There was a time, not many Thaksin Shinawatras ago, when a football journalist could approximate the economic might of a club's potential owner by popping down to his second-hand car lot and counting the "sold" signs. Alas, no more.
Now the poor hack must pour through financial websites, analyse accounts, dig up the credit ratings and cross-refer the commercial interests before checking out which national government may be, or probably isn't, backing the bid. The problem is that the information is often not available, or almost always not explanatory, and the task is hardly helped when the suitors themselves are rather less than transparent about who they are, who exactly they represent and what the hell they want with an association football club.
It is here where the Premier League's "fit and proper owner" test should be applied. But, as everyone knows, that is like applying the "scout's honour" test at the court for industrial fraud and espionage.
"Are you a fit and proper owner?"
"I swear upon the toggle on my chest."
And so, right next to his cookery badge, the scamp gets to affix one labelled "fit and proper owner".
In fairness, it would be impossible to stop them anyway, because in this world spinning on debt, what constitutes a fit and proper owner? The paper trail is infinite. And so we have a few Americans owned by the bank, which, in turn, is owned by the taxpayer? Do we care to call Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs an unfit and improper owner? Perhaps in these complex times we do. Who knows who we can trust any more.
What does seem certain is the very best a fan of the very biggest clubs can hope for is that a publicity-craving sheikh or an ego-crazed Russian will provide the billions now required to launch a serious assault on European football's higher echelons. The only other option seems to be the leveraged buy-out merchants – who are usually from the US – intent on racking up huge debts against the club's worth.
So which have you got? It is the question without an immediate answer. The proof is in the pudding, or at least when the time comes to splash out on replacing the pudding up front. Why are they here, what are they interested in? The scoresheet or the share price? That's all it comes down to.
Of course, at the outset, the wannabes declare the two go hand in hand, and it's true in the long-term that they would have to. But there is a certain type of financier not known for his love of the long term. English football provides the wham-bam such types crave, the quick knee-trembler with instant self-gratification. It is fair to say the knees of Tom Hicks and George Gillett have trembled at times during their two-year ownership of Liverpool; it's also fair to say that when they blessedly take their leave, they will do so with many millions in reward.
This is the backdrop to the depressingly familiar storylines of the past week, which has seen one investor assume the role of saviour, with many more on the soapboxes in behind shouting out their own altruistic routes to the promised land. In a few days Mr Huang has become the second-most famous Kenny on Merseyside, and in a few days the government of the People's Republic of China has marched its billions right up the Anfield Road and marched them straight back down again. Mr Huang is still on the scene and saying the right things (investment in the squad and, more shamelessly, sending Hicks and Gillett packing with just a few yuan for their treachery). For Liverpool's sake we can only pray he is for real.
There is no genuine method for discovering if he is or not, certainly not within the Premier League apparatus, which is accused of being antiquated but is, in fact, as up-to-date as any financial checking post. There is the five-man board of Liverpool FC, and many are pinning their faith in this quintet doing the right thing. That is a quaint notion in many ways and not simply because Hicks and Gillett happen to be part of the panel and, regardless of their debt, will obviously have the final say over whom they sell their shares to and at what price.
Yet even if they could be over- ridden, who says Martin Broughton, Christian Purslow and Ian Ayre will be capable of separating – as Broughton put it – the wheat from the chaff? They can only ascertain that the funds are in place and the plans are on the table. The intentions cannot be so simply measured. Perhaps they can draw up guarantees, but what will these be worth? Hills of beans are less inclined to shift their position than self-serving owners, and the law scandalously allows goalposts to go a-wandering.
Essentially, even if they can convince Hicks, Gillett, RBS and whoever else has an interest in the debt pile that Candidate A is preferable to Candidates B to Z, this crusading trio will only be doing so on a hunch. And, however vehemently the fans campaign and set up their commendable supporters' trusts, that is the thread on which all of our clubs hang. It's a hunch, a promise and, if the club are extremely fortunate, a whim instead of an economic agenda.
The Liverpool faithful may feel it is coming to the climax of a horrific chapter right now, but the danger is that the story will go on and on, with only the identity of the villains rewritten. They will never admit this could be a case of better the devil they know, and neither should they. But each and every club are ripe for the plucking, to whatever degree, and each and every fanbase provides rich and easy pickings because of their own dreams. And the great shame is the innocent are never made to realise until it's too late.
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