27 January 2008

American dream spells nightmare for Liverpool

By Nick Towle, guest columnist The Daily Telegraph
Last Updated: 3:45am GMT 27/01/2008

The concerns that Liverpool fans are currently experiencing will strike a chord with the Manchester United supporters who resented their club falling into the hands of American owners three years ago.
When the Glazers took over at Old Trafford, I decided I would not be renewing my season ticket because I felt it wasn't my club any more and I have not been back.
At the time it was a very difficult step to take because United had been my club and any committed football fan knows what that means. But, like so many others, I didn't like what was happening and feared for the future.
We could all see that the Glazers weren't football fans and that they were taking out huge loans to secure the deal. From being a club with no debt, United were suddenly a club with heavy debts.
The cost was bound to be passed on to the supporters and that has proved to be the case. The price of the season ticket I had has more than doubled in the three seasons since I gave it up.
The Liverpool takeover was greeted very differently. There was a great fanfare for Tom Hicks and George Gillett, who made very public appearances, gave lots of interviews and made all the right noises. They gave the impression their regime would be nothing like the Glazers' and most Liverpool fans fell for the charm offensive.
We were approached by some Liverpool supporters and we cautioned them not to take everything at face value. Now, more and more Liverpool fans realise that the big PR front was exactly that. It seems they have the same way of doing things as the Glazers after all.
If anything, I think Liverpool are probably going to be in bigger debt that United. The refinancing deal and the new stadium could put them in even more trouble than the Glazers have inflicted on Old Trafford.
Far from benefiting from the investment of American money, Liverpool are likely to find themselves funding Hicks' baseball and ice hockey teams across the Atlantic. He has openly admitted as much. The fans want to see money coming into their football club, not going out of it.
The fact is that Liverpool are being treated like a franchise. That's the way of it in the US but it's not the way we regard our football clubs over here.
The Americans don't understand the game in England and everything about it - the fans, the traditions and what a football club means. Even a club like United, with a global following, has always been a community club.
This is not just a problem for United and Liverpool. It's a bad and dangerous situation for English football in general. The game here will eventually suffer because the loyal lifelong fans will be priced out of their clubs.
I don't have any pangs of regret about staying away from Old Trafford now because I see what a money-fixated club it has become. It's all about profit, profit, profit.
Sadly, that's the way football is going and I feel sorry for the game. It's going to get worse. Fans are being asked to dig deeper into their pockets to feed this commercial machine. It's becoming crazy.
I keep in touch with what's happening at United and I watch the matches on television, so to that extent I still feed the machine. But I don't have to fork out more than £1,000 a year to watch them.
The ticket prices have soared, just as we predicted, and this season we've seen the ludicrous automatic cup ticket scheme in operation at United.
Whether season ticket holders like it or not, they have had to buy a ticket for every home cup match as well. That included the Carling Cup tie against Coventry City, when United put out a reserve team. The club botched it up badly this season and they now realise that, so I am sure there will be changes for next season.
United are telling everyone how they plan to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Munich air crash on Feb 6 and pay further tribute to those who died when they play Manchester City at Old Trafford on Feb 10.
They say there will be no commercialism and have produced a one-off Fifties-style shirt for the occasion without the sponsor's name. We understand there will, however, be an AIG logo on display with the picture panels of the new Munich Tunnel, which depicts the story of the Busby Babes and Matt Busby's rebuilding of the team after the tragedy.
That has, to say the least, not gone down well with United fans, but then it is a reflection of the route the club have taken. People may wonder why we complain and continue to campaign for the genuine fan. United are having another successful season, playing attacking, attractive football and Old Trafford is full to its 76,000 capacity. But many of the true fans no longer go and what will happen if United have a dip in fortune? Will they still turn up in such numbers to feed the commercial machine and pay off the interest on the club's debts?
More fans will be driven away and be restricted to watching their football on television. I'm currently in Sierra Leone on business and the Premier League is enormously popular here. It gives you an insight into the global appeal of English football.
But live football is getting out of reach for the traditional English football fan and I believe that is a trend that should sadden all of us.

Nick Towle is the chairman of the Manchester United Supporters' Trust (MUST), formerly Shareholders United. He has asked for the fee for this article to be donated to the George Best Foundation.

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