Sunday, 17 October 2010

I almost forgot. Football

Two weeks ago, Liverpool were beaten by Blackpool. It was a deserved victory for the Seasiders and it marked a new low in my football supporting life, at least as far as on the pitch action was concerned. Yes I had watched us being knocked out of the League Cup by Grimsby and Northampton to name but two. I even remember being beaten by Burnley by a fantastic piece of skill by Djimi Traore. And every cup final loss or defeat at the hands of one of the big three or Everton was always a body blow. But defeat to Blackpool said to me that footballing wise we couldn't get much lower. It hit home that we were genuinely struggling to even stay in the Premier League this season.

Of course, the start of the season was all hope and optimism. We had a new manager who had persuaded our two star players to stay with the club and even tempted the best free signing of the window to abandon his roots and move up north to us. But by 3rd October 2010 we were 3rd from bottom and knowing that our next game was against the team just one place above us, our neighbours across the park and the ones most happy to see us where we are.

It was also a two weeks gap that would see the most amazing events unfold at our club. The clock was ticking on the repayment of the owners loan from RBS. That clock would stop ticking on the 15th October with the potential of a bloody big bomb going off at Anfield and the realistic possibility that we would start today's game 3 wins away from today's opponents and points adrift from where we started the season.

But here we are. A bright but crisp day on Merseyside. The old regime has gone thanks to protracted court room proceedings. We've won more court cases than Premier League games this season. Maybe we should bring Lord Grabiner QC off the bench. A visit to the modern, even futuristic ground a mile away from home is scheduled for lunch time and once again our optimism is returning. Only this time it is a question of once bitten, twice shy. we are not prepared to be as optimistic as we had been at the start of the season. we know that the same players are still available to be picked. But hopefully there will be a weight off their shoulders that was adding an extra couple of pounds to every attempted pass or darting run.

We've also been here before with new American owners. This time the quote that has resonated with me is one from Thomas Werner. "I think one message I'd like to give is I'd rather under promise and over deliver." While that sounds all well and good, at least promise us something so that we can measure that statement in the future. Hicks and Gillette promised a "spade in the ground within 60 days". We measured that promise and it was found wanting. And unfortunately it is going to be at least two and  half months before we can see any benefit of being debt free, with it's impact in the transfer market.

Don't get me wrong. I am delighted that Waldorf and Stadtler have gone. I also like what NESV have done to Boston Red Sox If that philosophy is translated into success at Anfield then I will be delighted, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

One thing the last two weeks has done for me is reignited my passion for Liverpool Football Club. Under the previous tenure, I had started to lose my faith and even gone shopping during a match time. Not any more. I will be watching every game live, either at the stadium, at the pub, or where that's not possible ... well, where there's a will. I can't believe I was as nervous about the result of a court case as I was about watching a penalty shoot out out in Istanbul.

As in 1989, when we played Everton in the post Hilsborough FA Cup Final, I feel that the future starts here against our oldest rivals. Let's hope for a similar outcome.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Dummies guide to owning Liverpool FC

My last blog on Liverpool FC was exactly a week ago. I knew nothing much would happen as it was an international weekend so other than worry about how injured our key players would come back from duty, there was no football to be interested in. Did you see the England game? My case rests.

Talking of cases resting there was a small matter to be cleared up and as one of my favourite bloggers, Paula at Battling On, asked why, when there was washing to be hung out on a cold Wednesday in October, I was so happy, I had to write this post.

As I write, there is a meeting taking place that could decide the future of my beloved Reds. It should be the culmination of one of the most turbulent periods in Anfield history. And it may even have reported the outcome by the time I finish writing.

But that is the end game. Where do you start. How about 1959 when Liverpool appoint a certain Mr Bill Shankly who built Liverpool "... up and up to be a bastion of invincibility". Or how about 1977 when a diminutive Wearsider called Bob lead Liverpool to their first European Champions Cup success, or 1978 when he won a second, or 1981 when he won a third. In 1984 an Ordinary Joe not only won The European Cup for a 4th time but added a league and cup success to make it a treble year.

Maybe the biggest turning point in Liverpool's history happened the following year when Joe Fagin, in his final match in charge of Liverpool had to stand and watch as the team he had steered to a second successive European Cup Final had to sit in a dressing room as the Heysel Disaster, caused by a multitude of factors, but one of the biggest being the hooligan element attached to Liverpool Football Club, unfolded on the terraces outside. 39 football fans died because a wall collapsed in the crumbling stadium after hooligans in Liverpool colours, stormed the pens holding Juventus and neutral fans. This was the culmination of a period in which football hooliganism was referred to as "The English Disease".

So English clubs were banned from European competition for an unspecified period whilst Liverpool were told that when other English teams were allowed back in their ban would continue for another five years.

Liverpool were at the height of their competitive prowess at home and abroad. The European ban made the English teams only able to compare against each other, but this lack of external competition surely lead to a lowering in standards domestically.

King Kenny took the managerial mantle straight after Heysel and steered Liverpool to a League and FA Cup double in his first season. In 1987 he replaced star striker Ian Rush with the most exciting team ever. Barnes, Beardsley, Aldridge, Hansen, Houghton, McMahon. Beautiful football. If you ever get to watch the Liverpool vs Nottingham Forest game in April 1988 at Anfield I urge you to do so. Even Brazil couldn't play purer football.

Of course it was another April game against Nottingham Forest that had a devastating effect on the club, the community and the sport. The Hillsborough Disaster signalled the start of the end of Liverpool's dominance of footballing matters in England. Yes they still won the FA Cup that year and narrowly lost the league title on the final kick of the season at home to Arsenal, brilliantly chronicled by Nick Hornby in his novel Fever Pitch. Yes we won the title a year later but we haven't won it since. In fact the 1990's was a pretty barren period for Liverpool with an FA Cup and League Cup win all we had to show for over ten years. I believe that Hillsborough affected events on the pitch as much as off it and that deterioration was difficult to halt.

So we move on to 2004. Gerard Houllier had tried to restore the glory years to Anfield but had reached his peak thee years earlier. The manager who had just won the UEFA Cup was brought in to try to take us to the next level. Well he missed out the next level and went and won the European Cup for a fifth time. Then went and won the FA Cup in the next season. At this time, Liverpool, who had been a family run club, with numerous small shareholders decided that to raise the finance to invest in the club, including the building of a new stadium, needed to generate additional revenue, the club needed to be sold lock stock and barrel. So Chairman and major shareholder, David Moores and CEO Rick Parry, put the club on EBay.

So who showed interest? Well the investment arm of the richest people in Dubai wanted to buy Liverpool and a silvery haired old duffer from America. He didn't seem to have much of a hope but George Gillette asked Tom Hicks if he fancied helping outbidding the richest family in the middle east and low and behold, the two aging Americans suddenly found themselves as custodians of the historic institution.

Manchester United had previously been taken over by an American family, who had borrowed all of the purchase price to buy the club. This obviously meant that the first call on any profits was to pay back the interest on the acquisition loan. Hicks and Gillette assured Liverpool fans that this wasn't the type of purchase that they would make. They also said that there would be a "spade in the ground within 60 days" in relation to a new stadium to be built. They also promised a new look at the stadium to make it grander. Investment into the team was also top of the priority list.

So we made our record signing when purchasing Fernando Torres in the summer of 2007. All seemed well. But hold on one second. Mr Hicks and Mr Gillette were plotting. They wanted to get rid of the manager who had won the Champions League two years earlier and bring in Jurgen Klinsman who had absolutely no club management experience, just because they could. Well they couldn't. The fans showed their displeasure and the Yanks were shown to be plotters of the highest order. The only move on building a stadium was the production of spanking new plans. No muck was moved and no spade was spaded. Not within 60 days and not since.

It eventually transpired that the acquisition was actually leveraged against the club. A complex business structure tried to hide this fact with a holding company for the club being a subsidiary of another holding company which was the sole asset of another Cayman Islands company which was a subsidiary of an American owned company. Still with me?

Hicks and Gillette had borrowed the bulk of the money to purchase Liverpool through the Royal Bank of Scotland. Yes, that's right. The RBS, owned by British Taxpayers. The money for transfers dried up as the interest payments on the holding companies, sucked up all of the profits that the solvent football club produced. Rafa Benitez had to sell his stars to buy other players. In a typical move, Benitez tried to sell Xabi Alonso so that he could buy Gareth Barry. Whether that was a good football move is debatable. The move eventually failed and Alonso stayed for one more season but was extremely unsettled. What it did do was signal that the big spending days were over.

Football was playing second fiddle to the power struggles in the club. Somehow,Benitez managed to produce a team that challenged for the title and beat Manchester United 4-1 at Old Trafford. He was given an extended contract and the responsibility of overseeing all football matters at Anfield including the reserves,academy and all scouting. Unfortunately, the rot had set in. Alonso as sold to create a transfer fund and the players brought in could best be described as good players but  not the ones that were needed. A seventh place finish meant the end of the line for Benitez. I think that he had gone as far as he could with the circumstances that he was forced to work in and he had started to worry about the power struggle more than vents on the pitch.

In the meantime, Hicks and Gillette had struggled to be able to repay the debts that they had incurred in acquiring the club. They had therefore agreed with the RBS to sell the club. As part of this process a company called Barclay's Capital (BarCap)were appointed to proceed with the sale and the board was reconstituted with a new Chelsea fan chairman, Martin Broughton, was appointed to oversee the sale.

This process has been ongoing since April 2010. Fans have never known where they stand and have given the owners and directors short shrift for most of the last six months. Then last week the waste products hit the air con.

The club made an announcement that the club had been sold to New England Sports Ventures. However, within a few minutes Hicks and Gillette said that they hadn't agreed to the sale and had sacked two of the independent directors and replaced them with Hicks Junior (or Hicks Minor as he was referred to in court) and another of Hicks' associates.

Thus this weeks court action. RBS took Kicks to court to prove that the reconstitution of the board was illegal. They have said that only Martin Broughton was allowed to reconstitute the board. After a five hour hearing yesterday, the judge returned to give his verdict this morning. The verdict was damning to Hicks and Gillette. It gave the entire verdict the way of RBS and the Liverpool independent directors, gave costs against the Americans and didn't open an appeal route.

So happy days for Liverpool and the board met tonight at 8 o'clock to discuss the sale, which was complicated by another offer which came during the wait for the court case. But as I have been writing this post, news ha come through that the saga continues. Hicks and Gillette have filed for an injunction in a Texas court to prevent the sale being completed. The board have released a statement saying that they have resolved that the sale to NESV will go ahead as soon as the injunction is dealt with.

But for now we go to bed knowing that the end game has just got slightly longer. Well if something is worth waiting for....

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Out of the Frying Pan......

I know. It's been a while. And I haven't vented my spleen on the season as it's unravelled And now I'm here I feel my spleen in need of a major air conditioning.

But of course today is a day to talk turkey. In just over a months time the residents of our neighbours across the pond will be sitting down for their traditional Thanksgiving Day meal. Today could be the day that Liverpool fans give thanks for being rescued from one group of American's by another group of their compatriots.

But hold on one goddamn second. Is this merely a case of out of the frying pan into the roasting tray. Wouldn't we rather be celebrating American Independence Day instead. What is the difference between the Boston Red Sox owners and the Texas Rangers owners. What makes John W. Henry the man that Tom Hicks isn't?

When Tom and George arrived on Merseyside, they came with promises of a new stadium, investment into the team and the big promise of no debt on the club. Of course there is always the working capital debt that all major use to pursue their projects. Who can honestly believe that a new Anfield can rise from the foundations without borrowing to deliver it. The Emirates is as close to a blueprint to follow as you could get in this country. To build the new stadium, Arsenal had to borrow but they have done the sums and this debt is being repaid as promised in the same way that you or I would pay of our mortgage.

What really rankles is that Waldorf and Stadtler didn't use their own money to purchase our family. They borrowed heavily to acquire the club (the now famous acquisitional debt). NESV have assured the Board (the non yank ones any way) that the only debt on the club will be the working one. This doesn't necessarily mean that the debt goes away, but one option is that the debt will be spread across the NESV portfolio, so is assured against The Red Sox as well as The Reds.This flies directly in the face of the Hicks tactics of syphoning profits from Liverpool to finance his other interests.

What pleases me is the precedence that has been set with The Red Sox. They realised the link between success on the field and profit. If the team is successful then the supporters will want to put their hand in their pockets to support the team which can be invested to make the team successful which means the fans are willing to ......  you get the idea.

But how will that profit be made? Well it has been suggested that ticket prices will be increased to try to offset the costs and provide an instant return. Boston's famous Fenway Stadium has tickets that cost in advance of $300. But, it also has tickets that cost less than $12 providing a real opportunity to bring in the whole family for an affordable price for the majority of working class supporters.

It has been well documented that NESV, which is part owned by the New York Times, turned round Boston red Sox from a heritage brand with considerable history but no recent success, into a twice championship winning side. And although the company ain't skint, they are not in the same financial league as the Sheiks and Oil Barons. Wouldn't it be so much sweeter to win silverware knowing that we have done it without the help of a sugar daddy?

So I am, like has been said on a multitude of TV and Radio stations about Liverpool fans today, cautiously optimistic for the future. The much maligned Christian Purslow and Chelsea fan Mr Broughton have at last raised their head above the parapet and rather than being shot at by the masses, they have only angered their paymasters. That I can cope with.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

They're Off

I wrote a blog this morning to put down in words my feelings towards the start of the season. It was entitled Under Starters Orders with every intention of following it up with the post called They're Off. Little did I know at the time that it was likely to be the most apposite title I could come up with for a blog post.

So the season is up and running and we have gained a creditable draw. This season I have decided to forgo my armchair fr a view from the bar stool in an attempt to save money on a Sky Sports subscription. Maybe I'll even get a view from the stands occasionally.

Today's pub of choice was not as full as in previous visits but still with plenty of atmosphere. A few anti Liverpool (as opposed to pro Arsenal) voices were around but in the main it was a Reds pub. Plenty of TVs and yet still plenty of places not to get a good view.

So the game. Well I suppose I was as disappointed at the end as most reds fans, although looking back in hindsight I would think that a draw was probably a fair result. Arsenal dominated posession but didn't produce anything particualrly incisive, wheras we played well on the break but let ourselves be put under too much pressure for my liking.

What I was most disappointed with was the fact that we didn't start playing like we can until we were down to ten men. I was very optimistic when I saw the starting line up. It looked suitably attack minded. yet we didn't retain possession well at all and therefore didn't make the impact that we should have.

The best chances fell to us in the first half, but they should have been more bountiful. Ngog can score goals but he needs a higher ratio of chances than Torres so we need to be able to ceate them for him.

The Cole sending off was the turning point of the game. Should he have gone. I can see why he was sent off. It is one of those challenges that if you don't get it right it can look terrible. He had his foot raised and from a distance that can look dangerous. He wasn't helped by the Arsenal right back making the most of the tackle but it was achallenge he didn't have to make.

The second half was a football game of its own. It had twists and turns, a stunning strike by Ngog to put us into the lead and a terrible blunder by Pepe to conced two of the three points. Reina is still the best keeper in the Premiership and now he has his seasons blunder out of the way we can go from strength to strength.

So the positives from today were many. The attitude was excellent, particularly in the second half. Jovanovic looks a class signing, Ngog will gain confidence, our bench looked as strong as any we've had for a long time, we started to see the positiveimpact that Roy has had on the training ground (no zonal marking).

Negatives? - Well Cole will miss 3 games (pending an appeal) and he didn't really show what he can do. And we did take time to come out of the traps. With our next game against the financial muscle of Manchester City, it will take a 90 minute performance to put our first win on the board at Eastlands. But there were enough signs today to show that we shouldn't fear anyone.

Under Starter's Orders

On the 4th July this year I was among a throng of people stood on the concrete plateau in front of St George's Hall in Liverpool joining a growing voice that wanted to ensure a better future for our club. At that point, it looked like our squad was disintegrating, we were nowhere near finding new owners and the future looked particularly bleak. Whilst the thought of a relegation scrap wasn't mentioned, I did have dark thoughts.

Six weeks later and things have changed significantly. We now know that the sales process is making progress, although maybe not as quickly as we would like, but let's be realistic, it's more important to get the right owners than to get different owners. I don't want to be in the same place 12 months down the line, so I would rather take a couple of extra weeks and get the right investment for the club.

The transfer window so far hasn't been the disaster zone it could so easily have been.The outs have pretty much been the ones that most fans would have allowed to go, and although it still looks like Mascherano will go, out of the three star players rumoured  to have been disillusioned at Anfield, he is probably the one that most fans would sacrifice.

Gerrard and Torres have reaffirmed their commitment and on top of that, we have two free signings that would be well worth a few million quid. Milan Jovanovic looks every inch a Liverpool player and who with a Liver Bird on their chest is disappointed at the arrrival of Joe Cole?

In addition we have a new manager. He isn't Rafa Benitez, who built up a tremendous rapport with the fans, but Roy does seem to be saying the right things at the right times and more importantly doing things that we can believe in.

This is our first opening day fixture at Anfield since Gerrard Houllier was in charge and the opponents couldn't be much more difficult. We beat Arsenal in our first home game in 1996 and 1994 whilst in our record breaking season of 1988/89 when we went 29 games unbeaten from the straight of the season, we started with a 2-1 win at Highbury. Two years earlier, the last time we had an opening day game at Anfield against the Gooners, we triumphed 2-0.

So the history books shine brightly on Liverpool today, and, as with all football fans on the first day of a new season, my optimism has returned. Come six o'clock this evening I expect to be sitting proudly at the top of the EPL (OK Chelsea did quite well but they were playi9ng the mighty WBA. we've only got to get past the lowly Gooners).

Hopefully reality won't smack me in the face tonight.

Monday, 2 August 2010

The Emporer's New Clothes

Today has seen us catapulted into the media spotlight for non footballing reasons once again. I had quite liked putting the TV on or logging into Twitter to discover who we had been linked with in the transfer market, and even one or two of the rumours coming to fruition, Joe Cole and Fabio Aurelio being the notable inclusions in this list.

But today we are the talk of the city again. Who, how, why and when are the questions on all supporters lips tonight.

Who? - Well the first to put their head above the parapet seems to be Kenny. No not the King but from Hong Kong. Kenneth Huang has been outed (by his spokespeople I presume) as putting together a bid for The Reds. At first this morning, it looked as though Kenny was in the box seat and would have the deal tied up in a few days. Liverpool fans were immediately buoyed by the prospect of Statdler and Waldorf vanishing from the boardroom, never to darken our doors again.

How? - Well it sees that Kenny has a cunning plan. Instead of giving the yanks their dollars, he intends to do what all good bailiffs would do. Buy the debt, force a payment default on the owners and send in the heavies to remove anything of value that they own and ... well that is my problem. Normally the bailiffs see what they can get their hands on so that they can sell it on to recover the debt. Which brings us to the why.

Mr Huang has said all the right things today. Completion of the deal in time to invest in the squad. Build a new stadium. retain our best players. But where have we heard all this before? Oh yes, I seem to remember a certain Muppet saying that there would be a spade in the ground within 60 days.  Pledges mean nothing to me any more.Only action is good enough. And any investor will be judged on what they do, not what they say.

So when? Well the sooner the better. The one thing that can be guaranteed is that there will be no investment coming from Uncle Sam. So hope needs to spring eternal.

Over the course of the day the story has developed and it now seems that Kenny's wasn't the only pound in the frame. Up to 6 bidders have made offers depending on who you believe and we do seem to have had some concrete word from our Blue chairman on the subject who believes a deal could be done by the end of next week.

Meanwhile it looks as though Kenny is the front for the Chinese government investment arm (cue the repeat of the moral dilemma when it looked as though Thaksin Shinawatra was about to buy the club). George Gillette has a preferred bidder who may just be able to thwart Kenny's cunning plan by showing as a credible buyer to RBS and the whole thing rumbles on until H&G get their thirty pieces of silver.

So the next week or two promise to be interesting to say the least. I foresee claim and counterclaim, offer and counteroffer. Will we have new owners by the end of the transfer window? Possibly. Will they be the right owners is more to the point. We've worn the Emperor's New Clothes once. I'm not prepared to do it again.