29 November 2007

Cowboy-boot messiahs show their hand

Despite their superior PR skills, Liverpool's American owners have managed to divide opinion

Lawrence Donegan
November 29, 2007 1:02 AM

There is a mug born every minute but it is only once in a generation that half a city finds itself drowning in the kind of delusion that washed through Liverpool earlier this year as Tom Hicks and George Gillett were garlanded into town like cowboy-booted messiahs after buying the most successful British club of the post-war era.
What a contrast to the opprobrium heaped on the Glazers after they purchased Manchester United although, as Hicks pointed out in an interview with this paper in May, the Glazers' biggest problem was a PR campaign which was "a blueprint of what not to do". Liverpool's new co-owner, on the other hand, proved to be as good at PR as he was at making money. "They have been very honest, they don't pretend to be lifelong fans," said the club's chief executive, Rick Parry, one of many Hicks and Gillett employees wheeled out to provide references for the men now paying their wages. "They're not about to change things for the sake of change."
Sadly, the vast majority of Liverpool supporters bought into this sycophantic waffle, while the minority who felt queasy at the silkiness of it all fell for one of the oldest tricks in the cardsharp's handbook - the bait and switch. "What, no questions about George Bush?" an avuncular Hicks said after the aforementioned interview was over.
For many, the Texan's long friendship with President Bush was the single most reprehensible aspect of the Anfield takeover but, when all is said and done, being friends with the current occupant of the White House is not a criminal offence. Hicks knew this, which explains why he was happy to take softball questions about the good old days when he made the hapless Bush a rich man by taking the Texas Rangers baseball team off him in a multi-million dollar deal.
Meanwhile, the real meat of the Liverpool takeover was lost amid the hot air of anti-Bush rhetoric - namely, what kind of businessman is Hicks, how would he run Liverpool FC and what would his stewardship mean for the club? The answer to the first question is that Hicks is a successful businessman, although as someone who made his fortune in the rapacious world of leveraged buy-outs he could hardly be expected to have an instinctive feel for airy concepts such as sentiment, tradition and "the soul of a football club". As for day-to-day running of the club, we now have our answer in the treatment of the "impertinent" Rafael Benítez over the last week. Since arriving on Merseyside the Spaniard has been accused of hard-heartedness in his handling of players, so there is a sliver of satisfaction in watching him get a taste of his own medicine. Yet this tiny pleasure is far outweighed by real despair over where Liverpool might be heading.
Coincidentally (or maybe not), while Hicks was force-feeding humble pie to Benítez he was also, in the words of the Dallas Morning News, "revamping 75% of the collective upper management" of his two American teams, the Rangers and the Dallas Stars. "I'm the owner, it's what I do," Hicks said. "Honestly, I feel good today. I think I am getting a lot accomplished."
Others are not so sure and have suggested Hicks' US sporting empire might be crumbling. This can be dismissed as wishful thinking but what cannot be ignored is the sense that any man who "revamps" three-quarters of his managerial workforce in 48 hours and thinks he has accomplished a lot might not be thinking straight. Of course, that kind behaviour might work in American sport, where the "franchise" system means the ties of loyalty and tradition bind about as tightly as gossamer handcuffs. But it is not what a national treasure like Liverpool needs, which is something the club's fans should make clear the next time Hicks rolls into town.

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