James Lawton: It's still too easy for the wrong owners to land clubs in a mess
Thursday 07 October 2010
If the particular mess at Liverpool is indeed about to be cleaned up, one consequence should spread its way through a Premier League where a number of similar disasters may well be waiting to happen.
One did last season when proud old Portsmouth became a limping example of how any respectable football club, or any other kind of business, should not be run.
Even now the RBS bank is wrestling over a decision on whether or not to foreclose on Liverpool's American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, who like their compatriots at Manchester United, the Glazer family, were allowed to take over one of the two most successful clubs in English football with nothing to put down but massive borrowing – and eye-watering interest payments.
If Liverpool are now able to accept one of two offers which have been described as excellent and survive with the chance of prospering again at the highest level of the game, it is no thanks to the old board, which acquiesced so abjectly in the eagerness of former chairman David Moores to sell to Hicks and Gillett his inherited major shareholding in the club he professed to love so passionately.
Here was total failure for the Premier League's idea of Fit and Proper Person vetting – one that has been underlined with huge, bleak emphasis at each stage of Liverpool's slide into chaos and the wrong end of the league.
One question needs to be asked again by the Premier League: why did Hicks and Gillett first set their sights on Liverpool Football Club? Was it out of deep interest and admiration for the sports house that Bill Shankly built with relatively small amounts of money and a lifetime of passion and acumen? Er, no.
It was because they saw in one of the jewels of English football a carpetbagger's dream, free utterly from the kind of obligations they had faced in ownership of major league sports franchises in North America.
The shocking truth is that the Premier League is by comparison not just an adventure playground for the super rich like Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour but a small legion of chance and speculation characters who believe they are quick enough on their feet, and cellphones, to exploit the lack of any serious regulations.
Hicks, Gillett and Glazer would never have had the gall to bid for NFL clubs in the way they gained control of Liverpool and United. Glazer, it is true, has had considerable success as owner of the NFL Buccaneers but in America he has had to play strictly by the rules – or face biting investigation into his financial wherewithal.
The rules in the NFL are hard and specific and make nonsense of the Premier League's concept of how an important league should be run.
The successful bidder for an NFL franchise has to put up no less than 85 per cent of his own money and face the most rigorous of due diligence. Even when he has fulfilled this obligation, he is far from passing the post. Seventy-five per cent of league members have to vote in favour of his election as a new owner. If there are any doubts about his status in terms of wealth or character, the applicant dies on his feet.
When the Arsenal manager George Graham lost his job after allegations that he accepted a bung following a transfer deal, the circumstances were put to an NFL official after he had outlined his organisation's policy on all trading between clubs. Agents, he said, could only act for player clients and did not receive a cent from any other source. All deals were monitored by crack lawyers and accountants. When he heard how English football went about its business, he was disbelieving. After a long pause, he said: "Say what?"
There was a similar reaction yesterday when the details of the Liverpool fiasco and the United business model were discussed. An NFL official said: "It really is unbelievable the way this situation has developed. No, it couldn't happen in the NFL – not in a million years."
It is the difference between a league that cares about its image – and one that has stood back and watched one of its greatest clubs lurch towards an abyss.
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