Welcome to my football blog. I'll be covering most of the key issues and stories which dominate top level English and European football over the coming months, and so if you love this fantastic sport as much as I do, I hope you'll appreciate reading and responding to what I've got to say.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Anfield boardroom antics cement legacy of failure

Liverpool fans could be forgiven for waking up in ambivalent mood this morning. For ultimately, the ill-fated reign of Tom Hicks and George Gillett appears to be entering its final stages. But the civil war which has broken out in Anfield's corridors of power over the past few days, combined with the prospect of prolonged legal wrangling and possibly even administration to come, surely constitutes the lowest ebb of what already makes a strong claim to be the most traumatic period in the club's history.

When chairman Martin Broughton first announced that he and his fellow board members had agreed the sale of Liverpool Football Club to New England Sports Ventures, led by commodities tycoon John W. Henry, many among the Anfield faithful were understandably wary of their club falling victim to another mysterious 'Yank' who would view one of European football's giants as a nice little earner.

Many of these fears have subsequently been allayed, both by Broughton's insistence on the honourable nature of NESV's intentions, and by the American group's record of commercial and sporting success with Major League Baseball giants the Boston Red Sox. Consequently, those who originally greeted the takeover news with optimism have had their resolve strengthened, and many of the cynics are now of the view that any change of ownership would be a welcome one.

But under the leadership of Gillett and Hicks, Liverpool fans have grown accustomed to the fact that nothing is ever straightforward. With the sale apparently agreed, and public opinion firmly in favour of the proposed takeover, the scene was set for the beleaguered Americans to make their last stand. Outnumbered in the board room, they have taken the not-too-subtle approach of attempting to fire anyone who disagrees with them.

The motivation for their opposition is obvious: ever since officially confirming their intention to sell the club in April of this year, Hicks and Gillett have sought a profit on the price of just over £200m that they paid for Liverpool in 2007 - a just reward for what they view as the 'great work' done in that time, along with the considerable investment that they have both made. Originally set at £800m, their asking price has fallen to £600m as the threat of RBS has grown ever larger, but it has still been branded unrealistic by every serious investor who has shown an interest in the Anfield club. NESV's offer weighs in at just over £300m - enough to cover the £280m loan repayments to RBS and US bank Wachovia, but providing none of the return on the Amercian duo's original investment, estimated to be around £140m.

But while the reason for their opposition to the deal is clear, what the Americans hope to achieve through their drastic course of action is less so. Chairman Martin Broughton has claimed that it is a redundant move, since he received written guarantees, both that neither of the owners would hinder the acceptance of a 'reasonable' offer, and that only he could alter the make-up of the board, prior to assuming his post. It is unlikely that he would make such bold claims unless they were true, and that he possessed documentation which backed him unequivocally.

But even if Hicks and Gillett succeed in gaining a court action preventing the sale of Liverpool to NESV, they appear to be short of options. The idea of an Arab sheikh or Russian oligarch turning up at Anfield and agreeing to stump up the desired £600m is as much of a pipe-dream now as it was three months ago. Foolishness is not a quality usually associated with individuals of that level of wealth, and any fool can see that Liverpool football club is not worth £600m.

Despite relatively liberal investment in the playing squad at Anfield over the last three years, not even the most ardent supporter of Rafa Benitez can claim a significant improvement in this area. This argument is borne out by the fact that, the 'miracle of Istanbul' in 2005 aside, the absence of recent major silverware in the Reds trophy cabinet is as noticeable now as at any time in the last 20 years. But perhaps most importantly of all, the fact that a large expanse of land in Stanley Park still lies fallow makes it even more unlikely that any prospective buyer would be prepared to make such a huge initial outlay.  

In the improbable event that such a buyer did present himself, the fact remains that Hicks and Gillett could not be in a worse negotiating position. The deadline for the repayment of the £240m in loans and £40m in fees owed to RBS is set for 15th of October. The bank have already extended it once, and the signs are that they are unlikely to be willing to do so again - especially in the knowledge that the Americans have turned down several offers from suitors who could have guaranteed the repayment of the money.

In fact, RBS have made it clear that if the money is not repaid on time, they will seize control of Liverpool and sell it themselves. Not only would this deprive Hicks and Gillett of any return on their investment, but it would also send parent company Kop Holdings into administration, forcing the Premier League to deduct Liverpool 9 points and making the Reds' worse start to a league season for 57 years a hell of a lot worse.

Of course, Hicks and Gillett will not be losing much sleep over the potential ramifications of their decision for Liverpool, or for what remains of their reputation on Merseyside. No more than when they revealed in 2008 that they had consulted Jurgen Klinsmann about the prospect of replacing Rafa Benitez as manager behind the Spaniard's back, or when Tom Hick's son told a disillusioned fan where exactly he could stick his complaints.

It is remarkable, indeed almost admirable, how impervious they have been to the torrent of criticism and ill-will that has been directed towards them. But surely they will have detected that, even if they negotiate the various formidable obstacles which currently block their path to continued supremacy at Liverpool, their position will forever remain untenable with the fans. The negative matchday atmosphere at Anfield has been a huge - albeit not the only - factor in the poor start that Roy Hodgson's side has made to this season, and sporting success is rarely achieved against a backdrop of fan protests and boardroom in-fighting.

From a business and sporting perspective, the reign of Hicks and Gillett has been an unequivocal failure. Whether or not this week's events mark the beginning of a new dawn at Anfield, it seems now that the only guaranteed success resulting from the American duo's latest misguided choice is to ensure that they are even more hated in the red half of Merseyside.  

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