FOOTBALL CLUB FOR SALE: ONLY THE VERY, VERY RICH NEED APPLY; BEAT THAT: Robinho's Record Signing Sets the Premier League Benchmark
Byline: Daniel King
THE richest men in the Premier League locked horns yesterday as the Chelsea of Russian oligarch and multi-billionaire Roman Abramovich took on Manchester City, the soon-to-be-acquired plaything of Abu Dhabi's trillionaire oil barons.
But in contrast to the mood of bottomless coffers and boundless optimism at 'Middle' Eastlands, just down the M62 at Liverpool and over on the other side of the country at Newcastle United, fans turned out to demonstrate publicly against the rich men running their own muchloved clubs.
For the reality is that in the 'Greed Is Good' Premier League, it is now not enough simply to be rich. To succeed, and to keep the fans happy, you need to be very, very rich, indeed.
It is coming to something when a man as wealthy as Mike Ashley, who collected close on a billion pounds when his sportswear company went public, cannot give the Newcastle United fans what they want.
The owner, who, sources indicated yesterday, has decided that the time has come to sell up and run, had wanted to instil a culture at Newcastle of slow growth for long-term success rather than rapid spend for instant results.
But that was never going to satisfy fans starved for so long of meaningful success and now approaching desperation after yesterday's 2-1 home defeat by Premier League newcomers Hull City.
Falling out with the man they call the Messiah, however, was not the wisest move Ashley could have made and he tried in vain on Friday night to coax Kevin Keegan back to Newcastle to head off yesterday's fan protests.
Ashley told the man who walked out on the manager's job last week that he is ready to announce that he wants to sell the club because of the fans' attitude to him and the prohibitive cost of buying success and popularity.
It is also surely only a matter of time before Liverpool's American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett jnr, find their positions to be similarly untenable, because of the credit crunch and the hostility towards them which supporters vividly displayed in a march before yesterday's lunchtime kick-off and their team's eventual 2-1 triumph against Manchester United.
The Dubai royal family, who nearly bought Liverpool before the Americans moved in, remain keen to sink the Premier League's first billion-pound investment into buying the club and building a new stadium.
What Ashley, Hicks and Gillett have found themselves up against is the contradictory attitude many football fans have to the financial forces which now govern the game.
The public dissent outside St James' Park and Anfield looked like a display of fan power, but the true lesson of what has happened at Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester City is that traditional, match-going supporters as opposed to armchair fans have less and less influence on the management of their clubs and the sport as a whole because of the money slushing round the game from foreign investors and media companies.
WHEN the England fans launched surreal chants against Setanta and for the BBC during the World Cup qualifier against Andorra last weekend, they were attacking the wrong people.
It was the Football Association's decision to sell rights to England and FA Cup matches to the highest bidder Setanta and ITV and in insisting on a high price for highlights of the Andorra and Croatia games, Setanta were only protecting their investment in the same way as any company would.
How many of the supporters who sang 'We hate Setanta' might have sung 'We hate BSkyB' back in 1992, or 'We hate the BBC and ITV' at the start of the 1985-6 season, when there was no league football live on television at all? More to the point, how many of them would curse the commercial forces which deprived millions from watching England's fantastic 4-1 win in Zagreb with one breath, and then welcome the arrival of their own sugar-daddy with the next? Newcastle fans thought Ashley might be that man, but the reality check has soon come. The outrage which greeted the resignation of Kee- gan and the threat of supporters boycotting yesterday's match against Hull as well as club merchandise drove Ashley to a desperate attempt to lure back Keegan again.
Keegan told Ashley he would consider it, but only if Dennis Wise, executive director (football), and Tony Jimenez, vice-president (recruitment), left the club. The owner's pride and reluctance to sack his most trusted lieutenant, Jimenez, and
Jimenez's choice of football director, Wise, led to talks breaking down, but not before Ashley had told Keegan of his plans to get out of Newcastle.
Even by Newcastle's standards, it is the worst-kept secret in football that the club is for sale, with City's prospective new owners, the Abu Dhabi United Group of Investment and Development, among those who have toyed with the idea of buying Ashley out..
Indian billionaire Anil Ambani, reputedly the world's sixth-richest man, has apparently ruled himself out of the running and is now looking at Everton, whose chairman, Bill Kenwright, told supporters recently he could take the club no further and was looking for someone with a 10-figure bank balance to step up to the mark. Despite the chaos at St James' Park, there remain parties keen to take their own slice of the
Premier League's rich cake and Ashley is expected to explain his reasons for wanting to leave in the same terms as Kenwright.
Clearly, the Keegan debacle has determined the timing of his exit but Ashley has long been disillusioned by how much money running a football club uses up, as well as how little fun it is when it goes wrong. Meanwhile at Liverpool, Hicks and Gillett have shown themselves to be far less sensitive to fan hostility.
And what would Bill Shankly have made of supporters who marched under his name demanding the departure of the club's co-owners because they had not proved to be as rich and beneficent as had been hoped and extolling the virtues of a takeover by a non-democratically elected Middle East government? Ham-fisted, shifty and unpleasant as the reign of Hicks and Gillett has been, their true crime in the eyes of many Liverpool supporters is not having enough money, rather than having so much that they could toy with the future of one of football's most famous clubs.
And if the supporters who called for their heads yesterday get their way, and Hicks and Gillett do leave, it will be because of financial pressures more than fan discontent.
The indefinite delay to the new stadium in Stanley Park is serious for them, not so much because of the protests it has generated but because it undermines their entire business plan for investing in the first place.
Hicks and Gillett have backgrounds in owning sports franchises, but their success with their ice hockey and baseball interests has registered in their bank accounts, not on the ice or the diamond.
Liverpool only make sense as a business in the medium and long term if they have a new stadium generating millions more each year to service the debt required to build it and to provide surplus cash to be used in the transfer markets or as dividends for the owners.
Gillett and Hicks are wealthy, but not wealthy enough to raise sufficient loans in the current financial climate, so they cannot build the stadium and their only hope of making a return on their investment is to sell to someone richer.
Opportunity knocks for Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum to plant Dubai's flag in the Premier League turf and go head to head with arch rivals Abu Dhabi.
Only time would tell if the club were better run from Dubai than America and, judging by the scenes at Eastlands yesterday, the Maktoums would be as eagerly embraced after Hicks and Gillett as Abu Dhabi's ruling family have been in the wake of Manchester City's own failed billionaire saviour, Dr Thaksin Shinawatra.
But it is open to debate how effective protests such as yesterday's might be once people with serious money are in charge at St James' Park, Anfield and who-knows-where next in the Premier League..
What would Shankly have made of fans marching under his name and demanding the exit of Liverpool's owners because they're not rich enough? ''…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: FOOTBALL CLUB FOR SALE: ONLY THE VERY, VERY RICH NEED APPLY; BEAT THAT: Robinho's Record Signing Sets the Premier League Benchmark. Contributors: Not available. Newspaper title: The Mail on Sunday (London, England). Publication date: September 14, 2008. Page number: 102. © 2009 Solo Syndication Limited. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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