Liverpool flush with credit but the debt burden falls on Benitez
The £350m of debt on which Liverpool's future rests has finally been secured, though fans had grounds for feeling a little less confident about the club's destiny last night.
While further delays created jitters around Anfield and wrecked American co-owner Tom Hicks' intention to announce the refinancing deal at the same time as releasing details of the club's new £300m stadium, there was also no mention of Hicks' business partner at Anfield, George Gillett, in either of two statements released on the behalf of Kop Football, the holding company established by Hicks to finance the club. This did little to remove doubts about how willing Gillett had been to sign up to the new loan agreement with Royal Bank of Scotland and Wachovia, a financial services company.
But the deal, secured through loan guarantees rather then hard cash investment by the Americans, seems to cement their future at Anfield and will set Liverpool on course for a stadium similar to the one unveiled with a flourish by Hicks and Gillett last year – though the capacity will be 71,000 rather than a figure of 76,000 originally envisaged. That will hurt Liverpool fans who had been banking on their club at least matching Old Trafford's 76,000-capacity, when their new ground opens in August 2011.
Hicks, who has made much of the cultural significance of the Kop, will raise its capacity to 18,500 – 5,000 higher than the current level and 500 higher than was proposed last year. He was also careful to mention manager Rafael Benitez when releasing confirmation of the refinancing deal yesterday afternoon, after delays which were put down to the amount of paperwork involved in a deal of this size.
"Rafa is under contract for two more seasons following this season," Hicks said. "I am solidly behind Rafa and am confident of the team's competitive prospects under his continuing leadership." Not a ringing endorsement of a man he was prepared to replace with Jürgen Klinsmann, some might say, and Benitez was hardly passionate either when asked if he could see himself at Anfield when the new stadium opens. "I don't know, but hopefully I will be here tomorrow," he said.
Yesterday's statement confirmed a deal that chief executive Rick Parry and those at Anfield running the club day-to-day could have done nothing to prevent. It ties £105m of the £350m debt to the club and another £245m to Kop Football. The latter includes the £60m debts on Liverpool's books at the time of last year's takeover as well as the £185m loan the Americans took out to buy the club.
There are already signs of how the "club-level" debt which has Liverpool take on £60m necessary to kick-start the stadium and £45m for future transfers, will impact on Benitez. Hicks yesterday promised only "discussions" with the manager regarding additional players this season and a deal to keep Javier Mascherano at Anfield, an imperative as far as restless fans are concerned, is dependent on the £9m transfer which should send Mohamed Sissoko to Juventus. Benitez said he was confident that the possible three-year repayment schedule from the Italian club would not scupper it.
Hicks' economic model at the Dallas Stars ice hockey franchise involves creating a vastly improved arena and he seems to have similar plans for Liverpool. His project managers, KUD International, have previously redeveloped the stadia of the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco Giants American football and baseball teams. Despite rising steel costs, architects HKS will build the stadium they had originally proposed, minus 5,000 seats and an underground car park and VIP entertaining area which would have take nine months to dig out.
But the size of Hicks' task in turning the necessary huge profit he needs from a club which is not in the same financial league as Manchester United is awesome. While Sir Alex Ferguson has been able to sanction spending the best part of this week for his players in Riyadh, building up the United brand in yet another lucrative new market, Benitez has been reflecting on four successive league draws which, even he admitted yesterday, means championship hopes are gone for another year. "You have to be realistic," said Benitez, now 14 points behind Premier League leaders United. "I can see that people don't want to lose their hope but there are two good teams [United and Arsenal] at the top of the table and another good one [Chelsea] just below."
Benitez is so uncertain of his side's form that he will include Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Jamie Carragher in his squad to face Havant & Waterlooville in the FA Cup today and the way Everton are playing suggests an almighty battle for fourth place. "We just have to get into the top four and think about the next position after that," he said.
Benitez insisted that he has had recent contact with the Americans but their own next visit to Liverpool will be a difficult one, with the debt they have delivered leaving Liverpool fans of the mind that they are comparable to the Glazers at Manchester United. A spokesman said it was unclear when Hicks would next be on Merseyside.
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