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Tough way to get your kicks

Henry’s purchase of Liverpool FC was fraught with legal complications before the goal was finally reached

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By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / October 21, 2010

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LONDON — The silent darkness of John W. Henry’s suite at the Intercontinental Hotel is pierced by the ping of an Apple laptop booting up. It’s 6:32 a.m. last Friday, and as the soft light from his computer glows, the angst on the Red Sox principal owner’s face becomes clearer.

“I couldn’t sleep last night,’’ says the barefoot Henry, sipping a bottle of water. “There have just been too many twists and turns.’’

Shadowing Henry on the day that New England Sports Ventures will acquire the Liverpool Football Club is a stomach-churning roller coaster ride.

The $476 million deal for the legendary team, which is in the throes of its worst season in 57 years, has been “a long and winding road,’’ to quote a Liverpool band.

Henry has been living, breathing, and eating soccer (which the Britons call football) “every waking hour’’ for a solid two months. He has been watching games in person and on television, studying players and reading everything he can download into his Kindle. Red Sox chairman Tom Werner, currently en route from Los Angeles, has also made several trips to England.

“It’s been such a surreal sale process,’’ Henry would reflect the next day, standing on the pitch at Anfield, the Fenway Park of England. There have been times when Henry thought he had a done deal, only to be temporarily thwarted by a restraining order issued some 4,700 miles away, in Dallas. There have been lawsuits filed, lawsuits dropped. He has been outbid but not outmaneuvered.

“We were comparing it to the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS against the Yankees,’’ says Henry. “Once again we came from behind in the bottom of the ninth.’’

This saga began with a message from Red Sox senior vice president Joe Januszewski, an Army brat who fell in love with the Liverpool team back in the mid-1970s, when his father was stationed in Germany.

He remembers his mother weeping when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at a soccer stadium in April 1989. Januszewski’s office at Fenway Park is half Red Sox/half Liverpool memorabilia. In August, when bankruptcy loomed for Liverpool, the team was put up for sale by controversial American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett. Januszewski texted Larry Lucchino and Henry and begged them to “save my team.’’

“Learn all you can about them,’’ was the reply from Henry.

Bumps in the road
Armed with the appropriate information, the energetic but soft-spoken Henry went to work. And on Oct. 8, New England Sports Ventures negotiated a binding agreement to purchase the debt-ridden team. Henry returned to Boston a happy man.

All was well until he was ambushed by British media. While fleeing, he was blinded by a photographer’s camera flash and smacked into a pole, injuring a shoulder. That was just the beginning. A British newspaper reporter left a note in his ex-wife’s mailbox in Florida, seeking dirt.

This wasn’t going to be easy. The next day, lawyers for Hicks and Gillett, citing two higher bids, tried to block NESV’s takeover in court, calling it an “epic swindle.’’

Henry flew back to London in his private jet and made a surprise visit to the Liverpool Football Club’s law offices of Slaughter and May to ensure that the deal went through. But at 8:25 p.m. — five minutes before the meeting to complete the sale was to begin — a Dallas judge issued a temporary restraining order against three Liverpool board members, the Royal Bank of Scotland, and NESV. Hicks also filed a $1.6 billion lawsuit for damages, but later dropped it.

“This is ludicrous,’’ says Henry. “We have a binding purchase-and-sale agreement.’’

By 9 a.m. Thursday, rumors were rampant that Mill Financial — with the backing of Hicks and Gillett — was scrambling to buy the debt, fire the board members, appoint new ones, and capture the company.

With a Friday evening deadline looming for the debt to be paid to the Royal Bank of Scotland, the Dallas court agreed to address the issue at 7 a.m. Dallas time. The timing was crucial because if the transaction was not completed by Friday evening, the club would be placed in bankruptcy. That would force Henry to withdraw his bid.

The High Court in Britain met again and ordered Hicks and Gillett to withdraw their claim or be held in contempt of court.

As Henry sits bleary-eyed at his computer at the Intercontinental, he types out a tweet about Hicks, Gillett, and Mill Industries.

“We have a binding contract. Will Fight Mill Hicks Gillett attempt to keep club today. Their last desperate attempt to entrench their regime.’’

In the past year, thousands of Liverpool fans have taken to the streets in protest of the team’s owners. Hicks’s son, Tom Jr., a Liverpool board director, had to resign after sending a fan an obscene e-mail in January.

It has been just five minutes since his tweet was sent, but it’s already scrolling on the TV.

“Tempers are running high,’’ says the Sky TV announcer.

History a selling point
Henry says there were many times when it looked as if getting the 18-time Premier League champion team was impossible. The Liverpool board initially didn’t want more American owners.

“There were other higher dollar figures,’’ says Henry. “But part of the decision was they felt we were the best buyer because of our track record and the articulation of our plans that we have to strengthen LFC going forward. We want to win championships.

“We’ve gone toe-to-toe with the New York Yankees, and that’s very analogous to going toe-to-toe with Manchester United here.’’

Though the team plays in a small stadium in a small city, revenue can be raised by targeting the Liverpool brand in Asia. LFC-TV is currently seen in 100 million homes, Henry says. And there is room for growth.

“We see this as a global property,’’ he contends.

Henry says the similarities between the Liverpool acquisition and his group’s purchase of the Red Sox in 2002 are “almost eerie, in a positive way . . . there is the stadium issue.’’

A new stadium to replace the 1894 bandbox called Anfield has been put on hold because of a lack of funds.

“It’s a good question whether we build a new one or try to renovate Anfield,’’ says Henry. “But it’s too early to decide.’’

Henry calls room service and orders a double cappuccino espresso and a half-dozen egg whites and toast. Ten minutes later, he has checked out of the hotel and is heading for the law offices of Shearman & Sterling, where his team of lawyers has been laboring for days. On the street, a man approaches Henry.

“You are our savior,’’ he says, bowing slightly. Henry smiles and shakes his hand.

In a chauffeured van, he passes Big Ben but keeps his eyes on his BlackBerry.

Meeting with his lawyers, he never sits, preferring to pace like a cat in a cage. Time is running out to get the judge to lift the restraining order so they can transfer the funds and complete the sale.

“I’m still worried, maybe a little neurotic,’’ he says.

At 9:07 a.m., news comes that the restraining order had been dropped by Hicks at 1:46 a.m., Dallas time.

“Oh, man, let it be true,’’ Henry says.

He gets back in the van with two lawyers and heads to Slaughter and May’s law offices. He is now cautiously optimistic that NESV is the proud owner of a football team.

Closing the deal
On arrival, news photographers pounce on Henry as if he’s the fifth Beatle. But Ed Weiss, the general counsel for the Red Sox and NESV, sets a block, and Henry slips quickly into the building. But there is more aggravation. Henry learns that one of the banks is demanding $10 million more to cover costs.

One lawyer suggests simply paying the money. Henry is furious but never raises his voice.

“I can’t believe this thing could blow up,’’ he says. “This is crazy. I’m not going to give them another dime.’’

Worse, the bank representative, rumored to be arriving “shortly,’’ is nowhere to be found an hour later.

“Shortly isn’t soon enough,’’ says Henry, clearly antsy.

He declares he needs some fresh air and wants to go for a walk.

Liverpool’s anthem is “You’ll Never Walk Alone,’’ the Rodgers and Hammerstein standard made famous by Liverpool’s own Gerry and the Pacemakers.

Right now, that couldn’t be more true. There are more than 100 media members camped outside the front door. But Henry finds an unattended door in an alley. Like the Beatles in “A Hard Day’s Night,’’ he hustles into the afternoon chill. When he sees a TV cameraman and a photographer walking toward him, he quickly takes off his glasses and ducks his head. The trick works, but later an elderly man is not fooled. He, too, wants his picture taken with Henry.

“You are the messiah,’’ he says. Henry looks at the ground, uncomfortable with the attention.

It’s cold and damp, and he’s running on empty. In fact, he’s feeling a little dizzy.

“I miss my wife, my daughter, and the baby,’’ he says. “I love the way the baby smells. I am a little homesick, to tell you the truth.’’

He stops dead in his tracks. It’s time to call his driver to the rescue. He looks for the nearest street sign to tell him where to go. The sign reads “Fortune Street.’’

But the sleep-deprived Henry misdials the number from his speed dial list. After a few seconds he realizes it’s not his driver on the phone; it’s one of the bankers who owns the vast majority of the debt.

Henry tells the banker the game is over.

“I’m going to the airport,’’ he says firmly. “Maybe to Boston.’’

There’s silence on Fortune Street as Henry listens. And then a big smile crosses his face for the first time all day. He hangs up and calls his partners.

“Congratulations, we own a football team,’’ he says. “I can’t believe we went through all that stress for nothing today.’’

Five minutes later, he is sipping French champagne.

At the press conference one of the journalists asks, “How are you going to pay for this?’’

Henry answers right away. “With pounds,’’ he says, drawing laughs all around.

Meet the team
Henry leaves immediately and boards his private jet, wiping his feet before stepping on the Red Sox logo on the carpet. Thirty-three minutes later, he’s in Liverpool. He lands at John Lennon Airport, and is treated like a working-class hero everywhere he goes.

In the morning, he makes an unscheduled trip to Anfield, surprising a security guard who scurries for keys. Henry walks the famous pitch and calls it “magical,’’ adding, “It has tremendous charm.’’

He shakes every hand, from groundskeeper to chef. He poses with fans and even meets with a group that has boycotted the team. The loudspeakers play a tape of 45,362 fans singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone’’ and his eyes get just a tad misty.

With Werner and Januszewski alongside, he addresses the players at Melwood Training Ground. The team hasn’t won a title in 20 years and is in 19th place, which puts it in jeopardy of being sent to a minor league next season.

“We are going to do everything we can to support you to help you win in the pitch,’’ Henry says to the assembled troops. “To create an atmosphere of winning.’’

But the following day, a lackluster Liverpool team gets beaten, 2-0, by Everton, whose Goodison Park is within sight of Anfield Stadium.

It’s a British version of a Subway Series. As Henry and Werner make their way through the enemy stands, some pitbull fans in the cheaper seats shout words ironically painful to the new owners.

“Bleepin’ Yanks!’’

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.

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