Battle lines were drawn long ago, both sides marked their territories and set up base camp, neither seemingly wavering at all. On one side stand two Americans, the first ‘outsider’ custodians of one of the most famous football clubs in the world, charged with protecting its illustrious history and helping to write new chapters in it. On the other stand supporters of the club, which is not just a club, it’s their livelihood, their glorious and tragic memories. It’s their life. Determined not to see it suffer any more, the supporters have frequently protested and campaigned for the removal of the Americans, until now, where the end is finally in sight. It wasn’t always like this, you know.
Tom Hicks and George Gillett were welcomed into Anfield with open arms back in February 2007. They spoke warmly, eloquently and with a genuine sense of wonder about the club. Gillett only slipped up once when he used the dreaded word ‘franchise’, but he was forgiven. Naivety, thought supporters. In reality the alarm bells should have been ringing then. Three and a bit years later, all manner of upheaval and turmoil have dragged a club that once prided themselves in keeping their dirty laundry well hidden, into this desperate wasteland that they now find themselves in. This season it has been the team who has suffered, with Rafael Benitez only allowed to spend what he brought in over the summer, and denied any funds to help an ailing squad in January – when he could only bring in the free Maxi Rodriguez. The Spanish boss has made mistakes, as he admitted recently. He should have to answer to them, as should his underperforming players, but while at most clubs last season’s second placed finish with 86 points (Manchester United can only finish with 85 this season) would have been the perfect springboard on which to invest, build and improve, Liverpool have gone so far backwards that they now find themselves shorn of all confidence, bankrupt and worse off than when Benitez joined the club. The manager may have made some poor judgements, but the vast majority of the blame stands with two men, and two men alone.
Gillett claimed in October that “the club is in an extraordinarily good financial position.” The Royal Bank of Scotland are demanding £100m from them in June. “The debt situation is very sound,” he said. It’s increased by over £200m since they took over. “Rafa spent £128m in the last eighteen months,” he insists. His net spend was £20m. “I never said that we’d start building a new stadium within 60 days,” he protests. He did. In his and Hicks’ introductory press conference in February 2007, in front of several television cameras and dozens of journalists. The truth? He can’t handle the truth.
Yet there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The appointment of Martin Broughton as an independent chairman – something that RBS insisted the club do – is the first major, tangible step towards a sale. Admittedly Managing Director Christian Purslow has been doing sterling work behind the scenes in a bid to attract investors, but the need for a complete change at the club is finally an accepted one. It’s as though a light has been switched on, and suddenly the deep, dark truth of what is really happening has come into sharp focus. It had to happen soon, and has probably been provoked by the poor form on the pitch. You’d never get a Liverpool fan to tell you that he or she has enjoyed the 2009/10 campaign, but seeing as it has proved to be the one that rids the club of the presence of Hicks and Gillett then they’ll at least say it has been worthwhile.
What happens next is unclear – not an uncommon statement in this whole sorry saga. Broughton is an experienced business big-hitter, the chairman of British Airways and a Chelsea fan too – which has relevance to some people, bizarrely. He’s simply there to oversee a successful handing over of the club – this time hopefully to competent owners – but it’s unrealistic to expect a quick fix, something that most supporters should welcome given what happened the last time the Reds rushed into an ownership decision. It might be next season before that handover is complete, only then will supporters know that this is a battle that they have finally won. Good things come to those who wait, apparently, and how Liverpool supporters have waited.