With a Champions League fixture set for tomorrow night, it was time for the standard press conference from Rafa Benitez to take place at Melwood this afternoon. Except the assembled journalists didn’t really want to know too much specifically about the Porto game at Anfield, they wanted to know the latest in Rafa’s troubles with the American owners.
Rafa is reported to have been marked down by Tom Hicks for the sack ever since his passionate and emotional outburst after the Athens defeat in May. Hicks in particular is said to have blown his top about Rafa’s outburst, perhaps having never seen such passion from a coach in the sports he understands. The owners didn’t sack him, but they also didn’t allow him to buy the players he wanted; they went back on their promise to give him extra funds to strengthen his squad. He got the money from player sales and the Champions League prize money.
Despite allowing him to at least spend the transfer money already inside the club in the summer, they stopped him from even doing that recently. Rick Parry has been very quiet on this mess, and given that his inability to negotiate transfers efficiently has been one of Rafa’s many frustrations, there are strong feelings from many Reds that if there are to be any casualties next month then it should be the Chief Executive. Parry is believed to have some kind of protection from being ousted, under the terms of the takeover, but that doesn’t mean he can’t resign. But the feeling is that Parry, who once almost lost Steven Gerrard due to a lack of interest, is part of the reason Rafa is suffering so much right now.
Rafa feels that he’s made his point now. He’s let the mess behind the scenes become known publicly, and made life difficult for Parry and the owners, who all knew that what they were doing would cause outrage if it ever leaked out. Rafa is hoping that the owners will see sense and is now intent on keeping quiet about the row. When asked at the press conference about what had been going on, he replied: “As manager of Liverpool I know that the match against Porto is the most important thing, so I do not want to talk about anything else.”
But could this be his last game, given the reports that the owners are just waiting for their opportunity? He said: “I am sure we will win and play well, then I will be thinking about the next game, beating Bolton on Sunday.”
Parry, a chief executive with an alleged reputation for ignoring important phone calls and forgetting to send important faxes, held a two hour meeting with Rafa last night, but Rafa would not comment on this at all: “You can ask about the meeting with Rick Parry, but I will only talk about Porto, that is the only thing I am concerned about. We were thinking about Porto, were talking, but we talk a lot. We were talking about different things, but the most important thing for my club and our supporters is the game.”
Tomorrow night at 6.30pm Liverpool fans will meet at the Sandon in what will be a night of them showing their support for the manager. Nobody can be in any doubt that the vast majority of Liverpool fans are fully behind the boss, but the show of support tomorrow night will make sure nobody misses this important fact. Rafa was determined not to say anything that might upset the owners when asked about this demonstration, saying he hopes they are behind the team: “The fans are the most important thing, always. Their support is fantastic, you could hear that in the semi-finals with Chelsea, it was the same against Besiktas, and if they are behind the team again then I will be very pleased.”
He does love the support from the fans, it’s part of why he’s so happy with life at the club, but to avoid upsetting the owners he was trying to say that the supporters need to do their twelfth-man thing to win the game: “The most important thing is the club and the supporters, the game is more important. We know we must win, but we must not think that is the only way. We must not make mistakes and lose the game. If we draw and then win in Marseille, it is still possible to qualify for the last sixteen. We must not forget that and end up making mistakes that mean we lose.”
His message for the supporters – be loud: “As for the fans, I want to hear the same noise that we had against Chelsea in the Champions League semi-finals – that will please me.” He needn’t worry. But he might hear his own name more than that of any of the players.
Rafa is comparing this campaign to the campaign in 2005 when Liverpool went to the last minutes of the last group game before finally qualifying. They went on of course to win the competition itself in that famous night in Istanbul, and Rafa feels that his squad can get themselves through this group stage successfully again: “We have enough confidence and experience to win this one. We have been here before – we have played huge games against Olympiacos, Juventus and Chelsea. We know what must be done; we must approach the game with confidence and the right mentality. We are in good form so we must continue to play in that manner.”
Liverpool’s first three Champions League games yielded just one point, but Rafa feels that the team have improved since then: “Our form is much better now, we are playing some very good football, and we must maintain our momentum. We must do better against Porto than we did in Portugal when we drew our first match. The difference this time is that we will have our fans behind us, and we are playing better. We are in a better position than before.”
Captain Steven Gerrard spoke exclusively to the Liverpool Echo about the impact the battles might have on tomorrow night’s match: “It’s important that the players keep their focus,” he said. “We realise that there is stuff going on behind the scenes but as a player you have just got to blank that out. As players we get judged on results so it’s vital that we don’t get distracted from what is going on on the pitch and keep on winning. The match against Porto is crucial so we have to take our form into it and make sure we perform on the night.”
A lot is being made of Rafa’s decision to wear a tracksuit instead of a suit for the 3-0 win over Newcastle on Saturday, but Gerrard joked that he should wear them from now on: “The manager is usually in a suit, it’s not like him, but he can keep wearing a tracksuit for away games if we keep getting results like the one at Newcastle.”
Having just been part of an England team that struggled throughout their failed Euro 2008 qualifying campaign due to a coach being way out of his depth, Gerrard must have been horrified to see such a decent coach being threatened with the sack even when unbeaten in the league. Gerrard nearly left for Chelsea in summer 2005, much of that down to Rick Parry’s inaction after Istanbul when Gerrard was expecting a new contract.
The captain also had a good word for new boy Lucas, who played a big part in the win: “The manager has got a lot of faith in Lucas and so have his team-mates. He has got fantastic talent and he has just got to keep his feet on the ground. He had great players around him at Newcastle, the likes of Harry Kewell, Fernando Torres and Carra and Sami Hyypia behind him, helping him and talking him through the game, but he did really well and now he just needs to take the confidence from that performance and build on it.”