Passing the buck

As Liverpool approach further financial crisis some very rich men are insulting each other. Rob Hughes is concerned

Never mind Benítez. The real shock at Anfield these past weeks was the open letter that ex-chairman David Moores sent to the Times, addressing his disastrous decision to sell to George Gillett and Tom Hicks in 2007. Moores called on the Americans to step down and save the club from further humiliation.

On a romantic level, the epistle could be taken as the last desperate plea of an ex-lover, impotently urging the horny suitors of the club he still pines for to treat it with respect come the morning. Yet it also seemed like an equally despairing attempt to absolve himself of any blame for the ongoing financial havoc caused by the US pair. Moores, born into the Littlewoods pools empire, ended his 16-year tenure as chairman when he trousered a tidy £88 million during the sale.

Since then, Gillett and Hicks have saddled the club with a far less tidy £350m debt. In what often appeared to be a 3,000-word exercise in super-rich hand-wringing, Moores voiced his concern over their continued ownership of the club: “In holding on and holding out, they risk damaging a sporting institution of global renown and if they have any conscience or nobility they will stand aside and allow new owners to take over the club for its future benefit and that of its lifeblood – the club’s fans.”

All very commendable, you might think. He then detailed the reasons for hoisting high the For Sale sign in the first place. With more and more superstar players on superstar wages, football was changing quickly. And he could no longer provide the kind of investment the club needed. Moores and chief executive Rick Parry began hunting for investors in 2003, but it wasn’t until 2006 when they began courting Gillett. Satisfied that he was a solvent prospect, they were introduced to Gillett’s business partner, Hicks.

Here’s where it all gets a little alarming. Moores’ letter, while falling short of ceding any kind of apology, admits that: “To a great extent, we took Tom Hicks on trust, on George’s say-so. Gillett and Hicks produced a very substantial offer document containing all the key assurances re debt, the stadium, investment in the squad and respect for Liverpool FC’s unique culture, traditions and legacy.”

One thing it appears they didn’t pay due attention to was Hicks’ ability to burden other sporting acquisitions with a purchase debt. It’s unclear whether Liverpool fans were supposed to draw comfort from Moores’ assertion that “we went way beyond Google in our check-ups” regarding Hicks. But the closest he comes to a confession of inadequacy was the line: “After four years searching, we may have been too keen, too ready to hear the good news that George and Tom had passed their tests.” No kidding.

The real moot point of the letter seemed to be the terms of the deal itself. Moores insisted he signed up to a document that “pledged there would be no debt placed on the club”. But, and I confess to being someone who can’t differentiate between a hedge fund and a church fund, surely the Liverpool board was aware this was a leveraged buy-out? Hicks issued his own broadside by way of reply some days later, calling the letter a “weak attempt to deflect attention from the prior owner… In our agreement with the seller, no representation was made that the new ownership group would be debt-free.”

The long view of all this millionaire snipery, unfortunately, is that no one at board level seems to be really looking out for Liverpool’s best interests. There’s a strong case for Moores losing his right to gripe on the day he sold up. While the views of the fans are united against Hick and Gillett, the truth actually runs deeper. Liverpool FC have been making bad decisions for some time: allowing both Graeme Souness and Gérard Houllier to remain in charge long after fans and players had lost faith; a weak youth policy; a less than adequate Academy system; the undermining and subsequent departures of key players like Xabi Alonso and Peter Crouch; Andrea Dossena, for God’s sake.

Which brings us to Rafa. Initial reactions to his leaving have been mixed. Thanks for the good times maybe, but what happened to the rest? Phil Neal plonked himself fence-ward when he blamed “people behind him recommending him players, who let him down somewhat”. In a typical shot of punditry obviousness, Phil Thompson concluded: “A lot of his signings have not come up to the mark. And you live and die by your results and your signings.” Benítez is gone, but it’s still a bitter wind that blows around Anfield.

From WSC 281 July 2010