Rafael Benítez spoke today about the meeting he had with Tom Hicks and his son Tom Jnr at Melwood yesterday, and sounded very pleased with the outcome. Much will be read into what Rafa had to say, and how it clearly shows where his loyalties lie with regards the ownership situation. Except it doesn’t. He’s not being drawn in public one way or the other. He’s never said he’s felt in an awkward position when talking to Hicks, he’s never said he’s felt Hicks is the only option.
When Rick Parry received a letter from Hicks recently in which he was asked to resign, the reasons given included some that could easily have been written by Rafa. But these were long-term concerns of Rafa’s, going back to the days before the new owners arrived. In Rafa’s mind Rick Parry kept messing up his transfer moves, and although the Hicks letter was probably the first detailed public acknowledgement of the problem, it was well-known amongst supporters.
Despite the speculation over new ownership of the club, which is a two-way fight between DIC and Tom Hicks, time is ticking on and it is important to keep day-to-day business ticking over, which at this time of year concerns transfers. Rafa had mentioned after the Chelsea match that he wanted to talk with the owners and Rick Parry.
Today he said: “You know we have two owners and a chief executive. We need to progress – my responsibility is to prepare the squad for the future and to improve the squad. So, I had to talk to them. We have had a very good, positive, meeting.”
He was asked if he was given any hints about how the ownership situation might be resolved, but he said that wasn’t the point of the meeting: “Not really, we were talking about targets and things like this; this was the key to the meeting. It was good.”
He was asked if he’d spoken to them about the situation, but again wouldn’t be drawn: “We were talking about how the club must improve and progress because it’s important to sign the right players for the future. That was what I wanted to talk about.”
It was suggested to Rafa that fans felt progress couldn’t be made with the ownership situation as it is, but Rafa suggested this wasn’t a problem: “After the meeting we are trying to progress with some targets. It’s okay. Last week we were doing this and this week it’s the same. I think we will be stronger next season. You need to keep going if you want to improve. That is what is really important.”
To say relationships between various members of the Anfield management, from Rafa upwards, are strained is an understatement. Rafa himself is keeping quiet as far as his ownership allegiances are concerned, but there’s no point trying to pretend he’s best friends with Parry. The owners themselves stopped speaking to each other some time ago, but Rafa feels they’ve all got to pull together, and said Hicks agreed they should all speak: “We need to work together and he agreed we must talk together. If we want to go forward and sign players, we have to all work together.”
As a result Rafa is confident he can get the players he wants: “I do not doubt we will achieve those targets. I have a scouting department that is working and progressing. Now I have told the owners how we need to progress.”
Rafa isn’t talking about concerns over how transfers are going, he’s grabbed the bull by the horns and is determined the negotiations won’t be scuppered. Where the money’s coming from wasn’t mentioned, although the January refinancing deal did mention an amount of £45m being set aside for transfers and working capital, although there was no indication as to the split or how long it had to last.
If the money’s in place then there’s only one real obstacle, and Rafa is confident that’s been dealt with too: “Rick Parry will be working too, and if everyone works hard and we work together, it will be easier. Clearly, I expect agreement on recruiting players for the summer. We are ready now for going forward.
“Now we have had a meeting, we are in a better position. We need to think about our games at Birmingham and Chelsea, but we must also think about improving the squad.”
Rafa said co-owner George Gillett was kept in the picture: “George knows about what was said, everybody knows. Everyone has the same information.”
The two Toms had visited Rafa at Melwood on the day of the Chelsea game and – according to the Mirror the next morning – the “DIC PR Machine” had tried to claim to reporters that they had been turned away. Hicks was surprised to hear that tale, commenting on Tuesday: “I visited the manager at the training ground and we had a great meeting. We talked about a lot of things and it was a very positive, encouraging meeting. We have agreed to meet again to discuss the future and it is a very healthy situation. Rafa is happy and he wants to talk about where he is taking the club in the future. The talks were really positive, so I am surprised if anyone else is saying different. We plan to all get together and discuss the future and Rafa is happy with that.”
Embarrassingly for the “DIC PR Machine”, no doubt at this stage still enjoying the benefit of the doubt from many reporters, Rafa then confirmed in the post-match press conference that not only had he not turned Hicks and son away, he had enjoyed a short positive meeting: “We spoke about maybe having a meeting together, the owners and everyone. It was positive and just to say hello and arrange to meet. That will be a positive meeting. We will all be together. The idea is to meet with everyone. After the meeting if we have something important to say, we’ll say it.”
The “DIC PR machine” is nowadays spreading the word that Rafa would be safe under their ownership, but until George Gillett accepts their offer and Tom Hicks either allows that or loses a court battle, they remain outsiders as far as Rafa’s planning is concerned. Rafa has to focus on the current situation, with both Americans in joint control and Rick Parry in the CEO role. Rafa’s frustration with Parry played a part in the events that culminated in Jurgen Klinsmann being sounded out for the job of LFC manager. Talks in November with the German coincided with Rafa’s infamous “just concentrating” press conference, and it took some time before Rafa was really showing any genuine signs in public of having forgiven either owner.
That came late in February, at a time when George Gillett was still in exile. Rafa said of a meeting in December: “After the meeting we had, everything was clarified. The misunderstanding was clarified and after the meeting I have had the support of Tom Hicks.”
It was noted at the time that he’d only mentioned the name of Hicks, who keeping in constant contact: “Almost every week, not every day but before or after a game, he contacts me. He sends me e-mails saying ‘come on’, ‘well done’ and ‘you can do it’ – very positive. I e-mail him back saying ‘thank you’.
“He does it for different games. Before this game against Middlesbrough he e-mailed me saying ‘come on.’ Before and after the Inter game he e-mailed me. After Barnsley he said ‘come on, keep focused on the Champions League’ – he’s very supportive.”
He was also asked at the time if he’d had the same kind of contact from George Gillett: “No.” Or Foster: “I haven’t seen Foster Gillett.” And a quick mention of that November dispute: “I was not doing anything different; I was just trying to keep in contact with them through Rick. After the meeting, communication has been much better.”
He also wouldn’t answer questions on whether or not the supporters should continue the regular protests that were taking place: “I cannot say anything to our supporters in terms of what they must do or not.”
Rafa’s issue with Parry was far deeper than most people had thought, and in the wake of the Hicks letter to Parry and its revelations of these issues Rafa’s February words have a different light shed on them: “My relationship with Tom Hicks is good and I don’t have any problems because I’m professional. It was a misunderstanding and I think he understands now all the things I was telling him before.”
Rafa had been trying in November to bring an end to the lethargy that saw him miss out on Florent Malouda in the summer, but in November there were still conflicting versions of events being passed across the Atlantic. In effect it was Parry v Rafa, with Foster Gillett perhaps the only witness to the dispute. It seems Foster’s initial report to his father, and in turn Tom Hicks, favoured Parry’s side of the story, much to Rafa’s annoyance. The Klinsmann approach was intertwined with all this, and it seems George Gillett’s relationship with Rafa never actually recovered.
Rafa said in February: “I am a fighter. I have always been a fighter. So when we had the problems I was fighting. When everything was much better I was really focused. I like to do my job, I am a professional and I try to do my best – always.”
And when Rafa was asked at that time if he was worried Hicks might look to another replacement for him he couldn’t make it clearer: “I don’t have any concerns.”
Rafa wanted to stay out of any public discussions regarding the ownership situation even then: “I don’t know the situation, so I am trying to concentrate on football. The communication with Tom is through e-mail, it’s just talking about games or business for the future with players but nothing really serious because we go through Rick to do the other things – it’s just to support me and the team.”
As we come close to the end of the season that “business for the future with players” is obviously a priority, but Rafa’s work seems likely to ensure the ownership impasse doesn’t leave the club without the ability to move forward, even if only slightly, as the transfer window opens. If all concerned can act in a professional manner until George Gillett’s shares finally pass into someone else’s hands then it actually would, for once, see them all acting “for the good of the club” at the same time.
It gives Parry a chance to prove the criticism levelled against him was either unfair, or fair but a thing of the past.
It gives the club a chance to start a new season under expected new ownership with a happy manager.
It gives the fans something else to think about, the usual summer speculation over names being linked, and their merits or otherwise.