The announcement by Liverpool Football Club last weekend of controversial plans to furlough some non-playing staff under the UK Government’s coronavirus jobs rescue scheme received instant backlash.  Within 48 hours the club had done a complete U-turn, with chief executive Peter Moore taking to social media and the airwaves to admit having come to the “wrong conclusion” around furloughing and thanking the “productive engagement” on the matter with fans, supporter clubs, politicians and even the mayor of Liverpool. 

For a sporting organisation that connects more with its inherently working-class city and fanbase than other English premiership clubs, it was an uncharacteristic publicity blunder. The episode provides a rare insight into Liverpool’s culture which, in my opinion, stands apart in this modern era of mega money football.


On a Saturday night two weeks ago, as I sat at home watching TV coverage of the rapidly escalating coronavirus pandemic, my phone beeped with a text from the UK: Stephen, Hope you are well.  Could you please pass on our best wishes to Sean, Martina and all the family.  Fantastically positive news today and hope everything continues in a positive way for the Cox family. All the best, Kenny and Marina”.

Sir Kenny Dalglish MBE (he was knighted for his endeavours for the victims of the 1989 Hillsborough stadium disaster in which ninety-six people lost their lives, and charitable work undertaken with his wife through the Marina Dalglish Foundation) is a legend of the game of football.

Capped over one hundred times for Scotland he is a former player and manager at both Liverpool and Glasgow Celtic, two UK soccer clubs with close associations to Ireland dating back to the post-famine migration of the late 1800s.  Anfield, LFC’s home grounds that tower over Liverpool’s north inner-city, is named after a townland in Gorey, County Wexford.  Dalglish, whose name now adorns one of the stands at Anfield, scored 118 goals during his time at Liverpool.

The reason for my late-night text from Dalglish was because Sean Cox had returned to his home in Dunboyne that day for the first time since the 2018 attack. Much had changed since Sean left Dunboyne almost two years earlier. A last minute opportunity had arisen for him to travel to Anfield with his brother Martin and watch their beloved Liverpool play AS Roma in the champions league semi-final. 

Sean never made it into the stadium that night, spending the next few months in a coma in the Walton Hospital in Liverpool. But the text highlighted the efforts of the club to help Sean over the intervening years.

When business and sport collide

My own interest in soccer can be described as, at best, mild.  I grew up in Meath during that county’s golden era of Gaelic football under Sean Boylan. Along with GAA, rugby is the other sport that genuinely interests me. My wan claim to be an Arsenal supporter was borne out of a couple of trips to Highbury terraces with my late father. 

Until I became involved in the campaign for Sean Cox, a friend who was savagely attacked by Italian soccer thugs outside Anfield in April 2018, I had little knowledge of the “Beautiful Game” as a sport or as a business. I knew even less about the history of Liverpool Football Club.

Owned for much of the second half of the twentieth century by the Moores family of Littlewoods Pools fame, Liverpool may have won the FA Cup and Europa League in the 2000-2001 season but at the start of this millennium it was flashier clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal, Real Madrid and Chelsea that commanded rich pickings when it came to sponsorship, television rights and player signings.

The Moores family exited their interests in Liverpool FC in 2007 after a lacklustre spell and the club went through further turbulence as its new owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillet, struggled to keep it afloat. A group of creditors lead by RBS forced a sale to Fenway Sports Group in 2011 for £300m. Fenway Sports Group is owned by the mega-wealthy US duo of hedge-fund manager John Henry and television producer Tom Werner. Fenway’s investment in Liverpool FC was pre-dated by its purchase in 2002 of the Boston Red Sox baseball franchise with Werner now chairman of both sports clubs.

The takeover by Fenway was viewed at the time by Liverpool’s core fanbase and by the soccer media as another example of the infiltration of English football by narcissistic foreigners.  Initial optimism amongst fans when rich Americans, Russian and Asians began to arrive in the late 1990s with promises of silverware was replaced with outcry as ticket prices increased, dividends were stripped out and failing managers ejected with multi-million pound severances.  The Glazers at Manchester United, Roman Abramovich at Chelsea and Stan Kroenke at Arsenal all sit incongruously with the working class, community based grassroots of the football clubs they own.

Sean Cox with Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp

The playbook used by Fenway in turning around the Liverpool FC balance sheet differed little from that of other commercially savvy owners. Increased season ticket prices; a redevelopment of one of Anfield’s stands with a bias towards high value debentures and corporate hospitality; jettisoning first team stalwarts including Luis Suarez to Barcelona, Pepe Reina to Napoli and Steven Gerrard to LA Galaxy; shirt deals with global brands like Standard Chartered and New Balance.

The seminal decision taken by Fenway during this period of rebuild was to bring in Jurgen Klopp as manager from Borussia Dortmund in October 2015, putting someone in charge who came with an international CV and reputation, alongside a proclivity for understatement (Klopp referred to himself as the “normal one” at his inaugural press conference, an antidote to Jose Mourinho’s self proclamation as the “special one”). 

Another key hire made by Fenway around this time was of Peter Moore to the club as CEO.  Klopp and long-time sporting director Michael Edwards are in charge of player acquisition, transfers and on-pitch performance, with Moore overseeing the financial and commercial elements. Moore, a lifelong Reds fan, is originally from Liverpool but spent thirty years climbing the ladder in corporate America ending up running EA Games in California. It was a solid commercial move by the Boston ownership to lure him home, with a “local boy done good” poeticism which did no harm in building boardroom relations with the club’s local fanbase, most recently demonstrated in the furlough furore of recent days.

As anyone with even a passing interest in sport will know, Liverpool has steadily ascended to the top of the British and European rankings under Klopp. Runners up in the UEFA Champions League in 2018 and winners in 2019; second in the UK Premier League 2019; Club World Cup champions in 2020; and unless some coronavirus related misjustice is inflicted upon them this year, Liverpool will be anointed Premier League champions in 2020 for the first time in thirty years.

Every bit as impressive has been Liverpool’s off-pitch performance.  In the year Fenway acquired it for £300m the club’s revenue was £183m and it lost £50m.  Just seven years later, for the year ending 31 May 2019, Liverpool’s revenue had ballooned 200% to £533m and pre-tax profits were £42m.  The cost to Liverpool (rather than to the UK government as was the partial plan until Monday’s u-turn) of picking up staff wages during the COVID-19 shutdown will put a dent in the club’s finances this year, but needs to be looked at in context.  Forbes magazine’s annual analysis of world football clubs estimated Liverpool to be worth $2.18 billion (£1.77bn) at the end of 2019.  By any measure Fenway’s purchase of the club in 2011 has been a spectacular investment for the Bostonians. 


Sean Cox and members of his family attending a Liverpool match.

In the intervening two years Sean has moved between Ireland and the UK, with his wife Martina determined to get Sean the necessary treatment available to make his life as good as it can be. 

However, if Sean Cox had one piece of luck in his armoury it is that the football club he had supported since boyhood was Liverpool FC.

Sean’s house had changed a lot since he left it on 24th April 2018: it has been extensively remodelled to make it wheelchair accessible, has had specialist medical equipment installed, and a permanent care staff are to be a constant feature in the Cox home for the rest of Sean’s life.

What happened to Sean Cox is the worst nightmare of every sports fan. He was massively unlucky: wrong place at the wrong time at the wrong match. Three Italian men are serving prison sentences averaging two and a half years for what they did to him. Sean and his family will pay the price of those thugs’ actions for the rest of their lives. 

However, if Sean Cox had one piece of luck in his armoury it is that the football club he had supported since boyhood was Liverpool FC. In a city where three-quarters of its population have Irish roots, people were deeply angered that “one of their own” – an Irishman and a Reds supporter – had been struck down. In the immediate aftermath of Sean’s attack his family raced to the Walton Hospital in Liverpool to be by his bedside.

The football community and the people of the city wrapped their arms around them. Taxis, bed & breakfasts and meals were laid on by groups such as the grassroots Spirit of Shankly supporters clubs.  Bucket collections were arranged and a fundraising website setup.  At the Liverpool v AS Roma champions league semi-final in Rome on May 2nd 2018 (the return leg of the match Sean never made it to in Anfield a week earlier) Liverpool’s players celebrated their win by circling the pitch with a huge banner saying “SEAN COX, YOU’LL NEVER WALK ALONE”. 

To the more cynical observers, myself amongst them at the time, this could have been construed as a global sporting corporation kicking their PR machine into gear to deflect the ugly events outside Anfield on 24th April.  Liverpool FC did make it clear to representatives of the Cox family that there was no recourse to the club for what had happened to Sean. 

Whilst he may have been just metres from the stadium when viciously attacked, it did not occur on club property. But the club did realise that the Sean Cox who travelled to Liverpool that night would never be the same again: a family had been robbed of their husband, Dad, brother, breadwinner and soulmate. 

Money would be needed for Sean’s rehabilitation and longterm care, lots of it.  The income from his job would soon disappear, Sean didn’t have critical illness or travel insurance to help defray the huge bills coming down the tracks for Martina Cox.

“We Are Liverpool, We Are A Family” is emblazoned on flags around Anfield stadium and regularly flashed on pitchside hoarding during matches.  It is slick marketing, with similar sentiments used by other premiership clubs to connect to their loyal fanbases whilst simultaneously reaping millions from the sale of jerseys and merchandise.  Sean Cox went back to Anfield to watch his team play on a couple of occasions in late 2019 as he was undergoing treatment in Sheffield at that time; he entered the stadium in a wheelchair and with medical personnel in toe to assist with his every need.  In consultation with the family, on his first visit back the club ran publicity around “Sean’s return to Anfield”, with Martina Cox thanking fans from the centre of the pitch at half-time.  The TV camera panned discretely to Sean on two pre-agreed occasions during the match.  The Club and family issued a joint press release thanking the Liverpool “family” for their support for Sean.


Liverpool are set to pay £110m in player wages this season with rockstar winger Mo Salah taking home £200,000 salary per week and manager Jurgen Klopp estimated to earn upwards of £7m per year.  The oft perception of premiership players as overpaid, pampered prima donnas has its justifications when compared against the volunteerism of inter-county Gaelic football and hurling in Ireland.  I now believe, however, that when Liverpool as a football club say “We Are A Family” that they practice it and mean it more than any other.

I attended a private function with Martina Cox in the Anfield directors’ box last October; while no media were in attendance there was high level representation from Liverpool management, players and ownership. In casual conversation with another guest I enquired as to their connection with Liverpool.  I learned of a personal tragedy, different to Sean’s but no less heartbreaking, where the club had also reached out to assist one of their, in a discreet way and with no fanfare.  The Cox family have watched as Sean’s footballing Gods – Salah, Henderson, Van Dijk – sat with and embraced their Dad with genuine compassion, long after the matchday cameras and stadium lights are switched off in Anfield. 

There is no doubt in my mind that beneath this two billion dollar global corporation lies a unique football club, with a culture and heart inextricably tied to its humble Liverpudlian roots.

I was with the comedian John Bishop in the bar of the Shelbourne Hotel in January, preparing for an all-star comedy gig he had organised in aid of Sean the following night in the 3Arena.  Bishop, a fanatical Liverpool supporter, had a last minute idea to have Klopp introduce the Dublin event by video-link.  There and then he picked up the phone to the Liverpool manager, who has met Sean on several occasions since his attack and where there is a visible chemistry between the Dunboyne man and the German.  Roll forward 24 hours and Jurgen Klopp is beamed onto a massive screen welcoming Sean Cox, his family and the sell-out 8,000 crowd in the 3Arena. 

Peter Moore and his wife sat with the Cox family in the audience that night; Kenny Dalglish, who has travelled to Dublin on previous occasions to meet with Sean and raise funds for his rehabilitation, sent regrets due to another charity commitment in Liverpool.

Over €2.7m has been raised for Sean Cox since his attack in 2018. The vast majority of this has come from the general public, the goodwill of many thousands of ordinary people across Ireland and the UK.  Many have an affinity or association with Liverpool football club, many more just wanted to in some way help an unfortunate and utterly decent man get the care he required.

It is unlikely that the quantum of monies raised for Sean Cox, or the publicity around his plight, could have been achieved without Liverpool FC throwing their incredible might behind it.  It would be naïve to think this benefit has been all one-sided in favour of the Cox family; the Liverpool Football Club brand has benefited considerably from its association with Sean Cox.  It has been able to display its human side, living out its “You’ll Never Walk Alone” pronouncement to the 200,000 Liverpool fans in Ireland and tens of millions around the world. 

There is no doubt in my mind that beneath this two billion dollar global corporation lies a unique football club, with a culture and heart inextricably tied to its humble Liverpudlian roots.

Stephen Felle is CEO of Argeau, the Dublin and London based advisory platform for ultra-high net worth investors. He is voluntary chairman of the Sean Cox Rehabilitation Trust, an independent trust established to administer and distribute monies raised for Sean Cox’s future care and rehabilitation.