Nick Harris: Liverpool's dream partnership becomes a nightmare scenario

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Like a wronged spouse, George Gillett could not quite bear to mention his ex by name. And Tom Hicks is now his ex, rather than a partner in any meaningful sense of that word, in relation to Liverpool.

In an interview with a Canadian sports radio station yesterday, Gillett referred to Hicks as "my partner", but you could imagine the gritted teeth. He also referred to Hicks as "others within the ownership group", as if there are more than two of them who share Liverpool 50-50. There are not.

Most often though, in an extraordinary first public confirmation of the partnership's acrimonious break-up, Gillett refers to Hicks just as "him". Never "Tom". Or even "Mr Hicks". Not "my buddy". Just "him". The love, it is safe to assume, is over.

So how did it come to this, the end for George and Tom? And what does it mean for the future ownership of the club?

To explain the end we need look to the beginning and examine what Gillett, 69, the owner of firms that sell gourmet sausages, gardening products and ice hockey but who has a $1bn bankruptcy on his CV, saw in Hicks, 61, a Texan billionaire with a bigger paper fortune, with higher-profile sports clubs in his portfolio and with close links to powerful men such as President George W Bush.

What propelled them together was Gillett's intention to buy Liverpool for himself in 2006. The Liverpool hierarchy – the chief executive Rick Parry and the (now) former owner, David Moores – saw him as a non-starter. They did not believe he had the finance to do it on his own.

Gillett went away and came back with Hicks, the latest US tycoon transfixed by the Premier League's fantastic new TV deals and the ridiculous hype that suggests matches attract billions of viewers.

Together, with borrowed cash, they bought Liverpool in February last year. Parry cooed, prematurely, about the pair's "passion for the sport, real resources and a strong commitment".

Within months, an icy wind blew through the American financial markets. Gillett got a chill and to cut a long story short by October last year, faced with an urgent need to refinance loans that paid for the club, he realised it would be prudent to get out, especially if a quick profit from Dubai International Capital (DIC) was on the table. Unless he got out, he might be required to invest tens of millions of his own dollars, which he either does not have or cannot afford.

By November, George and Tom were on the rocks. Sad but true. Just another inevitable break-up of two US tycoons with no previous interest in football trying to cash in on one of England's most famous names. And that's when a third party started meddling in the marriage: DIC.

DIC had "previous", having been on the brink of a takeover after Gillett was sent packing the first time and before he came back with Hicks. At first glance, when DIC returned to the picture, Hicks thought he could woo the suitor, and offered a little slice of the Liverpool pie for a lot of money. No way, said DIC, which turned its attention to Gillett.

"A sweetheart" was how one Middle Eastern source described Gillett to The Independent. DIC knew Gillett wanted out.

Hicks went ahead with a £350m refinancing deal that did not carry Gillett's name or approval. Gillett stayed in touch with DIC and even agreed a sale, in principle, of his 50 per cent.

Hicks made it clear he would block that, but then explored ways he might take one per cent of Gillett's stake, with 49 per cent going to DIC. On 10 March, Hicks called that off. He was unhappy that DIC wanted to run a Hicks-DIC partnership by committee. Hicks and DIC have not spoken since.

Tom and George's relationship festered. So the latter went on Canadian radio and talked.

It is instructive to examine key phrases. He and his son, Foster, he says, will be in England for the Champions League quarter-final against Arsenal. "By God we're going to try to be a positive influence on this process," Gillett says. He talks of "him" (Hicks) as being the root cause of fans' animosity. Gillett says he has been invited by fans "to come to the famous pubs to be their guest".

George is distancing himself from Tom as quickly as he can. He even says, cryptically: "Instead of thinking about selling, I don't know, maybe we will think about buying."

What does it all mean? It is easy – and tempting – to imagine DIC pulling the strings. Not so, a source insisted to The Independent. DIC did not know the interview would happen. "But George does want an exit from the whole thing that says, 'I'm not such a bad guy after all, that's Tom,'" the source said.

The upshot? Tom and George are over but neither wants to sell their share of the house to the other. George wants to sell, but not to Tom. Tom wants no sale at all. The icy wind still blows.

And DIC still waits in the wings, a shoulder to cry on, and sell to, as and when.

Gillett-speak: George's take on the current situation

"Our goal from the beginning was to try to be supportive and to add to the lustre of this magnificent storied franchise – and what has happened this year has not done that."

"Our loss to Man U last Sunday 3-0 was a heartbreaker because we played 11 on 10. We had Mascherano thrown off when it's unclear what happened, but clearly they sent out a referee with a no-tolerance programme and we happened to make the wrong comment to the referee at the wrong time."

"I've had several conversations with fans who represent important blog sites and so forth and they are inviting me to come to the famous pubs to be their guest and see how they sing their songs, or get ready to sing their songs. And there's none of the hostility or animosity that seems to have been directed at others within the ownership group."

Comments