Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks’ eagerly-awaited interview with Sky Sports News went out at 6am this morning, UK time, and is bound to attract massive attention. There’s little doubt that chief executive Rick Parry, fellow co-owners George Gillett and former chairman David Moores will be in contact with each other to discuss their responses, whether individually or as a group. And it would be a surprise if Dubai International Capital weren’t party to those discussions. This is big news, and although it still seems difficult to work out how it could make any difference to the final outcome of the ownership fight, everyone involved seems determined to be heard. But did we learn anything new?
The recent phase of publicity with regards to the ownership began with George Gillett speaking on Canadian radio, where the co-owner spoke about his relationship with Hicks having broken down, insisting that death threats made him decide not to sell to Hicks, who he said had run out time anyway. Last week Rick Parry received a letter from Tom Hicks, asking that he resign from his post at the club, a request Parry has resisted.
Today Hicks explained why he wants Parry out: “If you look at what has happened under Rick’s leadership, it has been a disaster. We have fallen so far behind the other top clubs. The new stadium should have been built three or four years ago.
“We have two sponsors, maybe three. We should have 12 or 15. We are not doing anything in Asia the way Manchester United and Barcelona are. We have a tremendous number of fans in Asia. So we have got the top brand in the world of football, but we just don’t know how to commercialise and get the money for it to use to buy great players.
“Rick needs to resign from Liverpool football club. He’s put his heart into it, but it is time for a change.”
The letter from Hicks to Parry was said to contain those same concerns as its reasons for suggesting Parry moves on before he gets moved on. That would be Hicks’ intention if he took over. Parry chose to respond by saying he was going to seek legal advice over the letter. Nothing further has been said by Parry on what legal action he might take. There are numerous reasons why he’s been quiet in that respect, but it’s quite possible he’s been told that there is nothing in the letter he can legally complain about. Certainly he would have a tough job complaining about the contents of the letter in terms of what is expected of him. The club have fallen well behind in those areas, and it’s difficult to see how Rick Parry could defend his role in allowing that to happen.
Ironically Parry probably agrees with the complaint from Hicks about how the stadium should have been built some time ago, and if he’d known how things would have worked out perhaps the club would have borrowed the stadium-building costs itself. We’d have then had the “Parry Bowl”, which when it was announced in 2003 was said could be ready before 2008. The club would already be making the increased revenue from the increased capacity.
He also pointed out how he felt Parry’s relationship with Benítez was causing the club problems: “You have to be able to work with the general manager and Rick has proved he can’t do that.”
Hicks mentioned frustrations he said Rafa had faced when Parry was unable to get transfers tied up, his job being to finalise the contracts. Claims Parry’s approach to getting such deals finalised saw the Reds miss out on key targets aren’t new, but until now the claims were never backed up with any real quotes. If true then it’s no wonder Rafa would be frustrated, and suggests his outburst post-Athens may have been aimed at Parry as much as anyone else.
But the fact remains that last November Rafa was close to leaving the club. Worries he was about to leave of his own accord have been given as one reason an approach to Jurgen Klinsmann was made. But whether that was seen by Hicks and Gillett as an “insurance policy” as claimed by Hicks or as a genuine aim to replace Rafa regardless isn’t clear.
But according to Hicks, Gillett seemed to feel there was a real issue with Rafa. Hicks explained that Gillett knew the German before the meetings took place: “George became good friends with him a year ago. I get this call from George out of the blue in which he says ‘have your people do their research on Klinsmann’. He and Rick set up the meeting in New York. I did go to the meeting along with my son Tom.”
Hicks says the meeting had been underway for a while when he got there: “Rick Parry had already met with Jurgen alone for a couple of hours when we arrived. We all then spoke to him for another four hours.”
The meeting was of course followed up by another at the Texan’s home in California. It was this meeting that was referred to by Hicks when he spoke to the Echo in January to own up to having spoken to Klinsmann. The interview followed reports coming from senior figures at the German FA and at Bayern Munich that the club had approached Klinsmann for the manager’s role. Hicks decided to own up to the meeting, a decision which is widely reported to have angered George Gillett.
Hicks feels he was unfairly given the blame for this meeting with the German. He was there, he clearly felt that Rafa’s future was in doubt one way or other, but he didn’t start the ball rolling he says: “Afterwards I told the truth to a reporter who asked the question and suddenly it is ‘Tom Hicks tried to get Jurgen Klinsmann’. George initiated it but we all participated.”
Some fans and observers have defended Parry for his role in this pursuit of Klinsmann, a role he kept from Rafa Benítez. It’s part of his job to attend meetings of this nature, and he’d be criticised if he learned of them happening but didn’t attend. And obviously the need to remain silent about the issue is understandable, so informing Rafa he’d been at this meeting could have seen him sacked. But Rafa was clearly still annoyed at Parry’s role when he spoke after the Blackburn game, and perhaps it related to Rafa expecting honesty from Parry at later talks they’ve had. Rafa will also want to know how much of a role Parry might have played in the owners becoming fearful over Rafa’s intentions. Parry said publicly earlier in the week that he was willing to talk to Rafa about it.
There is quite a clear indication coming from Rafa’s words, from those who’ve seen him at press conferences, that he has grown so tired of Parry that it’s now got to a “him or me” situation. He is said to have told reporters to switch the microphones off again on Sunday, before telling them just what was on his mind with regards to Parry.
Hicks says that he’d give Rafa a 12-month extension to his current deal, which has two years to run. This is something that is vital if Hicks does take over and Rafa is to remain as boss, because the speculation about Rafa’s future will not go away otherwise. The contract extension is no guarantee the speculation would end either, but it would help dampen it down a little: “If I were to buy George out, the first thing I would do is offer Rafa a one-year extension to make sure he is going to be here up to when we get the stadium. Hopefully we could have some success and then extend him again.”
Hicks also said that the manager and his squad were getting on with their jobs rather than letting off-field issues get in the way: “Rafa and the players have their heads down. They are playing great. We communicate regularly. I know he feels comfortable with the way things are going.”
And he also said he thinks Rafa has special qualities to help the club keep winning: “I think we will continue to have success. I think Rafa has unique skills, he motivates the team and we have some great players who are learning how to play with each other.”
If he’s getting on with Rafa, he’s not getting on with Gillett. We all know this, but he was asked to confirm if the relationship really had broken down: “At this point it is unworkable. We started this as friends but 50-50 is a difficult business proposition because you cannot do anything without your partner’s approval. We had a good honeymoon but, over a period of time, there have been issues, the stadium being the main one.”
Quite what the stadium issue is wasn’t clear. Was it an issue between the two of them relating to the stadium? Certainly we know that the stadium plans announced in July were scrapped on cost grounds. That resulted in both the Texan firm responsible for those July plans and the Manchester firm responsible for the older plans being given a chance to try again, at the new budget. The Texan firm got the nod in the end, but there were whispers at the time that Hicks was the only one who wanted those plans, and that Gillett, Parry and the club’s advisors all preferred the Manchester option. Other than that, and it’s of course nothing more than a whisper, there never seemed to be any actual issues with each other over the stadium. Of course by the time that version of the stadium was unveiled, the relationship between the two owners was already far from perfect.
Now that relationship sees George Gillett claiming he won’t sell. Hicks admits he can’t force Gillett to sell, and although he didn’t mention any veto in this interview he did point out that if Gillett didn’t sell that we’d be stuck in the current state of limbo: “If George doesn’t sell – because I am not going to sell – I guess we stay in this position that we are in. It’s complicated but it is going to happen although I can’t force George to accept. I am planning to make him a very attractive offer. If I had a majority on I could put more capital in.”
Hicks’ critics claim he hasn’t got the capital to put in, but this has never been anything more than speculation based on the general state of the financial world, particularly in the US, mixed with alleged tip-offs from finance staff at various institutions.
The reports that the end of May is the end of a deadline for Hicks to buy Gillett’s half before DIC can’t be stopped from doing so has gathered pace to the extent it’s now being reported as fact. Certainly I believe that DIC’s PR people are reaffirming that claim, and if true it would mean Hicks could face having new partners in the summer. But nobody else seems to be making the claim, and only DIC can say if 50% would suit them.
For all the complaints about the Klinsmann situation, the main burning issue is the club’s finances, in particular the debt. The actual debt the club is directly or indirectly responsible for is now £52m more than at takeover, but none of it was on the club’s books back then. Hicks says he wants to get rid of the biggest part of the debt on the club, and to get the finance ready for the new stadium. “My goal is take all the debt off the club except the working capital needed and get the permanent financing totally in place for the stadium,” he said.
He also explained how he sees the purchase of the club taking place if he’s successful. It will not be necessarily done with loans to pay off Gillett’s loans: “I want the finances of the club to be secure. I want to be the majority owner of a group that buys the club and I have got a 25-year track record of being a very successful investor around the world. The fans don’t like the fact that we borrowed a lot of money to buy the club but I will fix that.”
Again, Hicks’ critics will dismiss that claim, putting it down to being all talk. He said the right things – we don’t like that debt on the club, we don’t like the thought of not being able to fund the stadium – now it’s time to do the right things.
He pulled few punches when he described DIC’s tactics to get back in contention for ownership of the club: “DIC has no seat at the table. They are masters of the British tabloid spin. They want to stir the pot of Liverpool to create dissension. I did talk to Dubai about being a 49 per cent partner but it just didn’t work out. They didn’t share the same vision I have and I didn’t think they could become minority partners. I am not going to have any more 50-50 partners.”
If Hicks can get the finance it’s difficult to see how Gillett could both refuse his offer and accept one from DIC, so much depends on him getting that finance in place. If this end-of-May deadline is true, and Hicks fails to meet it, then the ball is in DIC’s court and depends on if they are willing to go 50-50 with Hicks, and if they feel they’ve got the ability to either work with him or force him out in such a partnership. But if Gillett receives an offer from Hicks tomorrow, that matches anything from DIC, Gillett’s choice will surely be to sell to Hicks or not at all. And the latter means more limbo.
Nothing in the interview came as a surprise.
Parry and Rafa clearly have problems working together, and if these problems can’t be resolved then it absolutely has to see the end of one of their careers at Anfield. In most cases fans have no feelings towards members of the board room, but strong feelings towards a manager. Rafa’s surely in the stronger position if fans’ views are to be taken into account.
Claims of some players being unwilling to work with Rafa if he supports Hicks have started to spread, but again it comes down to a choice. That’s if it’s actually true. Do fans prefer Rafa with five players missing from his squad, or Parry, a new manager, and possibly more changes to the squad? But whatever the fans prefer, it’s hardly their choice anyway. No matter how much any owner is prepared to listen to fans, a line will always be drawn somewhere.
The fact it’s got to this kind of talk is regrettable. ‘Rafa or Parry’ and ‘Rafa or Key-Player’ – is just not a great state of affairs. But the hate and the anger will continue to grow for as long as we have this stand-off. Whether claims or accusations come in the form of strongly-believed rumours or carefully worded quotes in the media they will continue to add fuel to this fire.
It’s understandable why Hicks gave this interview. He wanted to set the story ‘straight’. His version anyway.
He had a lot of stick over the Klinsmann admissions, and in fact got the full blame for it for much of the time. No doubt Parry and Gillett will have a different version of events, and we’ll probably hear them before the day is out, but Hicks clearly wasn’t happy at how the others, particularly Gillett, had got away almost scot-free with their part in those talks.
He also got much stick for his treatment of Rafa. Leading on from those Klinsmann talks and the orders to “concentrate on coaching”, the “Rafa pouted” quip in the US press showed him to have what looked like contempt for the greatest manager the club has had since the legendary Kenny Dalglish stepped down. Now he’s talking about how Rafa seems to appreciate him, and how he’s prepared to offer him an extended contract.
And finance was addressed. His “goal” is to take the debt off the club. The club’s always had some form of debt, usually in the form of overdrafts, as many clubs do, and perhaps this was the “working capital” he referred to. He implies that removing the debt from the club will come by way of him adding capital, and a new group of which he’s the majority owner taking control of the club. No details were given, but he seemed sure this would be what the fans would prefer. But questions will still need to be asked, including questions on the long-term structure of the investment. Putting the money in place to help a manager bring number 19 is just the start, we want to eventually be winning numbers twenty onwards, and we don’t want to be waiting until the twenties for that to start. Likewise we don’t want to see our club abandoned in the twenties, with all the potential realised and profits down to a minimum.
So, he addressed the main issues, and if he’s being completely honest then more supporters than before could be willing to give him a chance. But it remains, for now, just talk.
And talk isn’t getting us anywhere.