The Big Question: What does an abusive email tell us about the state of the Premier League?

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The Independent Football

Why are we asking this now?

Tom Hicks Jnr, a director of Liverpool FC and the son of the club's co-owner, Tom Hicks, sent an abusive email to a Liverpool fan, Steve Horner after Mr Horner had emailed him on 9 January, copying in a link to an article in the Liverpool Echo that discussed Liverpool's debts.

Hicks Snr, 63, and his American compatriot co-owner, George Gillett, 71, bought the club in 2007, largely with borrowed money, and as a result of this "leveraged" deal, the club is now saddled with around £310m of debt. When they arrived, the Americans also promised Liverpool's fans a new stadium, a project that has yet to get underway through lack of money.

The article that Mr Horner emailed to Hicks Jnr contained the line: "Liverpool's main aim for the next few years will be debt reduction rather than trophy gathering." The article also suggested that Liverpool's manager, Rafa Benitez, should buy a Lottery ticket and hope for the best if wanted a transfer kitty to spend on players. Hicks Jnr, a Texan, replied to Mr Horner, in an email: "Blow me fuck face. Go to hell. I'm sick of you."

The incident has highlighted a growing contentiousness around the financing of England's leading football clubs, and those clubs' relations with their supporters.

That's hardly a standard reply, is it?

Which is why Hicks Jnr has resigned his seat on the Liverpool board, and why the club issued a statement on his behalf saying: "I have great respect for Liverpool Football Club, especially the club's supporters. I apologise for my mistake and I am very sorry for my harmful words. I do not want my actions to take away from the club's future; therefore I am resigning from the board. To the fans and to the club, please accept my sincerest apologies".

How severe is Liverpool fans' grievance?

Severe to the point that there are regular protests against the owners at Liverpool matches. Fans' concerns are legitimised principally because the Americans arrived as self-styled saviours, trumpeting investment, a new stadium and a bright future, but have reneged on a series of promises. They "leveraged" their takeover and have failed to start work on the new stadium. Liverpool are meanwhile struggling on the pitch, lying a relatively lowly seventh in the Premier League.

They have also been eliminated from Europe's top club competition – the Champions League – and are in danger of missing qualification for next season. The Americans say they are looking for new partners and cash but there are no firm signs, yet, of them succeeding.

What has Hicks Snr got to say for himself?

Hicks Snr has not commented on Jnr's "mistake". He has, though, been sending his own direct emails to fans, telling one supporter that Liverpool would spend "big" in the summer and writing: "Our debt is very manageable (see Man U) and we never use player sales for debt service."

That last sentence was a sideswipe at Liverpool's great rivals, Manchester United, who were themselves the subject of a leveraged takeover by Americans – the Glazer family – in 2005.

But is Hicks Snr right?

United, and the Glazers, argue that is absolutely not the case, but beyond dispute is that United have gone from being a debt-free plc to being laden with direct or indirect debts of just over £700m, mostly as a result of takeover financing, within four years.

When United announced their financial results on Monday for the year to June 2009, they showed the club had paid £41.9m in interest on their debts in that year alone, and while they still made pre-tax profits of £48.2m, they would have made a loss if they hadn't sold their star player, Cristiano Ronaldo, to Real Madrid last summer for £80m.

So are United facing a financial crisis or not?

The Glazers insist they will restructure the debt with a cheaper-to-service £500m bond issue, and insist the club is in good shape with strong cash flows. Strong income is a fact. But fans including groups like the Manchester United Supporters Trust want the Glazers out.

A MUST spokesman says: "This bond issue is just rearranging the deck chairs and still leaves the club with huge debts which they expect supporters to continue to fund [through inflated ticket prices, merchandise etc]".

Are all Premier League clubs now foreign-owned?

Not quite. But if we define the 20 current Premier League clubs as the "big" clubs, there has been an influx of rich foreign owners, mainly since the mid-Noughties. Liverpool and United are wholly US-owned, as are Sunderland and Aston Villa, while Arsenal's largest shareholder is an American, Stan Kroenke. Hong Kong's Carson Yeung owns Birmingham, Russia's Roman Abramovich owns Chelsea, Egypt's Mohamed Al Fayed owns Fulham, Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi owns Manchester City, Ali Al Faraj from Saudi Arabia owns Portsmouth, and an Icelandic bank, Straumur, currently controls West Ham, meaning a majority of 11 clubs are controlled by foreign owners.

Are they all as indebted as Liverpool and United?

No. They each operate with their own business models and/or on the whims of their owners. For example Abramovich has spent some £700m since 2003 on Chelsea. The club is effectively an executive plaything, making consistent annual losses in the tens of millions, and lost £44.4m last year alone. Abramovich is rich enough to write off the £340m owed to him by his own club, as he did last month. Sheikh Mansour too has just written off £305m that City owed him. City lost £92.6 last year alone. Fans of those clubs, for now, generally feel their owners have bought, and are buying, success.

Elsewhere, Kroenke is generally prudent, Lerner is sensible and benevolent, Yeung is an unknown quantity (as a recent owner), Al Fayed is pragmatic (and owed around £200m by Fulham), West Ham's Icelanders are selling up, and at Portsmouth it's a whole different story – or, more accurately, pantomime.

Why exactly?

They started the year owned by a Franco-Russian businessman, Alexandre Gaydamak, who sold in August to Dubai's Sulaiman Al Fahim, who turned out to be broke and sold in October to Saudi's Al Faraj, a mystery figure who has never been to the club and is currently trying to keep afloat a club with untold, undisclosed tens of millions of debt.

Could a Portsmouth fan email the owner and ask what's going on?

No. Nobody knows anything about him, let alone how to contact him. Which might not be a bad thing, for him at least.

Do football club finances need tighter regulation?


* Aggressive foreign owners are heaping debt on treasured community institutions

* That debt is "financial doping" in performance terms, and financially dangerous

* Fans are ultimately paying, through inflated ticket prices and rip-off merchandise


* Football's always had owners in debt; they used to be local tradesmen with overdrafts

* The market will ultimately decide who's right, as clubs thrive or fail (then start again)

* Football these days is pure business, and in business debt is just another tool