As the fourth pre-season under American ownership draws to a close Liverpool fans are still wondering just when ‘Snoogy Doogy’ might turn up to play in the new stadium that was supposed to open this month.
George Gillett and Tom Hicks make up the ownership ‘team’ at Anfield, allowed in practically unhindered by supporters – and the previous shareholders – because they were going to bring the stadium that would bring in Snoogy after Doogy. They were going to do this without putting any debt on the club.
In August 2010 Liverpool fans would be talking excitedly about what kind of view their new seat in the new stadium would give them, some of those fans in possession of a season ticket for the first time thanks to the increased capacity, which in July 2007 was hoped to be as high as 76,000 by the time the stadium opened. Over 30,000 extra seats and vastly improved corporate facilities would, with lucrative naming rights in place, bring in the kind of income that would give the owners their return whilst giving fans the chance to see their side compete on a level footing with their competitors at the top end of the table. The stadium would look brilliant; the good days would be back.
Cue the sound of the needle slipping off a vinyl record.
It is August 2010, but there is no new stadium. Anyone in possession of a season ticket for the first time got it because someone else gave theirs up in disgust – disgust at the thought of their hard-earned money paying off interest on debt Tom and George never mentioned back in the days of Snoogy Doogy promises. Players have to be sold before players can be bought, but most of the money from sales is never seen again anyway. Liverpool haven’t even spent £5m on transfers this summer, yet got more than that from the sale of just one player, Yossi Benayoun. Joe Cole may well turn out to be a Snoogy Doogy for the club – but he’d never have arrived had he still been under contract.
Those four summers under the Americans have included four pre-season training camps – and this one was the first one attended by either owner. Most of the big names were missing because of their involvement in the World Cup, but George Gillett still went to Bad Ragaz.
What a boost to morale the sight of Gillett must have been. At least his presence gave them something to laugh at. One example was recounted in the local Liverpool press at the weekend, a short tale about a squad member being stopped by the 70-year-old and asked for help. The grumpy old man was looking at the mountain bikes lined up outside and – according to the report – wanted to have a go of one. Just one problem: “Could you possibly tell me, which is the bike belonging to Jay?” the old man asked. He was talking about young midfielder Jay Spearing, but why did he want his bike in particular? “He’s a little guy like me; all the others are too big for me to ride.”
It’s a laughable tale for all kinds of reasons, including the impression it gives that it was someone asking for help because he was short of attention.
But the fact he was in Bad Ragaz at all screams of the little man looking for attention.
Liverpool had a game arranged against a team from Saudi Arabia. Gillett had been on a jaunt around Saudi last season after inviting a Saudi “Prince” to sit in the posh seats at Anfield. Photos were taken of George and the Prince in the director’s box, in the boardroom and on the pitch. Claims were made – and later strongly denied by the club – that the Prince was going to be putting his hand in his pocket to take a share of the club. Then in Saudi there were more photos as George met people who turned out not to have anything like the kind of money needed to get involved at Anfield. But the photos made it look like he was making serious efforts to find investment. And by making sure he was in Switzerland in time to see a shadow squad take on a side from Saudi he expected to be in more photos alongside more mystery Saudi figures and in a position to leak more suggestions that he had some serious investors lined up.
That idea was lost in a torrent of rain that saw the game called off. But the rain didn’t wash away his problems.
He knew that Martin Broughton had come to the club in good faith to oversee a sale process. RBS had extended the finance long enough to see that through, Broughton would ensure that the sale was as good as possible not only for the owners and their finances but also for the club. Broughton made it clear the highest bidder might not be the best – and therefore winning – bidder. He made it clear there was no reserve price. He dismissed the claims of Tom Hicks that the club should sell for around £800m.
Broughton was heading towards deadlines he’d set for bids to come in, he wanted the process over and done with by the end of August. Gillett certainly didn’t, not at the kinds of prices he knew would be bid.
Gillett had enough time to plan his trip to Switzerland and the potential photo opportunities; it was only the rain he had no way of accounting for. But when he found out without any warning that a genuine serious investor had bypassed him completely and gone straight to RBS he wouldn’t have had any time to plan his moves.
That happened last week, as alluded to on Anfield Road on Saturday night and broken in detail in The Times on Sunday night. Kenny Huang was trying to buy the club – but Hicks and Gillett weren’t going to get anything like the profit they’d been hoping for, if any.
Anfield Road had learned he had told the chairman and the bank he had a serious bidder lined up, a tale he only thought to tell after he found Kenny Huang had met RBS with his offer. It sounded like the old man was in a panic. The serious bidder was named as Yahya Kirdi, the man billed as a “former Syrian international” when he was first got linked with the club in April.
That link was shortly after Martin Broughton had been brought in to sell the club. The Syrian was represented by former Celtic player Andy Lynch amidst claims he had the backing of mystery Middle East billionaires. He disappeared almost as quickly as he arrived, the suggestion being he hadn’t the desire let alone the means to make a serious bid for Liverpool FC.
But George Gillett seems to have a short memory – he blamed Tom Hicks for his own comments about getting a shovel in the Stanley Park ground within 60 days of takeover – so perhaps he forgot about all this when he needed a name to throw at RBS and Martin Broughton.
But the desperation that panicked him into that moment of madness is far from over. Anfield Road has been informed that Gillett has tasked journalists in China and the US to dig the dirt on the man who looks like scuppering his plans for an undeserved windfall on the sale of the club. If he can sew just enough seeds of doubt in the minds of the decision makers he’ll feel this bid will fall through. The suggestion is that he’s trying to stall the sale process, including the work being done by BarCap with Martin Broughton – until the expiry of the current finance deal in October. At that point he’ll no doubt tell RBS about other serious bidders he has in the pipeline, and how he needs just that little bit longer to see it done.
Having tried and failed to sell the club for two years, but only at a price that gives them an unreasonably large profit, it’s quite clear that serious investors are few and far between. There was a suggestion today that when asked to name some of the supposed genuine bidders Gillett had actually said DIC. DIC made serious efforts to buy the club in the past, but even the most casual observer knows how laughable that idea is today. And also how desperate it is of Gillett to claim it.
There is now a firm belief that the only credible bid is the one from China, a bid that promises to see the club’s debt cleared. Money would be made available for new players before the end of this transfer window if the deal was completed by the deadline the bidder has set, and funding would be in place to begin work on the new stadium.
And claims that Kenny Huang hasn’t got the financial means to do this deal himself are coming from those who are desperate to discredit the bid – but Huang was never billed as the man with the money. The money is coming from a Chinese sovereign wealth fund.
The club will go on to be self-sufficient if the deal goes through and to plan. One positive of the current owners’ reign is the massive rise in turnover from commercial deals. This rise has been key to Liverpool’s survival at a time when the cost of servicing the huge debt has eaten up every spare penny the club has brought in. The expectation is that if this takeover was successful Liverpool’s popularity and exposure in Asia would increase dramatically and with it the revenue streams from those markets. Add to this the absence of any debt to service and a stadium bringing in extra revenue and the message is that this deal would bring all that was promised by the Americans and a whole lot more.
It is understood that the proposal put forward by Huang is now under serious consideration.
In time fans could go back to worrying about the quality of refereeing, laughing at the quality of opposition flags, arguing about formations and maybe, just maybe, agonising about how on earth they are going to get themselves to the European Cup final.
Liverpool fans have waited four summers for the true dawn of a genuine new era. That desperate old man mustn’t be allowed to delay that dawn any longer.
On your bike George.