Sunday, 8 November 2009

Liverpool FC's off-field crisis Part II: Fans' questions answered

AN estimated 5,000 Liverpool fans took to the streets of Anfield for a protest match against club co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett before the Reds defeated Manchester United at Anfield last month.

The show of strength against the American tycoons was the latest in a series of demonstrations against Hicks and Gillett organised by Spirit of Shankly - the UK's first football supporters' union.

But Liverpool fans are not united on the subject of ousting the owners and many have questioned the motives - and tactics - of SOS.

Some fans even think the latest protest was an attempt to mask the current on-the-field disappointments, despite action against Hicks and Gillett dating back over 12 months.

Here, in the second part of an in-depth interview, PAUL GARDNER, Community Liaison and Regeneration Officer for SOS, answers questions from fans about the union, the owners, and the hopes for whoever next takes charge in the Anfield boardroom. (Read part one here) 

WELL RED: Some Liverpool fans have suggested laying the blame for the club's situation solely at the door of Hicks and Gillett is wrong. Would you agree that the previous boardroom regime of David Moores and Rick Parry hold some responsibility for the club's current off-field plight?

PAUL GARDNER: Definitely. Moores and Parry held us back with poor sponsorship deals, no new stadium, and then they sold us out for more money when a simple Google search would have shown what Hicks' so-called expertise at managing sports teams was like. Questions have been put to them since, and noted in one of our recent leaflets handed out at the Burnley home game.

We have heard nothing back from them. It helps our cause if they came out and said 'Sorry, lads, we got it wrong when we sold to Hicks and Gillett' - but they won’t do that. Some anger and action has to be aimed at them, but it’s the current owners that are currently doing the damage at our club so we cannot take our eye off the ball.

WR: Another criticism levelled at SOS is that it is failing to recognise that football clubs need to be run as a business - what would you say to this?

PG: We agree that football needs to be run as a business, SOS has never said otherwise. Our membership spans the globe - we recognise the global market in football and its importance to the game. But we still have to take into account that despite being a business we are still a football club that exists to win trophies. The business is currently running to the detriment of that. Winning trophies and doing well in the Champions League will help the business, but without the right support we will struggle to achieve that.

There have been many criticisms falsely aimed at Spirit of Shankly. Our presence on the likes of Facebook has allowed us to talk to fans and address some of these issues. If you are unsure about us or have concerns, our website is there to address anything you need to know.

WR: What are the hopes of SOS for Liverpool FC's next owner? Some fans say the union is merely begging for a sugar daddy to 'bail the club out' - what would you say to this?

PG: We want an owner who will run Liverpool FC in a way that is expected of them by the fans and according to the traditions of the 'Liverpool Way'. We have never called for the club to be bailed out by a sugar daddy as this would go against our aims. A sugar daddy's business model would not be financially sound for a business - you have the risk of problems again in the future. Take away the debt on the club and we are very close to being a well-run club. We do not need a sugar daddy.

Spirit of Shankly's main hope would be for the fans to be the next owner of Liverpool FC and it is something that SOS and Share Liverpool are working on all the time.

WR: A banner was held up at the Carling Cup game at Elland Road saying 'We are the new Leeds'. Is it the union's fear that this the direction the club is heading and if so, why?

PG: If we fail to qualify for the knockout stages of the Champions League, and fail to qualify for the Champions League next year, the club's business model will have to change accordingly. That model, as confirmed by Gillett, is based on the last six years and a relatively limited run in the Champions League. We had no net spend in the summer despite earning over £20million every year under Rafa Benitez through the Champions League so what will happen without that money?

Would we have to sell to keep players rather than the 'sell to buy' system we have been undertaking the last few years? That is when becoming a 'Leeds' becomes more of a possibility. Leeds then and Liverpool now might have their differences but both involved business models which relied on Champions League football. Without that who knows where we could end up?

The money from the Robbie Keane sale was kept to pay off interest payments. Then we all thought we had about £20m at least to spend in the summer on players but that didn't happen after RBS asked for £60m from Hicks and Gillett as part of the refinancing deal.

Even Rafa said after signing Glen Johnson that he had money for one more major signing, regardless of player sales. But after RBS took the money he didn't have that. Without Champions League football, or if RBS ask for more money back, what will happen? Who will be sold to allow Hicks and Gillett to keep hold of the club? The banner said 'LFC - The Next Leeds?' We are not saying it will happen, but there is a strong possibility it could happen.

Premier League: Goalless Draw At AnfieldWR: SOS say the Americans have lied over the building of the new stadium, but some fans say that, due to the credit crunch, it would be the wrong time to build a ground. What is your response?

PG: The simplest thing for us to say is for them to take a look at our YouTube recordings of Gillett talking about the stadium here, here and here.

In that one meeting he says he didn't say the '60 days' comment, that it was Hicks - even though there is video proof of him saying it at the press conference when they took over the club.

He says in the same meeting that the credit crunch started at two different times. They use it as an excuse. The credit crunch doesn't have an exact start date - it is a gradual process but was widely accepted as starting in 2008, not a year earlier when they bought the club.

Also, if they kept to their promise of not putting debt on the club like the Glazers did at Manchester United, then the stadium would have been paid for out of their own pockets - the credit crunch would have had no affect on their ability to deliver a stadium. If anything, it would have made it better for them as it might have reduced the price of the stadium.

WR: One problem for fans is understanding the complex accounting arguments. Some fans simply say our debts aren't as bad as other top four clubs, others get much more technical and say that LFC would not be liable for the parent company set up by Hicks & Gillett (Kop Holdings) should it go bust. Could you clear this up?

PG: Other clubs' positions do not make our position any better. As far as we are aware most, if not all, of the debt is now on Liverpool FC after the refinancing. Even if that is not the case then it still does not affect the severity of the situation. Liverpool FC is the only asset of Kop Holdings.

When we met with Christian Purslow (LFC managing director) we asked the question of how much debt is on Liverpool Football Club and Purslow told us £245million. It was specifically asked if there was more debt elsewhere, not on the club directly, and he confirmed the £245m figure again.

Also look back to April of this year. Southampton Leisure Holdings owned Southampton Football Club, its only asset. They tried to use that explanation to say it was the holding company in administration and not the football club. It was seen as a grey area, like it could be with Liverpool, but we all know that Southampton got relegated and started this season with a points deduction. If it was Liverpool it would not make a difference in the eyes of the FA and the Premier League.

WR: SOS critics say fans have no say in who the owners are and will be in the future and argue this situation will never change. What makes the union confident it can engineer a change?

PG: You just need to look at our record in what we have achieved through negotiations with the club. We have regular contact with Ian Ayre (commercial director) and will be having more contact with Christian Purslow over issues to do with the club (more on our site).

We asked for a decrease or freeze in season ticket prices and there was a price freeze (or a reduction if you count the reduction in VAT).

The club scrapped the Priority Ticket Scheme at the end of last season and only part introduced the new scheme with no loyalty involved. We received hundreds of complaints which we passed on to the club. Shortly after a loyalty scheme for the new All Red membership scheme was announced. We are a professional organisation and Purslow and Ayre respect our views - we can make a difference.

Why should we sit back and just see what happens? We have to at least try and save our club. They say fortune favours the brave. We are Liverpool. If anyone can do it, then we can.

WR: Everyone associates SOS with the campaign to oust Hicks and Gillett from the club, but it is also about a lot more than that isn't it? Could you tell us about that?

Tom Hicks Co Chairman Liverpool 2008/09PG: We were set up originally with the aim of getting Hicks and Gillett out of the club but we have 15 elected committee members who cover many areas.

We have organised cheap coach travel to all domestic games and into Europe last season. We have also negotiated discounts with travel agents for away games in Europe this season, set up free coaching camps for children and arranged fundraising events for the Michael Shields Campaign.

We are there to provide for all fans regardless of where you are based or how much you go the match - Spirit of Shankly is an organisation to provide for the fans, from the fans.

WR: Spirit of Shankly support the Share Liverpool proposal - the idea of fan ownership of Liverpool FC. Could you tell us the latest on it?

PG: We do support the Share Liverpool proposal because our ultimate aim is to have fan ownership of the club. We have been unhappy at the speed of how things have been moving but we are working hard with Share Liverpool to make this idea become reality.

WR: One fan has suggested a truce, putting forward the idea that SOS and Hicks and Gillett could agree some aims for the club then the co-owners would be allowed some breathing space to achieve those aims. The fan's idea is that if they failed to meet the agreement after a year, it could lead to stronger support for SOS? What's your take on this?

PG: This fan is welcome to join the union, and to raise the idea at the next mass meeting. But there is too much at stake to sit back and do nothing. It would need our members' support which I'm pretty sure it wouldn't get. We gave them the benefit of the doubt already when they bought the club so they definitely don't deserve it again. Purslow and Ayre have got a job to do that is made difficult by the owners. Going easy on them is not going to make the situation any better.

If Liverpool fans have any other questions for Paul, you can email him at: