Sunday, May 30, 2010

There’s No End In Sight For The Liverpool FC Storm

The words were delivered calmly and without the slightest hint of irony, as his inquisitor asked for a general view of the situation at Anfield.

“There has been so much misinformation put out by people who have their own agendas and it’s unfortunate, but that’s just the way it is,” said Thomas Ollis Hicks. “The truth is that the club is a lot better off than it was three years ago.”

During the time Hicks has spent as co-owner of one of the world’s finest sporting institutions, there have been some wild statements but this claim – which came on the day of David Moores’ open letter to Reds fans – was perhaps the most extraordinary.

In the interest of fairness, let us tackle the assertion. Liverpool, as their accounts show, are flourishing commercially and after the World Cup, their sports science department will be run by the best doctor of his kind in the world, Peter Brukner.

Aside from that, the start of next season will see the Reds have the name Standard Chartered emblazoned on their flash, new shirts, evidence of the record-breaking sponsorship deal that was penned last September.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? You might actually believe Hicks and his business partner, George Gillett, were the saviours of the club, that everything in the garden was rosy and we were just passing time before the start of a monumental new campaign.

Think again. Better off than three years ago? Don’t insult the intelligence of every Liverpool supporter who has set foot inside Anfield during the past 12 months or followed Rafa Benitez’s men on the road.

If Liverpool were better off, as Hicks claims, a miserable fug would not swirl around right now; optimism has been replaced by pessimism, excitement and anticipation have traded places with apathy and fear.

Would star players be considering their futures if the club was better off? Surely if it was better off – to use this unforgettable phrase once again – harmony would reign behind the scenes; there wouldn’t be any agendas or politics, would there?

Aside from that, if Liverpool were in such rude health, it would not be beyond the realms of fantasy for there to be one or two parties interested in investing in such a great opportunity. Again, though, fantasy and reality are two different things.

“We will sell the club but it is about selling to the right group, at the right price, at the right time and in the right way,” said Hicks.

“We will do it in a thoughtful way and try to find the right man for Liverpool Football Club. We hope it will be done by the end of the calendar year, but I don’t anticipate that it would be before the start of the next season.

“I think between £600-800m is a realistic value range, but the market is the market. We are more concerned about finding the right next owner, someone who can make the investment, get the stadium built and let Liverpool be the best club in the world.”

What jumped out at you from that little lot? In no particular order, how about “right price”, “hope it will be done by the end of the calendar year” and, last but by no means least, “between £600-800m”?

Those three excerpts suggest there is no end in sight for this particular storm; there are no new investors on the horizon and certainly none who, in this volatile economic climate, will give Hicks the price for which he is looking.

No wonder Moores felt compelled to write his letter. With each passing day that Hicks and Gillett stay in charge, he must recoil further in horror, constantly reminded by the catastrophic mistake he made.

There is no disputing the letter he wrote to a well-respected national publication was from the heart but, equally, there were a number of issues which he failed to address, not least the one surrounding Steve Morgan.

Would it be too simplistic to say that had those two men been able to agree a deal way back in 2004 that this mess would have happened? Perhaps. What’s more, there would have been no guarantee that nirvana would have arrived under Morgan.

What we do know, however, is that Liverpool are in an utterly desperate state. Just ask yourself, when thinking about Hicks’ declaration that the summer transfer window will be big, why deals for Milan Jovanovic and Danny Wilson are not done.

Ask yourself why bidding for David Silva was utterly impossible and why Rafa Benitez can’t form any clear transfer plans, so much so that it is even too much to think about moving for a player on a Bosman.

Better off than three years ago? Nonsense. The only thing you can say with great certainty is the way the Duchess of York’s friends described her after last Sunday’s newspaper sting fits in with Liverpool: desperate, fragile and in a very bad place.

Rafael Benitez Receives A Meagre £5m Transfer War-Chest

Liverpool owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett have reportedly handed manager Rafael Benitez a hospital pass by giving him only £5 million to try and capture his summer transfer targets.

Such a paltry figure is in stark contrast to prior promises made by Hicks, who had maintained that a "substantial transfer budget" would be made available to the Spaniard.

The Daily Mail reports the former Valencia boss held three meetings with the club's new chairman Martin Broughton regarding the issue, and that he's unaware of whether or not he will be allowed to spend cash generated from player sales.

This is believed to have put the 50-year-old in two minds concerning the potential off-loading of Yossi Benayoun, Albert Riera, Philipp Degen and Ryan Babel to clubs outside England.

It is said opinion behind closed doors remains split as to whether the club should sell one of their star-assets in an attempt to raise funds to replenish the squad.

The miniature transfer kitty is also believed to be the main reason behind Benitez's struggling attempts to lure Rangers defender Danny Wilson to Anfield.

Liverpool stars Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres have both conceded that the club must bring in quality players to restore lost pride, following a dreary season on the domestic and European stage, but the latest revelations appear to be another backwards step.

Fernando Torres: Steven Gerrard Is As Good As Messi And Cristiano Ronaldo

Spain sharp-shooter Fernando Torres believes his Liverpool team-mate Steven Gerrard will prove to be an influential performer for England during the 2010 World Cup.

The 26-year-old is adament his club captain is amongst an elite set of five players in South Africa who can win a game all on their own.

He puts the Three Lions midfielder in the same bracket as Argentina wonderkid Lionel Messi and Portugal's flying winger Cristiano Ronaldo.

Torres also believes that manager Fabio Capello will get the best out of the Merseyside-born player if he is handed an attacking role in the national setup.

"There are maybe five players at the World Cup who can win a big game on their own - Stevie [Steven Gerrard] is one of them," the Spaniard told the Daily Express.

"He's in the same league as Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, that's how good he is.

"I prefer it when he plays further forward for England and supports [Wayne] Rooney. That is when England look at their most dangerous."

Jose Mourinho Overstepped Mark In Pursuit Of Steven Gerrard, Says Phil Thompson

Former Liverpool captain Phil Thompson has warned new Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho he will have a difficult task prising Steven Gerrard away from Anfield.

The Portuguese, who will be unveiled as Madrid's new coach on Monday, spoke publicly on Thursday about his admiration for the Liverpool skipper - whom he has tried to sign on at least two other occasions while at Chelsea.

"I like players in the final part of their careers (Gerrard turns 30 on Sunday)," said the former Inter Milan coach.

"They are players that you buy and you won't recover this money, but if they give you good performances for two or three years you've got your money's worth.

"Both (Gerrard and Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard) are great players who always give everything."

Despite continued speculation about Gerrard's future, Thompson feels Mourinho has overstepped the mark.

"Without a doubt that is Mourinho," the three-time European Cup winner said.

"He doesn't care whether there are any rules or regulations about touting for players.

"Steven Gerrard is still a Liverpool player with a big contract and anyone else would be rapped on the knuckles."

Thompson feels the continued debate about the future of Gerrard, Fernando Torres and manager Rafael Benitez, coupled with ongoing issues regarding the sale of the club, is having a negative effect on life at Anfield.

"Just before the season finished I said I was immensely worried about what was going to happen about the manager, the owners, the finances and most of all about the players," added Thompson.

"We see every day Steven Gerrard could be going, Fernando Torres could be going, and although they are preparing for a World Cup it is following them and they are always getting questions about it.

"It is negativity, negativity, negativity all the time and this is one of the institutions of English football.

"This is all about my football club and it is all wrong. I would just like a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel."

Tom Hicks Denies He Made Promises To David Moores About Plunging Liverpool FC Into Debt

Tom Hicks has denied promising previous Liverpool owner David Moores that he wouldn’t plunge the club into debt.

The extensive borrowing of Hicks and co-owner George Gillett have sent Liverpool £351million into the red and burdened them with crippling annual interest payments.

Moores says that went against what was agreed when he sold them the club in 2007. The former chairman insists the terms of the deal were “unambiguous” and that investment bank Rothschild & Sons had guaranteed that the pair were “good for the money”.

However, Hicks denies that anyone was misled.

“In our agreement with the seller, no representation was made that the new ownership group would be debt-free,” Hicks said.

Hicks described Moores' criticism of their reign and his plea for them to sell up as a “weak attempt to deflect attention from the prior owner”.

Tom Hicks Defends His £800 Million Asking Price For Liverpool FC

Liverpool co-owner Tom Hicks has defended his £800 million asking price for the club by claiming the valuation is based on plans for a new stadium to replace Anfield.

American businessman Hicks, criticized earlier this week by former Liverpool owner David Moores, has failed to deliver a new ground for the club since arriving on Merseyside with joint owner George Gillett in 2007.

A 'short-term delay' to the stadium project announced in August 2008 is now approaching a two-year hiatus, but despite the club's £237 million debt, Hicks insists that funds are now available to build a new stadium.

He said: "Financing for the Liverpool stadium is now available, but we decided that we [Hicks and Gillett] wanted to sell and allow the new owner to build the stadium.

"We believe the fact that the design and the permitting process are complete should be reflected in the value we receive in the sale."

Liverpool FC And Juventus Fans Must Move From Heysel Disaster, Says Ian Rush

Juventus held a mass on Friday in Turin 25 years after the Heysel stadium disaster, while a commemoration service to mark the anniversary was also held on Thursday in Liverpool.

The bells of Liverpool Town Hall rang 39 times, once for each of the victims of the tragedy at the European Cup final between the two teams on May 29, 1985.

Former Wales, Liverpool FC and Juventus striker Ian Rush believes both clubs have done a great deal to put past animosity behind them.

Five years ago a section of Juventus fans, at Anfield for a Champions League tie, turned their backs on a tribute to the 39 fans who died at the 1985 European Cup final when a wall collapsed after trouble flared between supporters, with the traveling Liverpool contingent receiving most of the criticism.

Rush, who with ex-Juventus star Michel Platini led the tributes that night, said he did not blame those Italians for their actions.

But he feels it is now time to move on and look towards a more positive future.

“We should never forget it happened but we need to move on as well,” he said.

Rush, who turned out for both sides in a long and distinguished career, added: “One thing you can always say about Juventus fans is they supported me when I played for them and they were very good to me.

“They made me feel really welcome and when I left they wanted me to stay.

“Even though people say it was not the best period for me – although I didn’t think it was too bad – one thing I’ll never forget is the supporters.

“I gave 100% and they were behind me. I think if I had stayed at Juventus another year I wouldn’t have come back, but Liverpool came in and were the only club I would go back for.”

The Heysel Disaster – 25 Years On

May 29, 1985 will forever remain in the memories of football fans affiliated with Liverpool and Juventus. As the clubs prepared for the European Cup final in the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium, fights broke out in the stands and the ensuing violence claimed the lives of 39 fans, as well as leaving over 600 injured.

The late sports journalist Arthur Hopcraft describes the way in which fans massed within football stadia in The Football Man, which give some sense to the conditions at Heysel 17 years later. “They are more evocative of the wonder of childhood than even old comic-strips are. They are hideously uncomfortable. The steps are as greasy as a school playground lavatory in the rain. The air is rancid with beer, onions, belching and worse. The language is a gross purple of obscenity. In this incomparable entanglement of bodies lies the heart of the fan’s commitment to football.”

Hopcraft’s words came at a time when hooliganism was on the increase in England. Leeds United fans attacked Bayern Munich supporters in the 1975 European Cup final, while there was violence between Roma and Liverpool fans before and after the European Cup final nine years later; former Reds player Kenny Dalglish recollects that “Liverpool fans suffered horrendous abuse at the hands of Italian fans”. There were further incidents in 1985 involving Millwall, Luton Town, Leeds and Birmingham City.

The problems within English football were well known in the build-up to the final, but blame has also been laid at UEFA’s door for the Heysel disaster as the stadium was archaic and far from fit to host the final. Liverpool asked UEFA to use another stadium on grounds of safety, but the request was rejected. Instead, a portion of the ground was cordoned off as a ‘neutral’ section – Section Z. Few police were posted near the temporary dividing fence between Section Z and Liverpool fans in Section Y as the authorities believed that the neutral fans would act as a buffer.

The scenario could not have been further from reality. The Times reported “the Belgian football union had taken the decision to sell the tickets, rather than allocate them to the two finalist clubs to increase its profits from the game.” These fell into the hands of ticket touts, who sold the majority of the ‘neutral’ tickets to Italian expatriates.

By seven o’clock, the two sets of fans were almost side by side. There was no ‘buffer’ between them. The majority of the 60,000 fans in the stadium had been drinking for much of the day. Eye witnesses recall Bianconeri fans began to launch missiles into the Liverpool sections – stones from the dilapidated terracing and pieces of crumbling steps were launched into the mass of supporters. As kick-off approached, the English fans retaliated.

The Liverpool supporters charged towards the Italians and broke through the thin chicken-wire fence that divided the two sets of fans, and in the midst of the fighting many of those in the neutral section were forced back towards the other Juventini. They were crushed against a concrete wall at the opposite end of the enclosure; some tried to scale the wall and jump over to escape the violence. The poorly constructed and antiquated wall collapsed onto the fans on the opposite side under the pressure.

32 Italians, four Belgians, two French people and one Northern Irish man were killed, crushed by the collapsing wall or trampled by other supporters attempting to escape.

Andrea Lorentini recently told of his father, who went to the match. “My father Roberto was a medic and at a certain point of the fight he noticed a young man who was wounded,” Andrea says.

“He went over to carry out CPR on him and while doing that he was caught up in the fighting of the English fans who were fuelled by alcohol. My grandfather, Otello, meanwhile, managed to save himself and was reunited with his two nephews. Not long afterwards, they tragically found Roberto, who was dead.”

Over 600 more were injured. In the chaos, more Italians attempted to reach the Liverpool fans to enact retribution, unaware of the tragedy that was unfolding. One Italian was reported to have fired a gun, though it was later revealed to be a starting pistol. Phil Neal made a plea for calm over the PA system and the game eventually went ahead, with the authorities desperate not to antagonise the situation by postponing the fixture. “I have absolutely no recollection of the match," Neal reflected. "As soon as we heard people had died we lost all interest in the match.”

Kenny Dalglish added, “We saw the Italian fans crying, and they were banging on the side of our bus when we left the hotel.”

“If this is what football has become, let it die,” read L’Equipe after the match. Het Nieuwsblad headlined with “Police powerless against British alcoholics”, but the Corriere della Sera deplored, “The culpable impotence of the police.” UEFA’s official observer Gunter Schneider remarked, “Only the English fans were responsible. Of that there is no doubt.”

27 people were arrested for manslaughter by the British police in the aftermath, 14 of whom were convicted. A blanket ban fell on English clubs’ participation in European competitions for five years, while Liverpool had to serve an extra year’s ban. Heysel was never used for a football match again until it was demolished and rebuilt a decade later. “That day we were all victims,” Ian Rush mused. “That day changed football forever.”

No official inquiry was ever undertaken. UEFA were not questioned about their decision to stage the European Cup final at the ageing venue, nor were the Belgian authorities queried on their policing or the ticketing allocation.

Efforts were made to repair relations between the two clubs when they met in 2005, with a number of gestures commemorating the event performed prior to the match at Anfield. Ian Rush and Michel Platini carried a banner that bore the message, 'In Memory and Friendship': In Memoria e Amicizia. In addition, home fans held up placards that formed the word ‘Amicizia’. Most of the travelling fans applauded the gesture, though others turned their backs on it. 25 years on, a plaque has been unveiled outside Anfield’s Centenary Stand to commemorate the deaths of the 39 fans at Heysel.