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Who was greedier: Hicks and Gillett, or Liverpool fans?

The saga, it appears, is finally over. Having taken out a temporary restraining order in a last-ditch attempt to stall the £300m sale of Liverpool FC to New England Sports Ventures (NESV), owner of the Boston Red Sox, Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr backed down yesterday morning and allowed the transaction to proceed, although they are still rumoured to be considering filing a £1 billion damages claim in the English courts.

Liverpool fans can once again breathe easy, it seems, safe from a week with wrestling with the convolutions of the legal system. Its now former American owners, who had arrived amid a fanfare of optimism declaring their desire to build a profitable and successful future, are gone. In their place comes a new set of American owners, fronted by the cigar-toting John W Henry, who have arrived amid a fanfare of optimism declaring their desire to build a, er, profitable and successful future.

As a forty-year old Arsenal fan who grew up as part of a generation in which Liverpool were the dominant force in both English and European club football, a significant number of my friends are devoted fans of the Anfield club. Many of them are sober and intelligent people, other than that one obvious aberration, and all of them are considerably more knowledgeable about the ins and outs of both this week’s court proceedings and the tumultuous 44-month reign of Hicks and Gillett than I am. I won’t comment further on these particulars; they are comprehensively covered elsewhere on the web and in the mainstream media.

However, I would like to pose one question – okay, three – if I may. Has Hicks and Gillett’s behaviour been any worse than that displayed by (some) Liverpool fans over these past few years? Have they really been the only party guilty of the deadly sin of greed? And is the situation really as straightforward as the old spaghetti Western staple of the bad guy in the black hat versus the good guy in the white one?

Defending the indefensible

Watching from a safe distance, I have been surprised by the media-fuelled reaction to the former owners’ various legal attempts to prevent the deal with NESV from going through over the past week. After all, the sale was negotiated and agreed by the rest of Liverpool’s five-man board without their knowledge or consent as owners – and it is a deal which stands to see them lose around £140m in the process. If you were in their shoes, wouldn’t you be a bit peeved, and do everything in your legal power to prevent someone from burning a very large hole in your children’s inheritance? Or, to put it another way, if you fell behind on your repayments and someone was sent to repossess your car, would you hand them the keys with a smile and offer them a cup of tea first?

Some of Hicks and Gillett’s claims in court were patently weak, and the injunction they took out in a Texas county court was clearly little more than one final attempt to buy some time to explore every last avenue open to them, but it is all too easy to swallow the line about their actions being spiteful or lacking class. They were merely the acts of two desperate men whose biggest mistake was to make a business investment which they hoped to profit from, only to see it go horribly, horribly wrong. Were they greedy? Yes, but no more so than you or I when we buy a lottery ticket. (Remember, folks, the value of your investments can go down as well as up, and history is no guarantee of future performance. Here ends this public service announcement.)

Attacking the ‘innocent’ fans

So what about Liverpool’s fans, or at least the subset of them whose eyes lit up those 44 months ago when they naively thought their new American owners were Roman Abramovich, Sheikh Mansour and Bill Shankly all rolled into one? Were they in some way culpable? Are they now?

It’s difficult to say. Certainly in some quarters expectations were raised unreasonably high. Former manager Rafael Benítez was given plenty of scope to play the transfer market initially, although not to the same extent that Chelsea and Manchester United, and more recently Manchester City, have been able to. It didn’t take long before the mutterings started from both Benítez and some supporters about needing more money to compete at the highest level. Hicks and Gillett – who never claimed to be fans before being businessmen – refused, and so the downward spiral began, culminating in this week’s acrimonious events.

But were those complaining Liverpool fans being reasonable in demanding the owners increase their investment and jeopardise their by then already constrained opportunity to turn a profit? Of course, fans want the best for their club, but were those expectations – fuelled by a long, proud and successful history, and with pride wounded by the inexorable rise of the hated Man U over the past two decades – an expression of passion, frustration or simple greed? As an individual, if you put money into an investment and it starts to turn sour, the last thing you are going to do is throw even more money at it. Hicks and Gillett were not being stingy, they were acting just as any other sensible investor would do. In some ways, their biggest crime was merely that they just weren’t big enough fans of the club they owned.

With the former owners now dismissed, how will Liverpool fans now perceive NESV? They turned around the Red Sox – like Liverpool, a proud club with a great history but little recent success – through a sensible, measured business plan rather than by injecting the kind of immediate and massive investment which took place in the case of both Chelsea and City, for instance. Will that be enough for the fans? Or will they grow quickly impatient if a return to trophy-winning success is not immediately forthcoming?

Are (some) Liverpool fans greedy? In truth, only time will tell. But before the Anfield masses start to fidget impatiently in their seats in the Kop, they would do well to remember the salutary lesson of the last four years, set aside their emotions for the club and look at the situation through rational eyes. Where does passion end and greed begin?

I know, I know, it is easier said than done, and football – like all sports – appeals to the passion in people rather than their rational nature. But it is an interesting conundrum nonetheless, and it brings into question whether it is fair to paint Hicks and Gillett as ‘the bad guys’ with such unseemly haste. If Liverpool fans look at themselves in the mirror for a minute, they might not like what they see.

Don’t get me wrong. Even as a fan of an opposing team, I am glad to see Hicks and Gillett gone from the exclusive club of Premier League owners. I’m just not at all convinced they were the be-all and end-all of the problem. Whether the fans like it or not, it is a long road back to success for Liverpool FC, and one fraught with many potential pitfalls in the months and years to come.

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

9 Responses to Who was greedier: Hicks and Gillett, or Liverpool fans?

  1. Sheree says:

    Tim

    I think you’re spot on with this one. Football fans’ expectations, whichever club they support, nearly always exceed what can realistically be achieved within the club’s budget and the manager’s and players’ abilities. It’s rare for a team to exceed expectations.

    • Tim says:

      You’re quite right, of course, about fans’ high expectations. I think the problem comes when a new owner comes in, injects several tens of millions into strengthening the squad, and then the fans (or manager) expect that to continue ad infinitum, as if they are some kind of charity.

      Villa are a good case in point where the majority of fans seem to appreciate that Randy Lerner cannot reasonably be expected to continue to pour money into a black hole, despite O’Neill throwing his toys out of the pram.

      My fear for Liverpool is that NESV’s ‘sensible’ business plan is not enough for that segment of vocal fans who feel they are somehow entitled to several hundred million pounds’ worth of charitable donations. We shall have to see how this pans out. Even as an Arsenal fan, I have no great desire to see Liverpool torn asunder.

      • NobblySan says:

        Hi Tim, and everyone else…

        I’ve followed LFC since I was a nipper, and find the unrealistic expectations of some of my co-supporters a bit bewildering. But then again, about 70% of fans of any premiership club have their head firmly shoved up somewhere best left un-described when it comes to such matters.

        There was a comment left on the BBC’s 606 page yesterday saying something along the lines of “New owners, but same result on the pitch…” . Words fail me at times.

  2. Adam Stone says:

    As a long term Liverpool fan I just want my team to do well and am not really interested in what goes on behind the scenes as a rule.

    The problem is people want results straight away and while NESV will be good for the club in the long term, I doubt that they will bring immediate success in the way that the majority of fans want.

    Personally I am happy to wait, as it has been 20 years since we won the title, a few more years won’t hurt us now.

    • Tim says:

      I suspect most Liverpool fans share your view, Adam. The fear is the impact of the vocal minority who lack patience and expect everything to happen right now.

      We have our fair share of those within the Arsenal fan community. A loud minority look past the fact the club is financially stable despite the stadium debt, has had a top manager and great continuity over the last decade-plus, and plays a brand of football that is admired by many. What do they want? Sack Wenger. Ditch half the squad tomorrow. Spend, spend, spend. Of course, people are entitled to have high expectations and their own view on how the club should be run, but it amazes me how many people seem to think they could run a football club better than Wenger and the board. No one’s saying they are perfect and don’t make mistakes, but real life is also a little but harder than playing Football Manager …

  3. Steve says:

    “Watching from a safe distance, I have been surprised by the media-fuelled reaction to the former owners’ various legal attempts to prevent the deal with NESV from going through over the past week.”

    RBS had been more than accomodating. The bank bought them time, by allowing them to choose a board with the remit to sell the club. Hicks and Gillett agreed to this. The alternative would have been to lose the club earlier, and probably lose a whole lot more. Business is business. And as a bailed-out bank, RBS had to be seen to be doing the right thing.

    “Or, to put it another way, if you fell behind on your repayments and someone was sent to repossess your car, would you hand them the keys with a smile and offer them a cup of tea first?”

    No, but I’d have trouble complaining, especially if I had been given every opportunity to sell the car, and if they could have easily taken the car from me six months earlier. I certainly wouldn’t then try a $1.6 million lawsuit!

    Saying all that, expectations are too high – as they probably are for most PL clubs. If NESV can encourage patience, then they’ll be halfway there. Once the right infrastructure is in place (especially a stadium large enough to match demand and bring in more income), then it will be time to deliver. In the meantime, we can’t expect too much…

    • Tim says:

      I agree that RBS did everything they could to facilitate the sale, and you are 100% right that it was vital for them to be seen to be doing the right thing too.

      My issue is more with the media’s response. Did they really think Hicks & Gillett were going to accept a massive loss on the sale and just walk away? They were fully entitled to seek every legal recourse first, court of public opinion be damned. That’s not to say what they did didn’t lack a certain degree of class, but from the way they were categorised in the press you would have thought they were Osama Bin Laden and Darth Vader, not a pair of somewhat misguided businessmen looking down the barrel of £140m.

      The biggest success NESV can achieve in the medium-term is to maintain a positive outlook while managing expectations. That in itself would be a huge achievement, given that many fans are already chattering excitedly about all the moves they can make in the January window!

  4. tophatal says:

    Tim

    Those under the impression that Hicks was there solely to make Liverpool a success were gravely mistaken. When it comes to running a professional sports franchise Hicks ranks alongside Robert Maxwell and his tenure of the Mirror Group of Newspapers. He was merely a predator on the prowl who almost brought this club to the brink of extinction and bankruptcy.

    Hicks reneged multiple times on the terms laid out by RBS in their seeking payment and sought to go through the backdoor by lodging his action in the Texas Courts which had no power whatsoever or this jurisdictional proceeding .

    tophatal 🙂

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