Can Boston's messiah deliver Reds?
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Robert Kraft resuscitated the New England Patriots. Could he restore Liverpool's former glories?
If the New England Patriots are once again dousing themselves in champagne two weeks from now, city officials in Boston might just want to clear some space for a monument to team owner Robert Kraft.
Should the defending champion Patriots get past the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night and go on to win the NFL's Super Bowl, scheduled for February 6 in Jacksonville, it will be their third title in four years, and much of the credit will belong to Kraft, who acquired the team 11 years ago and has transformed it from one of the sorriest franchises in US sport to one of the mightiest. Indeed, the Kraft name may soon be as revered in Boston as the name Kennedy.
It could soon be a household name in Liverpool, too: Kraft is believed to be backing a consortium that may buy into Liverpool Football Club and attempt to restore past glories. The 64-year-old tycoon already owns one soccer team, the New England Revolution, coached by former Liverpool player Steve Nicol, and is evidently keen to add a Premiership franchise to his portfolio.
This week Kraft did nothing to dampen the Liverpool rumours. That it took him a mere 30 minutes to respond to an interview request suggests that Kraft was unusually eager to reach a British audience. He referred to the fact that his family's company, the Kraft Group, does extensive business in the UK. He also offered the observation that the two US franchises he owns both include the word "England" in their names.
Kraft declined to comment on Liverpool specifically but made clear that he was looking for opportunities to invest in sports teams outside the US - "Do we have an interest in other franchises globally? Yes" - and he seemed to go out of his way to allay concerns about his possible foray into the Premiership. Responding to suggestions that he was a corporate raider concerned only with the bottom line, Kraft said the profit motive would never lead him to purchase a franchise: "When we get involved with a team, we do it to win, not to make money."
He also made a number of references to Gillette Stadium, the glittering new $325m ballpark that the Kraft family financed privately and which is now home to the Patriots and the Revolution, and he repeatedly emphasised his determination as an owner to ensuring that fans get their money's worth. Given the pressing need in Liverpool for a new stadium and the rancorous debate over how best to pay for it, Kraft's comments seemed clearly telegraphed to the Anfield faithful.
Should the Liverpudlians require any references, there are several million football fans in the greater Boston area who will gladly serve as character witnesses on Kraft's behalf. When he acquired the Patriots in 1994 for a then-record $172m (the team is now worth an estimated $861m), saving them from a possible move to St Louis, he spoke of his desire to match the success of the San Francisco 49ers, who won five Super Bowls between 1982 and 1995. Hardened Bostonians rolled their eyes. Apart from an unsuccessful trip to the Super Bowl in 1986, the Patriots were perennial losers.
Yet even before Kraft took over, change was afoot. In 1993, the Patriots drafted a promising quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, and they also hired the NFL's most respected coach, Bill Parcells, who had guided the New York Giants to two titles. In 1996, Parcells and Bledsoe led the Patriots to their second Super Bowl, but again they came out on the short end, losing to the Green Bay Packers. By then, the relationship between Parcells and Kraft had soured, and the mercurial coach bolted to the New York Jets during the off-season.
A bizarre sequence of events then brought Kraft the coach he was looking for. In January 2000, Parcells decided to quit the Jets and announced that his longtime sidekick, Bill Belichick, would take over. But Belichick, evidently tired of being in the great man's shadow, changed his mind and headed to the Patriots instead.
In 2001, fortune again favoured Kraft and the Patriots. When Bledsoe suffered an injury early in the season, he was replaced by untested second-year quarterback Tom Brady. Showing almost freakish poise, Brady proceeded to lead the Patriots to an 11-5 record and a trip to the Super Bowl, where they upset the heavily favoured St Louis Rams 20-17.
By the next season, Bledsoe was gone and Brady led them back to the Super Bowl, which they won in another squeaker, 32-29 over the Carolina Panthers, with Brady once again showing himself to be the NFL's most unflappable quarterback since Joe Montana.
Although Kraft is a lifelong Patriots fan and micromanages nearly every aspect of the team's operations with the help of son Jonathan, the club's vice-chairman, he knows better than to meddle on the field. You will not find Kraft pacing the sidelines during games or calling in plays to his coaching staff. "What they've forgotten, I don't know," as he put it. His philosophy is to give employees all the slack they need to either run or hang themselves. "You have to let them do their jobs; that's the only way you can hold them accountable," Kraft said. "I talk to [Belichick], I listen to him, I push him to make bold decisions, but I don't second-guess."
He has not had much reason to second-guess Belichick in recent years. What makes New England's achievements particularly impressive is that continued success is something the National Football League actively discourages. Competitive parity is league policy, which it seeks to enforce by means of a stringent salary cap and scheduling that is designed to punish winning teams.
But by cultivating a deep and versatile roster and cutting loose even the finest players rather than overpay to retain their services, Kraft and Belichick have found a way to keep winning despite the salary cap and challenging schedules, and they have done it without completely mortgaging the team's future.
If they beat Pittsburgh, the Patriots will journey to Jacksonville with a chance to join the Dallas Cowboys as the only teams in NFL history to win three Super Bowls in four seasons - dynastic credentials by anyone's measure. But do not mention the d-word to Kraft. "You used the word, I didn't; we're trying to play it down," he said with a laugh.
It is the kind of problem Liverpool fans, fresh from a humiliating FA Cup defeat, presumably would not mind having.
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