When rumours spread, rapidly, and from many separate directions and sources, that Liverpool’s co-owners had made plans to sack Rafa Benitez before the start of next season, Liverpool’s supporters rallied around the Spaniard.
Not all fans agree all the time with the manager’s tactics. Certainly in the aftermath of a draw or a defeat, fans know how their idea would have worked better. Others don’t agree on rotation, feeling that picking the strongest side available for every game is how Liverpool should be preparing for games. The reasons for that vary – picking the same team allows players to build up an understanding, and ensures we’ve more chance of getting three points from every game. And also, why should the Mighty Reds have to pick players to suit our opponents, surely it should be the other way round?
Rafa is a manager who does rotation though. It’s part of what he is. Given the funds, he’d rotate for every game and nobody would really notice, because given the funds he’d have as strong a team for every game, but without using the same players for every game. He’d not have one striker of the class of Fernando Torres in his squad for example, he’d have at least two at that level, and so every opponent would have to face the threat of at least one world-class striker, even if he rested one of them. And he’d rest them from time-to-time to ensure he always had eleven players on the field who were 100% fit.
The problem with rotation is that with the level of squad Rafa has at his disposal, he’s always forced to find a balance between fitness and ability. He can’t play eleven 100%-fit top-class players for every game; his squad doesn’t have enough top-class players in it. He hinted at this recently, comparing how many £20m players his squad has compared to other top sides. If the owners did decide to give him time – they obviously don’t want to give him money – then in a few more years this may be less of a problem. He’s assembling a squad of youngsters that may well include players worth £20m each by the time they make it to the first team.
Rafa’s recent spat with the owners came about after he was told he couldn’t do the deals he wanted this January, including one to turn Javier Mascherano’s loan into a permanent deal, a deal which is seen as a priority for the club by anyone but the owners. They also stopped him from signing a cut-price defender as cover for a department we are seriously short in, as well as lining up two Bosman deals. Rafa is said to have decided he doesn’t want to sell Peter Crouch, despite using him less this season than before, but he saw interest in Momo Sissoko as a way of bringing in funds to cover other signings.
Various pieces of information about the owners leaked their way out in recent months; pretty much all denied quickly by the owners or – on the owners’ behalf – the club. The owners are very quick to deny anything that suggests they are struggling financially, they are repeatedly saying that they are not selling any of their share in the club, they even – effectively – denied downgrading the stadium, before admitting a couple of days later that they were downgrading it after all. Even that admission was changed by the official site though, no doubt under orders from above, but Parry’s use of the word “downgraded” was changed to “different”.
Denials have been made through the official site and through friends in the English press. The Liverpool Echo have been used to carefully word denials, a couple of quotes supplemented by statements made by the paper. The BBC have been used in a similar way. But one thing that has still not been denied by the owners is the claim that Rafa is about to be sacked, or “fired” as the Americans would prefer to call it. This claim was enough of a worry for (depending on whose figures you use) between two- and four-thousand Reds to march in support of the manager. It’s clearly an issue that worries fans. The response from the States to these fears of fans they claimed to care about? None. A little bit of sneering perhaps, but no effort has been made to allay those fears.
We’ve even been linked with serial diver Jurgen Klinsmann as a future manager!
So if Hicks, Gillett and Parry are so happy to talk to the English press to deny stories of fall-outs with each other and financial hardship, why no denial of the Rafa-to-be-sacked stories?
Hicks has made a bit of an effort, but no denial. Perhaps he’s decided to shelve those plans to fire the manager, but how difficult would it be to just put a statement on the official site? He’s not willing – it seems – to speak to the English media, but he thinks a few words to the US media filtered across the Atlantic will be sufficient: “We like Rafa. We think Rafa’s terrific. We put all that behind us,” he is quoted as saying.
The owners put a gagging order on Rafa, after their meeting earlier in the month, saying he must not talk about club policy in public. But of course as the bullying owners they seem to be showing themselves as being, that doesn’t stop them from talking about Rafa in whatever derogatory way suits them. Hicks says: “We did have a disagreement and we did ask him to focus on the important games coming up instead of worrying about spending more money for more players. We wanted to see what we could do with the players we’d already bought. We just wanted to see if the team was going to gel because at the time we’d had four draws, we got beat at home by Marseille, so we had a big concern.”
In the game of football, unless a club is unable to do so, there is a constant need to keep buying and selling players, to keep on trying to improve a squad. You simply don’t stand still, otherwise you’ll be overtaken. And as Liverpool are already some way behind the teams above them in terms of squad quality, Liverpool would need to spend money just to stand still anyway. Hicks knows, admits, he doesn’t understand the game, yet here he is trying to interfere with matters on the pitch. Rafa should be set a budget, and someone who understands the game should help him spend that budget wisely. Rick Parry is seen by anyone who has dealt with him as inadequate in that respect, but he still knows more about the game than Foster Gillett or the owners.
The only reasons a club would hold back on spending money when a manager was asking to spend money (and in fact Rafa was also looking to claw some money back from sales anyways) are either because they have no money, or they want to save the money for a new manager they are planning to install at a later date. So which is it Mr Hicks? No money, or new manager in the pipeline? Or is it simply a complete lack of understanding of how the European game of football works?
Rafa tried to explain that his squad had improved again, as it had done each year since he took the job on, but that it was still short of being good enough to challenge for the league. He’d already been sold short in the summer, getting less to spend than he’d earlier been promised, and now he wanted to tweak the squad. But the arrogant Texan simply couldn’t work this out: “Quit worrying about adding new pieces,” Hicks told Rafa, “Let’s make sure the pieces we have work well and that you can win.”
So understandably Rafa was annoyed. First of all, Hicks is hardly going to admit in an interview across the pond exactly what his tone with Rafa was like. It was off, and it upset Rafa, who went to the press conference a very unhappy man. He was back to being a coach, not a manager, not the job that he’d taken when he arrived at Anfield in the days before David Moores sold out to the highest bidder to ensure his own personal nest egg was as large as possible.
This press conference, and the leaks about why Rafa was so upset, caused deep anguish for most Reds. Rafa, the best manager the club has had since Kenny Dalglish, was unhappy. His future was in doubt for non-footballing reasons. But whilst Reds worried, Hicks laughed: “He went to a press conference and kind of pouted, and answered the same question twenty times: ‘I’m focusing on my team.’ And then the media made up everything from that point forward. They made up that we were going to fire him. They made up that I told him to shut up. They made up this battle between Benitez and the Americans. It’s really funny to kind of watch.”
So if the stories about Rafa being in line to be sacked were “made up”, why no denial, to this day? If Hicks and Gillett really are able to look supporters in the eye and say that there is nothing to worry about why haven’t they done that? Why not speak to the English press and answer some difficult questions? Why not give an open and honest interview on video to the official site, and ensure those difficult questions are covered? People from Liverpool – and Reds from elsewhere who have taken on similar feelings and sympathies as those from Liverpool – have long-since learned to see through political spin. We prefer honesty, no matter how hard that truth might be. We find the truth out in the end anyway.
Again Hicks shows a lack of understanding of the English game. In England it’s more often than not the manager who will discuss a transfer with a player and his club. Usually this is done in tandem with someone from the board, often the club chairman. The two clubs have to make contact officially so that the buying club is given permission to speak to the player. The player will want to speak to the manager to ensure he’s clear of how he will fit into his potential new club. The player’s agent will of course be involved in ensuring his player is given the best possible deal. The manager may decide at this stage that he’s not interested in the player any longer – it might be that he’s asking for more money than the manager thinks he’s worth, or that the club is asking for too much. It might be an attitude problem. It might be that the manager knows buying this player at this price now excludes him from buying another, more important, target. But the manager and his chairman will work as a team in the negotiations, with contracts passed via the club’s legal team before anyone signs them. Not according to Hicks: “I know in England they’re very careful to make sure you have a separation of who coaches the players and who signs the contracts for the players. The manager does the recruiting, develops interest, decides who he wants to recommend and then in our case we approve it or not and then we turn it over to the CEO to negotiate.” Not really Tom.
It’s unlikely that Tom Hicks has ever learned any language other than the Texan version of English that he speaks, and so he’s not happy with the fact Rafa struggles to understand him. He says of Rafa: “He’s Spanish. He doesn’t speak English great.” But even if staff at the club do speak English, their accents aren’t to the liking of Hicks: “We have guys on our team that speak English that are hard to understand because they’re Scousers. We have Spaniards, we have Argentines, we have Brazilians, we have Norwegians, we have Scots, we have Irish, we have English.” It’s almost laughable that he’s reeling off nationalities of players and coaches as an excuse for not having a clue about how the English game works. This “communication” excuse will not wash much longer: “So it’s easy to have a communication issue. We had a small one with Rafa. It got blown totally out of proportion. We spent two-and-a-half hours after the game. It’s behind us, and nobody’s looking back.” Nobody’s looking back, but Hicks felt a need to give this interview? And still, to this day, hasn’t denied Rafa’s exit is planned.
Hicks then has the cheek to complain that the fans were quiet during the Manchester United match. Fans who knew the owners had been in Europe for days in advance of that match but who had still not come out and given their public backing to Rafa, a man they’d been reported as being planning to sack. They’d denied every other claim but that one. And now, in our ground, stood two men who were only pretending to care about the club’s chances of winning the league. Gillett had cancelled pre-arranged press interviews ahead of the match, probably on Hicks’ orders, because the owners clearly didn’t want to speak to the press in this country. Liverpool fans felt betrayed and used, hurt even, and what the owners had allowed to develop had meant one of the biggest games in the season had dropped right down in the list of priorities for Reds fans. We cared more about the long-term future of our club more than we did about this one game. Sad, but true. Hicks said: “I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t a little more exciting atmosphere-wise, but I think our team played like they mentally didn’t think they were good enough to win, played tight. But, either one of those early chances had gone in, it would have been very different.”
If any of the feelings of worry about the club’s future had transmitted to the players, it’s no wonder they didn’t play well from the off. But Hicks does not understand this, and probably never will.
He did see the march Liverpool fans made ahead of that Porto game, in support of Rafa, but even his comments on that come across as sneering: “They felt like they needed to protect one of their own. They wanted to protect Rafa – that part you have to admire.” Did we have to try and protect him Tom?
He knows how sound-bites work, and so is quick to reel one off about the Kop: “My involvement happened relatively quickly, so it wasn’t like I had been studying this for months and months. I did not have any appreciation of what the Kop was and how the Kop is really the soul of the club, and the serious responsibility the members of the Kop feel about their role. It is their club.”
It is our club Tom, and if you aren’t careful the club will die. You might well still make money out of it, but the soul of the club will have gone. The supporters that follow the club now, in the main, would follow the club regardless of success or position. But if you kill that club, the spirit of that club, they’ll leave the club. Even if the club is on the verge of winning the league, they’ll be gone. And then one bad season, one misjudgement of the transfer market, one misjudgement of what makes a good manager, and those fans won’t be there to stand by the club. The Kop won’t be The Kop anymore by then anyway, having long-since lost the real supporters who have filled it for years. And a subdued Kop full of people just going for a day out won’t be as entertaining for those corporate guests, like yourself, who expect a great atmosphere by default.
Hicks says: “The last family had it 51 years, and it’s been around 115. Hopefully, we’ll have it for a long time as well, custodianship.” Most fans hope not now Tom, and unless you really work hard you might never change their views. An announcement that yourself and Gillett were leaving would be met by huge celebrations. Considering how trusting of you the supporters were earlier this year, that’s quite a turn-around, but most fans don’t really think that would bother you anyway. Your son proposed to his girlfriend in a stadium where he really wasn’t wanted. Are you so out of touch you don’t see that? Rafa joined the club as manager a few years ago and was given time and support from us. He repaid that in spades when he won number five, but despite earning that respect he knows that it’s not a given. He has to keep working to keep that respect. And he does. Hicks and Gillett were given time and support from Reds, then messed it up. And now seem uninterested in earning any respect from fans.
At least we’ve had a little bit of an explanation about why the stadium the owners could afford one day suddenly went too expensive about four months later. They are determined that nobody assumes it’s because they aren’t able to borrow money due to the credit crunch, and are glossing over the fact that their promise not to put debt on the club has been binned with a typical lack of respect. The reason the stadium has to embarrassingly be “downgraded” is because they didn’t actually price it up properly! Hicks says: “Normally you would go through a longer process and do all your value engineering and adjustments before you would made an application and everything else but we didn’t, and it turned out it came in initially at a pretty significant overrun to what we had budgeted, so we have been going through a very aggressive value engineering.” Really.
Not only did they not price it up properly, but they didn’t even work out how many seats they needed: “We looked to make it as big as 80,000 but I think for our marketplace, probably the right size would be somewhere between 70,000 and 73,000. That would be the third-biggest in England behind Wembley and Old Trafford.” Again, what happened in those few months that suddenly made you realise that you’d gone for a ground a few thousand seats too large? Could you not have worked that out first? And as was mentioned above, keep tearing away at the soul of this club and you might as well stay at Anfield, because you will struggle to fill the ground if you turn away the real fans, and then have a bad season. A lot of Reds are willing to call it a day on the game of football and Liverpool FC if Rafa goes, because of what it says about the new regime and their disregard for the club’s traditions.
It’s no surprise to hear that the Reds will have to travel overseas every summer for money-making and “brand awareness” tours, something that would be necessary – if unwanted – whoever took over the club. Hicks is hoping to send his latest toy to his homeland first: “We’re going to focus on bringing them to the US and to Asia; I think we’ll do the US. We’re working on not this summer but next summer. We’re talking to some MLS teams about developing a strategic partnership and training and cross-branding and co-branding that we could do together. I think that’s a natural evolution.”
Hicks certainly gives the impression that he’s got plans for the club, other than selling it on, but they’ve still not got that funding yet, and the stadium is of course still a long, long way off opening. Cross-branding and overseas tours are all well and good, but unless he stops chipping away at the foundations this club is built on he stands to be at risk of wasting his time. Liverpool are tantalisingly close to being able to mount a title-challenge, but are also breathtakingly close to being a UEFA Cup team. Manchester City are today’s opponents, and they’ve had money invested in their squad. As such they are real contenders for a top-four finish, and that would leave Liverpool out of those Champions League places. Can Liverpool afford, especially when all this debt is forced on us, to finish outside of the Champions League places?