Liverpool’s current owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, are said to be not only intent on sacking manager Rafael Benitez before the start of next season, but are about to announce they’ve gone back on their word regarding the new stadium.
The exciting plans for a 61,000 capacity stadium, to be possibly extended to a 78,000 capacity by the time it opened, are now looking likely to be shelved. In their place comes a slightly adapted version of the unpopular anonymous bowl design that was first revealed seven years ago. It’s said those plans have been adapted to a 70,000 seater version, which if true would require further planning permission to be applied for before building work could commence.
The new owners, it seems, are running out of money and not only want to take money away from transfers, but want to produce a stadium which won’t meet Tom Hicks’ description: “The Kop is the symphony stage and it needs to play to the rest of the hall.” The Kop will be one end of the bowl, not a unique part of a unique stadium.
It’s not long ago, August, that George Gillett was last heard speaking about the club. He’s been silent since, amid rumours of him falling out with co-owner Tom Hicks. The credit crunch seems to have hit the plans the pair had for the club, and the downgrading of their stadium plans is said to be above Rafa’s future in the agenda during their rare visit to the club this weekend. In August Gillett was enthusing about the supporters he now seems happy to disregard: “I’d never seen anything like it,” he said of the Champions League semi against Chelsea, “The noise and the energy – just amazing.”
Hicks said at the time that this noise and energy was what inspired the designs that are now looking like staying on paper: “The architects came to the Barcelona match and they got it right away because that night the fans were so loud and they knew they had to keep the Kop. They said ‘we get it’.” Then that famous quote: “The Kop is the symphony stage and it needs to play to the rest of the hall.”
Gillett even said that the new stadium was a big part of the decision the pair had in taking our club from us: “The stadium was a critical element in our decision to come here. It’s a necessity. We are in a sport without a salary cap. And if you are going to remain competitive, and Liverpool’s fans deserve to have a club that remains competitive, we have to have a larger stadium. We don’t have the economics of London so we have to have size.”
If the reports are true – and they’ve been rumoured now for a couple of weeks, slowly gathering momentum but hitting a peak now the new owners are in town – then the size will still be there. If they get the planning permission, which requires changes to the local infrastructure before it can be considered, the new stadium will hold 25,000 more supporters than the current stadium. But it won’t have the impressive looks that were promised by the duo with all their razzmatazz in August. Fans will be frustrated because it’s another sign of the way the owners have lost interest in their new toy.
Hicks showed in August that either he doesn’t understand how the transfer market works in football, or that he thinks the supporters aren’t capable of doing sums. Rafa wasn’t given any more money than he’d have got had David Moores stayed on as owner of the club, and had to rip up his first list of targets. He got the players on his second list, including Fernando Torres for £8m less than is usually quoted in the press. Hicks tried to make out he’d given Rafa everything he’d asked for, which wasn’t true: “I can’t go into any of the three stadiums I own without thinking how much people are paying to be there,” he said, quickly adding: “We want to give them value for money. We want to win the Premiership. Before we arrived we were a team that could do well in Europe but not in the Premiership. We now have the depth to do that. We have brought in the players Rafa identified.” Those words must have made Rafa choke.
At the time Gillett was still enthusing about Rafa, in particular Rafa’s work in bringing in players for the future: “Rafa believes in youth and we share that philosophy. That’s why Tom and I are so comfortable with him. He’s a very responsible man. He’s not a slash and burner. He said we needed four or five new players to be competitive and we went out and got them.” Again Rafa must have been shaking his head on hearing this.
David Moores and Rick Parry’s version of how the DIC deal collapsed differs from the story told by DIC in the aftermath. David Moores was made much richer by accepted the American offer rather than the DIC offer, and he accepted with amazing haste.
Gillett spoke of how he and Hicks “love sports” at a time when their spin was still working on many Reds: “The American invasion of the Premiership is a misnomer. Seven foreign groups have come into the Premiership and only three of them are American, and all three have been involved in sports before. It’s been presented as some kind of capitalist invasion, but I don’t think that is an accurate representation at all. We are different to the Glazers and the Glazers are different to the Lerners, but we love sports.”
Maybe they do love sports, they certainly have a lot of financial stakes in sports, but do they love sport more than money? Back in October Hicks claimed that refinancing for the new stadium – financing that also took all debt from their purchase of the club away from them and back onto the club, effectively giving them the club for free – was thirty days from being tied up. It’s still not been tied up.
The reversion to the amended older plans could save over £200m in building costs. As snippets of the story behind the change of heart leak out bit by bit it’s been suggested that loans for the other version of the stadium would have cost more than the owners felt would be viable. Not everybody is ready to lend money as readily as they might have been a year ago, and so their choices of lenders were restricted. The lower stadium costs for the generic-style stadium allow them more choices of lenders, and more attractive terms.
This story will be in Saturday’s press, and it will be interesting to see what kind of instant response Tom Hicks arranges this time. He was quick to get Rick Parry to deny he’d fallen out with Gillett recently, and quick to tell the press that Rafa had a month or so to even talk about possible transfers in and out of the club. He wasted no time in denying he was about to sell his share in the club. Will he be as quick in denying the stadium stories? Will he use the Echo to put his story out?
Oliver Kay’s report in The Times includes the following:
“Hicks and Gillett are back on Merseyside this weekend and it says much about the present difficulties at the club that their overdue peace summit with Rafael Benitez, the manager, is no longer top of the agenda. The word from Anfield over the past 48 hours has been that the club’s proposed move to a new stadium on Stanley Park is on the rocks again. With the global credit crunch forcing a rethink over their plan to take the club £500 million into debt, Gillett and Hicks are being forced to reconsider the jaw-dropping plans that they revealed in July. A minimum 60,000 capacity is a must, but the club are now looking to scale down those designs.”
As for Rafa’s future, the manager is still a sitting duck according to various sources. The owners are still said to be planning to oust him the first chance they get. They’ve still not denied that particular claim.
It’s time they put their cards on the table and admitted to the supporters exactly what they’ve got up their sleeve, unless they plan to become even greater absentee owners. Liverpool fans like honesty; they’d rather hear the bad news than some lies that hide the bad news in the short term. If the owners want the support of the fans in the long term they need to start earning some respect from them. More and more fans are becoming disillusioned with the mess David Moores made of the sale of the club.