Mersey sides

It's not the identity of the new Liverpool manager that concerns John Williams most at present – it's more the prospect of the club losing its own identity in a dash for cash

 To say that it has been an eventful recent few weeks as a supporter and observer of Liverpool is a little like saying Dennis Wise could have more friends in the game or that Porto’s José Mourinho could think a little better of himself. Let’s recap.  

First, under the perverse management of Gérard Houllier, wouldn’t you know it, Liverpool power into the fourth Champions League spot. The LFC accountants dance jigs, L4 rejoices and the Reds are only 30 points behind Arsenal: their sun to our earth.

Secondly, the perpetually downcast Michael Owen reveals that he is neither signing a new contract with Liverpool nor planning to leave the club on a Bosman. That’s clear then. Steven Gerrard, this season’s Anfield cherry, icing and cake, then hints darkly that things must get better – a lot better – or he might be off. Business is business after all.

Next, with Liverpool having hired an investments consulting company to scour the globe for cash to fund a proposed new £85 million stadium on Stanley Park, just when you need it up pops the billionaire Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, with an offer of a reported “no strings attached” £65m investment in the club, equivalent to a 30 per cent stake. How could one football club be so lucky? Not that Liverpool were the only club that Thaksin had in mind. Sure, he was a fan, but if he couldn’t make it work at Anfield, then wasn’t there another club on Merseyside that also needed some cash…? Any Prem­iership club, actually.

But there is more. A local man, multi-millionaire Steve Morgan, a “real” Liverpool fan, who was there at every old Reds European triumph, then comes up with another offer, a reported £73m, including £12m as part of an underwritten rights issue aimed at fans. Anfield democracy awaits; although Scouse builder Steve actually prefers to base himself in Jersey these days. Tax issues, financial complications, blah, blah, you know the sort of thing. And Morgan and the current Liverpool chairman David Moores are not the best of chums: cross words at the Liverpool’s last AGM, club going nowhere, etcetera. This bid is hostile.

Finally, arch-moderniser and generally civilised continental Houllier is ushered through the Shankly Gates for the final time after a typically dithering, painful and eventually “amicable” departure, eng­ineered (if that is the appropriate term) by the hapless Liverpool board. Gérard had cleaned out the dressing-room garbage and even brought back silverware to Liverpool in his early years in charge, but had since lost the plot – and the support of most Liverpool fans. And of saintly Michael. He had to go. Phew!

Most fans, naturally, focus on what happens on the field rather than on the financial malarkey behind, but this proposed Thai deal has made a few Liverpool heads turn. When I interviewed Rick Parry for a book The Liverpool Way last year he categorically assured me that this club would never go down the global corporate route; that Liverpool would always rely on local capital and would remain a football club rather than a “brand” or someone else’s business partner. I think he meant it and I believed him. Stupidly, as it turns out.

What has changed since? Well, the Abramovich millions have made Chelsea a major player, putting a big squeeze on those priceless European places. And Liverpool actually really have no option but to shift from Anfield to a new site, pronto. The old main stand requires a complete gutting which would probably mean a loss of capacity and income when all our main rivals will be coining it at much larger (Arsenal, Manchester United and Newcastle) or much pricier (Chelsea) grounds. The new Liverpool manager will also demand cash to bring in new players. And no one in the club wants to have to talk today – or any day – to that nasty and ambitious Mr Morgan.

Even now, with the Thai deal well in the public domain, neither Parry nor anyone else at the club has bothered to explain how or why this partnership might work for Liverpool or, indeed, the Thai people. The Liverpool board seemed to think that Thaksin’s own money would be simply pumped into the club from 6,000 miles distance with no other calls on the club, bar perhaps Owen and Gerrard doing a couple of helpful speeches at the forthcoming Thai elections and the setting up of a Bangkok LFC academy. Instead, the Thais have agreed the rights to sell LFC merchandise in Thailand, claimed two seats on the LFC board and have declared their capacity to veto “any large spending by the club”. This sounds pretty hands-on to me – and why not with a 30 per cent stake?

We have also learned that it is unconstitutional for Thai politicians to benefit financially from political office (there’s a novel idea), so instead of using private finance the state-run Sport Authority of Thailand will now fund 49 per cent of a new investment company and the Thai people themselves will be the major new investors in Liverpool FC, raising 51 per cent of the finance via a new one-off national lottery. This seems extraordinary. The general trend in global development in football is for European clubs to scope new markets in south-east Asia and elsewhere. But in this case a developing country and its people is effectively buying into control of a Premiership club. What is going on?

Critics here have pointed to human rights abuses in Thailand and the immoral and corrupt use of public funds by Thaksin in this crass piece of electioneering, plus what amounts to a major overseas investment of public capital with no guarantee of a financial return. Premiership clubs are usually a black hole for in­vestors: Liverpool’s profits fell 61 per cent last season. And in the age of the global sound bite politicians can make more of links with Michael Owen than they can of local anti-poverty programmes. In Thailand, law lecturers at the Thammasat University claim the Thaksin scheme is still unconstitutional and that other social projects in that country are much more worthy of these funds. One public law specialist argued: “Government is for looking after its citizens, not for doing business.” Ah, the pleasing whiff of idealism.

From here this looks a gross mistake for the Thais and an ill-judged departure for a club with very different traditions. Politicians and football are poor bedfellows at the best of times; this deal has the stench of grand larceny in desperate times. Maybe there are real benefits to our prospective partners. If so, someone urgently needs to spell them out. Otherwise, as a Liverpool website argued this week, this feels suspiciously like a familiar football case of: “These are my principles and if you don’t like them I have others.”

From WSC 209 July 2004. What was happening this month