Liverpool’s American white knights have become the focus of protests after less than a year, so fans including John Williams are dreaming of the day that 100,000 of them will buy out Hicks and Gillett
Sat, irritably, on the Kop at the recent home match against Sunderland, I hunched, as always, next to the man now charged with raising some £500 million for a Liverpool fans’ buyout from the current, unloved, American co-owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett. Rogan Taylor enjoys ambitious projects. Back in 1985, after Heysel, he formed the national Football Supporters Association to give fans a public voice that the press and the authorities might listen to, before later setting up a football MBA at the University of Liverpool. Today, he thinks this club are in even greater danger than back then, when the fans were labelled beasts and the English game seemed spent. “The biggest crisis in over 40 years,” he says. Since Bill Shankly first arrived, in fact, with Liverpool languishing in the old Second Division.
Now, it seems, only the supporters can save their club from humiliation and ruin. On the way into the ground Rogan was assailed by Kopites with urgent questions about his scheme to get 100,000 fans to stump up £5,000 each to buy members’ shares in the new Liverpool. “Where will the transfer money come from?” (From loans, like at any other club.) “Will I get priority tickets for cup finals?” (What? With 100,000 members?) “Will it be Liverpool people who own the club?” (No, ownership will be global, like the club’s support.)
These audacious ownership plans have been rapidly formed out of a combination of perceived necessity, real football passion and Rogan’s love of the “big idea”. Which did mean that some of the important details of the launch went a little askew: the website has been regularly crashing, and floating a scheme such as this one in the halls of a provincial university at five o’clock on transfer-deadline day is not exactly designed to capture the main sports headlines. But there was soon a fair media wind for the concept, even if Talksport was quickly spouting predictable bile about it: Rogan got on the phone and went for the presenter, on air.
Andy Burnham, the new Minister for Culture, Media and Sport, and ex-patron of Supporters Direct, was also quickly on the radio, on Five Live, to give his “full backing” to the idea. So is he opposed, like UEFA’s Michel Platini, to foreign ownership of clubs? Cue much fumbling and prevarication. After all, Burnham’s old boss Tony Blair was the main architect of Britain’s willing embrace of the global market place.
Burnham wants an effective “fit and proper persons” test for club owners, it’s true, but how might that have avoided the current crisis in Liverpool 4? Because when Hicks and Gillett first came calling, in 2006, they clearly had the money and made all the right noises about “caring” for the club’s traditions and about investing in the future. To many, they seemed “fit and proper” then and, despite recent problems, it is even possible they may still be now.
Liverpudlians actually like Americans: we have a long history of economic and cultural trade with them. OK, it was certainly naive to expect these hard-nosed businessmen simply to plough their own cash into the club. After all, if Liverpool had taken the initiative under the hesitant David Moores and built their own stadium even five years ago when steel prices were still reasonable, we would now be talking of large debt, but coupled with a major revenue jump – as Arsenal are gleefully doing at present. So debt is not the real issue: building a new stadium means debt (unless you get a supermarket to build one for you). And most fans will incur debt to buy a Liverpool share. No, the real issue is, do we want these distant and unaccountable outsiders owning “our” club, or could we do a better job?
There are some serious barriers to overcome. For one thing, promises of “democratic involvement” are not something that Liverpudlians typically warm to, in football or anything else. There is no strong collective labour tradition in the city, nor is there a historic lead from local politics to suggest that democratic involvement is likely to lead anywhere useful. Indeed, it was precisely when the national FSA started to mumble, rather too loudly, about “democratic structures” that their Merseyside founders started to move on. For largely the same reasons, there is no real history of effective ISAs or supporters’ trust activity here. Even recent protests were negotiated to take place after the match. So Taylor has his work cut out, but he can shake the foundations. And it may just be worth borrowing the five grand needed in order to ask Rafa – as a club owner, of course – what the hell is going on.
From WSC 253 March 2008