Sunday, March 29, 2009

Stewart Downing And Out

Stewart Downing will be allowed to leave Middlesbrough if the Teesiders are dumped into The Championship.

Boro Chairman Steve Gibson has assured the winger there will be no repeat of the hardine 'no sale' stance of recent years if Gareth Southgate's side get relegated.

That will alert Spurs and Liverpool to a possible £15m summer swoop, with Harry Redknapp most likely to revive the bid which was turned down in January.

Downing put in a transfer request in the last transfer window which was immediately rejected by Boro.

But his loyalty despite successive years of interest from Premier League club's has been noted by Gibson, who recognises it will be impossible to keep the player in the event of the drop.

The 24-year-old has ambitions to play in Europe, and to cement a place in the England side. He knows he can't afford to fall down a division if his career is to progess.

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez was tracking the winger last summer, but opted for the cheaper Albert Riera from Espanyol.

Riera has proven a successful buy, which may thwart Downing's preference for a move to Anfield. Spurs' Redknapp remains as keen as ever to recruit the wide man, however.

But while Downing's future looks to be away from the North East, Boro will take a tougher line on the rest of Southgate's squad and block any possibility of a mass player exodus.

That means youngsters such as David Wheater won't be allowed to leave The Riverside, regardless of the club's plight.

Wheater has attracted as much interest as Downing this season, despite Boro's woes, but Gibson will make it clear the club's up-and-coming stars are not for sale under any circumstances.

Liverpool Chase Record Shirt Deal

Liverpool are pursuing a record sponsorship deal with Carlsberg which could net them £60million.

The Merseysiders hope to conclude negotiations as early as this summer on an agreement which would eclipse those of Manchester United and Chelsea.

Liverpool's current three-year contract with the Danish brewers is worth around £10m a year - including Champions League bonuses - and ends after the 2009-10 season.

But co-owners Tom Hicks (below) and George Gillett want to shatter previous records with a new four-year deal.

They are out to top the four-year £56m arrangement United signed with AIG in 2006 and Chelsea's five-year £50m contract with Samsung, which runs to 2010.

Previous deals with Carlsberg, Liverpool sponsors since 1992, were thought to be worth a lot less than those of rival clubs.

A swift deal would give boss Rafa Benitez a transfer kitty and could help protect Reds' value if either owner is forced to sell his share.

Agger Won't Rush

Daniel Agger will reject Liverpool's bid to secure him on a long-term contract when he returns to Anfield this week.

The Danish defender has made it clear that Rafa Benitez's decision to extend his own stay on Merseyside for another five years will not rush him into a decision on his own future.

Agger has been frustrated by his lack of first-team chances under Benitez, even though he has been hampered by a series of injuries - including a back problem suffered on international duty that sidelined him for a month.

Agger, 24, has fallen behind Jamie Carragher, Martin Skrtel and Sami Hyypia in the Liverpool pecking order.

And with just over a year on his current contract - and Italian giants AC Milan and Juventus monitoring his situation - he knows he can negotiate from a position of strength.

Agger, a £5.8million signing from Brondby just over three years ago, is rated at £15m by Benitez.

The Anfield boss is hoping to get Agger - as well as Dirk Kuyt, Alvaro Arbeloa and Fabiano Aurelio - on fresh deals, after securing his own long-term future.

Gareth Barry Must Adapt

Gareth Barry will be asked to become Liverpool's 'Mr. Versatile' to finally secure his dream Anfield move.

Kop boss Rafa Benitez is ready to bring his year-long pursuit of Barry to an end with a cut-price £8million bid this summer.

Barry has a year left on his Aston Villa deal at the end of this season - and Villa will be in no position to demand £20m again.

Last year, Barry was pursued as a possible replacement for Xabi Alonso but is now seen as a utility man who can play in central midfield, left midfield or at left-back.

Steve Staunton On How Liverpool Can Overthrow Manchester United

Steve Staunton thinks the Kopites have got their old Liverpool back - and the spirit of the golden age can help them topple Manchester United.

The former Republic of Ireland manager, who grew up supporting the Anfield side and played for the last Reds team to win the league 19 years ago, hopes their recent outstanding form has setup a fairytale finish to the campaign.

Staunton believes that 13 goals in three games against Real Madrid, United and Aston Villa, combined with Rafa Benitez's new contract, have conjured up a potent force that might just be unstoppable.

He said: "The momentum is certainly with them.

They're scoring goals and keeping it tight at the back.

"They've got a beautiful blend and what's pleasing from my own - and every Liverpool supporter's - viewpoint is the fact that it's like the old Anfield now.

"The team's coming out from the off and having a right good go at the opposition, putting them on the back foot. It looks as though Liverpool have got 12 or 13 players on the pitch. It's just like the old days."

There's another emotional factor behind 2009 looking like a title-winning year - the 20th anniversary of Hillsborough, when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final.

"It doesn't matter that it's 20 years," he said. "Each year, that day is very special to the people of Liverpool. I played that day and it was a very emotional time.

"If it wasn't for the people of Liverpool, God knows what would have happened to the club. It was draining, but the club has come back strong. And if they can win the league, it will be great – whether it's this year, next year or the one after. It will happen."

Staunton - speaking as Aston Villa Old Stars unveiled their new Prostar strip, which will be worn throughout the team's 50th anniversary season - added: "Rafa's signed a new contract, everybody's settled and they've got the bit between their teeth.

"They know they have to win every game. If they do win, it will be like United winning the league title after 26 years. I remember that because I was at Villa and we came second!

"If they had to choose between that and the Champions League, Liverpool fans would want the league title. That's the burning desire after 19 years.

"I remember the last time very well - and we won it at a canter.

"I was playing for a club I supported. There were a lot of Irish players there, a lot of people I looked up to. They were my boyhood heroes.

"But you soon find out you are part of the furniture. It doesn't matter if you cost ten pounds, ten grand, ten million, you're treated the same.

"That's the way the club was run - and that's how Benitez runs it now. It's about the team, not individuals."

Gerrard Proud To Skipper Reds

Steven Gerrard has declared that it is an 'absolute privilege' to captain a Liverpool side in such a rich vein of form.

The Reds have put in a number of fine performances of late, with the club fighting for the Premier League title and in the last eight of the UEFA Champions League.

Gerrard himself has received many plaudits and is in the running to be named this season's PFA Player of the Year.

The England international has hailed the Reds' current form and has warned their rivals that they 'are playing without fear'.

"It's an absolute privilege to captain this football club at any time but especially when the team is playing the way it is," Gerrard said on the club's official website.

"It makes my job an awful lot easier when you don't have to talk too much to players because they are just doing their jobs without that being needed.

"Confidence is really high right now and we're certainly enjoying playing together. We are playing without fear and without anxiety and I think you're seeing some superb football from us in the last couple of weeks.

"From front to back everyone is pulling in the right direction for the team. The goals are coming and I'm certainly enjoying my football at the moment.

"I'm playing with magnificent players. (Fernando) Torres and myself have had a lot of pats on the back of late but it's important to acknowledge our team-mates who have been fantastic.

"If we keep playing the way we have been over the last three games then it's going to be an exciting finish."

Tony Barrett: Oceans Apart - The Fans Who Feel Betrayed By Tom Hicks And George Gillett

I never like reading about Tom Hicks in the paper anymore,” wrote the sports fan to an online blog. “If I were him and hated as much by so many as he is, I wouldn't like to read about me either.”

The angry missive did not appear on an English website and it was not penned by a Liverpool fan, it was featured on the homepages of the Dallas Morning News and was sent in by a fan of the Texas Rangers, another “sports franchise” owned by Hicks.

No reason was given for the enmity, the author simply expected his views to be part of a consensus which would be understood by all those who follow the Rangers.

A blog written by one of the Morning News’ top sports writers gave one indication why there is so much disquiet about Hicks, having learned the Rangers owner is to cut $20m from the baseball outfit’s annual payroll.

“What would another $20 million do to the Texas Rangers payroll?” pondered blogger Jim Reeves.

“Wait a minute, don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not talking about adding another $20 million. I’m talking about subtracting it.

“According to multiple sources, and confirmed by the man himself, that’s exactly what Rangers owner Tom Hicks would like to do, not for this season but for 2010, and I can tell you what slicing another $20 million from his team’s already below-average payroll would do.

“It might just incite a riot among an already restless and frustrated Rangers fandom.”

At least Liverpool fans know that they are not alone.

Over in Montreal, the natives are similarly restless following George Gillett’s decision to engage in some “estate planning” which supporters of the much loved Canadiens ice hockey team fear could lead to the sale of one of sport’s most famous names.

Gillett is irritated by the fact that his financial pruning has become so public, insisting: “I am not used to this kind of attention, and this kind of impoliteness. I am really offended by it, because it really is truly private.”

Which is odd, because just 48 hours earlier Canadiens president and Gillett ally Pierre Bolvin had ignited media interest by issuing an official statement saying: “The Gillett family has retained the services of financial advisers in order to assess various strategic alternatives to optimise the value of its corporate assets."

So much for it being “truly private”.

But what are Liverpool fans to make of events Stateside?

Well this week, we have learned that as well as asking George W Bush to throw the opening pitch of the Rangers’ season, Hicks is looking for investment in his baseball team.

We also know that Gillett’s estate planning is likely to result in minority investors – or perhaps even outright buyers – taking a stake in one or more of his franchises.

In short, the duo are looking to cut costs and increase revenue and are doing it at exactly the same time. Anyone would think they have a major refinancing deadline to meet in just four months time.

As ever, it is their motives which remain unclear though. Are they looking down the back of their sofas for loose change in a bid to ensure they can convince the banks to continue with the massive £350m loan which allows them to be owners of Liverpool?

Or is it a public attempt to convince anyone looking to buy the Reds at a knockdown price, that they have the means to get through the refinancing process?

Both insist they are not interested in selling but both have instructed rival leading banks to seek out potential investment in Liverpool and it is widely believed that Merrill Lynch and Rothschilds have discussed a total sale of the club with more than one party.

Furthermore, it was less than a year ago that Hicks and Gillett came within two hours of selling Liverpool to the Al-Kharafi family only for the wealthy Kuwaitis to walk away from the negotiating table without any explanation.

This happened at a time when the American duo were similarly adamant that Liverpool was not for sale and the secrecy surrounding the proposed deal with the Al-Kharafis was so great that the talks took place without the knowledge of Reds chief executive Rick Parry, who denied any such negotiations were taking place.

The talks may have collapsed but a price had been agreed which suggests that Hicks and Gillett are willing to sell but, in the words of the late Leslie Crowther, only when the price is right.

It remains to be seen whether any of Liverpool’s potential suitors are willing to meet that price and unless they do it seems that Hicks and Gillett will be able to continue insisting that they won’t be selling.

But one thing’s for sure, newspaper buyers on both sides of the Atlantic had best get used to reading about Tom Hicks because the Texan is going to continue to be big news in the months to come.

Liverpool Youngster Jay Spearing Dreams Of Emulating Steven Gerrard

The Birkenhead kid wants to be just like another famous local boy who is currently reaping punditry acclaim all over the world.

Liverpool midfielder Jay Spearing made his home debut for the Reds earlier this month when Rafa Benitez's men destroyed Real Madrid 4-0 at Anfield.

That, understandably, was a night that the youngster says he will never forget, but he has lofty ambitions to become a local-born heartbeat to the side in the manner of his hero, current Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard, whom he replaced on that memorable evening.

"That’s exactly what I want to be doing at Liverpool," the Birkenhead-born midfielder told The Liverpool Echo.

"Anything I can do that comes even close to what Stevie has achieved would be incredible. To get two Champions League appearances already is great for me. Three years ago that was the kind of thing I was dreaming of.

"I’d always be thinking that I want to play in the Champions League and the Premier League. I want to do this, I want to do that. But to actually have that reality rubber stamped now and to say I’ve done it is fantastic.

"Knowing that I’ve played in what is probably the biggest club tournament in the world will give me bags of confidence going forward. But I’ve got to take things as they come now, day by day and keep working hard."

The response of the fans to his first appearance was also something else that the 20-year-old will never forget, especially as the crowd were heard to chant his name.

"I’ll remember it for the rest of my life, definitely," he added.

"I’m not going to forget my Anfield debut against Real Madrid in a hurry am I? One of my mates asked me afterwards how I felt and to be perfectly honest I felt more nervous on my debut against PSV.

"That was the first time I’d travelled and actually got on the pitch. At Anfield, I had a few of our fans shouting to me when I was warming up, saying ‘come on’ and all that.

"That helped settle me down and gave me confidence, knowing I had the fans behind me."

And the youngster went on to reveal just how exciting the Anfield occasion was, particularly with the intensity of the crowd noise at pitch level.

"When we got to half time and it was 2-0 I was thinking ‘Oh come on, I just want to have a go. Just get me on and give me a go’," he added.

"The atmosphere was incredible and when Stevie G scored the third I couldn’t believe just how loud the crowd could be from down on the touchline. When you’re in the stand it is loud enough but when you’re down at the side of the pitch it’s deafening. It sent shivers down my body, never mind Stevie’s.

"After that I was like ‘Oh please, just give me a go. Any time will do. But then when I eventually got on it was more a case of excitement than thinking about anything else. I just wanted to get out there and show what I could do to help the team.

“But I had to keep my head together. There’s no point me going round trying to snap or kick people. I thought ‘just play your own game, get the ball down, start passing it and enjoy yourself’.

"I thought I did okay."