“I want Rafa to stay,” screamed the headline in the Daily Mirror on April 24th this year. The thrust of the story was that a potential bidder for Liverpool FC had reached “a crucial stage” in negotiations with Tom Hicks and George Gillett to buy the club. The bidder had “been granted access to the club’s accounts” yet still hadn’t been put off. Indeed, he believed a deal “could be finalised” in June as “my audit team is examining the books and my legal team is in close contact with theirs.” On August 3rd, the UK national media reported that Liverpool had “11 days to consider” the bidder’s “take-it-or-leave-it” offer. A week later, the bidder’s spokesman finally spoke: “No decision to submit a bid has been made.” The bidder’s name? Huang Jin-Hua. “Kenny” to his mates.
It says almost everything about the reliability of media coverage of the Liverpool sale circus (“a travelling company of acrobats and clowns which give performances in a series of different places” – that’s about right, isn’t it?) that “Kenny Huang” has been referred to as “Kenneth Huang” by every grade of media source – even David Conn in the Guardian. Has a nickname been turned into a real name by a collective lack of media concentration? Or is he really a Bates namesake? Two questions, no answer – which is about the normal ratio for Liverpool FC’ takeover tale these days.
Since the first year of Hicks and Gillett’s grim Liverpool reign, the club has been for sale and reports of interested parties have been doing the rounds of the sports pages. The latest chapter started in April when the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) ordered the Americans to sell the club as part of the latest refinancing of its £237m debt to its bank. Hicks and Gillett were given until October 6th to repay the money if they agreed to appoint a chairman to head a five-man board to sell the club – the size of the board being significant as it meant that the co-owners were a minority on the decision-making body. And with every passing week comes an extra £2.5m to repay, a sizeable penalty fee for a sizeably late payment.
But even this fundamental stuff didn’t come to light until a News of the World exclusive on August 8th. Indeed, there were conflicting reports about Hicks and Gillett’s ability to veto any decision backed by chairman Martin Broughton, managing director (and previously unashamed obeyer of Hicks and Gillett’s orders) Christian Purslow and commercial director Ian Ayre. Even a “Q & A” piece in the Independent on August 6th couldn’t provide a definitive “A” to “Who has the last say on which bid is successful?” which was THE “Q” that needed an “A.” The pivotal fact of the whole tale and the media couldn’t confirm the truth.
Was it ever any different under Hicks and Gillett, though? It would seem not. Wading through the… eek… 106 tightly-packed A4 pages of notes I’ve taken on Liverpool’s ownership and finances since January 2007, I was struck by just how many times a Liverpool takeover has been “close,” or at least how many times either Hicks or Gillett have been “about” to sell up. On January 16th 2008, Hicks and Gillett had “‘agreed deal’ to sell Reds” according to the Independent newspaper. Two days later the owners insisted to the Telegraph’s David Bond – now the BBC’s sports editor – that “Liverpool FC is not for sale.” But Bond’s story in the February 4th edition of the paper was headlined “Americans on verge on selling Liverpool.” It was a big verge. Three weeks later, Hicks was in furious denial mode and made a telling, if almost certainly hypocritical comment about “reports planted in the UK press in recent weeks by parties with their own self-interested agenda.”
Fast-forward to March 11th and a Liverpool Daily Post headline read: “Finance expert claims Tom Hicks Dubai dismissal is a tactic.” The story quoted Chris Brady, the Dean of the business school at Bournemouth University. Brady said:
“Clearly Hicks wants out… he will try to get as much money as possible by frustrating DIC (Dubai International Capital – the leading buy-out contenders that week), but it’s obvious from the dialogue he will sell. My guess is that this is a manoeuvre in a normal negotiation.”
Of course, “guess” was a more operative word than “obvious.” And the guesswork continued, fuelled by PR-spin from all sides – bidders and co-owners alike – which often produced conflicting stories on the same day and produced three different versions of the same story in the March 5th edition of the Telegraph, ALL of which individually made the top-five most read stories on the paper’s web-site that day. A clue to these conflicts of information came a month later when newspapers carried more stories about Hicks’ search for a new PR firm than on his supposed search for new club owners. He had bitterly called DIC’s PR firm, Square One Consulting, “masters of British Tabloid spin.” But he was clearly jealous, as he tried to bolster a PR roster within his floundering sports empire which already included several companies from the UK and the US.
So in the intervening two years, five months and twelve days, little changed. Deals with Saudi princes were “close” in both March and October 2009. In March 2010, “Hicks was ready to green-light a proposal until Gillett scuppered the £420m takeover bid.” And in June, Hicks himself had, “according to sources” quoted in the Mirror newspaper, scuppered two “perfect fit” offers because of “his unreasonable asking price.” The March bid actually brings us to the here and now, as the scupperee was the now-famous Syrian international footballer-cum-Canadian pizza salesman Yahya Kirdi, a representative of the Sharjah royal family whose spokesman was, for reasons never adequately explained, Andy Lynch, who played for Celtic in the 1970s (after they were good) and…er… Lynch has since been replaced by a “Dan Diamond,” of whom we shall hear more in a bit.
When the latest merry-go-round of Liverpool sale talk started, I was without internet access and reliant on the Independent newspaper for my Liverpool news. Luckily, they had a lot of it. So I knew all about Kenny Huang, the great deal facilitator from Hong Kong with a love of basketball, a history on Wall Street and no backing whatsoever, oh no, from any ‘Mainland China state-owned enterprises’ or sovereign wealth funds/investment corporations called CIC. Indeed, CIC had never heard of a plan to buy Liverpool, or of Kenneth Huang.” “Next they’ll say CIC is going to buy Playboy,” noted a CIC spokesman, eschewing inscrutability to an alarming degree – and possibly planting the seeds of another thousand tabloid exclusives. So that was that.
But when I got home, Matt Scott, writing in the Guardian newspaper’s usually reliable Digger column, was putting two and two together in the efficient way which allowed him to expose Munto Finance at Notts County last season. The answer he got was 351.4, the number of millions of pounds worth of Morgan Stanley stock sold by CIC on 19 July or the, “equivalent to Liverpool’s debt to the nearest decimal place.” Recent fluctuations in exchange rates between dollar and pound would have made that last statement true for about half-an-hour in total over recent week, and even then for only minutes at a time. But Scott was undeterred and saw the hand of CIC everywhere he looked for about a week.
He was invited onto Chinese State Radio to comment on “speculation in the British press” over CIC’s involvement, drawing the conclusion that the state media would not be so “off-message” as to allow such comment on such speculation unless there was something to it. Unfortunately for Scott, just as this invite plopped onto his e-doormat, Huang “categorically denied” any CIC involvement. Again. Huang himself was the subject of extreme doubts from the website Sporting Intelligence (SI), much of which is written by respected journalist Nick Harris, who contributed considerably to the Indie’s coverage alongside Ian Herbert.
SI’s coverage of Liverpool has been pretty thorough, giving particular attention and credence to Liverpool supporters’ groups’ largely commendable efforts to make sense of their club’s travails. Certainly no-one knowing Harris’s body of Liverpool work could accuse him of doing Hicks and Gillett’s dirty work. But that’s exactly the response SI got after a week-long debunking of Huang’s back story culminated in a story detailing Huang’s US courtroom history, with the emotive use of the word “embezzlement” in the headline. The story conceded that “it remains possible that Huang does front a credible bidding team.” But its nature led to considerable debunking of Harris’s journalistic reputation, and accusations of links to Hicks and Gillett and their PR-machine.
Harris’s sturdy defence of his stance towards the Americans ever since February 2007 persuaded many of his critics that he, and the SI site, was among the more reliable sources of Liverpool bidder information. But after so many years of so many planted stories, it was probably little wonder that fans’ scepticism was so readily triggered. There was less of a sceptical reaction to the Anfield Road (AR) website’s systematic shattering of Kirdi’s back story. Not only because Kirdi has been so publicly linked with Gillett. And not only because “his” bid reportedly allows the Americans to profit from their Anfield tenure. But also because the article, penned by Jim Boardman, was brilliant.
Kirdi was exposed, claim-by-claim, from his Syrian international football status to his time as an international plane dealer (no, really). His claim to be a former Syrian international was an un-necessary exaggeration rather than a lie – he was a youth international not a full one, which would have provided a sufficient football background for anyone who needed impressing by such things. But his overall business history since arriving in what is now his native Canada in 2002 was way more mundane than reports and claims suggested. Using readily available but extensive public records from Quebec, AR established that Kirdi ran businesses no more exotic than clothes stores, pizza outlets and the Canadian equivalent of an off-licence. Even better, when they confronted the afore-mentioned Dan Diamond, Kirdi’s spokesman, Diamond confidently dismissed the “pizza story” as “nonsense, funny and slightly insulting, but nonsense.” So AR “sent him the proof and he replied: “Frankly, that’s news to me.” What a Diamond.
As things currently stand, Huang and Kirdi remain the media’s “front-runners” for ownership of Liverpool, despite continuing disquiet over their funding – both the lack of proof and the identity of certain potential backers. But what would ordinarily be laughable is now barely worthy of the bat of an eyelid. Liverpool’s five-man board were due to convene on August 12th to discuss the bids that were on the table, after Broughton had insisted that all interested parties provide bona-fide bids with proof of funds attached. The gathering was postponed because there were… no bids meeting that simple, basic criterion. None.
And so it goes on and on. October 6th is being presented as the final final deadline day for this farrago to end, with state-owned RBS threatening to assume control of the club if they haven’t got their money back by then. Remarkably, even though this scenario has been commonly reported as the “taxpayer taking control of Liverpool” there seems to have been less fuss made in our much-cherished democracy than when the same situation threatened to arise, via CIC, in communist, totalitarian China. But after years and months of lies and loose talk, if Liverpool’s takeover saga were to conclude in such a bizarre, unwanted fashion, who could say it wasn’t somehow appropriate?
PS: Of course, there are those who might think that the Liverpool takeover situation could never be as farcical as the Notts County situation last year. Not unless Russell King, the ‘character’ behind the Munto Finance organisation that landed Notts County in the goo, was somehow claiming to be involved in the Liverpool board’s search for the right investment.
And that would surely just be too ridiculous. Even for Liverpool.