Rafa’s first match after that argument with the owners, referred to later by Hicks as “The Rift”, was the trip to Newcastle. At that stage Liverpool were still unbeaten and then-Newcastle boss Sam Allardyce was starting to come under fire for poor results, but with the turmoil going on behind the scenes nobody could be sure how the manager and his players would react. Rafa stood on the touchline in a tracksuit and white trainers, a noticeable contrast to his suit – he was being a coach instead of a manager, he was humorously showing the owners that he was concentrating on that side of things, as ordered.
Liverpool won the game 3-0, although pundits were looking for victims not heroes, so rather than there being praise for Rafa the emphasis was on knocking the former Bolton manager Allardyce. Liverpool could have won even more convincingly, had the referee seen the Newcastle keeper Shay Given handle outside the area for what would have been a red card. This result was a significant one for another reason – Liverpool had won after an international break, something they’d struggled to do more often than not, even earlier this season.
The following day Chris Bascombe, a confidant of Rafa and others at the club, formerly of the Echo but now at the News of the World, reported that the owners had already decided to sack the boss. Their plans had been made well before the outburst at the pre-match press conference for that Newcastle game, and had no relationship to results on the field. Rafa had spoken to them after the Arsenal game, on the 28th of October and had told them of his plans for the next transfer window. It was only in the days before the Newcastle game that he realised his plans were being blocked, and that his future was unlikely to be at Anfield after the summer. It wasn’t just Bascombe reporting this either, the story was coming from various directions, the owners wanted to sack the best manager the club had seen since Kenny Dalglish, pretty much because they didn’t like him.
Next for the Reds was a visit from FC Porto to Anfield. It was the first home match since the owners’ plans to sack the boss had hit the headlines, and thousands of Liverpool fans marched to show their support for the boss. It was an important fixture too – after managing only one point from the first three games, Liverpool had got the Champions League campaign back on track by beating Besiktas 8-0 at Anfield, a win achieved despite Fernando Torres being out injured. They needed to win this match too, and did so with a few goals to spare in the end. It wasn’t always looking that way though – the scores were level at 1-1 until Torres got his second of the night with just 12 minutes left. The game ended 4-1 and Liverpool’s Champions League future was in their own hands. Although a draw might be enough in the final game against Marseille, depending on the result in the other match, a win would guarantee them being in the competition in the New Year.
First of all it was back to the league, and on the 2nd of December the Reds played host to Bolton, who had recently changed manager. Another high-scoring game from the Reds ended 4-0. It was a convincing display, taking Liverpool to third in the league, with more points at that stage in the season than they had achieved in 16 of their 18 league-title winning seasons. The future was looking good, but the doubts about what the situation was off-the-field would not go away.
There had still been no denial from the owners about their alleged plans to sack Rafa. Not a word. Yet denials of any reports that in any way suggested the owners had fallen out with each other or were suffering the pinch financially were issued without delay, either as official statements or as quotes from Rick Parry to the Echo or BBC.
On the 8th of December Liverpool faced Reading. Rafa knew that the owners were waiting for an excuse to sack him. Despite Rafa always talking about only concentrating on one game at a time, the spectre of that final Champions League group game in three days was surely figuring high in his worries. He didn’t want to risk Sami Hyypia for this league game, so Jack Hobbs started in the centre of defence. Probably concerned about the youngster being exposed he also chose to utilise two defensive midfielders, Javier Mascherano and the no-longer “Boss” Momo Sissoko. On paper it looked like a 4-3-3, with Voronin, Crouch and Torres up front, but often became 4-5-1 with Voronin and Crouch finding themselves out wide and out of place. Torres was taken off after 60 minutes; despite his denials Rafa was clearly thinking ahead to the game that he knew he had to win in France.
Rafa got a lot of criticism for that defeat – the first of the season – and one of the reasons for that was his substitution of Torres with 30 minutes to go and with the score only at 2-1. He’d thrown the towel in according to many, especially when with nearly twenty minutes to go and the score now at 3-1 he took the captain off too. He claimed that the players still on the pitch were capable of getting back into the game, but who could blame him for prioritising the Champions League ahead of this league game? One defeat in the league is barely grounds for the owners to sack him and to have any chance of the fans supporting them in the decision. But going out of the Champions League before Christmas might just be enough to cover up the fact their decision was made without consideration of results on the field.
George Gillett was now on his way to Europe. Both owners had said they would be at the Manchester United game, and that they would speak to the manager ahead of that game. Gillett actually wanted to take in the Marseille game too and was there in France to see the Reds qualify in style for the knockout phases. Gerrard got the early goal, knocking the rebound in from his saved penalty, Torres scored yet another goal and even Kuyt got on the scoresheet. Ryan Babel rounded it all off, Liverpool won 4-0. Unfortunately they only finished second in the group, but they were through, and Rafa’s job was a little safer.
Rafa returned to England, hoping to finally get a chance to talk to the owners about what had been happening, why things had changed since that Arsenal game. George Gillett was due to appear live on TalkSport radio, but backed out late in the day. Perhaps Hicks had warned him against speaking live in case he let anything slip. However, despite those talks being considered of utmost importance to Rafa and the club’s supporters, the owners decided there was still no hurry, and they’d speak to him after the match.
Worried about his future, nervous about what he would be told, Rafa was expected to prepare his team for one of the biggest games in the calendar. Manchester United are rivals because of the rivalry between the two cities, and also of course because of the fact that the Reds have to finish higher than them if they want to win the league. The owners were happy to let Rafa deal with that extra pressure, happy to let him suffer. They got Rick Parry to deny a report that the stadium plans had been ditched, but did nothing whatsoever to reassure the manager. The team suffered as a result. It was far from an entertaining match, and like the previous season United seemed happy to sit back and play for a draw, hoping to snatch a goal against the run of play. And like the previous season United got that goal, in this case a lucky deflection. The difference between the two seasons was that there was no time left in the game for the Reds to pull one back last time round, this time the goal had come just before half-time. But Rafa was unable to rally his troops, to help them to raise their games, and the match ended in a defeat. A demoralised Rafa was then finally granted an audience with the owners. Owners who had still not managed to refinance the bridging loan they’d taken out with RBS, a loan they had said at the end of October would be in place within 30 days. Owners who would admit the following day that the plans for the new stadium had been ditched after all. “Downgraded”, said Rick Parry to the Echo, although the official website was forced to change his quotes so that this word was replaced with “different”.
After the meeting Rafa walked out tight-lipped. Rick Parry said the following day – indirectly through one of his friends at BBC Sport – that Rafa had been told not to discuss club policy in public again. Gillett spoke at an ex-players party about liking Rafa, and a statement was released claiming everything was positive. It was also on this day that the first mention of Jurgen Klinsmann was made as a possible replacement for Rafael Benitez, but this link came from a source not renowned for being on the money when it comes to Liverpool matters. As such it was largely ignored by Reds.
And there was still no denial that they’d made plans to sack Rafa. Perhaps the biggest and most-repeated allegation against the owners since the season began, and there was still no denial. Rafa had to pretend everything was now fine, regardless of his true feelings, because the owners had told him so.
A defeat against Chelsea in the Carling Cup soon followed on the 19th of December, although Chelsea put out a much stronger side than the Reds, and it looked like it was going to be a bleak Christmas with the next team to be faced being Portsmouth, something of a bogey team for Liverpool and one that had already taken two points off the Reds earlier in the season. But Liverpool showed some true character and beat the South Coast side 4-1.
The next day came more links with the owners and Klinsmann. DIC were again being touted as potential saviours of the club, if they could buy out owners who had miscalculated what they needed to do to run a football club. One of those miscalculations was the possible hiring of Jurgen Klinsmann to replace Rafa from the summer, a name that made many Liverpool fans shudder almost as much as that of the loathed Jose Mourinho. Nobody expected the club to deny the latest claims Rafa was heading for the sack, but it was a surprise that Parry wasn’t wheeled out to deny the possibility of DIC stepping in to buy the club from the struggling owners.
Perhaps the PR machine was on holiday, as everything went quiet until Boxing Day. That’s when the Reds managed another victory – 2-1 over Derby County. Christmas was looking promising for the Reds.
The usual phone-in and forum critics weren’t happy of course. Liverpool had gone ahead against County but were pegged back to 1-1 in the middle of the second half. It was looking like a draw until Gerrard got a winner in the last minute. The critics got their knives out and added more pressure to Rafa’s already full plate.
They got more of their wishes on the 30th – Liverpool travelled to Manchester City to face a team intent on not losing. City defended well, Liverpool made a lot of chances, but none went in. The game ended 0-0, and the critics had now forgotten about the last two wins. They forgot again the day after the New Year when the Reds drew their first game of 2008. This was at home to Wigan Athletic, and finished 1-1, after a defensive blunder let Wigan equalise. Steve Bruce has been a thorn in Liverpool’s side as Birmingham manager for years, except for a 7-0 cup win, and had already managed a draw as Birmingham’s boss at Anfield earlier in the season. After benefitting from a mistake there was no way his side were going to let Liverpool back into the game.
The transfer window was now open of course, but very little was being said about Liverpool’s plans. Javier Mascherano had made a plea before the Wigan game to be allowed to stay at Anfield, but said that if the owners did not act soon it would be difficult for him to stay. It wasn’t just Mascherano being put under pressure by the owners’ inability to sort out their finances.
Still no denial from the owners about Rafa’s future, and on the following Sunday all the papers reported that Rafa was telling friends he was expecting the axe; he was a “dead man walking” according to one paper. This was the morning of the Luton game, the FA Cup match. These games are never easy, especially away on difficult pitches, with one team treating it like a cup final and the other not quite sure how to treat it. Numerous top-flight teams had either gone out or been held in the other games in the 3rd round. And on top of this came the blast of headlines that Rafa himself had been saying he expected to be fired. The following day Rafa strenuously denied the stories had come from him, explaining that the press had spoken to him privately after the last press conference, but that none of what they said had come from him. He was still trying hard to follow orders and not discuss club policy in public.
Liverpool were lacklustre against Luton. Rafa’s preparations not helped, his team not exactly inspired, by headlines again saying he was on his way. And again, no word from Rafa’s bosses that any of this was nonsense. Liverpool struggled throughout the game, went 1-0 up against the run of play, then let Luton equalise with an own-goal. More criticism for Rafa, but no support from above. The claims that Klinsmann had been lined up continued, although some Liverpool-related journalists said this talk had come from outside Anfield, it had come from others in football.
On the following Friday, 11th January, there was a chance to see some positives. Jurgen Klinsmann had accepted the job of coaching Bayern Munich from next season. He was quoted as having said he had received no offers from England, but whether that was in response to offers from the English national side or from clubs in England was never really clear. Surely this was good news; perhaps the links to him weren’t as strong as had been feared. But shortly afterwards, and from various sources, came reports that he’d not just been asked about the Liverpool job, but had been made a “detailed offer”.
And this was the headlines Rafa had to face on the morning of the Middlesbrough game. Reporters contacted Liverpool the night before this game to ask them for a comment on the claims that this offer had been made. The club declined. No denial, and let’s face it, being asked directly about something like this, how difficult would it be to deny if it had not been true? No denial – even when asked – strongly implies that the owners had offered Klinsmann the job. How is Rafa expected to work under these conditions? Or is that the idea? If he walks, they’ll save £6m in compensation. What isn’t clear is how recently Klinsmann turned down this offer, or who might be next on the list. But this offer was known about for some time, and the link wasn’t going away. The only way it would was if Klinsmann refused the offer, and it looks like a life under Laurel and Hardy did not appeal to the German that was hardly well-liked at Anfield anyway.
More reports in the Sunday papers following on from the Middlesbrough defeat suggested Liverpool were again on the verge of being taken over by DIC. The new owners can’t – according to most reports – get the finance on the terms they want. They don’t want to put a penny of their own money into the club or its purchase – they want it all to be financed by loans that are secured on the club. The club will pay the interest on the loan, as well as paying it back. At least one of the two owners refuses to put down what is effectively a deposit on that loan.
It seems that the owners are becoming resigned to having to give the club up, but they are fighting to do this and still come out with a profit. DIC don’t want to take the club over just to make the two Americans richer though, and won’t pay a silly price for the club. They’ll have to pay more than they planned to a year ago, but the feeling is growing that they are willing to do this. Whether their plans would include extra funds for team building, and which of the four different stadium plans they’d most likely go for remains to be seen if their takeover happens. But Liverpool fans in the main would value honesty quite high in the list of requirement s from future owners, something the current duo seem to avoid quite often.
It’s also still possible that they’ll find a way to finance their loans. It may be that the final offers on the table from the banks are better for them than any final offer from DIC. Certainly they aren’t concerned about the future of the club, but if keeping the club is more profitable than selling it then they’ll not sell, assuming they can keep their personal risks to a minimum.
Unfortunately this uncertainty, added to their mistreatment of a manager who is still closer to winning the league than he should be – given the budget he has compared to his rivals – means that this season is fast becoming a write-off. Rafa’s love for club and the city is a genuine one, but faced with the threats he’s had, he must already be starting to come to terms with the idea of working somewhere else. A new manager would mean the start of another four to five years of rebuilding, as Rafa’s players are replaced by the new mans’ players, and with little extra funding in place to improve on his squad. But the owners have already lost the support of the fans, and that’s something they’ll struggle to win back. Fans will expect any new manager to do markedly better than Rafa, and to do it at speed. There’ll be no patience from supporters for five-year plans, not if Rafa leaves under these circumstances.
Just recently Rafa has been getting more criticism from those fans who take pleasure in complaining, and those fans who always expect instant success. But now more of the fair-minded fans have started to join in too, feeling they’ve now seen the light they saw when Gerard Houllier’s reign was coming to an end. But in reality Rafa is still improving, even if not as fast as they’d like. The last four games have been drawn, but the last two of those came under some of the darkest of those black clouds the club has been sitting under of late. Yesterday’s draw wasn’t the end of the world, and wasn’t a bad result at all considering the stories in the press that morning. Liverpool moved up a place to fourth, and are no further from the top than they were that morning. An opportunity was missed to close the gap, but the gap remains 12 points with a game in hand.
The owners wanted Rafa out before a ball had even been kicked this season. They made offers to coaches who had never managed at club level. They promised a stadium they couldn’t afford, and they now want out, taking a profit with them. Their takeover saw shareholders paid around £1000 more per share than they would have under DIC. The owners didn’t pay that. The loan did. They never took a great risk themselves, and are now fighting to make sure there’s no risk whatsoever on their own assets. All of those thousand pounds per share came out of those loans. They’re now trying to sell the club for a profit, and selling it at £500m should ensure that. And all that without putting a penny of their own money in.
What’s important now is that supporters don’t lose sight of how close Rafa has been getting to winning things. He wasn’t supported financially in the summer in the way he expected to be, and has been treated like something Hicks stood in on his Dallas ranch for most of this season. He deserves better, and it’s important he gets the support of the fans, even through these bad times, until the owners finally accept they are the ones we want to see the back of. If their first-choice replacement was Jurgen Klinsmann, failed national coach who played all his competitive fixtures at home, and has never managed a club anywhere, imagine how poor their second or third choice might be.
Support the manager, give him some time, and don’t let the owners hound him out.