Are the Reds really going to buy ‘the Reds’?
Commentators are outraged that China might buy Liverpool, but fans don’t care so long as Beijing shows us the money.
It’s been just over a week since the story broke that the Chinese government was in talks to buy Liverpool. Apart from various hilarious quips in the news – like ‘Are there any other British cities they’d like to buy?’ – and puntastic headlines along the lines of ‘Reds to buy Reds’, Liverpool fans remain none the wiser. What we do know, however, is that we’ll have bugger-all say in the future of ‘our’ club.
A little background. In February 2007, Liverpool FC was bought by two Americans, Tom Hicks and George Gillett. Both men were owners of big sporting franchises: Hicks had the Texas Rangers baseball team and the Dallas Stars ice hockey team; Gillett owned the Montreal Canadiens. Both appeared to have deep pockets and lots of experience running big sports clubs. A new, bigger stadium in Stanley Park, to replace Liverpool’s treasured home at Anfield, was designed and approved. At last, it seemed, Liverpool had the owners, nous and resources to compete with Manchester United and Chelsea. Heck, that year we even made the Champions League final again for the second time in three seasons.
Except that it was all fantasy. Hicks and Gillett had borrowed heavily to finance their purchase just months before the credit markets went pear-shaped. Then they fell out, but because of a clause in their deal, one couldn’t sell without the approval of the other. They were stuck with each other. The mood around the club became distinctly gloomy, not helped by the performances on the pitch, as Liverpool went from serious title contenders to distant also-rans in the space of a season. Bye, bye shiny new stadium. Bye, bye Rafa Benitez.
Even the Royal Bank of Scotland, that mostly state-owned supplier of over £200million credit to the Yanks, is rapidly running out of patience. Liverpool brought in a new chairman earlier this year, Martin Broughton, whose main job is to sell the club – a task made harder by Hicks’ declaration that the selling price is £800million. For a club that has only won a major trophy once in the past 20 years (let’s face it, only being champions of England or Europe counts as ‘major’ these days), and which desperately needs a new stadium, this asking price is farcical. As a now famous Anfield banner read: ‘Built by Shanks, broke by Yanks.’
So the fans, players and management are left in the lurch waiting for a ‘white knight’ to come along, pay off Hicks and Gillett, build the stadium, buy some decent players and bring back the glory days. That’s a big ask, especially as the chances of making a sizeable return on this enormous investment are pretty slim. The English Premier League may be the richest in the world, but only because a lot of fans are paying through their collective noses for satellite TV coverage and because some very rich people have decided to turn football clubs into vanity projects.
As an article in the UK Independent noted earlier this year, the Big Four – United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool – had a net debt of around £1.8billion even based on their most recently available accounts, for 2007-08. Things are probably even worse now. So United made a healthy operating profit of £91million that year, only to fork out £68.5million in interest payments. A disappointing season or two and United could start to feel the pinch. Admittedly, Liverpool’s situation is worse: it’s been a disappointing season 19 out of the last 20…
Enter Huang Jianhua – Kenny Huang to his mates – who has declared that he is on the verge of making an offer for Liverpool. At first, Huang was being touted as another franchise-owning, mega-rich businessman. But it turns out he’s a dealmaker, not a big player in his own right. As the editor of China Sports Daily told football blogger Neil Jones: ‘To my knowledge, Huang is a guy who has done these things: arrange some Chinese sponsorships for American sports franchises; purchase a Chinese basketball team; operate a secondary basketball league in a country where the primary league is a disaster; form a partnership with the Chinese Baseball Association, at a time when baseball essentially does not exist outside of the national government-managed sports system. Those are the facts as I see them.’
It has become increasingly obvious that Kenny doesn’t have the kind of cash needed to buy Liverpool. Hence the speculation about where he’s going to get it from. It certainly doesn’t seem to be coming from the Chinese government, which isn’t remotely interested in such a high-risk, low-profit asset like The ‘Pool. So, Kenny, sorry to go all Jerry Maguire, but show me the money. Huang is either a smooth dealmaker fronting some consortium with hundreds of millions of pounds at its disposal, a bullshitter or a Walter Mitty-style fantasist. My money’s on ‘bullshitter’, but we’ll have to wait and see. Nor am I convinced that the Yanks want out – they’d rather hang on and wait for someone who is desperate and stupid enough to hand them a profit on their ill-starred foray into football. In which case, they just need to string the bank along with takeover speculation until that happens.
What is striking is how little opposition there has been amongst Liverpool fans to the idea of the Chinese government getting its hands on the club. The media might have broken out in a sweat over the prospect, but the fans have just given a cynical shrug. The truth is that big-time football in England is foreign-owned, often by filthy-rich oligarchs or dodgy businessmen (and the odd pornographer). Amongst that lot, the Chinese government doesn’t seem out of place. In fact, given that the Chinese must be absolutely loaded thanks to making every consumer gadget and item of clothing we buy these days, the average Liverpool fan would rather their club was run by really properly rich bastards then just common-or-garden wealthy bastards.
Actually, bastards have been running the show for a long time. Let’s face it, we’re just talking about the scale of bastardness here. The bloke that ran a chain of butcher’s shops and won your club in a card game 50 years ago would have had dissidents hanging up from the hooks in his cold store if he’d had any dissidents to hang.
All this leaves us with one of the essential problems with being a football fan: it might be ‘your club’ as a matter of personal preference, but it isn’t your club as a matter of legal title. Unless you are happy enough to cheer on some team in the Timpsons Shoe Repairs Third Division (Southern section) and proudly vote on every major decision thanks to the 20 quid you invested via PayPal three years ago. In which case, you might as well play Championship Manager. For the rest of us, however, we’ll just have to carry on hoping for a white knight. And in Liverpool’s case, I haven’t spotted one yet.
Who’s the bastard in the black? There isn’t one, apart from Roman Abramovich. The rest of them are all in the red.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.
Duleep Allirajah is away.
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