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Oct 6, 2010

Out of the frying pan?

Tuesday afternoon saw the "viralling" of a video campaign to remove hated pair Tom Hicks and George Gillett from Liverpool Football Club. A set of famous and some not so famous faces - after all, Brookside was axed in 2003 - harangue Hicks in particular with nearly seven minutes of stirring Scouse invective. "We gave you The Beatles and this is how you repay us," it begins, though neither Paul McCartney nor Ringo Starr are among the talking heads.

• Civil war over Liverpool sale
• Broughton: Deal done in a week
• New owners to stick with Hodgson
• In profile: John W Henry

By early evening on the same day, events had overtaken the campaign, with news breaking of two acceptable bids being made to the five-man board of Liverpool. With just nine days to go until the October 15 deadline by which Messrs Hicks and Gillett must repay a £282 million loan owed principally to the Royal Bank of Scotland, an end game had finally looked in sight. A series of mooted takeovers had fallen by the wayside in the months since the North American pair had announced their intention to sell off an unwanted and hugely troublesome bauble - at a profit.

Late evening saw Liverpool, a club once given to a strict code of omerta of keeping matters strictly internal, air the bare facts of their situation on their official website. A takeover was set to be accepted but other machinations were afoot. Hicks and Gillett, or on this evidence, the former - Gillett is said to desperate to cut his losses and can borrow no more - had attempted a late putsch against chairman Martin Broughton, managing director Christian Purslow and commercial director Ian Ayre. This trio hold the balance of power in a boardroom vote. An attempt to install a junior Hicks and a vice-president of Hicks Holdings in the place of Ayre and Purslow was made in a final throw of the dice to prevent a takeover that would yield the current co-owners next to no profit.

"The matter is now subject to legal review," is a statement to signal that this saga cannot be expected to end soon. And such a legal matter will hold up the accepted bid from New England Sports Ventures (NESV), the owners of Boston Red Sox whose philosophy was hailed by Broughton in another public statement as being "all about winning".

The revealing of the prospective and expected new owners must have brought a collective sigh among the campaigners. The sloganing so apparent on Anfield's Kop has often centred around nationality. "Yanks but no thanks," reads one banner. "Built by Shanks, broke by Yanks," states another. Out of the frying pan and back into the frying pan again? There will be frantic delving into the previous practice of JW Henry, the billionaire behind NESV, and some of it makes troublesome reading.

Henry sold on baseball's Florida Marlins to buy the Red Sox in 2002. He had owned the Marlins only since 1999, and had already threatened to move the franchise elsewhere when profit margins were low, something he may have to get used to in the brinkman's world of football finance. His stewardship of the Red Sox could dampen the hopes of those expecting a move to a "New Anfield" in Stanley Park. There, the antiquated Fenway Park was renovated before high prices were charged to fans.

Merseyside, amongst the nation's poorest regions, would not seem a place able or willing to shoulder heavy hikes in prices. And, as fans of Arsenal and Manchester United could vouch, higher prices mean the dilution of the traditional supporter by the better-heeled, to the detriment of atmosphere, a jealously cherished facet of the Anfield experience. It is also telling that Broughton, who is said to be on a bonus of £1 million from RBS to sell the club before that deadline, did not include mention of a new stadium in his statement, in which he pointedly decides to "focus on investment in the team". The heart of Hicks and Gillett's legal challenge is that they clearly believe Henry and Co will be picking up Liverpool for a knockdown price - itself a detail that may bring suspicion over Henry's sudden interest and his intentions beyond a purchase.

The debt burden may be removed, as this is no dread leveraged buy-out, but the future can only remain uncertain for Liverpool, and those campaigners may yet be able to recycle their heartfelt slogans and banners. A key tenet of that visceral viral video was a desire to return to the days when Liverpool was a family club and a successful one too. The message that business is killing football because football is not a business rings out loud and clear but it is a sentiment sadly overtaken by the practices of the modern game. High finance, legal wrangling and overseas owners are here to stay and Liverpool will be soaked in them for the foreseeable future.

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