The future of Rafael Benitez as Liverpool manager is still up in the air, with claims of a thaw in relations seeming to be still some way short of the truth.
The owners know, unless they are extremely stupid, that sacking Rafa at the moment would bring an end to their days of sitting in the stands at Anfield wearing Liverpool scarves and pretending to care about the club. If either of them do care about the club, their support for Rafa needs to be made public this week, before the Manchester United game if possible. The chances of them caring for the club the way Liverpool supporters do are slim, given their admitted lack of knowledge about the sport itself, but they obviously care about their “investment”. The issue now seems to be whether the owners, Hicks especially, have it in them to reconsider their reported earlier stance regarding Rafa, or if their stubbornness will mean Rafa goes regardless of how he does on the pitch.
The club and Tom Hicks have been extremely quick to deny claims made that Hicks wanted to sell his stake and that the owners were arguing about the future direction of the club, and Hicks was quick to blast Rafa after the press conference where he said nothing – literally – about his relationship with the owners. They – the owners and the Chief Executive – have made full use of the local press to put forward claims that things are now running a little more smoothly, claiming “misunderstandings” – yet have still not issued a denial about the alleged plan to sack Rafa before next season.
George Gillett was in Marseille on Tuesday to see Rafa’s team demolish Marseilles and book their place in the Champions League knockouts, before arriving in England, where he was joined by Tom Hicks. A board meeting is believed to have taken place last night, to discuss Rafa’s future. Whether it decided to abandon or confirm those alleged plans to give Rafa the boot is unknown yet, but given the make-up of the board that’s hardly likely. George Gillett has still not broken his silence about Rafa’s future, Hicks has only spoken about himself. And the meeting between the owners and Rafa himself won’t take place -at the earliest – until Sunday after the game, possibly even early next week.
Rafa is in a difficult position. The decision by Hicks to make a statement after Rafa’s “concentrating” press conference ensured the press had a story to look forward to. They knew that Hicks and Gillett would be in town for the Manchester United game, and so have been for the owners to make some statements. Until they can speak to the owners, they have to make do with pressing Rafa.
Rafa was of course asked about the situation again yesterday. His line – in public at least – is that he thinks the owners will be in support of him again just as soon as they’ve ironed out a couple of misunderstandings, after all, they all want the same thing – he says: “They want to win, I want to win. We have more or less the same ideas. It is just a chance to find a solution to the misunderstanding. I do not have any personal problems with them. I think we will have meeting this weekend or next week. I am not sure. But I am not worried about this now as we are playing against Manchester United and it will be really difficult. We must think about the game.”
So with less of the sarcasm of the interviews at the start of this row he goes back to saying he’s concentrating on coaching his team and preparing for the game. And that’s understandable, after all he’s not in a position to change anything until the owners finally find a bit of time to have a word with arguably the most important employee they have at the club.
What Rafa is concerned most about is the fact that he’s now under the impression that the owners want him to be a coach rather than a manager. But he’s employed as a manager, meaning he expects to take more of a role in transfer and contract negotiations. He needs the owners to confirm what they want to do: “I am a manager and the only question now is how I manage, so we just need to clarify that situation.” And he’s not too worried – he says – about his relationship with them: “I think that I will be on their Christmas card list again, and they will be on mine as well, it’s not a problem. I am certainly not worried about the meeting. We are all trying to do the best for our club and they want the same.”
One worry about the owners’ attitudes is that they have still not spoken to Rafa since they publicly had a go at him: “We just need to understand one another. I have not spoken to them but I have spoken through Foster Gillett and the situation is clearer now.” Foster Gillett, George’s son, had disappeared for a month, absent when the row broke out. “The meeting will be this weekend or early next week,” Rafa said, “and I think the meeting will sort things out and everything will be okay. We will talk about things like how to beat Chelsea in the Carling Cup!”
He expects it all to be resolved one way or another by then: “I think all the talk about my position will be finished next week.”
Rafa has some critics, and accepts that not everything has gone to plan, but there is no denying the improvements he has made at the club since he took over from Gerard Houllier. Much of his reign has been spent trying to get rid – even if only on loan – of a large number of Houllier rejects. Rafa isn’t even asking for extra money, and hasn’t spent any from outside what he’s brought in since the owners arrived, but wants to be able to see deals go through quickly. With Rick Parry in charge of those deals, the man who almost lost Steven Gerrard due to his lethargic attitude to contract and transfer negotiations, Rafa is often left in despair.
So with all that in mind, Rafa is desperately hoping that face-to-face discussions will finally convince the owners about what the action they really should take is: “When you see what we have been doing over the last three or four years, it is clear we are moving in the right direction. It’s just a case of finding a solution to the misunderstanding. I won’t worry about it, because we play Manchester United this weekend and that is difficult enough. But the owners want to win, I want to win, so we have more or less the same ideas.”
This weekend we might just find out whether the owners really do have the same ideas as Rafa. Rafa wants to bring more and more silverware back to Anfield, and as much as he’d like extra funding to help him do so, he accepts that the owners might be unwilling to pay for any “Snoogy Doogy” despite previous promises. But he wants to use the money he brings in from sales and from success in various competitions, along with other money the club earns, to keep his squad improved. He’s not had the amount of backing the owners would like us to think – certainly not when compared to other clubs or past summers – but he’s happy to deal with the amount he’s been given. He just doesn’t want to see his spending power being diminished thanks to the perceived sluggish attitude of current CEO Rick Parry. The misunderstanding is not about the amount of money – even though it’s less than the owners imply – but about the way it is spent. He’s tired of missing out on targets because phone calls are going unanswered, faxes aren’t being sent, meetings are not being arranged. This is his opportunity to try and let the owners see that.