Tuesday 20 February 2018

Liverpool have been cursed by hopes and fears

Questions remain before any talk of a new dawn at Anfield, says Dion Fanning

Liverpool's attempts to become the new Newcastle United were progressing well this summer until Kenny Huang came along. This week will reveal if Huang's involvement in the Liverpool takeover is just more of the pantomime, or if Liverpool can begin to think of a permanent revolution.

For every assured move Huang has made, there has been another which suggests that the bid is being made up as it goes along.

This weekend, sources close to the bid and those on Merseyside are not wavering in their conviction that Huang's plan is the only serious attempt to buy the club and that it has the means to do so. They insist it can deliver Liverpool from Tom Hicks and George Gillett while providing the funds for the club to compete at the same level as the clubs they need to match.

The China Investment Corporation remain in the background but until they deliver a more categorical denial -- and that is their normal practice -- than that attributed to a spokesman last week, it would be wrong to think they are not involved. The plan is to make Liverpool the foremost club in China. That is every club's plan but Liverpool may now have the edge.

There was more uncertainty over the weekend when, according to some reports, Huang had said CIC were not involved. This caused some bafflement among those close to the bid, who feel that the essentials have not changed from when the story was broken by The Times of London.

Liverpool need Huang's bid to stand up or things will only get worse. The supporters who welcomed Hicks and Gillett three years ago are, understandably, reluctant to do the same with the Chinese bid, no matter how tempting it is.

Huang and his people have cultivated important people inside and outside Liverpool but ultimately the bid will need to stand up to scrutiny, rather than excitable talk about transfer funds or leaving Hicks and Gillett with nothing.

If Huang is successful, he will become the first owner to use player power and the militancy of supporters to get what he wants. These have been key influences in edging support in favour of Huang and there are two ways of looking at his strategy.

The more sceptical says he is hoping that this enthusiasm hides the holes in his finances from the public. This is unlikely to happen now. Alternatively, he may have realised that any new owners of Liverpool need the backing of the key players on the field and the most influential supporters off it. So far, he has told them what they want to hear but that won't stop them questioning him.

There have been plenty of questions and they multiply with each revelation. Marc Ganis, one of Huang's men, promised a new stadium, the clearing of the debt and a substantial transfer budget. "What is not one of our goals is the enrichment of the existing owners," he said.

Liverpool fans love to hear this talk but there is a reluctance to be seduced again. Hicks and Gillett had big promises too. "No Liverpool fan will ever get stung on a re-mortgage again," one source on Merseyside said last week.

A new generation has been politicised by Hicks and Gillett and they don't want to be fooled again. They have also become more pragmatic. Liverpool fans are aware that whoever buys the club sees it as an investment. They do not need to hear about mobile phones with 'You'll Never Walk Alone' ringtones.

But the overwhelming urge -- and Huang knows this -- is to see Hicks and Gillett removed, possibly even humiliated. Liverpool's supporters will need to check their enthusiasm for this if Huang's bid is as flimsy as some are hinting.

There are other bidders and the suggestion yesterday was that Liverpool are hopeful more bids will materialise quickly so that Hicks and Gillett can leave with some money. Huang isn't planning it, but there may be some cash for the Americans so they can walk away quietly and with some pride.

Liverpool fans will find that difficult to accept given the shame and debt Hicks and Gillett have heaped on the club. It may explain why Liverpool, having spent about £2m, were able to generate such hysteria with the signing of Joe Cole.

New manager Roy Hodgson has been impressive during the summer, even if it was ludicrous for him to be given the credit for keeping Fernando Torres. Torres might have been happy to see Rafa Benitez leave but the news about the investment was the key factor in his decision, along with Chelsea failing to make as strong a move as he imagined.

Abramovich wanted Torres but Chelsea are no longer spending the money they once did, so once Torres was made aware of the takeover plans, he was happy to commit to Liverpool. None of this was a coincidence according to some. Torres' announcement created an excitable mood on Merseyside. And Huang was then revealed to be planning an audacious takeover.

This week will bring some reality. Off the field, Huang's bid will either stand up in the next five days or unravel. There was an urgency about his bid and a desire to get things done so Hodgson could spend in the transfer market.

At the moment, Hodgson still works with his old plans, or the plans of the club, as many of the players signed this summer were among those identified by Benitez and his scouts. On the field, Liverpool might begin to discover some more about their new manager and the reality of his situation. No matter how many players Benitez was responsible for signing, this is Hodgson's team now.

The players craved affection and he may give it to them. John Aldridge also praised him for celebrating a goal in midweek, contrasting it with Benitez's cool reaction at those times and saying supporters like to see "passion". Supporters like to see victory. Hodgson knows that too.

There is also very little realism among a large chunk of Liverpool supporters. When Benitez was struggling, they could not grasp the enormity of the challenge he faced in competing with Chelsea and Manchester United. Now, after some favourable news and the retention of Steven Gerrard and Torres, hope is back. Liverpool is cursed by hope.

Gerrard played in his 'favoured' centre-midfield role on Thursday night against Rabotnicki, with Joe Cole also in his 'favoured' position. If England learned anything from the World Cup, it is that allowing England players to do what they want doesn't work. But they can't do much else.

Cole was sensational against part-time opposition but Carlo Ancelotti's criticism of the player seems to match Fabio Capello's, who was reluctant to use him in South Africa, despite John Terry telling him it made sense. Gerrard's legs appeared to be gone last season and, if they do not recover, he will need to acquire the tactical sense and the willingness he has always dodged to be an understated performer.

If Hodgson is going to play him in the centre of midfield with Cole in front of him, these attributes will have to come quickly. It remains to be seen if Hodgson can instruct Gerrard to do what he wants him to do.

Liverpool were too despondent this summer to consider the sale of their captain, but it would have made sense if they could have found somebody to spend £30m on him. His retention was necessary to persuade Torres to stay but both now look to the boardroom to make them happy.

The end for Hicks and Gillett could be in sight and they are desperate men. They are trying to find ways of raising the price, aware that Huang has squeezed them out. Across the world, Hicks' finances are in smithereens. He is a leverage king in an age that has turned on debt.

Until they depart, Liverpool will have to console themselves with the knowledge that they have replaced Newcastle as the kings of summer. They have enjoyed themselves, celebrating new signings and insisting they can see the dawn. For once, there may be grounds for hope. But, as always, there are as many things to fear.

By the end of the transfer window, Hicks and Gillett could still be in charge or everything might have changed. The confusion continues. Liverpool can be anything they want to be. If only they knew what they wanted to be.

Sunday Independent

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