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Jun 10, 2009

Where did it all go wrong?

Three Premier League clubs, three takeovers, three sets of fretting fans; uncertainty abounds at Anfield, St James' Park and Upton Park and sadly for all concerned it shows no sign of improving anytime soon.

The takeovers at Liverpool, Newcastle United and West Ham United were, for the main part, greeted with jubilation by supporters excited at the prospect of futures fed by untold riches. But in each instance what first looked to be a dream scenario has turned into a nightmare from which none of the clubs has yet escaped.

The global economic climate undoubtedly affected each club, but in different ways and for different reasons.

Take West Ham; this week the long-running saga of their ownership finally appeared to be at an end with the news that a takeover had finally been agreed which saw ownership transfer from Bjorgolfur Gudmundsson, who lost his fortune in the credit crunch, to asset management company CB Holdings.

Fans were told that the deal with the company, whose initials stands for Claret and Blue (nice touch or sycophantic pandering?), would safeguard the club's future. But within hours of announcing the deal on Monday CB Holdings admitted they were effectively only in it for the money, would be prepared to sell and were not planning to stick around for more than a few years.

And worse was to follow; it transpires that CB Holdings are themselves teetering on the brink and could be declared bankrupt this week unless a deal is struck with the District Court of Reykjavik to keep the wolves from the door for another six months.

CB Holdings is a special subsidiary of several ailing Icelandic financial institutions, chief amongst them being investment bank Straumur, which is the main creditor of Hansa, Gudmundsson's insolvent holding company through which he formerly controlled West Ham.

CB's objective - unless of course their creditors force them into bankruptcy - is to deliver their promise of stability and prosperity, because a successful, viable West Ham would be a great asset to sell when the time is right.

The whole sorry mess stems from the dire state of the Icelandic financial system. It's all rather complicated and, unless you like this sort of thing, fairly dull, but the bottom line is that the promise of a bright new future at Upton Park - which seemed so tangible when Eggert Magnusson took over in November 2006 - has never materialised and seems unlikely to as the club changes hands from one stricken Icelandic entity to another.

At Newcastle United, owner Mike Ashley has again defied logic and taken a course of action that seems to fly in the face of common sense and by so doing plunged the club further into the mire of uncertainty.

Instead of trying to ride out the current financial storm in the hope of clawing back some of the hundreds of millions he's lost while in charge of the club, last week Ashley put Newcastle and every squad member up for sale.

Claims that Newcastle United have at least two or three interested parties in the frame appeared more than a little disingenuous given that this week the club posted an article on their website asking any interested parties to email the club with their bids. Not surprisingly Newcastle have been inundated with offers; not with bids in the region of £100m region as requested by Mike Ashley, but from gleeful Sunderland fans offering ever so slightly less.

Touting for potential suitors on the internet is just the latest in a litany of mistakes and faux pas from Ashley and his advisors that have turned a proud club into a laughing stock.

As if it wasn't bad enough having the entire squad on the transfer market, and the owner appealing willy-nilly via the internet for buyers, Newcastle are also without a manager. Alan Shearer's eight-game deal to try and save Newcastle from relegation has expired and the club now appear rudderless from top to bottom.

It's a far cry from the summer of 2007 when the deeply unpopular Freddie Shepherd relinquished control at St James' Park to Ashley. Although few knew anything about Ashley the departure of Shepherd and the fact that the new owner was a billionaire was enough to win over the success-starved Geordies.

Since then, Ashley has lost around £700m of his own money in the credit crunch, ploughed the better part of £250m into Newcastle only to see its value plummet from around £300m to less than two-thirds that amount, and by marginalising and then ousting the messianic Kevin Keegan and presiding over the club's relegation he has seen any goodwill he once had on Tyneside evaporate.

Then there's Liverpool, on the pitch as strong as they have been at any time over the last 20 years but charting seriously dangerous waters off it.

Last week, the parlous state of Liverpool's finances was laid bare when the club's parent company, Kop Football Holdings, through which Americans Tom Hicks and George Gillett control the club, reported a loss of £42.6m. It's a lot of money to lose in a year, but more troubling is how it was lost: £36m of it was spent on servicing interest payments on the £350m debt Hicks and Gillett have amassed with banks RBS and Wachovia since buying the club.

More troubling still is that in reporting the club's annual finances Liverpool's accountants, KPMG, warned that Kop Football Holdings' ability to continue operating as a going concern would be in serious doubt should Hicks and Gillett be unable to refinance their debts ahead of next month's deadline.

In January, RBS and Wachovia extended a repayment deadline to Hicks and Gillett and could again ahead of the July 24 cut-off, but would almost certainly demand increased interest payments to do so.

To get out of this rather fine mess of their own creation Hicks and Gillett now face a variety of unappealing options.

They could sell their own personal assets to refinance the debt, or try to attract a buyer willing to take the club off their hands, or perhaps find a minority shareholder to join them and invest some cash, though given Hicks and Gillett's track record of in-fighting finding a willing partner could be tricky.

So, despite Hicks and Gillett's media-friendly arrival in 2007 which won over many fans with the promise of investment and a new stadium to rival Old Trafford, Liverpool are no closer to moving out of Anfield and, just when they are genuine Premier League contenders, could even be forced to sell their better players rather than add new talent.

In the case of West Ham, Newcastle and Liverpool takeovers which started out by offering so much have turned sour, with grandiose promises from would-be savours shown to be little more than hollow words.

For the fans of each club the only certainty is continuing uncertainty.

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