The Last Word: Shining knight must turn his jousting stick on evil overlords
New Liverpool chairman may be on the fans' side but until he somehow shifts the power from cash-conscious US owners, nothing can change
Sunday 18 April 2010
Fans of Liverpool Football Club have slowly been realising these last two days that not every knight in shining armour arrives on the battlefield to spare the masses their torture. Indeed, very few do. The necessity of earning a living dictates that most knights turn up at the behest of the barons with bloody orders to carry out.
Still, Martin Broughton did look awfully dashing as he appeared on the brow of the hill during Friday's well-choreographed announcement that the hated Americans of Anfield were at last selling up. Here he was, a saviour who would not just find owners to return the club to their rightful position of fourth place in the Premier League, but in his own words, "find the right new owners".
In those euphoric moments it was possible to forget that Mr Broughton happens to be chairman of a British Airways organisation not unanimously popular with its workforce, and so glimpse a future where the Liverpool faithful would have nobody else to blame for being beaten by Portsmouth, Wigan and Reading except the manager and players. What a blessed relief to all that would be.
But then the question began to nag: "right new owners" for whom? Yes, Mr Broughton is the "independent" chairman and heads a five-man board, including Tom Hicks and George Gillett. But when it comes to who they will or will not sell up to, Hicks and Gillett retain the rights of any owner. And every aspect of this pair's tenure to date suggests that the decision will primarily concern the finance. If not solely.
Let's say two offers land on Mr Broughton's in-tray (which, it is surely pertinent to mention, will be situated in his London office). The first is for the realistic valuation of £400m, the second is for the Hicks and Gillett valuation of £500m-plus. The first comes from a benefactor with brimming pockets to fund the mothballed stadium project and invest in the dusty old team. The second comes from a benefactor with rattling pockets who says he will raise the funding for the stadium and the team.
Judged by his fan-friendly philanthropic comments, Mr Broughton would ask the owners to sign up for the first deal. Yet why should Hicks and Gillett oblige? They have long since realised their legacy on Merseyside is doomed to rest in the slime below the sewer rats and are probably long since past caring. As far as I'm aware, neither is planning on purchasing holiday bonds in the Southport chalets.
No, Hicks and Gillett would be well within their rights to insist that the purchaser's suitability be judged by the Premier League's fit and proper owner test. Which wouldn't be the most nervous of waits. A bit like waiting for one's Reader's Digest subscription to be accepted.
Mr Broughton would be powerless in this respect, and essentially already is. It's all very well presenting himself as a caring football man with only the best interests of the club and its fans in mind as he oversees the sale. I am sure he will, as promised, "make it very clear what the buyer needs to do from the point of view of the supporters". But isn't he raising the hopes a little too unrealistically? And is it really fair to be doing so to a fanbase desperate for any sort of fresh start? Particularly as Mr Broughton is presumably being paid by the two men who are the scourge of that said fanbase?
But then perhaps this knight is ready to turn his jousting stick on the evil overlords. It would not be the first time. When Mr Broughton was chairman of British American Tobacco he declared a wish never to see his own children smoke. While some might query the morality of securing profits on the smoking addiction of other people's children, Mr Broughton's internal blow against the tobacco industry could only be admired. It must have cost the company millions but saved thousands of lives in the process.
Is Mr Broughton prepared to take the same mutinous stance at Anfield? And even if he is, is there any chance his pre-eminence as a mediator alone could ensure the right owner taking precedence over the right price? In truth: no. The best hope he has – that Anfield has – is for a sheikh to emerge with the ego and the wallet to satisfy everybody. In that sense, nothing at all has changed at Liverpool Football Club. Friday's slick PR operation just made it seem that way.
Beeb kicks fans in crown jewels
So the real rugby fans of England and Wales have been kicked in the crown jewels once again. Fingers have been pointed at the respective unions for pandering to television but what about TV itself? And, more pointedly, what about the BBC itself?
As a public service provider, what right has the Beeb to cajole the Welsh Rugby Union and Rugby Football Union into ripping up more than 100 years of tradition and agreeing to open the 2011 Six Nations with a Friday night fixture? The BBC has presumably done so in the belief more will tune in. Fair enough. But do they appreciate that the thousands of supporters who will now not be able to travel to the game are also licence-fee payers? Do they appreciate that the Six Nations, which holds pride of place in their pathetically dwindling sports schedule, would be nothing without the attending audience? Why does the BBC feel the need to attract higher ratings anyway? They don't have advertisers. Just an endless row of paranoid managers obsessed with the "network share".
But what makes it all the more sickening, if not immoral, is that very soon the Six Nations matches in Wales will be protected under the "Crown Jewels" act. Therefore the Beeb will get a free run against Sky to screen the Millennium Stadium showpiece – and will then abuse this privilege by asking for Friday night games to gain a bigger "network share" against Sky.
This was never the purpose of the Crown Jewels ring-fencing and the BBC should be handcuffed if and when it dares use non-commercial legislation to achieve commercial advantage. The corporation has forgotten the reason for its own existence.
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