Liverpool co-owner George Gillett made one of his occasional appearances on Toronto’s Fan 590 sport radio station yesterday, initially to discuss the impending sale of the Montreal Canadiens, the Canadian NHL franchise he has been the majority owner of for the past eight years.
Later in the interview the topic turned to the Reds, with Gillett making mention of a new shirt sponsorship deal that will be announced in the next 7-10 days.
It’s been an open secret that Carlsberg would be ending their long-term relationship with Liverpool at the end of the current deal because the Reds now felt that the space on that famous Red shirt was worth far more than the Danish brewers had been willing to pay.
Gillett didn’t reveal the name of the new sponsors, but said: “I think that people will be pleased and surprised. It will be one of the great worldwide corporations and it will be a sponsor that I think everyone will be both surprised and pleased to have on Liverpool, the most successful club in the Premiership.”
The deal is expected to be one of the most lucrative deals in the game, an impressive achievement in the current climate. It is expected to be worth at least as much as the £20m-a-year Manchester United negotiated with Aon, which became the most expensive shirt sponsorship deal in football history.
But despite Gillett’s words suggesting a more well-known brand would adorn the shirt, the strongest rumour remains that Standard Chartered are the new partners. Standard Chartered is better-known outside of its British base, particularly in Africa, the Middle East and Asia – markets the club itself is determined to make the most of.
Gillett’s discussion of Liverpool began with him determined to give the impression that his feud with Tom Hicks was over. He said: “I would say any prior thoughts or issues that people might have suspected that Tom and I had, there are no issues I am aware of between us.”
Perhaps Gillett had forgotten some of his previous words when he said “people might have suspected” there were “issues” between him and his partner Tom Hicks. Gillett himself told us there were issues, 18 months ago. Back then – speaking to the same station as he did last night – he said of his co-ownership of the club: “This partnership has been unworkable for some time. We gave our partner a long period of time to try to make arrangements to buy us out. We didn’t put pressure on him but he ultimately did not get to the finishing line.”
His March 2008 tirade wasn’t just against Hicks, after talking about angry Liverpool supporters he claimed he’d received death threats: “We’ve received many calls in the middle of the night threatening our lives, death threats. A number of them have come into the office. Frankly, I don’t think it’s fair for me to put my family in that kind of danger, so instead of thinking about selling, I don’t know, maybe we’ll think about buying.”
Gillett was unwilling to provide details of who he’d reported the alleged death threats to, but he was willing to criticise Hicks: “We have tried to be co-operative, but when your public persona is more important than the facts, that makes it very difficult to have a rational relationship.”
But now, according to Gillett, the relationship has changed: “We talk openly, we talk frankly, we talk frequently and I think we talk as one,” he claimed.
Gillett’s former ally Rick Parry left the club at the end of last season, and although he’s not yet been replaced Gillett was pleased with MD Christian Purslow: “We have a marvellous managing director who’s working with us as we conduct our search for a new CEO. He’s someone that we’ve known for some time; he’s very smart, speaks fluent Spanish, communicates well on our behalf with Rafa Benitez our manager and many of our players.”
Gillett was determined to give the impression that all was well at the club. Fans have been upset after working out that Liverpool’s transfer budget, not including any wages or contract extensions, was around about zero. Gillett mentioned the injury situation: “The club is in good shape; we had several injuries, serious injuries, that set us back and we got off to a bit of a rocky start. We’ve lost two matches.”
Liverpool only lost two matches all season last time round, but Gillett didn’t think it would matter as much this season: “The sport has changed over there because of the money that was spent to build Manchester City, so I think we’ll be able to – the sport will be able to – get away with a few more losses this year and still be fully competitive for the premiership.”
He also suggested that having a massive number of fans desperate to see the team but unable to do so was good for the club: “The club is in good shape, our backlog is up over 75000 now in a 45000 seat stadium, so the club from an economic standpoint is in extraordinary shape.”
It was at this point he mentioned the new shirt deal: “We will announce next Friday, I think, but in any event in the next 7 to 10 days, a new shirt sponsor and that will be, I think, that people will be pleased and surprised. It will be one of the great worldwide corporations and it will be a sponsor that I think everyone will be both surprised and pleased to have on Liverpool, the most successful club in the Premiership.”
Back to injuries: “So the club, I think, itself, is in very good shape – we’ve got three of our top players out with injury, on the defence, and they should be back within the next week or so, and we’ve got a match against Burnley on Saturday and we’ll be watching.”
Desperate to get his point over, Gillett increased his rating of the club’s “shape” from “good” to “outstanding”. He said: “So the club is in outstanding shape, economically it’s never been stronger.”
“Never been stronger”? Words are cheap, cheaper than expensive bank loans, and without any proof or even any accurate figures people will have to take Gillett’s word for that. And if words are cheap, Gillett’s word is worthless to most supporters.
Perhaps more information on these hints that Liverpool have cut their debt would help. No announcements have been made about what was previously a facility of £350m. How much debt have Liverpool got? Gillett didn’t say, just used more of his words to talk it down: “We’ve just paid down our debt very substantially. We have less debt per dollar than any one of the other major clubs in the league; the club is in [you guessed it] good shape.”
Gillett now claims he’s not looking to sell his half of the club. He was asked if he was sticking around for the long term: “Yes,” he said. “I think that’s probably the correct conclusion.”
Perhaps in case any wealthy people were listening in, he added: “You know if, er, if some, er, if somebody comes, if someone gets beamed in, (he laughs) who’s got bags of money, you know, things may change, but that is certainly not our current intention, it’s not something we’re worrying about now, we’re worried about running the club and running it properly, and running it for the fans.”
Was that an admission it wasn’t run properly before? That it wasn’t run for the fans? Some would say there was no need to point that out, that it wasn’t news.
Gillett was then asked what was going on with the stadium. If the world’s financial climate improved, would the stadium plan be revisited? Gillett paused a moment, then said: “Er, ah, let me say this, Roberto, erm, my partner Hicks said the other day, on or off the record, I don’t know, but, er, he made a comment that as the world economy gets better, er, if and when it does get better, we would certainly look forward to building a new stadium. I would second that.”
But surely that isn’t news. The club has maintained the stadium is only on hold ever since they put it on hold.
He went on: “It is… it is the most compelling stadium build – in the world – if we built that – the stadium – er, the scaled-down version of the stadium – when I say ‘scaled down’ I mean from a cost standpoint.
“We were going to build an iconic stadium previously. The world economy is certainly suggesting that wouldn’t be a smart decision even in a change.”
He was struggling to get to his point, to answer the question and let supporters know the truth about the stadium, and he’d already been warned the station had to cut to a commercial break. He didn’t finish his tale: “But in a normal world, building a very serious stadium in the 65000 to 72000 seat range, we would definitely look forward to that, at which point our fans can be very proud to know that er…” And with that the interview was over, fans none the wiser as to what it was they could be proud about.
A massive new sponsorship deal should come as a boost to Liverpool and its fans, but most Liverpool fans remain suspicious as to how the proceeds of the new deal will be invested. The club and its owners have convinced the banks to keep lending them money, they’ve persuaded new shirt sponsors to smash the previous deal and they’ve forced Real Madrid to pay top dollar for Xabi Alonso.
But they’ve still got much work to do to convince the supporters that, in Gillett’s words, they’re “worried about running the club and running it properly, and running it for the fans.”