LONDON: Liverpool's effort to bridge the gap to Europe's elite on the pitch may still be a work in progress, but they will be taking their most significant step in years to do so off it this week. A 17-year toil to resolve Liverpool's stadium issue - the last six under the ownership of Fenway Sports Group - ends with the official opening of the pounds 115 million Main Stand at an Anfield ceremony on Friday.
John W Henry, the club's principle owner, will attend alongside FSG president Mike Gordon, Liverpool's chairman Tom Werner, manager Jurgen Klopp and a host of legendary former players.
Liverpool's capacity is extended to 54,000 for Saturday's visit of champions Leicester City - an increase of 8,500. The old Main Stand, which seated 12,000 spectators, now boasts over 20,000 (eclipsing The Kop) - but the most significant numbers are expected to relate to matchday revenue. It is that figure which first prompted the urgent need for the Merseyside club to announce a thorough review of their stadium requirements "in order to meet the growing demands in respect of national and European competitiveness" as far back as 1999.
Former chief executive Rick Parry initially spelt out the challenge facing Liverpool as, at that time, Manchester United's revenues began to dwarf those at Anfield by up to pounds 2 million per match. Since then Arsenal have risen to the top of the money league for matchday attendances, claiming pounds 100?million per season at the Emirates Stadium, with United on pounds 91 million.
Liverpool have been trailing on around pounds 59?million, a figure they hope will increase by between pounds 20-pounds 30 million as a consequence of their upgrade.
There is no escaping the corporate supporter is the key component when a vastly different looking Anfield opens its gates this weekend. There will be 14 new executive boxes, allied to immeasurable improvements to banquet and conference facilities. Less than half the new seats are part of general admission. Somewhat surprisingly, the much sought sponsorship deal attached to the new structure has not materialised. However, other opportunities will now present themselves to the club.
It is astonishing to consider a club of Liverpool's status have been unable to claim Uefa's highest five-star stadium rating. In its reviews of Anfield facilities when the club were in the Champions League, the governing body concluded the stadium bereft of adequate corporate, hospitality, media, advertising space, pitch perimeter, dressing-room accommodation, medical facilities and office space for visiting referees and technical staff. Even a four-star rating was granted with 'special dispensation'. Anfield would still not be considered fit to host a European final, but the improvements will enable Liverpool to satisfy more of Uefa's requirements when the next review takes place - and that can only happen once the team are back in Europe. In the meantime, the club are preparing to host rugby league's Four Nations final in November, the first of what is sure to be many of such events.
FSG will see the opening as a day of validation. Stadium renovation was its key pledge on buying Liverpool. "This will be our legacy at Liverpool - resolving the stadium issue," chairman Tom Werner said in an interview with The Daily Telegraph two years ago. "I am as proud of protecting and preserving Fenway Park in Boston as I am the three World Series we have won and will feel exactly the same way about repeating this at Anfield. It will be the most exciting day at Anfield in 2016 when we can welcome the additional supporters to the stadium. I think this will change the future of the club."
After nearly two decades, multiple planning applications, hundreds of meetings with residents' groups, courtroom battles and two club takeovers, the significance of the occasion cannot be underestimated.
The stadium issue plagued successive Liverpool regimes, tearing down two of them as its repercussions spread to every facet of the club, defining the economic and commercial challenges so fundamental to on-field success. It was the obstacle that forced David Moores to sell Liverpool because he could not afford the kind of pounds 115?million loan FSG has invested to build the stand. He took the ill-fated decision in 2007 to sell to George Gillett Jr and Tom Hicks under the misapprehension they had the money to construct a new arena on Stanley Park. Catastrophe ensued as Hicks and Gillett were forced out after failing to meet bank repayment deadlines.
On taking control of Liverpool six years ago, Henry scrapped Hicks's expensive redesign and ordered a feasibility study to renovate Anfield as he did Boston Red Sox's Fenway Park. It was a logistical and legal nightmare in the early years of their reign, Anfield's position in a residential area making it ill-suited for expansion.
Now Liverpool's upgrade is part of a wider pounds 260 million renovation of the area. Last week plans were unveiled to turn Walton Breck Road, an adjoining street to Anfield typified by derelict properties, into a high street of new commercial premises and apartments.
Having (literally) done most of the groundwork and finally appointed a manager they believe will bring trophies, it is no surprise FSG responded to the recent round of takeover speculation by reaffirming it intends to stay in charge.
The economic challenges do not end with the extended capacity, however. They are ceaseless for Liverpool as they seek to be competitive. A second phase development for the Anfield Road End would add a further 4,800 general admission seats, but there is no timescale on when that will proceed. It may not prove cost effective, especially now FSG knows how supporters will react to any attempts to increase ticket prices while the Premier League's TV budget swells.
Liverpool's relationship with business has always been an exercise in minefield navigation. FSG's predecessors were unable to manoeuvre their way through the sometimes torturous path into a 21st century Anfield. At the very least, Friday will represent the delivery of a promise the previous American regime could not keep.