October 16, 2010 9 Comments
The saga, it appears, is finally over. Having taken out a temporary restraining order in a last-ditch attempt to stall the £300m sale of Liverpool FC to New England Sports Ventures (NESV), owner of the Boston Red Sox, Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr backed down yesterday morning and allowed the transaction to proceed, although they are still rumoured to be considering filing a £1 billion damages claim in the English courts.
Liverpool fans can once again breathe easy, it seems, safe from a week with wrestling with the convolutions of the legal system. Its now former American owners, who had arrived amid a fanfare of optimism declaring their desire to build a profitable and successful future, are gone. In their place comes a new set of American owners, fronted by the cigar-toting John W Henry, who have arrived amid a fanfare of optimism declaring their desire to build a, er, profitable and successful future.
As a forty-year old Arsenal fan who grew up as part of a generation in which Liverpool were the dominant force in both English and European club football, a significant number of my friends are devoted fans of the Anfield club. Many of them are sober and intelligent people, other than that one obvious aberration, and all of them are considerably more knowledgeable about the ins and outs of both this week’s court proceedings and the tumultuous 44-month reign of Hicks and Gillett than I am. I won’t comment further on these particulars; they are comprehensively covered elsewhere on the web and in the mainstream media.
However, I would like to pose one question – okay, three – if I may. Has Hicks and Gillett’s behaviour been any worse than that displayed by (some) Liverpool fans over these past few years? Have they really been the only party guilty of the deadly sin of greed? And is the situation really as straightforward as the old spaghetti Western staple of the bad guy in the black hat versus the good guy in the white one?
Defending the indefensible
Watching from a safe distance, I have been surprised by the media-fuelled reaction to the former owners’ various legal attempts to prevent the deal with NESV from going through over the past week. After all, the sale was negotiated and agreed by the rest of Liverpool’s five-man board without their knowledge or consent as owners – and it is a deal which stands to see them lose around £140m in the process. If you were in their shoes, wouldn’t you be a bit peeved, and do everything in your legal power to prevent someone from burning a very large hole in your children’s inheritance? Or, to put it another way, if you fell behind on your repayments and someone was sent to repossess your car, would you hand them the keys with a smile and offer them a cup of tea first?
Some of Hicks and Gillett’s claims in court were patently weak, and the injunction they took out in a Texas county court was clearly little more than one final attempt to buy some time to explore every last avenue open to them, but it is all too easy to swallow the line about their actions being spiteful or lacking class. They were merely the acts of two desperate men whose biggest mistake was to make a business investment which they hoped to profit from, only to see it go horribly, horribly wrong. Were they greedy? Yes, but no more so than you or I when we buy a lottery ticket. (Remember, folks, the value of your investments can go down as well as up, and history is no guarantee of future performance. Here ends this public service announcement.)
Attacking the ‘innocent’ fans
So what about Liverpool’s fans, or at least the subset of them whose eyes lit up those 44 months ago when they naively thought their new American owners were Roman Abramovich, Sheikh Mansour and Bill Shankly all rolled into one? Were they in some way culpable? Are they now?
It’s difficult to say. Certainly in some quarters expectations were raised unreasonably high. Former manager Rafael Benítez was given plenty of scope to play the transfer market initially, although not to the same extent that Chelsea and Manchester United, and more recently Manchester City, have been able to. It didn’t take long before the mutterings started from both Benítez and some supporters about needing more money to compete at the highest level. Hicks and Gillett – who never claimed to be fans before being businessmen – refused, and so the downward spiral began, culminating in this week’s acrimonious events.
But were those complaining Liverpool fans being reasonable in demanding the owners increase their investment and jeopardise their by then already constrained opportunity to turn a profit? Of course, fans want the best for their club, but were those expectations – fuelled by a long, proud and successful history, and with pride wounded by the inexorable rise of the hated Man U over the past two decades – an expression of passion, frustration or simple greed? As an individual, if you put money into an investment and it starts to turn sour, the last thing you are going to do is throw even more money at it. Hicks and Gillett were not being stingy, they were acting just as any other sensible investor would do. In some ways, their biggest crime was merely that they just weren’t big enough fans of the club they owned.
With the former owners now dismissed, how will Liverpool fans now perceive NESV? They turned around the Red Sox – like Liverpool, a proud club with a great history but little recent success – through a sensible, measured business plan rather than by injecting the kind of immediate and massive investment which took place in the case of both Chelsea and City, for instance. Will that be enough for the fans? Or will they grow quickly impatient if a return to trophy-winning success is not immediately forthcoming?
Are (some) Liverpool fans greedy? In truth, only time will tell. But before the Anfield masses start to fidget impatiently in their seats in the Kop, they would do well to remember the salutary lesson of the last four years, set aside their emotions for the club and look at the situation through rational eyes. Where does passion end and greed begin?
I know, I know, it is easier said than done, and football – like all sports – appeals to the passion in people rather than their rational nature. But it is an interesting conundrum nonetheless, and it brings into question whether it is fair to paint Hicks and Gillett as ‘the bad guys’ with such unseemly haste. If Liverpool fans look at themselves in the mirror for a minute, they might not like what they see.
Don’t get me wrong. Even as a fan of an opposing team, I am glad to see Hicks and Gillett gone from the exclusive club of Premier League owners. I’m just not at all convinced they were the be-all and end-all of the problem. Whether the fans like it or not, it is a long road back to success for Liverpool FC, and one fraught with many potential pitfalls in the months and years to come.
- Hicks fury at Liverpool ‘swindle’ (news.bbc.co.uk)
- Tom Hicks and George Gillett may return to court over Liverpool sale (guardian.co.uk)
- NESV clinch Liverpool takeover (telegraph.co.uk)