many wonders — if only you had an Italian department, which now, of course, you don’t.’’

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.