Liverpool saga shows disenfranchisement of fans

October 13, 2010

Legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly was a man of wise words.

His quip that soccer is more important than life and death showed how well he understood the visceral bond that weds clubs to their fans.

In likening the sport to socialism - ''with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards'' - Shankly also defined, forever, how the sport should be played.

But Shankly's assertion that a club's ''directors don't come into it, they are only there to sign the checks'' now looks hopelessly outdated. Blame Messrs. Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr. for that. In three agonizing years for the once-proud club, Liverpool's departing American owners have consigned Shankly's words to the garbage can.


The financial mess and fan fury that Hicks and Gillett leave at Liverpool shows that, for clubs today, the bosses are everything. Owners arriving with borrowed money and promises that aren't kept can soil legacies that took generations to build.

Fans no longer come into it. They are only there to sign the checks. With each passing season, they are made to pay increasing amounts for the pleasure of seeing their beloved club play, but there is little or nothing they can do if the owners mistreat the object of their affection, for instance by amassing unsustainable debts.

That must change.

The debacle at Liverpool, England's most successful club, shows how fans have been disenfranchised. As the bills mounted and the club's fortunes went from good to awful on the field, Liverpool's supporters have organized, protested and marched on Anfield stadium with yells of ''Yanks Out! Now!'' They were outside London's High Court again on Wednesday, chanting abuse, after a judge ruled on the club's fate.

But it is the bankers looking for their money back, not the fans, who have been heard. They, not fans, are the ones forcing Hicks and Gillett to sell up. The owners' imminent retreat is a victory for debt-collection, not fan power.

In the glorious days of Liverpool's past, fans needed their fingers and toes to tally up all the trophies that Shankly and Bob Paisley, his even more successful successor, brought home from the 1960s to '80s. Now, fans need a degree in accounting to fathom why owners have been allowed to rack up crippling debts in England's Premier League, using the clubs they buy and their hoped-for future earnings as collateral.

Oh, that the rest of us mere mortals all had bankers who were so generous and blind.

It would be understandable - but wrong - of Liverpool fans to now think that all Americans are bad Americans.

Growing up on farms in Arkansas and Illinois, Liverpool's prospective new owner John Henry did not, as far as we know, dream of becoming a big name in northwest England's port city, which gave the world The Beatles and still bears deep scars from the deaths of 96 fans crushed at an FA Cup semifinal in 1989.

Henry has a record of success in baseball, though. He also knows a thing or two about how to placate suspicious fans. When he and his group bought the Boston Red Sox in 2002, he says they were seen as ''small-market guys'' thought to have borrowed so heavily that they wouldn't be able to afford good players. That argument was killed by two World Series titles, a $250 million fix-up of the team's landmark Fenway Park, and salary spending second only to the New York Yankees.

Liverpool fans aren't as naive as they were when Hicks and Gillett arrived in 2007, either, posing for photos in front of the legendary ''THIS IS ANFIELD'' sign that Shankly reportedly said was hung in the players' tunnel ''to remind our lads who they're playing for, and to remind the opposition who they're playing against.''

Liverpool's new owners, warns the Spirit of Shankly fans group, ''are not walking into a club of supporters with open arms. There will be one gently outstretched hand of welcome while the other hand contains a list of questions that will need honest and open answers before any welcome becomes more warm.''

Hear that Henry?

It may be that he does. Liverpool managing director Christian Purslow told the BBC that he asked Henry ''to consider a scheme at our club that will give our fans a real sense of ownership, a real sense of inclusion, the kind of voice, if you like, that frankly they deserve.''

''I don't want to miss the opportunity to make sure our fans never again feel so disenfranchised. It's the way forward for professional football in England,'' he said.

Aye to that. One possible model is a scheme put in place at Arsenal that allows supporters to buy microshares in the London club, giving them a small say and a chance to take part in its annual general meetings. It won't lead to fans taking over Arsenal, but it does support the idea that owners are merely custodians of clubs, not all-powerful beings who can run them into the ground if they wish.

That notion should be true for clubs everywhere. To echo the words of Liverpool's famous song, fans mustn't be left to walk alone.


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)