- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 13, 2010

LONDON (AP) - A British judge ruled against Liverpool’s American owners Wednesday, clearing the way for the sale of the debt-ridden Premier League club after a bitter boardroom battle.

The owners of the Boston Red Sox and a Singapore billionaire are bidding to buy the club, with a decision expected by the Liverpool board on Wednesday night.

High Court Judge Christopher Floyd ruled that Liverpool co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr. do not have the power to oust the boardroom rivals who sanctioned the sale.

The board agreed last week, against the wishes of Hicks and Gillett, to sell the club to New England Sports Ventures for $476 million.

The New England group, which runs the Red Sox and is headed by financier John Henry, welcomed Wednesday’s court ruling as a “huge step forward” for Liverpool.

The company said it has a “binding agreement in place” with the Liverpool board and looks forward to concluding the deal.

“We are ready to move quickly and help create the stability and certainty which the club needs at this time,” NESV said in a statement.

Liverpool, which won the last of its 18 English league titles in 1990, is off to its worst start to a season since 1953 and is mired in the relegation zone.

Singapore businessman Peter Lim is still pursuing his rival bid for Liverpool. He urged the board to consider all the offers and “not simply ratify a sale to NESV.”

Lim, who originally matched the Boston offer, made an improved bid Tuesday of $506 million.

“I have delivered my offer to the board and believe that my ownership represents the best option for the future of the Club and it’s supporters,” he said Wednesday. “I hope that when the Board is reconstituted tonight that it will not simply ratify a sale to NESV but will consider all the offers before them.

“I am asking the Board to run a full and fair process that enables all of the offers to be considered on their merits before the future of the Club is decided.”

The board meeting comes ahead of Friday’s deadline to repay the club’s debts to the Royal Bank of Scotland.

“RBS has every confidence that having been put on a proper footing, the board will now reach appropriate decisions regarding the next steps,” the bank said in a statement.

But Liverpool chairman Martin Broughton wouldn’t specify which bid or bids would be considered at the board meeting.

“This will pave the way to a sale,” Broughton said outside the court after Wednesday’s ruling. “We will have a board meeting this evening and proceed with the sale process.

“I’m not going to prejudge the board meeting. It would be inappropriate to prejudge what the board is going to say. But the club’s going to have a great future. … We will get the right owners for the fans.”

The ruling was a victory for Broughton, who was hired to oversee the sale process in April, managing director Christian Purslow and commercial director Ian Ayre.

“Well done Martin, Christian & Ian,” John Henry posted on his Twitter account after the announcement. “Well done RBS. Well done supporters!”

Hicks and Gillett claim the NESV offer undervalues the club and their legal team argued in court that other bids should be reconsidered.

The judge, who heard five hours of court arguments in the case Tuesday, ruled that Hicks and Gillett have “no absolute right to veto a sale” and said he didn’t want to issue a ruling that could “damage” the Boston bid.

“In these circumstances, it would be entirely wrong to grant the owners “an injunction to stop the sale,” he said.

The judge said it would be “inappropriate” for Hicks and Gillett to appeal. The owners will have to pay legal costs.

Keith Oliver, a lawyer representing the duo, said he was consulting with Hicks and Gillett on their next steps.

Outside the court, dozens of Liverpool fans _ many wearing team shirts and waving banners and club scarves _ cheered, chanted slogans against Hicks and Gillett and serenaded the three board members with the Liverpool anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Had the sale been blocked, Liverpool could have fallen into financial administration, a form of bankruptcy protection that would have incurred a nine-point penalty for the club from the Premier League.

“The work off the pitch has been done,” 25-year-old fan Kam Dhinsey outside the court. “Now the players need to work harder and get the right results on the pitch, because this must have been playing on their minds.”

It was also revealed Tuesday that American hedge fund Mill Financial has put in a bid that also pledges to wipe out the club’s debts and would provide up to $158 million to fund a new stadium.

Mill Financial technically controls Gillett’s 50 percent stake after he defaulted on the loan used by Gillett to fund his part of the leveraged takeover in 2007.

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AP Sports Writer Steve Douglas contributed to this report.