Liverpool supporters are well known for their passion and enthusiasm. But when news broke at the weekend that one of English football’s greatest clubs was once again attracting interest from overseas investors, the reaction was one of cautious resignation.
Ever since the Moores family sold their controlling stake in Liverpool FC to US businessmen Tom Hicks and George Gillett in 2007, ending half a century of local stewardship, the club’s fans have become accustomed to speculation about overseas owners.
The current US owners, Fenway Sports Group, stepped in to rescue Liverpool in 2010 after Mr Hicks and Mr Gillett struggled to refinance their debts. Now FSG, controlled by John W Henry and Tom Werner, is being advised by boutique investment bank Allen & Co after an unsolicited approach for Liverpool by a consortium involving Chinese investment group Everbright and private equity firm PCP Capital Partners.
On Saturday, Liverpool FC’s managing director Ian Ayre emphatically dismissed talk of a takeover, saying: “There is no bid and we have had no investment discussion of any kind with anyone.” Liverpool declined to comment further on Monday. A FSG spokesman directed inquiries to the club.
But one person with knowledge of the situation says that PCP and Everbright are serious about exploring a takeover bid for Liverpool, although in the short term the consortium may have to settle for buying a minority stake in the club.
Mr Werner told the Liverpool Echo newspaper last week that FSG was open to the idea of selling a minority stake in Liverpool, in return for the right investment.
However, he stressed that there was no such offer on the table, and also insisted that the club was not up for sale.
Liverpool fans are unsure what to think. “Most people are sat there cautiously wondering if it’s real,” says James McKenna, chair of the Liverpool fans’ group Spirit of Shankly. “At the moment no one knows what any of this means.”
PCP has been here before. In 2008 the firm, run by the dealmaker Amanda Staveley, came close to clinching a deal to sell Liverpool to Dubai International Capital, an arm of Dubai Holding, which is owned by Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum.
The same year, Ms Staveley successfully brokered a deal under which Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, brother of Abu Dhabi’s ruler, secured control of Manchester City.
Mr McKenna adds: “The fact Amanda Staveley is involved [in the latest approach for Liverpool] is one of the things that gives it more credibility. But because of the Hicks and Gillett days, fans are very careful about new owners. They need to know much more information.”
For now, that sort of detail seems a long way off. What is certain is that Liverpool is in a much better financial position now than when FSG bought the club in a £300m deal following a messy dispute between Mr Hicks and Mr Gillett and their bankers Royal Bank of Scotland.
According to accounts for the year to the end of May last year, Liverpool FC recorded turnover of £298m, the fifth largest in the English Premier League, and pre-tax profit of £60m, mainly due to the sale of star striker Luis Suárez to Barcelona.
Mr Henry has helped reduce the club’s net debt to £95m, and has implemented a conservative and sustainable transfer strategy which focuses on buying cheaper, younger talent.
Perhaps the greatest symbol of Mr Henry’s steady reign will come next month when an expanded main stand will reopen at Anfield, Liverpool’s stadium, following a £114m refurbishment. That project was partly financed through an interest-free loan from FSG.
But while FSG has brought stability, success on the pitch has been limited — just one League Cup title in the past six years, although people close to the club point out that they have come close to winning the Premier League and reached the final of the Europa Cup.
This summer, arch rivals Manchester United spent a new world record £89m on buying Paul Pogba from Italian club Juventus, and Manchester City splashed out £100m on new players. Contrast that with Liverpool’s impressive German manager Jurgen Klopp, who has spent £68m on new players but raised £69.5m through sales.
Against this backdrop, the possibility of investment by state-backed Everbright could seem very tempting for Liverpool, and present a short-cut to closing the gap on their wealthier Premier League rivals.
If a deal does happen, it could be the most important yet in a growing list of transactions involving Chinese investors and football. For now, Liverpool’s expectant fans can only watch and wait.
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