THE BILLION DOLLAR BUYER’S CLUB
An extract from Hoops, Stars & Stripes – The Andy Lynch Story.
“When the piles of gold begin to grow… That’s when the trouble starts.” Howard,‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ (1948)
Have you ever wondered what it entails to purchase an English Premier League football club?
Back in 2010, I was at the centre of an astonishing bid to buy one of English football’s most celebrated institutions in a deal worth a mooted £400 million. We took negotiations right up to the edge of completion, and I stood to be a major player in the running of the club had it all gone through. But how did I get involved in such a gigantic deal? I sometimes ask myself that same question.
I was enjoying life over in Australia, when I received an unexpected phone-call from an agent I had known from my time in Montreal. I considered him as something of a bull-shitter, like most agents I’ve ever dealt with. Anyway, this agent (and I cannot reveal his name on account of a disclosure agreement I signed around about this time) was keen to make me a proposition.
“I’m working on something that you might be interested in,” said the man from Montreal invitingly.
“Go on then,” I implored.
“I’m representing the Sharjah royal family from the United Arab Emirates,” began the caller, much to my mild curiosity. “The sheikh is looking to purchase a football team for his 12-year-old son’s birthday. You know that I know nothing about football; so, I’m asking you to be involved. You’re the football expert, Andy.”
I was astonished. In what sort of world did you buy an established football club for a 12-year-old boy?
I had to ask more questions about the origins of the deal, and he explained that the Canadian management company that he represented (Gameday) had been working alongside a cash-rich regime, who were determined to purchase a top-flight English football club.
I was to be appointed as the Football Advisor, in order for there to be a middle-man during negotiations who could actually speak the club’s language. I stood to make a vast sum of money by getting involved. Naturally intrigued, I agreed to fly out to Montreal (at his expense, I made sure) to find out more of the finer details.
Once I touched down in Montreal, I was driven to the agent’s offices, where I finally asked the all-important question, “So, what football club are we talking about here?”
“Liverpool,” came his almost incidental reply. (I almost fell off my chair).
“They’re a good team aren’t they? They’re the ones who wear the red uniforms, right?”
This is not an exaggeration; the agent knew less than zero about the beautiful game.
He then introduced me to a Syrian businessman called Yahya Kirdi, who had been sent over from the United Arab Emirates to represent the Sarjah royal family. It was Kirdi’s role to set up the deal with Liverpool‘s joint owners, George Gillett (whom he had already met), and Tom Hicks.
One problem was that Kirdi spoke less-than-impeccable English. Another was that the Syrian businessman was less-than-impressive on a personal business level. Apparently he only owned some minor companies in Dubai, but he represented one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the Gulf States.
The agent was openly disrespectful towards Kirdi, and constantly spoke down to him in a curt manner. I felt that was unfair, as it became clear that much of what the Syrian wanted out of the deal was to get his family over to Montreal as immigrants. I rather think the agent had promised to assist him in securing Canadian citizenship, and in return the agent would get a substantial cut of the Liverpool pie.
Liverpool were carrying debts of around £250 million, and Barclays Capital had been tasked in April 2010 by the Royal Bank of Scotland to find a buyer, and oversee the sale of the club. Two offers were apparently in the works: A Chinese government-backed bid, and this package being put together by one of the UAE’s ruling families, headed by Yahya Kirdi.
And, somehow, I had become involved in this complicated jigsaw puzzle.
“So, where do I fit in?” I asked the man from Montreal.
“The Liverpool Football Club don’t know me, and they don’t know who that guy is either (he pointed at Kirdi). You will be our football consultant, Andy. You’re the football expert, and you will be the figure-head who deals with the football people in England.”
Kirdi was clearly out of his element, and probably his depth too, and I felt like I had to do most of the talking for him. His English was poor but we still managed to communicate. He showed me respect because somehow he knew all about my career at Celtic, and revealed that he had played a bit of football himself in his younger days.
Throughout the negotiations, I would be the football consultant. Once the deal was concluded, I would be involved in the day-to-day running of the football club. “You can be the Chairman if that’s what you want to do,” explained the agent. “Once the deal is done, I’ll be out of here.”
The deal (and the figures were staggering) was that our party would invest £400 million of the Sharjah royal family’s fortune into taking control of Liverpool Football Club. This would wipe out a near £250 million debt, remove Gillett and Hicks, and we would still have some ‘change’ to invest in the football team. The construction of a new stadium was also mentioned as being in the pipeline.
“Why Liverpool?” I asked the agent.
“I know the owner, no other reason,” came the response, and I started to become suspicious. Who was he working for? I remembered that both Gillett and Hicks had owned National Hockey League (NHL) teams, and Gillett’s were based in Montreal. I knew also that the agent had represented ice hockey players for years; so, it made some sense that he had joined the dots on this deal.
“Would you not be better off buying Celtic?” I asked, and I was deadly serious. “You would pick them up for a fraction of that price; they don’t need a new stadium, and they don’t have debts of that magnitude,” I added.
The agent explained that money was no object, but he told me to go ahead and see if my ex-club were interested. I immediately phoned Celtic Park, and spoke to the receptionist there. Being mindful not to sound as though I was trying to wind them up, I was careful to explain in detail who I was, and that I had a close association as a player with the club over a number of years. The receptionist was left with a request for the powers-that-be to call me back as a matter of urgency. Almost needless to say, that call never arrived.
Who’s to say what might have happened had the £400 million cheque made its way to the East End of Glasgow?
While back in Montreal, I was introduced to George Gillett and Tom Hicks over dinner. We all went for a meal in a beautiful and private restaurant, and it gave me a chance to get to know these globally successful entrepreneurs. I got on well with the little guy – George Gillett – and he seemed very inquisitive; so, I decided to engage him in one-to-one conversation rather than open myself up to the whole group.Then, to my surprise, he asked me a question in a way that made all the dinner guests stop talking and focus on the pair of us.
“Andy, can you tell me why we get so many players at Liverpool who get these annoying hamstring injuries? I’m more of a hockey man – you know how great my team are because you lived in Montreal – but I’m not up on soccer much. I’ve been wondering about these injuries for a while now. Do you have any ideas what might be causing them?”
He had put me right on the spot in front of everyone around the table. No one else had really spoken to me during the meal, but it was now all eyes on me. I composed myself, and then recited my story about my first day of training at Philadelphia Fury, and how the physio had explained that the lack of preparation by British players caused poor flexibility, which inevitably resulted in far more muscle injuries.
Gillett was nodding all the way through my explanation, and he seemed suitably impressed with my knowledge of a sport he clearly had no real interest in beyond a balance sheet.
Meeting Gillett and Hicks confirmed to me that this was the real deal. The Montreal agent’s lack of knowledge, and Kirdi’s lack of interpersonal skills (including his command of English) had not filled me with confidence up to that point. Having met the Liverpool owners, I finally realised that this deal wasn’t the stuff of fantasy.
I got the impression that the two Americans didn’t get on with each other. They both had a level of wealth that exceeded the wildest dreams of most and, compared to the sheikh’s hapless representative, they were operating in a different league in terms of business acumen. However there was no doubt that they wanted to sell the club, and Kirdi had the backing to provide them with a nine-figure cheque.
With such vast sums of cash being touted, it was only a matter of time before the greed set in – if it had not done so already. The agent was taking another trip to the Middle East to meet the sheikh for a second time, but I wasn’t asked to attend. I stressed that I should be introduced to the money-man if I was going to be his eyes and ears during boardroom discussions and negotiations with the bank, but I was told that I only had to deal with the Liverpool side of the deal. His obvious reluctance to take me over and introduce me cast some doubt and more suspicion in my mind regarding the whole deal. As it happened, he went over to ask the sheikh for more expenses and returned with a six-figure sum and a brand new Rolex watch. I smelt a rat.
Our next trip was to Liverpool itself, and I was very impressed with their excellent Melwood training facility. The Academy Director was Frank McParland, whose reputation was on the rise. I asked him if he would do anything differently if we took over, and advised him that I would do everything I could to assist him with Liverpool’s youth programme if the bid was successful.
I was also introduced the club’s Chief Executive, Ian Ayre, who came across as an all-round decent individual, and who explained to me that the club sold more replica jerseys in Asia than any other football side in the world. It was clear to me that Liverpool were operating in a different stratosphere to any club I had ever been involved with.
We were invited to attend the Liverpool versus Stoke City game as guests of Gillett and Hicks, and I remember being introduced to Steven Gerrard at half-time in the guests’ room. Upon hearing that I was an ex-Celtic player, the Liverpool midfielder was quick to explain to me that he had a great love of the Glasgow club. Steven went on to explain that he had a framed Celtic jersey at home, and that it had the name of ‘Lynch’ on the back of it. At that point I realised that my son, Simon, had been thrilled to swap jerseys with Steven after the Ronnie Moran Testimonial match at Anfield a few years before. I explained this to the Liverpool captain, who seemed happy to stand and chat about my former team.
I was presented to the press as being the spokesperson for the potential buyers of Liverpool Football Club, and this resulted in a huge amount of media interest in the story.
“Everyone knows Liverpool aren’t the force that they once were, so this is just what they need at this time,” I told the press. “I’ve been to Anfield on business recently, and am acting as the go-between in the takeover deal.”
Everywhere we went, we were chauffeur-driven. I remember we were based in London when we visited Liverpool, and we were driven from our hotel in the capital to the stadium in Liverpool. We had regular meetings in London, Montreal, Dubai and Liverpool, and stayed in the most prestigious of hotels in each city. Tens of thousands of pounds were being haemorrhaged but Gillett and Hicks weren’t spending a penny of their own cash. The American owners didn’t seem to mind burning money mainly because it wasn’t theirs; it was Liverpool’s. Gillett and Hicks were pushing the boat out in an effort to finalise the deal. Accordingly, it didn’t surprise me when those loyal Liverpool fans began a revolt against their co-owners to get them out of the club.
Kirdi and I went over to Dubai so that he could finally introduce me to the Sheikh. The Syrian explained to me that the new owner would bank-roll the purchase and running of the club, but he wouldn’t want to be involved in the day-to-day operation. That would all be down to me, as I would be his representative at Liverpool F.C. The responsibility of such a role was huge, but I wasn’t overawed by it, and I started planning the types of people I would bring into the club to assist me.
The sheikh had his own football club over in Dubai, and he took us to watch them train. I could have gone over their to coach his side and earned myself a fortune, but I had invested so much time in this takeover deal that I wanted to see it through.
He came across as a well-educated, polite and surprisingly humble man, and he was keen to learn more about Liverpool. I explained to him that Liverpool were similar to my old side, Celtic, in so many ways, because the passionate support raised the clubs to a different level from most other clubs. I described how the passion these supporters displayed was unrivalled and that they would worship him if he was able to rescue their club because they lived for their football. The sheikh enjoyed gaining an insight into his investment, shook my hand warmly, and thanked me for all my ongoing efforts.
Before we left Dubai, Kirdi made a point of asking me who the best manager in Europe was. I told him that, in my opinion, it was Jose Mourinho.
“Will we go for him?” asked Kirdi excitedly.
“Yahya, we haven’t concluded the deal yet,” I cautioned. “Wait until we buy the club before you start worrying about things like that.”
If the deal had gone through, I know they would have gone for Mourinho, because they trusted my judgement on football matters, and they had unthinkable wealth.
Once I returned home to Glasgow after our Dubai trip, I decided that I better start putting plans in place. I wanted to build a team of trusted aides who could go into Liverpool with me. The first guy I contacted was a friend of mine who worked as the Head of Media for Celtic – Tony Hamilton.
Tony and I met for a coffee in the city, and I described how the deal with Liverpool was moving in the right direction. If it went through, I would need to employ professional and loyal individuals, who could help steer this great club back to the top. I told Tony that we could double his wages, and asked him to consider joining me if things worked out with Liverpool. His sense of loyalty was one of the main reasons that I asked Tony to join my team, but it was this core value that may have prevented him from leaving his beloved Celtic. I had planted a seed with Tony and told him it wouldn’t be long before I got back to him.
The next stop was London, where I was to meet three executives of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Kirdi and an accountant came down with me. The accountant was one of the Montreal agent’s men, and I remember he said to me crudely, “Can you believe that he (Kirdi) represents one of the richest people in the world?”
I must admit, I had asked myself that same question a few times already.
When we got sat around the table with the banking executives, Kirdi was staring out of the window, and the accountant was taking notes. With no-one else to focus on, the executives started firing financial questions directly at me. I thought I was the football guy?
We were there to verify that Gillett and Hicks were paying the interest on the debt, which was around £2.5 million a week, and the bank supplied us with all the relevant accountancy figures that we needed confirmed at that time. The bank was desperate for the deal to go through because they had allowed the financial mess to escalate, and someone’s neck was surely up for the guillotine.
Meanwhile, Gillett and Hicks had fashioned the perfect scenario. They had bought the club with someone else‘s money, milked it for as much as they could, lived like the millionaires that they were, and it didn’t cost them a penny. Now they were about to walk away from the shambles with a profit.
On the fateful day of the deal, Yahya Kirdi and the Montreal agent’s accountant went to the Royal Bank of Scotland with the official bid of £400 million and the proof of funds. Everyone else involved in the deal were waiting by the phone for confirmation.
Enter King Rat.
The Montreal agent, who had dragged me into this deal in the first place, had a foot in both camps and that was muddying the waters. All of a sudden the deal stalled, and the sellers failed to conclude and ratify the sale.
We were told there was some kind of legal hitch, and we were to all go home for the time being. Once the deal was concluded, we would be informed.
I phoned Kirdi, who was on his way back to Dubai incredulous with rage. Before the deal had been concluded, Gillett and Hicks had asked for more money at the very last minute. Kirdi had spoken to the sheikh to seek advice, and he was told to tear up the offer and return home immediately. Not a penny more would be offered.
The deal was dead, and there was to be no second chance.
I packed my bags and returned to Glasgow, never to see the charlatan agent from Montreal again. It was clear to me that he had been in cahoots with Gillett and Hicks, and had fed them information on the buyer. Thinking they could increase their own profits, the Americans asked for more, and they snuffed out the sheikh’s interest with their greed.
My experience with Liverpool Football Club gave me an incredible insight into the mind-blowing multi-billion-pound enterprise of English football and, had it not been for that deadly sin of greed, then the deal would have surely been concluded.
Having devoted months of my life to what had become a circus, I decided to retreat back to the sanctuary of my family, and the quiet life that it offered me.
Have you ever wondered what it entails to purchase an English Premier League football club?
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