Watch out for bogus buyers

By Martin Samuel, August 26, 2010
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Buying a football club is very expensive. Saying you are buying a football club, however, is as cheap as chips. One phone call, one off the record briefing and away you go. Most of us could manage that in our lunch hour. Maybe some of you have. We all made prank calls as children; this is merely the grown-up version.

And the joke is on the football clubs. The owners, supporters, employees who scan the headlines each morning desperately hoping that this time the billionaire whose interest and bold plans are so dramatically documented will not turn out to be another chancer, another self-publicist or, in Newcastle United's case, another Sunderland fan on the wind-up.

It now transpires that not only is Kenny Huang not buying Liverpool, he did not even make a formal offer for the club. Nor did he sign a non-disclosure agreement, considered a pre-requisite of any formal negotiations. Far from losing a genuine investor - and saviour, considering all the talk of limitless transfer funds and Lionel Messi - Martin Broughton, chairman of Liverpool PLC, did not see Huang as a serious suitor.

So what was he? Self-publicist, fantasist, a financial middleman whose backers disappeared at an inopportune moment? Most likely, Huang was a figure increasingly familiar to Premier League administrators: a man who likes the idea of running a football club, but was startled by the reality.

The Premier League represents global fame, prestige and recognition. Huang and his people stepped into the limelight, with a pithy dismissal of Liverpool's unpopular current owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett and a populist soundbite concerning the acquisition of Messi, and instantly felt the love of the common people. That sort of adulation is infectious. Yet it is also only one small dividend of club ownership.

The reality at Liverpool adds up to more than getting a personalised banner on The Kop. There are owners who believe the business is worth in excess of the £237 million owed to the Royal Bank of Scotland, there is a new stadium to build, there are star players to keep satisfied and a new squad to buy, as the last one finished seventh and only made it into Europe because Portsmouth went skint.

Liverpool requires a giant investment, a fix that many estimate at close to £800 million, incorporating purchase, building projects and player upgrades; and all with no guaranteed return as success is an ephemeral creature at the best of times.

Faced with this, Huang's allies simply faded away. The handy excuse is they were scared off when the deal became public, but rich men are not fazed by such simple details. Anyway, a man with sufficient funding for Liverpool need tends to act so swiftly the period between the first headline and exchange of contracts would be measured in days, not the weeks that elapsed waiting for Huang's money.

How many of these false alarms have there been in recent years? Too many. Clubs exist in limbo as buyers from the Middle East, India, America, China and points south prepare to make a move. And what happens? Nothing. These guys have reached their own conclusions. Call a press conference, leak a name, unveil your vision of the future, milk the publicity for all it is worth, just whatever you do don't buy the damn thing. Because that's when the problems start.

    Last updated: 11:34am, August 26 2010