Book Review: ‘An epic swindle: 44 months with a pair of cowboys’

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The Colour of Money

Brian Reade (2011) An Epic Swindle: 44 months with a pair of cowboys, London Quercus

I am writing this review within half an hour of reading the final word on the final page and I am stunned. Firstly, I had never really known that things had got that bad at Liverpool. It would be impossible to write a list of who fell out with who. If you tried to do a spider diagram about who was a friend to whom, the ‘family tree’ would turn into a classic Andy Warhol painting.

I have also never read a book that is so truly angry in tone but continually keeps your attention. This book is not a rant from a Mr Angry from Bootle that you would get on the average Saturday night phone in. It is a carefully constructed account from a passionate fan who talks about how this great club was extremely close to toppling over the cliff into a sea of debt, recrimination, and sad memory.

As selected episodes of this sorry drama were being played out in public, many Liverpool FC mates were complaining about how the state of their proud club was degenerating into a ‘classic’ episode of the Jeremy Kyle Show. The club meant more to them than a series of broken relationships that you would get on a trashy soap opera filmed in Essex. One fan is quoted in this book in saying that if the court case had been found in favour of Hicks and Gillett in October 2010, “we may as well go home and bulldoze Anfield to the ground.” Reade reminds us that at many points during the last four years, Liverpool FC were dangerously close to becoming a series of dreams and rubble.

Do not believe that this book is an easy read. It is not one of those books that effortlessly moves from one cup triumph to another leaving you in a fuzzy glow of happiness. Great goals are not scored on every page of this book, apart from some spectacular own goals in the boardroom. If you want another account of the mastery of Shankly, Paisley or Dalglish (series one or series two) or the great players who have played in the famous red kit down the years, you will need to be looking somewhere else in your favourite book shop or web page.

However this book is as an important read to Liverpool fans as well as those other more celebratory books, because it demonstrates that there is a spirit in the terraces of Anfield that is bigger than the average Fever Pitch movie, and how it was nearly sacrificed in the pursuit of the allusive dollar.

This book also tells you that success at a football club cannot be generated from the top by some ‘feel good words’ or a random interview to a well-known rolling sports news channel with Liverpool ‘products’ in careful camera shot. In fact, the account in the book of Hicks’ horrendously bizarre TV interviews clad in Liverpool merchandise, and trying to desperately care about beating teams like Everton were some of my favourite passages in this book. What was the PR machine of Tom Hicks really thinking? Did anyone have their feet in reality? This book teaches any aspiring Apprentice wannabe that you can’t run a football club like a shopping channel and a stock exchange company without truly understanding the club’s history and the passion of the fans.

In some ways, this book is uplifting because it does become a story about how groups of fans came together to do their bit in saving the club from everlasting years of decline on and off the pitch, but it is not done in a corny way that would find its way into a Hollywood film script. In fact, from what you read in this book, you could even wonder if Hollywood would have ever accepted the actual premise for a film about Liverpool FC between 2007 and 2010 because what happened in the boardroom, across the Atlantic and on the pitch would probably have been regarded as too far-fetched. For a start, it is difficult to truly understand the financial sums that appear throughout this book. I struggled to understand what £50 million actually meant when Torres was sold in January but could anyone tell me what £800 million actually looks like? Could you even fill the average sized lounge with £800 million worth of bank notes? It is only when you have re-read the sums of money, which were banded around during this traumatic era for the club, that you truly begin to appreciate that we are talking about money and debt that is beyond our wildest imagination. Bluntly, this is not just pocket money that you would give to a child for a bag of toffees.

The grim story starts on Tuesday 6th February 2007, when Hicks and Gillett unveil themselves as the “financial saviours” of Liverpool Football Club trying to make themselves fit in with the Anfield faithful by “caressing” the ‘This Is Anfield’ sign and sporting “red woollen scarves” over their sharp suites. Reade feels “weird” at what he describes as a “Seventh Day Adventist Bible Sellers Convention” but notes the trouble that Liverpool previously had in responding to clubs like Chelsea and Manchester United in the financial and (ultimately) the playing stakes.

In an effort to be “keeping up with Chelseas,” the club had just watched two American billionaires become the owners of Liverpool FC that could be easily caricatured in those American films shot in officers with glass tables, clocks showing the time in twelve different countries, and executives chewing their cigars whilst screaming at their hapless PAs that their Martinis or whiskies had been poured the wrong way. Reade felt uneasy but managed to force out a newspaper piece full of guarded language. This would not be the last comment piece from his pen, or keyboard, on this story.

What was by far the most exciting aspect of the book was the way that fans groups rose to try and protect their beloved football club. In an era across the UK when fans believe that their role at the club is to provide money for tickets, food and replica shirts and shorts, it was particularly heartening to read about the work of Spirit of Shankly and Kop Faithful, with a particular focus on the Internet in the email, in trying to bring about the end of the Hicks and Gillett regime. Whether you believe that this is merely down to what Liverpool Football Club means to so many people, or some intrinsic DNA in the psyche of the Merseyside people, to never give up and always fight for justice in the face of adversity, the work of these fans groups deserves a special mention.

Reade talks about how the early meetings struggled to get a focus in the face of corporate jargon, spin and blather from outside sources, but the trans-Atlantic cyber war was especially impressive. Hicks and Gillett appeared to keep on citing the fans as one of the problems of the club. When the owners start blaming the fans for the problems of Liverpool Football Club, you know that something has gone dramatically ‘rotten in the state of Anfield’ (with deep apologies to William Shakespeare.)

A trite summary of this book could suggest “be careful what you wish for.” You pray for a sugar daddy that will re sprinkle star dust over your club, and all that you get is a stench of a stagnant pond. There are many times in this book when Reade mentions the desire of fans to believe that the good, especially in the early days of the Hicks and Gillett regime, and I would not criticise the fans for thinking like that. After a history of success, only the most bizarre or heartless group of fans would not want that success to be repeated, but if something positive has come out of the sorry episode, it may have helped people to appreciate the club just a little bit more, and what would happen if the empire of Liverpool FC came crashing down around them.

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