Henry reaches Anfield summit and wipes out debt mountain
Hicks and Gillett withdraw US injunction / New owner pumps £240m into club / Hodgson fears he could be on way out
A particularly venomous rain storm battered Liverpool just before 2pm yesterday, as news started percolating that Tom Hicks and George Gillett had thrown in their chips.
The heavens were telling us something – because Anfield's new set of American owners are walking into a situation no less precipitous than the one the club have faced all week against the owners they have finally seen out of town.
In case anyone has forgotten, New England Sports Ventures' (NESV) inheritance is a club which is third bottom of the Premier League, experiencing its worst start to a league season since 1953, and, having emerged from the red, must this weekend plunge into the blue. Liverpool face an Everton seeking a League foothold of their own and, as Tim Cahill makes clear in these pages today, relishing the idea of rubbing their neighbours' noses in it.
The good news is the business news. Hicks and Gillett withdrew a restraining order in Dallas yesterday, clearing the way for NESV, owners of the Boston Red Sox, immediately to transfer £240m from its own balance sheet to clear £200m of Liverpool's £237m Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) debt and deliver £40m to the club. Annual interest payments of £25m a year are reduced to around £1m. And when you consider that Liverpool make a £30m profit in a good year it doesn't take much extrapolation to know that the change of hands should make a difference.
There was almost another very dramatic late hitch. Hicks contacted RBS on Thursday and was given detailed information on how to repay the loan himself, with the support of Mill Financial, who were ready to take on Hicks' shareholding and work with him. But the Premier League refused Mill's request to take their owners' fit-and-proper-persons' test by saying it would only deal with the club's legally constituted board.
"We are committed first and foremost to winning," said John W Henry, NESV's principal owner, last night. "We have a history of winning, and today we want Liverpool supporters to know that this approach is what we intend to bring to this great club." Henry said it was too early to decide on specific plans, but noted the Red Sox are the second-highest spending club in baseball. Immediate player investment was "the 64,000 dollar question," manager Roy Hodgson said.
The bad news is the football news – and the immediate question whether Henry will do to Hodgson what Roman Abramovich did to Claudio Ranieri six years ago, since new owners do like their own man.
Hodgson insisted yesterday that the new Americans would "presumably" have to pay out his three-year contract "if someone wants to get rid of me", which conflicted with the club chairman Martin Broughton's suggestion last week that the period was one-year. "It's a very sad day for everyone if people think the solution is to find someone else with a magic wand," Hodgson insisted. "We all know that golden wand solution doesn't exist. I would be disappointed if after such a short time they decided to get someone else in."
But Liverpool have been a desperately poor side this season; one whose boardroom travails should not disguise the fact that they were in the same spending bracket as Manchester United this summer, with £21m spent as well as Joe Cole's £90,000 a week wages. Hodgson's assertion yesterday that "money was in short supply and we didn't know if the club would be there" was not quite accurate.
The manager subtly used the American "civil war" of the past few weeks as an excuse for the six points from seven games his side have collected. He used words like "fear" (twice) and "bravery" as he described a bunch of players tiptoeing around a precipice. "You can't read into players' minds," he said. "I don't know how much they are affected by the fear of the club going into administration. We have been brave in refusing to use it as an excuse."
"Brave" wouldn't be everyone's definition of the Liverpool they have seen this season, though, and certainly not an epithet for Fernando Torres, who, quite frankly, has vanished; diminished into so minimal a presence that you wonder why everyone wanted his services so much this summer. His response to this particular fight has been as far from the great traditions of Liverpool as the club's QC ridiculing the owners at the High Court on Tuesday. Perhaps the second most significant breakthrough in attracting NESV and Asian co-bidder Meriton to the club this summer – after the removal of Rafael Benitez and the liability of his potential £15m pay-out – was Broughton's success in persuading Torres and Steven Gerrard to stay. It was after that development that buyers started picking up the telephone. But the club's so transparent need of Torres seems to have affected the healthy interdependent relationship which should exist between any club and player. Liverpool needed Kenny Dalglish, too, and Kevin Keegan before him. But they needed Liverpool, too.
This is one relationship which might be difficult to mend, even though Torres is expected to have recovered from an adductor muscle strain to be fit for Goodison, where he destroyed David Moyes' side a little over two years ago. Dirk Kuyt will not play, but it is those players at his disposal – like Glen Johnson and Paul Konchesky – from whom Hodgson also needs vastly more. Jamie Carragher signed a new two-year-deal yesterday but Liverpool need to find his successor. "We are short of back players, and in midfield we have many players who play in the same position. I would like to balance that out," Hodgson said – a depressing statement of affairs.
As his side attempt to bury the memory of the apocalyptic home defeat to Blackpool two weeks ago – "if a game were decided on boxing-style statistical information we would have won it," the manager reflected – Hodgson was asked had the size of the Anfield job been bigger than he had anticipated.
"I'm frightened to answer that," he reflected. "If I say 'yes' it would be giving the impression I didn't realise what the job entailed. If I said 'no' I would be denying the enormous size of this great club. It's a very difficult one for me. At my age and with all the years I've spent in football, a quiet, more tranquil start to the beginning of my work at this great club would have been very desirable." With the fans' heightened expectations coupled with those of the new owners' hopes, he knows the rain may get heavier before it relents.
The final frontier – how Liverpool saga reached its dramatic denouement
Q. So the ownership of Liverpool finally passed to NESV; was it a smooth transition, in the end?
Not at all. Yesterday was another rollercoaster of claim and counter-claim, legal action and threats, and hours of waiting for a "white smoke" announcement of a decision after all the paperwork was complete.
Q. What stumbling blocks needed to be cleared?
To recap the court actions of the past few days, Liverpool (via RBS) won a High Court action on Wednesday effectively giving the right to sell the club to NESV, but Tom Hicks and George Gillett took legal action in Texas on Wednesday night to stymie the deal (gaining a TRO, or temporary restraining order). On Thursday, Liverpool won another High Court decision to force Hicks-Gillett to withdraw the TRO, and that was supposed to happen at a hearing in Texas at 1pm yesterday.
Q. So the Texan court lifted the TRO and the club was sold to NESV?
Not quite. Hicks had the TRO lifted early, amid speculation that he did so in order to allow another firm, the US hedge fund Mill Financial, to buy his shares in Liverpool, repay RBS the money that Hicks-Gillett owed the bank, and gain control ahead of NESV.
Q. But that didn't happen?
No, and The Independent understands that it didn't happen because Hicks ultimately realised that he didn't have the authority to agree a deal with Mill, and that he would need the Liverpool board (employed by him in the first place, empowered with the means to defeat him) to agree to it, which of course it was never going to do, having agreed a sale to NESV. Further, Hicks had asked the Premier League late on Thursday night whether he could sell his stake to Mill and the League had told him he would need to deal with the Liverpool board – the recognised authority as far as the League was concerned.
Q. Did Hicks take this defeat gracefully?
No. He and Gillett issued a statement saying: "It's an extraordinary swindle and it will result in exactly the wrong thing for the club and the fans. This outcome not only devalues the club but it also will result in long-term uncertainty for the fans, players and everyone who loves this sport because all legal recourses will be pursued. "Mr Hicks and Mr Gillett pledged to pay the debt to RBS so that the club could avoid administration that was threatened by RBS. That offer was rejected. It is a tragic development that others will claim as a victory. This means it won't be resolved the way it should be resolved. My clients worked tirelessly to resolve these issues but RBS would not listen to any reasonable solution and the directors acted selfishly and illegally."
Q. Is that statement true, that Hicks and Gillett tried to repay RBS?
The Independent has learnt that Hicks' representatives asked for details of where to repay the money owed to RBS (around £200m) and RBS provided those details, adding Hicks would need to let the board know where the funds were coming from. No funds were transferred.
Q. And now Hicks says he's going to sue everyone, but particularly RBS, the board and NESV, claiming $1.6bn (£1bn)?
Yes. To which RBS replied: "RBS is pleased the sale of LFC to NESV has been completed and are confident this will provide the foundation for the club and its fans to enjoy renewed success on and off the pitch.
"RBS is aware of reports that Mr Hicks and Mr Gillett may intend to pursue further litigation in relation to the sale of Liverpool FC. The English courts have described claims made to date as 'not realistic and abusive'. Any further claims against RBS will be vigorously opposed."
Q. And what do NESV say?
John W Henry said: "We regard our role as that of stewards for the club with a primary focus on returning the club to greatness on and off the field for the long term. We are committed first and foremost to winning. We have a history of winning, and today we want LFC supporters to know that this approach is what we intend to bring to this great club."
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