How bad, then, is the situation at Liverpool? KPMG’s report on their current financial position makes for worrying reading for the club’s supporters, though there is a case for saying that there are elements of the media coverage of the report which are focusing on the most sensationalist aspects of the report, but none of this means that the comments that “significant doubt on the group’s and parent company’s ability to continue as a going concern” weren’t made, or that there weren’t sound reasons for them being made.
By January of this year, the club had spent almost all (£313m) of the £350m loan that they had taken out to fund the take-over of the club and subsequent further running costs. Gillett and Hicks had been working to the assumption that they would get the financing to move the club from Anfield and into a new stadium, but over two years on they seem less likely than ever to be leaving for pastures new. The truth is largely as the media has reported. Gillett and Hicks have “pulled a Glazer” and loaded the club that they now own with a massive (and in many senses unnecessary) debt.
Manchester United supporters reading this may be tempted to chortle, but they should probably think again. Manchester United’s total debt is now £700m, and the sum total amount that they have got for this debt is, well, new ownership. Nothing else. As things stand, United remain solvent. They have covered the bare minimum of the interest payments required, but the debt has increased since they took it on. Success on the pitch has made things a little easier for them, but it costs more than ever to be a Manchester United supporter and success is not guaranteed in perpetuity.
On top of this, Manchester United secured a new shirt sponsorship deal with a company called Aon. Aon are very proud of this, and recently confirmed it on their website with a vomit-inducing press release to that effect. The press release says much about how sponsors view relations with clubs and supporters. Mention of the word “passion”? Check. Unverifiable claims about amount of support and “unrivalled passion”, which will come as news to anybody that has visited Old Trafford and sampled the atmosphere – or lack thereof – over the last couple of years or so? Check.
The absurdity of the situations at Old Trafford and Anfield is that these are the clubs that, to the extent that such a thing is possible, it should be more or less impossible to lose money. These are amongst the most successful clubs on the richest continent in world football, playing in the richest club competitions that the game has ever seen and being comparatively successful. Taking Manchester United and Liverpool and straddling the two of them with over £1bn of debt is such an extraordinary achievement that it almost merits a polite round of applause.
One wonders what Manchester United and Liverpool might be capable of if they had an extra £1bn to spend on players, wages and facilities. Liverpool might already be on their way to their new stadium, and Manchester United’s domination of the English game might be even more complete than it already is. They’re not the only clubs in this sort of predicament. Arsenal owe more than £400m after they failed to sell all of the flats at the Highury stadium, meaning that they had to extend a bank loan taken out to cover the cost of building The Emirates Stadium. Chelsea, meanwhile, remain £701m in debt to Roman Abramovich. This money is not incurring any interest, but stories about how any of these loans will ever be repaid are, perhaps unsurprisingly, in short supply.
This is the key question here. Manchester United owe almost three times their annual turnover. Rumour has it that Liverpool lost out on Gareth Barry because Manchester City could pay Aston Villa £12m up front, whereas Liverpool could only pay in instalments. City, meanwhile, may be storing up figures of this size of their own in a few years’ time. Leaving aside all moral arguments about taking on debts of this size – of which there are many – and any concerns about the immediate liquidity of Premier League football clubs, it remains the question that no-one dares to ask: in anything like the medium to long term, how exactly is this money ever going to be repaid?