Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 December 2014

James Lawton: Premier League clubs should learn from the NFL

George Gillett (left) and Tom Hicks
George Gillett (left) and Tom Hicks

If the particular mess at Liverpool is indeed about to be cleaned up one consequence should spread its way through a Premier League where a number of similar disasters may well be waiting to happen.

One did last season when proud old Portsmouth became a limping example of how any respectable football club, or any other kind of business, should not be run.

Even now the RBS bank is wrestling over a decision on whether or not to foreclose on Liverpool's American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, who like their compatriots at Manchester United, the Glazer family, were allowed to take over one of the two most successful clubs in English football with nothing to put down but massive borrowing — and eye-watering interest payments.

If Liverpool are now able to accept one of two offers which have described as excellent and survive with the chance of prospering again at the highest level of the game it is no thanks to the old board which acquiesced so abjectly in in the eagerness former chairman David Moores to sell to Hicks and Gillett his inherited major shareholding in the club he professed to love so passionately.

Here was total failure for the Premier League's idea of fit and proper person vetting — one that has been underlined with huge, bleak emphasis at each stage of Liverpool's slide into chaos and the wrong end of the league.

One question needs to be asked all over again by the Premier League: why did Hicks and Gillett first set their sights on Liverpool Football Club? Was it out of deep interest and admiration for the sports house that Bill Shankly built with relatively small amounts of money and a lifetime of football passion and acumen? Er, no.

It was because they saw in one of the jewels of English football a carpetbagger's dream, free utterly from the kind of obligations they had faced in ownership of major league sports franchises in North America.

Hicks, Gillett and Glazer would never have had the gall to bid for NFL clubs in the way they gained control of Liverpool and United. Glazer, it is true, has had considerable success as owner of the NFL Buccaneers but in America he has had to play strictly by the rules? Or face biting investigation into his financial wherewithal.

The rules in the NFL are hard and specific and make nonsense of the Premier League's concept of how an important sports league should be run.

When the Arsenal manager George Graham lost his job after allegations that he accepted a bung following a transfer deal, the circumstances were put to an NFL official after he had outlined his organisation's policy on all trading between clubs.

Agents, he said, could only act for player clients and did not receive a cent from any other source. All deals were monitored by crack lawyers and accountants. When he heard how English football went about its business, he was disbelieving.

After a long pause, he said, “Say what?”

There was a similar reaction yesterday when the details of the Liverpool fiasco and the United business model were discussed. An NFL official said, “It really is unbelievable the way this situation has developed.

“No, it couldn't happen in the NFL — not in a million years.”

It is the difference between a league that cares about its image — and one that has stood back and watched one of its greatest clubs lurch towards an abyss.

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