Reds' spirit still undimmed
NESV's takeover will end a global legal saga and fan defiance, writes Paul Hayward
Published 17/10/2010 | 05:00
In the Sandon pub where Liverpool were founded in 1892, the secretary of the Spirit of Shankly supporters' movement is monitoring the news on liberation day. The fight is nearly over -- or this part of it -- and James McKenna is contemplating his return to normal fandom.
McKenna, only 23 but a veteran of the struggle against Tom Hicks and George Gillett, says: "I can't wait for the time when I come in on a match day and my only complaint is that the ale's off, or, 'I hope Ryan Babel doesn't play today'. Not 'did you hear about the latest leveraged buyout?' We're talking about leveraged buyouts when we could be talking about left-backs."
McKenna explains that, at 7.0 on Wednesday, January 31, 2008, in a function room at the hostelry, "350 people debated, argued, had their say. People who had been reds for many years said 'Imagine if we, as Liverpool supporters, had a union.' In this city people have that history. They're not going to stand idly by."
Hicks and Gillett were finally driven out of Anfield on Friday not by the Spirit of Shankly but by their inability to repay a £237m loan to the Royal Bank of Scotland. From a financial standoff of many months came this week's astonishing courtroom drama: a transatlantic end-game that featured Liverpudlian celebrations outside the Royal Courts of Justice, a restraining order by a Texan judge and the catharsis of a takeover by New England Sports Ventures, 48 hours before today's 214th Merseyside derby at Goodison Park.
A measure of this saga's magnetic international appeal is that the Guardian's rolling news blog scored 4m hits in three days: more than the disinterment of the Chilean miners. In a way no media analyst could have predicted, the Liverpool ownership yarn became a global epic of greed, mismanagement, supporter defiance, court room tension and the promise of salvation for a team who won the Champions League five years ago but have made their worst start to a league campaign since 1953 and fester in the Premier League relegation zone, with six points from seven games.
To that stew of themes must be added the future of one of Britain's poorest parliamentary constituencies, where 28.9 per cent of adults are on out-of-work benefits. Walton, birthplace of the Militant tendency group in the 1980s, is the only Westminster constituency to house two Premier League football grounds.
But the Liverpool city council's regeneration scheme for the area is now in jeopardy. NESV wants to dodge the expense of the planned 60,000-seat new stadium in Stanley Park and intends to redevelop the existing stadium instead: a policy retreat that would threaten the proposed Anfield Plaza of shops, business and restaurants in a parish of boarded-up houses and Victorian decay.
"My perspective on this [takeover] is that it's not just about what happens on the football pitch," Steve Rotheram, the Labour MP for Walton, says.
"Liverpool Football Club employs a lot of people. The uncertainty has meant that things such as the Anfield Plaza have been held up, so there are implications for the wider generation of the area."
As John W Henry pushed through the deal in the London offices of Slaughter and May, McKenna's next stop was the Hillsborough families' campaign for justice centre opposite the Kop. He disappeared inside as a Danish youth team arrived in two minibuses to pay homage on the Anfield stadium tour.
Liverpool has its unchanging landmarks and the Hillsborough HQ is one of the most sacred. The posters urging supporters to "boycott The Sun" over its coverage of the disaster 21 years ago are as fresh as ever.
All across the club, a strong self-image is undimmed by the stresses of the Hicks-Gillett years. In the media room at their Melwood training ground, a remark by Johan Cruyff fills one wall: "I sat there watching the Liverpool fans and they sent shivers down my spine. A mass of 40,000 people became one force behind their team. That's something not many teams have. For that I admire Liverpool more than anything."
The curse is lifting. News breaks that Jamie Carragher, Mr Liverpool, has signed a new two-year contract. The weekend's clash of red and blue is looming and Liverpool's players can now no longer hide behind boardroom chaos. Across town, at Everton, the days of schadenfreude are ending. For the first time since the Hicks-Gillett regime began to unravel, David Moyes's team face a Liverpool side with no access to excuses.
At Everton's training ground Moyes tries not to be drawn into cross-town politics. "You're asking the Everton manager about Liverpool," he says, but sees the futility of resistance. Of the paralysis on the other side of Stanley Park he says: "I think this has helped the Liverpool players a little. Without it the focus might have been more on the team.
"The fact is that Liverpool is an excellent football club with great history -- but I don't know if they're getting rid of the debt, or about the promises on the stadium. We've got some debt, but nowhere near the level Liverpool are at. We'd be delighted if someone would come along and clear our debt."
So Everton, who are only one place above Liverpool in the table, feel a tinge of envy that their rivals are no longer a leveraged debt mountain, and can therefore at least hope to rejoin an elite that the blue half of Merseyside have mingled with but never quite penetrated. All Moyes can do is fall back on the evolution mantra.
"I think we've been getting stronger and our squad of players has been getting stronger. We've had stability," he says.
"If you look at the continuation of players we've not been shipping them in and shipping them out. Obviously not everything's been right, not every player you bring in has been good. Mainly we've had to be more studied, measured -- fewer players coming in, players going out for smaller values.
"Stability of manager makes a big difference. But there are expectations at Everton, too, and if you don't do well you're not in a job. The expectations at Everton would have been much greater if I'd had the finances to spend.
"I'd like that pressure. I feel I would enjoy that now. But I'd always want to be working at a club that was balanced. I'd hate to be spending money the club didn't have.
"I wouldn't live my own life that way so I wouldn't expect a football club to live that way. To have a dabble in the market every now and then would be nice."
A minor expression of the enmity is that the clubs tend to stage their Friday press conferences simultaneously, as a kind of mutual two-fingered salute, but this time Liverpool's is an hour later, to allow maximum time for the takeover to be completed. Reporters dash from Halewood to Melwood to find Roy Hodgson, Moyes's counterpart, telling a packed room "a cloud has lifted from the club today".
Later, in a more private conversation, the strain from being hounded by some Liverpool fans seven games into a new campaign, and five months after he took Fulham to a Europa League final, is apparent in Hodgson's defensive posture.
"I lost five of my first six matches at Fulham," he says. "Maybe there were [lower] expectations but I remember feeling fairly depressed and suicidal. I thought Fulham were a big club.
"I've been fortunate in my career that I've only been sacked once, which is not bad in 35 years. It will happen to me again if I continue working in football. I have to say that when I took this job, I took it thinking about what work I would have to do, and the thought of being sacked was never in my mind.
"Maybe you'll tell me it should be because we've lost three games already, and we're near the bottom of the league. So be it, if that's the case, if that's the way football goes.
"But if it's going to be that way then football clubs in the Premier League are going to go through a lot of managers, and there are going to be a lot of good-quality managers sitting out of work because they weren't fortunate in their first six or seven games.
"The first thing we've got to do is at the end of this season look back on it with some degree of pride. To do that we've got to get into the top echelons of the Premier League and we need a good run in the FA Cup. If I say 'don't worry lads, we're going to win the league', I think the fans, who are quite bright up here and know their football, will think that's just a stupid statement. To invest £300m of your own money you need to be pretty serious about what you're going into. I believe they [NESV] will be serious. I don't want to imply criticism of the other people. I didn't know them. I met George Gillett a few times. I had a brief conversation once with Tom Hicks. All I know is that they weren't popular owners and that they desperately wanted out of the club. Now I've got someone who desperately wants in to the club -- and that alone is a massive step forward."
The banks will be repaid, administration has been swerved and the Boston Red Sox's owners have pounced on a club who vie with The Beatles to define a city that has shrunk in population by 250,000 to 450,000 in the past 20 years.
But the mood around Anfield is one of relief more than jubilation. There is a scarring, still, a loss of innocence. To many, the club of Bill Shankly and benevolent "custodians" has been violated and the memory will not go away. Henry will be applauded at Blackburn's visit to Anfield next Sunday but he would be unwise to expect the Kop faithful to trust him. The pact between club and followers has changed.
Back in the Sandon, McKenna casts his thoughts back to the arrival of Hicks and Gillett. "There was excitement that we were going to get our share of the pie. Let's not lie. Chelsea had had theirs, Man United were way ahead and we wanted our bit of it.
"They came with words, they came with promises," he continues. "They sat in that press conference on February 6, 2007 and said there will be no debt at this football club -- 'don't compare us to the Glazer takeover at Man United, because there will be no debt'. Then they gave it the usual stuff about the tradition and heritage, and how they'd respect it."
He recounts the pair saying a new stadium would start rising "within 60 days", then friction with Rafael Benitez after the 2007 Champions League final in Athens. "Then it just began to unravel. The debts were loaded on to the club. Anger started to grow and it was beginning to get too much for some.
"All hell let loose when they were trying to sack Benitez and bring in Jurgen Klinsmann. A meeting was called here. Initially we were called Sons of Shankly but the name was changed to incorporate everyone.
"Karen Gill, Bill's granddaughter, gave us the family's approval. She said her grandad would have been proud of what we were trying to achieve. Rather than us sitting and moaning over a pint, we felt -- let's do something about it. Let's all say it together. Let's unite. It was the beginning of [Liverpool] supporters having a voice. People said: 'You can't do anything, they're billionaires, they're George Bush's mates'."
But the movement grew. They pressed the Premier League for tighter governance and became admirers of the German model of collective ownership.
McKenna remembers the day he looked at Hicks and Gillett and thought: "These just don't get it." They all hope Henry will.