The Nick Townsend Column: Sheikh, Rafa and bankroll - but will the players do better than the horses?

It may not be the best league but it's the most admired brand
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The Independent Football

As Liverpool prepare to become the seventh Premiership club to be owned by foreign business interests, a cautionary word for Anfield's dreamers who believe that, in the possible conversion of Sheikh Mohammed to Honorary Scouser, their club have tapped a bottomless well of transfer potential, one sufficient to compete with Roman Abram-ovich's Chelsea. That word is Godolphin.

When we speak of "The Boys in Blue" finishing sixth in the league table it is no mischievous reference to Liverpool's city rivals. It is where Godolphin (who gained that epithet because of the colour of their silks), in the guise of trainer Saeed bin Suroor, will finish in this year's Flat racing rankings. The same position as last year, incidentally. And this an enterprise with more than 200 racehorses at any one time, blessed with what should be among the elite of each generation.

Despite impressions, not everything that Sheikh Moham-med and his Maktoum family touch necessarily turns to riches. Just as Godolphin, or Bin Suroor, don't always win the trainers' title - he last achieved that in 2004 - Sheikh Mohammed's purchases don't always match up to expectations. His colt Snaafi Dancer, who cost £5.2m, was not good enough to run and also turned out to be a dud at stud.

Still, after hawking the Reds from Bangkok to Boston, their chief executive, Rick Parry, could have done worse than chance upon the Sheikh's investment arm, Dubai International Capital, who are inspecting Liverpool's accounts with a view to a £450m buy-out. Much worse.

Sheikh Mohammed is recognised as a sportsman, albeit a fabulously wealthy one. Horse-racing is no distant business venture. At Royal Ascot, he and his wife, Princess Haya, can be observed acclaiming victory as ebulliently as a punter who has wagered a fiver on that same winner in the silver ring. Moreover, he accepts defeat with magnanimity. So magnanimous is he that he will probably offer to purchase the winner.

And yet. Horses are part of his country's heritage. The question has to be asked: just what is the fascination for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and vice-president of the United Arab Emirates, in a football club who have seen more illustrious days?

Ostensibly, we are told that Dubai International Capital are seeking "interesting and exciting opportunities for business growth in different parts of the world". That is only the half of it, though, where Sheikh Mohammed is concerned. An Anglophile, who completed his military training at Sandhurst, he has long been associated with the best racing in the world. It is a natural progression that he should display the same attitude towards what many perceive to be the best football league in the world, or at least the most admired brand, and to acquire an institution among those clubs.

He will not be the last as an orderly queue begins to form for the anticipated sell-off. Despite the scorn it occasionally attracts, the Premiership is a conspicuous success story, if viewed as a product of the new millennium and not with misty-eyed nostalgia. It would not attract a £1.7bn TV deal over three years starting in 2007 and frequently boast "sold out" matches if it was not.

It should not be pretended that these days the Premiership is anything but a global phenomenon. Its iconic club names are recognised throughout the world and its successful teams - it is no coincidence that four English clubs qualified, all in top place in their groups, for the Champions' League knockout stage - are watched by millions abroad. Inevitably, overseas interests will covet them.

Chelsea, Manchester United, West Ham, Portsmouth, Aston Villa and Fulham are already in foreign hands. Liverpool, Newcastle and Manchester City are likely to follow, given acceptable offers from would-be owners who admire the brand and the opportunities it presents as a sport with no artificial restrictions on ambition, such as a wage cap.

Though the desire that every club should have a local benefactor like Wigan's Dave Whelan is a widespread one, it not only lacks logic when the rest of the UK is up for sale, but in this observer's view is driven by xenophobia. Just as many foreign players are perceived as divers, the suspicion is that foreign owners, with sufficient money to throw at English football clubs, must be duckers and divers. If ever there was a battle to be won by the "keep it local" campaign, as if we were talking about post offices, it was lost with the genesis of the Premiership and when the first TV deal with BSkyB was approved.

Certainly, not all foreign owners have entered the English game with hands entirely clean. The "fit and proper person" test, which came into force in 2004, was intended to remedy that, but as it cannot be applied to anything that happened before that date its effectiveness is limited.

There is, however, no doubting the probity of Sheikh Mohammed, whose Anfield interest can only be positive for Liverpool, for their manager, Rafa Benitez, and for the Premiership. The country's best-selling red-top excitedly discussed serious competition on the financial front for Chelsea, under the headline: "Red Rom v Red Rum".

Never mind that the latter was a cheaply purchased though gutsy National Hunt horse who would not have received a second glance from the Sheikh. He went on to win three Grand Nationals at Aintree. A similar sequence of League titles is the expectation that would accompany the Sheikh, should the concept of Maktoum Merseysiders become reality. For the club whose last title was in 1990, such an achievement could finally be more than a mirage.

Henry fails to answer the captaincy question

All appears harmonious again between Arsène Wenger and Thierry Henry following their reported contretemps. But is it? "Je ne regrette rien," says Thierry Henry, or sentiments to that effect, regarding his recent training-ground conduct. His manager, Arsène Wenger, having persuaded - or agreed with - his compatriot that he requires a month's break to recover from a sciatic nerve problem, maintains: "He will come back stronger in the new year and he will still be my captain when he does come back."

Too late now, the Arsenal manager must have reflected on the wisdom of that move many times since anointing his striker with the crown of responsibility. Not least because Gilberto has demonstrated himself more eminently suited to the job of leading this team in transition.

Too late now, Henry must have questioned his post-Champions' League final decision to remain in north London. That journey back from Paris, when he revealed his intention to remain a Gunner, looks increasingly like a flight from truth. In purely selfish terms, after seven years at Highbury, Henry needed a new challenge; that of harnessing his talents to those of Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi, Eto'o and Deco, and of testing his prowess as one of Europe's established elite at Barcelona rather than remaining king of Arsenal's aspirants.

Instead he took the easy option, now surrounded by some who don't yet meet his approval and have become all too familiar with the Frenchman's freezing glare. The curious aspect, of course, is that, for all his sublime footwork, the Gunners do not appear to miss Henry. They have lost only one game this season - at Bolton - without him, but have won six, including that splendid victory at Old Trafford.

Henry may well return stronger to the side in the new year, as Wenger contends; perhaps more importantly, he will have learnt that he is not indispensable.

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