If you've paid the slightest bit of attention to English football over the past five years it's liable you'll know about the ownership problems at Liverpool. Sold by David Moores, whose family funded the club's rise under Shankly, to a pair of American businessmen, because he could no longer fund Liverpool's attempts to match the inordinately wealthy likes of implacable foes Manchester United and arriviste upstarts Chelsea. And as the credit crunch struck, those businessmen, whose fortune was built on debt became not only unable to finance Liverpool as Moores had been, but unable to finance them at all, crippling the club to the point that they dived from a perennial top four club who were regulars at the business end of the world's more lucrative competition to seventh place also rans. The club hadn't finished so low since Graeme Souness tried to rebuild an aging side too fast and with entirely the wrong players. The better players had begun to depart already and the quality of players was gradually falling. Fan attitudes declined from a warm welcome, through unease and eventually, into open revolt and protest. A club who'd prided themselves on doing things behind closed doors turned on itself, sinking so low as to hire a PR company to badmouth their own manager.
An Epic Swindle is the story of those four and a half years Liverpool suffered at the hands of Tom Hicks and George Gillett. It's unashamedly partisan, casting Hicks and Gillett as the sort of evil hearted, black hatted bad guys you rarely get outside fantasy film franchises. And speaking as a Liverpool fan I can't say I disagree too much with that - I'd argue for a little fairness in that whatever their original intentions, they were caught out by the credit crunch so had their plans irretrievably disrupted early on. It's their actions subsequent to that which destroy and benefit of doubt though, and those are thoroughly chronicled here. Not only are they shown to be only interested in the money they can make out of the club, they demonstrate an astonishing ignorance which they don't have the wit to correct by hiring people who did know what they're doing. There was a reason they were bottom of a list of American sports owners compiled in 2009. The book's essentially a forensic dissection of their actions during their ownership and repeatedly it finds them wanting against standards set at Liverpool over the previous fifty years, let alone the standards of what ethics might remain in business. Gillett comes out of it marginally better than Hicks, but only by virtue of coming across as bumbling and incompetent where Hicks is tenacious and malicious. Hicks is shown as continually undermining the club in private whilst putting on a down home, doin' mah best for the club image out in public. And in that process he alienates everyone involved with the club not related to him.
Elsewhere Brian Reade writes with a commendably fair attitude. Fans who do their best to oust the owners are obviously praised, but the book really shines when discussing the major figures in the dramas at Anfield. Reade admits to past antipathy with Moore, one that even got the mild mannered former chairman riled enough to yell at him across a packed room, but gives him a fair hearing for his aims and actions after selling the club, though rightfully skewers him for putting Liverpool way behind Manchester United in exploiting commercial opportunities at a crucial time and the lack of research done into Hicks in particular. Rick Parry, former chief executive and a man repeatedly criticised by the writer and fans alike in the past, is another who is given sympathy thanks to the almost impossible workload his post imposed upon him. It does give rise to the one positive point Reade has to make, the bringing in of Ian Ayre to exploit commercial opportunities for the club (which had already begun to pay dividends before the October 2010 court date which forced Hicks and Gillett out). Even Christian Purslow, a man reviled by a large number of fans for his part in undermining Rafa Benitez, bringing in the out of his depth successor Roy Hodgson and buying and selling players without consultation of the manager, isn't condemned outright but has his sins weighted against his role in removing the owners. And finally there's Benitez himself, presented neither as the angel operating against the owners not the incompetent fool of polarised debate on Liverpool messageboards. Instead he comes over a good manager with a weakness for club politics who became too embroiled in the club's dirty business to do his main job to the best of his ability, particularly when the squad was being thinned by Hicks and Gillett's need to bring money in to attempt to pay off their loans.
Really this book should be the account of a footballing tragedy, one of the great institutions of British sport being immolated in an attempt to bridge the gap money was bringing about in the Premier League. But it didn't quite work out like that, like all the best stories it ends with heroes victorious, the villains vanquished with all plans in ruins and the club looking to the future, going from the 19th place in a 20 team league and most embarrassing Anfield defeat in club history to sixth place, new owners making the sort of signings Hicks and Gillett were supposed to make and possibly the only man who could unite the club after all the in-fighting in the manager's chair. What it ends up as is a tale of people power, the tale of Spirit of Shankly . It proves the wisdom of Joe Hill's old song There Is A Power In A Union. And in the words of a more famous song now indelibly associated with Anfield that at the end of the storm, there's a golden sky.