New Yorkers lined up to keep wolves from Liverpool's door

Club optimistic that private equity cash can prevent bank calling in £237m of loans
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The Independent Online

Liverpool believe a US private equity firm, which has expressed interest in taking a majority stake at Anfield, can be persuaded to invest the £100m being demanded of the club by bankers Royal Bank of Scotland and prevent the bank calling in its £237m loans when they come up for renewal in July.

The New York-based private firm Rhone Group is the first confirmed prospective investor in Liverpool since the club's managing director, Christian Purslow, set about what has been a frustrating search for new equity partners to meet RBS's demands for a £100m pay-down against the debt. Liverpool believe four or five others may enter the frame in the next three weeks, allowing Tom Hicks and George Gillett the luxury of several choices of who to do business with. The deadline for raising the £100m appears to be July, when Hicks and Gillett's RBS loans must be refinanced, though the club remain convinced that an "equity rise" deal can be completed by Easter.

If the expression of interest translates into a deal, Rhone Group's founders, Robert Agostinelli and Steven Langman, could assume control of the club, possibly with a 34 per cent share, which would reduce the two Americans' stake to a minority 23 per cent each. But despite a sense of "cautious optimism" at the club that Liverpool will be under new control by the start of next season, bringing an end to the turbulent and controversial era of Hicks and Gillett, doubts persisted last night about the obstacles to a Rhone Group deal.

City sources suggested only last week that a deal to buy Liverpool was not near and those who have been involved in the search for new investors harbour grave doubts that anyone would be willing to invest £100m yet still potentially lack overall control. A minimum 51 per cent stake would be needed to prevent Hicks and Gillett combining to overrule a new equity holder.

There are also doubts that a major investor would want to work with Hicks and Gillett at all and that the only realistic form of financial salvation would be a new owner willing to buy 100 per cent control of the club. Another New York-based multi national financial company, unconnected with Rhone Group, were ready to become the saviour by buying out Hicks and Gillett, three weeks ago. But the prospective buyer felt uncomfortable about the high-profile nature of the deal and walked away.

Rothschild are working to seek new equity partners for Hicks and Gillett, though there is a feeling in the investment banking community that investors may delay on any offer until mid-April at the earliest, in the belief that Rafael Benitez's team will fail to qualify for next season's Champions League – an outcome which would leave Hicks and Gillett struggling to make their current debt repayments and force them into a cut-price sale in the summer.

There have been too many false dawns for Liverpool fans to take immediate encouragement by the news of Rhone Group's emergence. But the optimism felt at Anfield is substantial enough for the club to be theorising that a Rhone investment would be significant enough to free up money for the manager. Reports yesterday that Benitez has already concluded his time is up at Anfield are premature, though Fernando Torres has ratcheted up the pressure by declaring in the Spanish media that Liverpool are "four or five class players" short of a successful side and that it is "too early" to discuss whether he might leave Liverpool. His team enter another huge week this evening with nothing less than a win the requirement for tonight's home match with Portsmouth. A testing Europa League second leg with Lille follows on Thursday, with Liverpool 1-0 behind

Benitez admitted that Europa League football was not enough for Torres: "Finishing fourth would mean a lot to Fernando, because he wants to be playing in the Champions' League, but we all want that. People talk about money with him, but his main motivation is winning trophies. That is what drives him on. That is always the main topic in any discussions between us. It's not at all like [his previous club] Atletico Madrid, where there was sometimes a perception he was carrying the team. He has good players around him here who can help."

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