Like many people, I had spent much of the last year or so wondering about the supine reaction of Liverpool supporters to the Gillett & Hicks take-over. Here were two people coming in with no apparent prior interest in Liverpool Football Club, making numerous promises and claims, but with the prevailing common knowledge becoming apparent that they didn’t have the cash up front to pay for it. Very few people that closely connected wondered aloud where the money was going to come from. The club was being purchased for £300m and the new stadium will cost something like £400m. These are substantial amounts of money. They were also making promises of spending obscene amounts of money on players. In spite of this, Stars & Stripes flags were flown on match days. The arrivistes were feted as saviours. It was almost as if no-one had been paying any attention to what had gone on forty miles up the road at Old Trafford for the last few years or so. Considering that Liverpool is the city that was the birthplace of Militant, the home of the Dockers’ strike and a city which remains one of the most politically left-wing in Britain, it was all most perplexing.
Over the last few weeks or so, the wheels have come spectacularly off the wagon for the new owners. They may have secured the refinancing package that they desperately needed, but it hasn’t come cheap and it is now common knowledge that, just as at Manchester United, a football club is effectively paying for itself to be taken over by outside investors, and at a cost of £30m per year in interest payments alone – money which, ultimately, will come from the supporters themselves. The seeds of the problems for Gillett & Hicks were sown in their treatment of Rafael Benitez. Whatever the shortcomings of Benitez are, he has taken them to two European Cup finals in three years and is still enormously popular on Merseyside. The club’s apparent misjudgement of this incurred the wrath of the supporters and a demonstration march to the ground towards the end of last year. The lack of harmony within the club may or may not be directly responsible for the club’s slump in form, a slump so severe that it hasn’t merely ended their Premier League championship bid but will quite possibly result in them taking part in the UEFA Cup next season rather than the Champions League. There was a further demonstration against Gillett & Hicks at the recent match against Aston Villa. Something, one suspected, was in the air. At last.
The upshot of it all is “Share Liverpool FC”, launched today in the city by Rogan Taylor, a long time Liverpool supporter and the chair of the Football Supporters Association, Kevin Jaquiss, a lawyer specialising in employment law who was part of the group responsible for writing the legal model upon which all supporters trusts are based, and Phil French, a former director of communications of the Premier League who is now employed as the chief executive of Supporters Direct. In terms of knowledge and support, you couldn’t really ask for much more experience. The plan is a simple (if ambitious) one: persuade 100,000 Liverpool supporters to pay £5,000 each and raise £500m to buy the club, and then run it as a not-for-profit mutual society, with no shareholder dividends and no profit. The group has had a somewhat shaky start (such was the level of interest that the web site collapsed fifteen minutes after it went live and, at the time of writing, hasn’t recovered yet), but this would appear to bode well for them – a considerable amount interest in a concept that very few people had even heard about as recently as a couple of days ago.
So, can it work? Well, it can. These are monstrous amounts of money, though – are there 100,000 Liverpool supporters in the world who will part with £5,000 in order to take control of the club? Are there that many supporters groups that will band together and buy shares between them? The next few weeks will provide a few answers to this, but it is worth remembering that if nothing else, we should applaud the principle of this idea. Some, such as the apparently “humorous” website Who Ate All The Pies, have already chosen to scoff at the announcement, with a magnificently ill-informed article on the announcement that appears to have been written on the back of a cigarette packet in the pub. I don’t know which part of their piece on the subject (which I’m not linking to from here – if you want to see it, you can go and look for yourselves) is the worst: “They should leave the running of the club to the money men in suits who know about such things”, or “this is communism at its most hare-brained” are vying with each other (and a whole host more) for the most the most ill-informed comment on the subject. Having embarked upon second and third readings of it, I can confidently state that more or less every single sentence of it is as bad as the one that preceded it.