Sam Wallace: Pompey visit reminds Liverpool fans clock is ticking to find £100m investor

Talking Football: Owners Hicks and Gillett must find £100m by July to avoid the prospect of a fire sale
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The Independent Online

As is the way at Anfield, you can expect that the Kop will tonight refrain from the more obvious taunts about their financially stricken visitors Portsmouth and, unless provoked, stop short of mocking them for their impending relegation.

Unless it is Everton or Manchester United, they do tend to have an unwritten rule about such things at Liverpool, one you would struggle to find at any other football club in the Premier League. Also lurking at the back of Liverpudlian minds tonight will be that little spark of fear that what has befallen the away supporters corralled in the Anfield Road end is just a version of what might await their own club.

The ghost of what was once Portsmouth FC is a warning to their famous hosts tonight of just how bad it can get when the wheels really come off: their crippling debts stand at around £80m. Liverpool have to pay £100m by July to avoid the prospect of falling into the ownership of the Royal Bank of Scotland, the key creditor to owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

The last month has been dominated by the crisis at Portsmouth, the £709m debts of the Glazer family at Manchester United and the posturing of the club's would-be saviours, the so-called "Red Knights". In the meantime, the clock has been ticking on the search for the elusive investors whom Hicks and Gillett can convince to pay £100m of the £237m RBS debt.

The latest contenders are two American private equity investors who are so high-profile that even the News of the World was unable to locate pictures of either of them. Robert F Agostinelli and M Steven Langman's Rhone Group have offices on Fifth Avenue, Rue Montalivet in Paris and Prince's Gate, SW7, but all anyone at Anfield cares is whether they have the money.

Otherwise, the Liverpool chief executive, Christian Purslow, can open his desk drawer, take out that list marked, "Thanks, but no thanks" and add Agostinelli and Langman to the bottom. Notable names so far include the Saudi Prince Faisal bin Fahd bin Abdullah al-Saud (just wanted to do a deal on football schools) and Kuwaiti billionaire Nasser al-Kharafi (vigorous denials issued).

But that will not change the fact that £100m has to be found by Hicks and Gillett by July or the prospect of a fire sale where the banks take charge and costs are slashed cannot be dismissed. There is the prospect that RBS, 84 per cent state-owned, may be persuaded to take pity on Liverpool but you have to ask whether football clubs, however popular, can really be treated as a special case any longer.

The Rhone Group is not a major player within the private equity industry and when applying the Keith Harris principle to it, it does make you wonder how serious Rhone is. The Harris principle – based on the publicity-shy stockbroker and self-styled Red Knight – dictates that the more heavily trailed a takeover/investment is, the less likely it is to happen.

It is worth pointing out that for all the Glazers' shortcomings, and the £23m they took in management fees from United, they had no problem completing the £500m bond issue in January. Liverpool are taking the equity financing route – offering investors 40 per cent of the club for £100m – but they must be concerned that the field looks so thin.

Inevitably, the spotlight falls upon Rafael Benitez and his players tonight against Portsmouth and then against Lille on Thursday as they struggle to prevent their season sliding into total irrelevance. Yesterday was one year to the day since they beat United 4-1 at Old Trafford, the result that did more than any other to suggest Benitez had turned the corner.

The misconception is that the biggest problem at Liverpool is what is taking place on the pitch. Of course, failure to qualify for the Champions League would be a crushing financial blow but, for all Rafael Benitez's bizarre transfer decisions, that would still be a corollary, rather than a prime cause of the debt sentence under which the club operate.

Benitez has done some pretty inexplicable things in his time – alienating the likes of Peter Crouch, Xabi Alonso and Robbie Keane, not to mention Alberto Aquilani – but it is ultimately impossible to run a club where the key principle is to pay off debt. United now exist in very much the same way but they started, from the Glazers' takeover in 2005, from a much more advantageous position than Liverpool.

Tonight, Liverpool fans will regard Portsmouth, with an administrator in charge and players personally meeting the staff costs, as the worst-case scenario. It would be hard to imagine English football's most successful club in a similar position but everything is relative. A Liverpool side without Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, struggling in mid-table would be every bit as heartbreaking for their fans as a relegated Portsmouth are to theirs.

You would not bet against Benitez's team having enough in the tank to beat Portsmouth to go into fifth place, albeit having played two games more than Manchester City and three more than Aston Villa. That might not be the night's most important business. If the elusive Agostinelli and Langman are in the crowd, you can only hope that they like what they see.

Ince misses the mark with public attack on former team-mate

Paul Ince recounted yesterday how much he "actively detests" Graeme Le Saux (below) because he "said something disgusting and despicable about my missus".

If Ince took a look at Le Saux's autobiography Left Field he would recall that before the incident in October 1997 he called his England team-mate a "fucking poof" on a number of occasions before Le Saux eventually snapped.

"I did not feel proud of what I had said," Le Saux wrote, "It was not about her [Ince's wife], though it was about letting him know what it was like to put up with abuse."

Ince's claim yesterday that he will "always want to rip his [Le Saux's] head off" says rather more about him than it does about Le Saux.

Collymore undeserving of Gunners' bile

I watched with utter dismay as a handful of Arsenal fans around the press box on Wednesday night directed a barrage of vile abuse at Stan Collymore, instead of staying to the end of their team's win over Porto.

Yes, Collymore has made some mistakes – which he has admitted to – but this was beyond the pale. Many of those who had a go did so from a distance of 15 yards or more as they hurried out the exits. Collymore, 39, was at his desk commentating for talkSPORT. You can only wonder whether they would be so brave under different circumstances.

Fergie must be relieved

Keith Harris (no official position at Manchester United, but he does talk about them a lot) has "reassured" Sir Alex Ferguson (11 Premier League titles, two Champions Leagues etc) that if the "Red Knights" take over, his job is safe. That's good of him.

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