Once again the media have found an off-field story related to Liverpool FC with which to fill some column inches and airtime. Thomas O Hicks Jnr, son of Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks, went to a local pub after the game on Saturday and had to leave sooner than he’d have liked. The details of what happened in the pub vary from one so-called “eye-witness” to another, but without some exaggeration it would never make such an interesting story.
The fact that Tommy was there at all should be the focus of the interest, not what may or may not have happened. Why would the co-owners’ son be at the game and then mixing with supporters afterwards if the family really were about to sell up?
The pub he went to was The Sandon; recently home to the first meeting of the Liverpool Supporters’ Union, provisionally called “Sons of Shankly” but likely to become “Spirit of Shankly”. The pub itself has played a key role in Liverpool’s history, indeed in its foundation, as you’ll find if you read any decent history book about the club. It was once owned by John Houlding, the founder of Liverpool FC, was used as dressing rooms for a time and even team photos were often taken there.
Trying to cut through the nonsense surrounding Tommy’s visit, it seems that there were no physical attacks on the owner’s son – despite claims that punches had been thrown in his direction. Tommy was reportedly advised against going into the pub so close to the ground so soon after the game, but with club security staff alongside him felt it was worth the risk.
We know that Gillett wants out. We know that Hicks has first shout in his shares – if he can meet Gillett’s asking price then he can buy them, regardless of who else is in for them. We also know that DIC are looking to buy into the club. By the middle, maybe the end of next month it’s certain that Gillett will no longer be a co-owner of Liverpool FC. What remains in doubt is just how big Tom Hicks’ share will be, and who – if anyone – he then co-owns it with. Hicks isn’t likely to be bought out in full because he sees potential in the club in the long term that means he’s not looking for a quick sale and a smaller but easier profit like Gillett is. It’s in Hicks interest to buy at least part of Gillett’s share, to make him the majority shareholder. But whether DIC are prepared to be a minority shareholder remains to be seen, and of course there remains the possibility that Hicks would sell part of his own shareholding so that he could reduce the personal liabilities he currently has in the club after the refinancing problems of earlier in the year.
Nobody will know the outcome until the paperwork has been signed and the cheques have been swapped. That’s why we keep hearing different stories. There are the versions that each party want us to hear, and also the versions that each party would like to be true. Hicks was in Dubai last week, as confirmed by numerous sources, and the word that seems to be coming out consistently is that there will be a deal in place by the middle of next month – it could even coincide with the 15th March anniversary of the club’s formation 116 years ago.
And all of the options currently point to the Hicks family remaining a part of the club’s hierarchy for the foreseeable future.
And that is why, almost certainly, Tommy was at the game and then went onto the pub. He knows that the supporters aren’t happy with his father. He also knows a lot more about what Gillett’s role in the events of the last year actually was. Gillett was painted as the good guy through the troubles of the last six months in particular – but was he? It was Gillett that already had business dealings with Jurgen Klinsmann, and although the meeting between both owners and the former Tottenham and Germany player took place at a Hicks holiday residence, Gillett was there. Gillett promised us “Snoogy Doogy”, watched by a stern-faced Tom Hicks just before Athens. Gillett was the man who wanted to be loved, claiming he’d be going into the Kop at some stage to meet the fans, clearly wanting to be a hero, perhaps needing that polish to his ego. Yet he is well-known to be the least wealthy of the pair and was given short shrift by former Aston Villa owner Doug Ellis when showing interest in buying the Birmingham side. Gillett clearly knew that they had not borrowed enough money to increase the manager’s transfer budget, and he also knew that he didn’t have a great deal of cash himself – so why make promises that he can’t keep? Was it Gillett who wanted to see Rafa out last summer, after Rafa’s public hints at a lack of transfer investment had started to change fan perception of the owners? Strong hints have been being made for some time now that Gillett was the one trying to oust Rafa, not Hicks.
The reasons Liverpool fans turned on the owners are more than anything down to lies, or what are perceived as lies, over the last year. Technically speaking, many of the statements made were worded in such a way that there weren’t actually any promises made. But fans are angry because fans listened to the spirit of what was being said, not the actual wording. “Rafa will be supported in the transfer market” means nothing in reality. But to supporters giving their trust to the new owners it meant Rafa would be given at least some extra funds that wouldn’t have been available under the previous owner David Moores. The owners said that they hadn’t put any debt onto the club, and in saying they weren’t like the Glazers they implied that they wouldn’t be doing so at a later date either. They never said there’d be no debt put onto the club, but by saying what they did they left fans believing that this would always be the case.
Added to the many broken promises, or implied promises, were the decisions that upset fans for the way they were done. Rafa’s job was offered to a coach who’d never managed a club, and had actually only ever managed six competitive games. Not only was it a bad choice of replacement, but one who’d been approached for the wrong reasons. The approach was made when Liverpool were unbeaten in the league and as it turned were turning around their bad start in the Champions League. The manager has been ridiculed in public, accused of “pouting” about being told he couldn’t negotiate transfers that would overall cost the club nothing anyway. After recognising the struggles he’d had since losing his assistant Paco Ayesteran, Rafa reportedly asked for a replacement in Sammy Lee. The money saved on Paco’s wages would pay for Lee, but again the story goes that he was blocked.
It wasn’t just decisions undermining the manager that upset the fans. Why unveil a stadium in July to much fanfare, no doubt going to great expense to get planning permission for it, only to neglect to cost it up properly first. Now more money had to be spent on getting revised plans drawn up at the price that should have been in place initially. It was embarrassing, it was worrying, it was easily avoided.
It was one of many mistakes, one of many errors of judgement.
And no doubt the reason Tommy was in the pub was because he and his father intend to stick around, and instead of sitting back in the US and letting the club tick over, it seems maybe they want to learn from those mistakes. There’s even a strong feeling that this could become Tommy’s major personal project. He’s quoted as saying on Saturday, “We realise communication is important but it’s a lot better now. I’d like to live here because Liverpool is a great place.”
Is it possible that he wants to know from the supporters just what it is that his family will need to do to get the fans back onside again? Are they willing to investigate possible ways of doing that?
Nicky Allt, the chairman of the Liverpool Supporters’ Union spoke about the incident in the Sandon. He’d not been there himself but was told later that Tommy had been drinking with just his minders, before a member of the Supporters’ Union asked him some questions, in an amicable manner. “I was quite surprised he went in there,” Nicky told the Post, “He stood at the bar with his two minders and was left alone to begin with, but then he was approached by a member of the Liverpool supporters’ union. He was being asked questions like ‘What’s going on?’, ‘How come the club’s loaded with debt?’, ‘Do Hicks and Gillett speak to each other?’, ‘How can the club be run from Texas?’ Then more people started butting in.”
Reports that seem consistent are that chants of “Get out of our pub” to the tune usually reserved for “We won it five times” were sung and Tommy made an exit before it turned nasty.
Tommy took a chance by going in there, because a lot of people have been upset. By most reliable accounts he wasn’t actually hurt. A small minority of Liverpool supporters have said it would have been fine if he was hurt. It wouldn’t though, what good would that actually do for the club? Tommy wasn’t at Anfield to pick up his dad’s cowboy boots and a few other personal belongings, they have people to do that kind of thing for them, not to mention quieter days at Anfield than match days. There’s a strong possibility that the Hicks family will remain involved at Anfield – as Hicks Snr himself had said recently, claiming they’d have a more active role in the future. So Tommy was here, perhaps, to test the water and check out just how hostile the natives have become.
Big decisions lie ahead for the people with money, after which Liverpool will have a new ownership structure in place, with or without DIC, with or without Hicks. And then big decisions will lie ahead for Liverpool supporters. We can’t have everything. Whoever owns us will want to make money out of us, and they can do that with a top four finish and even just a run in the group stages of the Champions League. The owners have still done nothing to change things for the better, so there’s still no reason for protests to be stopped or toned down. But if they come to the table, effectively, looking for ways to win back some support, is it right to turn them down flat? If we do that, they’ll retreat to the US and run us from a distance, taking what they can from us with no interest in silverware or honours. The top four and the Champions League run will do. Likewise we can never again open ourselves up to accepting them at their word. This applies to Hicks, DIC, a combination of the two or a combination of one or both and others. Bridges will need to be built.
Honesty and actions are what we need from the new ownership structure. No more broken promises, just honesty. Honesty about what will be done. And the actions to prove it.
UPDATE: Some more accurate reports of what happened than you’ll get in any other paper, from the Echo’s Tony Barrett who was actually there…
Liverpool Echo – I wanted to talk to fans, says Tom Hicks Jnr and Liverpool Echo – Tom Hicks Jnr: How it turned nasty in the Sandon