Sunday 25 February 2018

Speculators still buying into Liverpool's rich tradition

Tommy Conlon

S upporters who are in it for the long haul will put up with poor performances, bad managers and lousy players.

But perhaps the abiding agony, the one constant source of fear, is the reality that you have almost no control over the thing you love. To be so committed, and so powerless, is a recipe for unending frustration, anger and paranoia.

Those who own the thing you love have the power. And occasionally an owner will come along with the formula that produces that rarest of phenomena -- a happy fan base. At Chelsea, the coalition of owner, manager and players has delivered a golden era for its supporters. They should enjoy it while it lasts and try to banish any lurking anxiety about the whims of a Russian billionaire who, like his £300m yacht, bought the club just because he could.

Up north, the Glazer family bought Manchester United even though they couldn't. At least Roman Abramovich spent his own money. United's financial empire is staggering beneath the weight of the colossal debt imposed on it by the £700m Glazer takeover in May 2005. The interest payments alone are said to have already cost £325 million. For five years the fans have organised, mobilised and marched against the Glazers, in a mood of escalating panic over the fate of their beloved club.

And last week supporters of Liverpool FC were left dangling in a similar state of worry and bewilderment as the despised owners engaged in a shabby courtroom battle to retain control of a club they too have crippled with massive debt.

Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr talked a good game when they made their move in February 2007. American billionaires, they variously owned professional baseball, ice hockey and gridiron teams. Hicks had made his fortune through his involvement in multimillion-dollar corporate takeovers. A rival consortium bidding for the club, Dubai International Capital, said Gillett wouldn't know Liverpool FC "from a hole in the ground". But Gillett promised that they would respect "the history, the support (and) the legacy" of the club. Except he didn't call it a club, he called it, naturally enough, a "franchise".

They promised too that the loans taken out to secure the deal, and the consequent interest repayments, would "not depend to any significant extent on the business of Liverpool". They broke that promise in spectacular style. "When I was in the leverage buyout business," Hicks subsequently said, "we bought Weetabix and we leveraged it up to make our return. You could say that anyone who was eating Weetabix was paying for our purchase of Weetabix. It was just business. It is the same for Liverpool: revenues come in from whatever source, and if there is money left over, it is profit."

When the then Liverpool chairman David Moores sold his share to Hicks and Gillett, for a reported £89 million, it terminated a family connection that had endured for generations. A core institution that had been nurtured into greatness through a century of support from its community had become a financial instrument for profiteering strangers.

In Reds, a newly-published history of Liverpool FC, the author John Williams states that the sale "seemed like an inversion of the entire Moores family project of long-term investment in the Merseyside football clubs and in the city itself over more than 70 years. This was a business deal typical of the new age of global liberalisation, one that plainly traduced the core tenets of the Liverpool Way."

The great irony is that the famed Liverpool Way had its foundation in less noble circumstances. The club was set up in 1892 by a voracious businessman named John Houlding. 'King' John Houlding was a rags-to-riches brewing magnate and Tory politician who had previously helped establish Everton FC before striking out on his own to exploit a game that was spreading like wildfire.

He immediately dispatched his lieutenant, an Irishman by the name of 'Honest' John McKenna, to the fertile recruiting ground of Scotland to sign up a host of players. The Liverpool Review reported, with some alarm, that football in the city was "rapidly becoming a national kind of business." And Houlding, like Abramovich over 110 years later, was prepared to raise the stakes. In Liverpool's first

season, players' wages would cost some £15,000. "Football appears to pay professional players better than running a bank," the Review noted, floating concerns that would continue unabated to the present day. "How long is this kind of thing going to go on? Liverpool is very fond of football, but are local devotees likely to pay for it at this price?"

That question was put to bed a long time ago. Perhaps what's happening now is the logical conclusion for an industry that was steeped in mammon from the beginning.

Williams quotes a contributor to the Liverpool fanzine 'Through the Wind and Rain', who had this to say about the takeover in 2007. "Haven't we been a plaything for the rich from day one, when we were formed, not for sporting reasons, but to provide John Houlding with a steady stream of income from both paying customers at the game and the sale of beer in the nearby hostelry?"

Money can't buy you love: they know the words of that song in Liverpool. This week they again felt the plight that comes with having too much of one, and not enough of the other.

Sunday Independent

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