What Can The Beautiful Game Teach Us About Running A Successful Business?

What Can The Beautiful Game Teach Us About Running A Successful Business?

Photo from Pixabay

“My idea was to build Liverpool into a bastion of invincibility. Had Napoleon had that idea he would have conquered the bloody world. I wanted Liverpool to be untouchable. My idea was to build Liverpool up and up until eventually everyone would have to submit and give in.”
Bill Shankly, LFC Manager 1959-1974

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a die-hard Liverpool FC (LFC) fan. Liverpool born and bred, growing up in our house Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley were gods.

My two brothers and I were brought up by our dad to believe that Liverpool FC was the greatest team in Europe.  And while I was growing up, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, they were.

Despite continued success in Europe since then, Liverpool haven’t won the English League for 29 years, and the final games of the season played on Sunday saw them fail again. But oh how close they came. Having ended the 2017/18 season in a desperate fight for 4th place (needed to qualify for the UEFA Champions League in 2018/19) and 25 points behind the winners Manchester City, my God we gave City a run for their money this year. One point behind, only one defeat all season and 97 points – the highest tally ever for a club which didn’t win the League. And 25 points ahead of our next closest rivals. That’s one hell of an improvement.

Of course, Liverpool fans have some consolation for not winning the Premier League this year – a simply amazing comeback in last week’s second leg of the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona, who are arguably currently the greatest team in Europe. After losing 3-0 at Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium in the first leg, Liverpool were pretty much written off. Even their manager, Jurgen Klopp, admitted that he had told his boys that he thought it was impossible – but, if anyone could do it, they could. And they proved him right, beating Barca 4-0 at Anfield.  The final awaits us on June 1st. Perhaps the magic will be repeated.

What can change a team so much in just one year? Well, of course, this has been a team three and a half years in the making. This has been Klopp’s project since joining the club in October 2015.  You can’t build greatness overnight and having followed their journey, I can see that so much of what makes a great football team, can also make a great business.

Here then, is what I’ve learned from LFC, since Klopp became manager, about what makes a successful business.


“No football club is ever successful without hard work. If everyone thinks along these lines and does the small jobs to the best of their ability, then the world will be better.”
Bill Shankly

Whether it’s a football team or a business, neither achieves success without a lot of hard work.  Managers of both football teams and businesses have a right to demand hard work from their team.

“For a player to be good enough to play for Liverpool, he must be prepared to run through a brick wall for me then come out fighting the other side.”
Bill Shankly



“A football team is like a piano. You need eight men to carry it and three who can play the damn thing.”
Bill Shankly

No one would dispute that superstars exist, and they form part of every successful football team (including Liverpool) but at the end of the day, it’s all about the team. Take the LFC v Barcelona second leg game last week.  Lionel Messi is without doubt the world’s greatest footballer. He showed flashes of utter genius in the first leg, scoring two of Barca’s three goals, the second of which was simply sublime.

But, on the return leg at Anfield, LFC proved that if you can neutralise Messi, the rest of the team can quickly lose confidence, and begin to doubt their own abilities. Barca spent that game pretty much too scared to shoot on the occasions they found themselves in Liverpool’s half, constantly trying to pass the ball back to Messi. You can’t rely on one great player to carry the whole team.

If you have a team of superstars, this can work for or against you. Manchester City have shown that you can amass a team of superstars and achieve great success.  But if you want to see how badly choosing this path can work out, just ask Manchester United.

Hard work always beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”
Alexandra Scott – former Arsenal & England player

A bunch of superstars doesn’t necessarily make a great team.



“Under Bob Paisley, if a player showed signs of complacency, he was out. It was all over for him.”
Alan Hansen – LFC Centre Back 1977-1991

I seem to read an awful lot online these days about how an employee’s happiness is somehow a company’s or a manager’s responsibility. No, no, no.  Obviously, a company or manager has a responsibility to treat their employees well, but we are not responsible for other people’s emotions.

In a pre-match press conference last year, Klopp was asked about his players’ happiness. His response summed it up perfectly for me. He basically said that he wasn’t interested in making his players happy, he was only interested in making them effective. And as he pointed out, and as we all know, effective players/employees get results and it’s the results which make them happy, not bean bags, cookies, free gym memberships and regular renditions of Kumbaya in the office.

Does a great manager want his team to be happy? Of course. But all he can do is provide the right environment, the rest is up to the team themselves.

An effective team approaches their work with a sense of joy and fun. That’s what makes them happy.

“It’s the greatest thing in the world, natural enthusiasm. You’re nothing without it.”
Bill Shankly 



Liverpool FC is owned by Fenway Sports Management.  In an age when almost immediate results are demanded by a club’s owners, FSM have given Klopp the time he’s needed to build his team, and backed him 100%. A lot of other owners might have sacked him after one season.



“This club has been my life.  I’d go out and sweep the street and be proud to do it for Liverpool FC if they asked me to.”
Bob Paisley

Humility distinguishes the very best from the rest. What separates Pep Guardiola at Man City and Klopp at LFC from so many other managers is that they are always quick to praise their players, never taking the credit for themselves. When things are going well, they attribute the success to the players. When things are going badly, they take responsibility for that.

Klopp arrived at LFC when the Premier League was still under the influence of ‘The Special One’. Asked by reporters how he would describe himself, Klopp replied “I’m the Normal One”.

When you watch City and LFC players you can see how much they are playing for their manager. The best managers inspire their teams.



(See above re superstars). Since Klopp joined LFC in 2015, the club has the 12th lowest net spend of any side in Europe – £142 million, compared to City’s almost half a billion and Utd at close to £375 million.  Liverpool’s current team includes Trent Alexander-Arnold (LFC Academy graduate and former LFC ball boy), Andy Robertson (£8m from Hull), Chelsea reject Mohammed Salah (€50m), Joel Matip (free transfer) and Joe Gomez (£3.5m), all players where Klopp spotted their potential which others missed and then went on to develop them into the world class players they are today.



Of course, LFC have spent big money. When Virgil Van Dijk joined in January 2018 for what was then a world record fee (£75m) for a defender, many thought Klopp was mad to pay so much.  Last summer he followed this up with another world record signing in goalkeeper Alisson Becker for £65m.

Madness? Well, Van Dijk won PFA Player of the Year last month and has just been named Premier League Player of the Season (Mohammed Salah won both last year), and Alisson has won the Golden Glove (least goals conceded). Between them, these two players have kept more clean sheets than any other club this season. Liverpool would not be the team they are today if Klopp had not invested in those players.

What’s more, the bill for both was paid from the sale of Philip Coutinho to Barcelona in January 2018 (£142m). Klopp did his best to convince him to stay (he told Coutinho that if he stayed, one day they would put up a statue of him outside Anfield, but at Barca he’d be just another player) but Coutinho thought his best hope of winning the Champions’ League was by joining Barca. (I wonder what it feels like to go from being worshipped at Anfield as ‘The Little Magician’ to being booed off the pitch by Barca fans? You have to feel sorry for the lad).



“The whole of my life, what they wanted was honesty. They were not concerned with cultured football, but with triers who gave one hundred percent.”
Bob Paisley on the DNA of Liverpool supporters.

Great football clubs appreciate their fans. Great businesses appreciate their customers. Success for either a club or a business is impossible without them.

Barcelona: Camp Nou is the best stadium in the world
Liverpool: Hold my beer

Liverpool FC has returned Anfield to the fortress it was in the ‘70s and ‘80s.  We haven’t lost a home game in the Premier League for two seasons (April 2017). We have not lost a European game at Anfield since 2014.  LFC’s supporters are often referred to as the team’s 12th man.

The best businesses build a loyal customer base and then do their utmost to repay that loyalty.



Clearly, in spite of the money involved, football and business are not the same. And whilst those of us who own businesses or manage a team of employees can learn a lot from football – or any other team sport – at the end of the day, football’s just a game. Isn’t it?

“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.”
Bill Shankly

We are Liverpool. This means more.