Friends of world leaders with a plan for Anfield

From acquaintances of Sarkozy, to investors in toy shops – Ian Herbert and Nick Harris on the men making a £100m bid for Liverpool

Thursday 18 March 2010 01:00

Liverpool fans have witnessed too many false dawns to harbour illusions about the latest possible saviours to be linked to their football club, but they can perhaps be forgiven that there is some serious money around this time. Rhone Group's senior partners include Robert Agostinelli, whose ex-wife Mathilde is a senior executive at Prada. He is an acquaintance of French president Nicolas Sarkozy and has spoken with deference about Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi. Both Agostinelli and Steve Langman, another partner at Rhone, have invested in the Republican presidential campaigns of John McCain and Rudy Giuliani.

But the new names issuing around the environs of L4 are actually in a different bracket to many of those that have been sounded before. These two are no billionaires and certainly not in the same stratosphere as those – from Dubai's Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum to Indians Mukesh Ambani and Subrata Roy – who have been linked with the club before in these turbulent past few years. The Rhone Group, with offices in New York, Paris and London, has an annual turnover of just £5.9m according to its most recent accounts. The critical factor is that the firm is not in possession of the funds it invests. Like any fund management outfit, it invests cash for others – be it pension funds or the savings of high net worth individuals. It was the fund management arm of Rhone Group which tabled a proposal at midnight on Friday with Liverpool FC, a "distressed" business, as it sees it, and one which should yield a cash return in the medium term.

Some supporters at Liverpool may feel that they do not covet these individuals as new proprietors. Agostinelli is an individual who once described Berlusconi as "a leader who will save the country" and who also once suggested that "the left is a cancer that needs to be eradicated." The spirit of Shankly this is most certainly not.

But if Rhone Group does turn out to be the majority shareholder at Liverpool, don't expect the imprimatur of the two partners to be all over the club. Rhone's investors are looking at Liverpool as "just another business deal", according to one source familiar with the outfit. Their other recent ventures have included financing for the clothes firm Quiksilver, putting money into the toy chain Early Learning Centre, and part-owning the aluminium company Almatis, which Rhone then sold, incidentally, to a former Liverpool suitor, Dubai International Capital.

With a portfolio as diverse as that, Rhone's partners are certainly not going to be willing to tolerate Tom Hicks and George Gillett commanding a controlling stake in the club. One of the mysteries of their proposed investment – the figure varies from £80m to £115 according to who you talk to – is why they would be willing to put so much money in for a 40 per cent share, only to face the prospect of Hicks and Gillett banding together to form a 60 per cent controlling influence. The details of any agreement signed off between Rhone and Liverpool would settle that. It is likely that Hicks and Gillett would have to agree to be sleeping partners and would need assurances of control. The Independent also understands that Agostinelli and Langman would not be seeking active involvement in the running of the club, as the current American incumbents have.

Remoteness need not be a bad outcome. If Christian Purslow, Liverpool's managing director, can resolve the £100m issue, he can set about rescheduling his club's debts over three years on better terms, rather than the sequence of 12-month arrangements which seem to make every June an anxious time at Anfield. There is confidence that if the club can be put on more secure financial footing in this way, then further capital can be secured to build the new Stanley Park stadium which has been the key to the club's financial future for so long. The suggestions are that Rhone Group would buy into that idea.

Needless to say, Hicks and Gillett have not expressed any great delight about Rhone Group, though the plight the club are now in does not give them room for manoeuvre with RBS. The future of the club is in the hands of Purslow, whom RBS see as the individual to deliver back some of the money they are owed.

It all points to a resolution of this stormy period in the club's history by the time the season is out. Though there are no other new prospective partners at the table, there is a belief at the club and apparently RBS too that Rhone might flush out interest from some of the other interested parties from Dubai and Saudi Arabia to India and all points in between who have melted into the background as quickly as they have surfaced. RBS's lack of anxiety about the repayment dates for the £100m it has asked Purslow to secure points to a feeling from the bankers' perspective that Rhone Group could be a force for the good, if no other buyers materialise.

The three-week deadline which Rhone have imposed on Liverpool means that April will be a critical month. Some observers close to the process of securing new investment believe that other bidders are waiting to see if Liverpool struggle towards a top four berth, an outcome which will make the club's financial position even more problematic and potentially force the price down. On the field, prepare for Liverpool v Manchester United, Sunderland and Fulham in that Premier League order. Off the field, prepare for something considerably more momentous.

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