When the international break arrived earlier this month, two things were pretty much expected to happen before Liverpool next played. Key injuries and lots of gossip about the club’s ownership situation.
Torres is about as key an injury as Liverpool can get, and although he got to watch Saturday’s comeback against Wigan from the Main Stand, he’ll be watching on TV when his current team-mates travel to face his former team-mates in Madrid. Liverpool are holding out some hope he’ll be fit to face Chelsea on Sunday, but it looks more likely he’ll miss the Stamford Bridge league clash for the second season in a row.
The absence of Torres for that match, out injured, was perhaps all that kept Liverpool from taking 3 points from what ended a 0-0 draw. It came at a sensitive time at the club – the ownership battle was in full rage, with Rafa’s future still fairly uncertain. And one Chelsea fan decided to use his position as a national newspaper reporter to put out a story that exploited this uncertainty, perhaps in the hope it would unsettle Rafa and his team.
As well as the uncertainties surrounding Rafa because of the overall ownership situation, and what was then still a fairly recent admission of an approach to Jurgen Klinsmann (more on him in a moment), results hadn’t been going too well. Fans were getting restless.
Liverpool’s previous league game had ended in a 3-0 win at home to Sunderland, but the scoreline flattered Liverpool, all the goals coming in the second half of a game that saw Jamie Carragher played at right-back. That win had followed dropped points in five successive league games, stretching back into December, that Liverpool had been expected to win: draws against Manchester City, Wigan, Middlesbrough and Aston Villa leading into a defeat against West Ham. Eleven points dropped in five games – the same amount of points Liverpool would end the season away from top spot.
These were dark days, and included some FA Cup performances that no Liverpool player will look back on with pride, elimination against Barnsley coming the week after this Chelsea game.
The Chelsea fan who seemed intent on unsettling Rafa and the team was Rob Beasley of the News of the World. He ran a story that it later transpired had come from an interview Rafa had given to a Spanish publication, El Mundo. Beasley introduced the quotes with words that would give most readers a different impression of what the quotes really said, and there seemed to be some extra quotes tacked onto the end. Then the News of the World’s editors and sub-editors added their bit – an “Exclusive” tag and a shockingly misleading headline: “It’s your fault – Benitez in new blast at owners.”
The story jumped out of the page as being fishy straight away, if for no other reason than the suggestion Rafa would give an exclusive to Beasley. Not long before this article Beasley had said on national television that Rafa “behaves at times like a petulant spoilt brat,” amongst other things.
We discussed this here before the game (see Perfect excuse or just a worried Chelsea fan?) but then so did Rafa, in his pre-match interview on Setanta. He stated that Beasley was lying, and compared the News of the World to its sister paper – boycotted since 1989 – saying: “It’s no surprise. Everybody in Liverpool knows that there are two newspapers that you cannot trust, this is one of them. He talks of it being an exclusive; but the journalist is lying. I was talking with the Spanish press – he was manipulating everything. So he’s lying.”
It was a passionate defence from Rafa, and he took it seriously enough that he appointed a solicitor soon after.
The issue seemed to fade away after that, Beasley confident that Rafa would be unable to touch him. Liverpool’s form improved, FA Cup exit apart, in fact the Reds have only lost one league since then, the farcical Steve Bennett v Mascherano game at Old Trafford. But it seems that Rafa’s lawyer continued to pursue the matter, and got a result, of sorts, this weekend.
The News of the World had to apologise to Rafa.
It was hardly easy to find, but newspaper apologies rarely are. Under the headline “RAFA BENÍTEZ”, it simply said:
“ON February 10 we said Rafa Benitez had again blamed the club’s owners for ruining Liverpool’s title hopes last season.
“This report was based upon an interview Rafa gave to El Mundo, a Spanish newspaper, which was incorrectly translated.
“We accept that he neither blamed nor was disloyal to the owners and apologise to him for suggesting otherwise.”
Rafa is also believed to have received a certain amount of compensation.
It seems odd that the apology should appear one week before this season’s fixture. Will Beasley consider the matter is now closed, or is this going to turn into a battle? No doubt he’ll run any article by the paper’s lawyers first.
Dubai and Kraft
Also in Sunday’s paper was a story about the takeover at Anfield. The article began with a statement that Dubai’s Sheikh had “pulled out of a potential takeover deal.”
This was then qualified slightly, as “representatives from Dubai are ready to pull the plug on negotiations with Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr.”
Monday’s Liverpool Echo disagreed: “Meanwhile, sources in the Middle East today indicated that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s interest in Liverpool is unwavering. An offer remains on the table for the Reds but the ruler of Dubai is unwilling to pay any more than he believes the club is worth.”
Dubai, not DIC, made an offer to buy the club before the end of last season. How much the offer was actually for is hard to get a definitive answer to. It seems to be regularly referred to as a figure that would give Hicks and Gillett a profit of £50m each, with Hicks then said to be holding for twice that amount of profit. With debt totalling £350m currently owed to RBS, and the owners putting over £20m in each in cash to get that last lump of finance, any bid would need to be for £395m just to allow the owners to break even. That would represent an offer of £495m from Dubai, and a valuation of £595m from Hicks
However, with £105m of debt actually on the club itself, sometimes the figures seem to only include the debt from the holding companies upwards. Calculated that way a bid of £390m would represent a £50m profit each for Hicks and Gillett.
The story in the News of the World quoted £400m, but the fact it varies so much isn’t helped by their being not one single official quote from the current “Dubai” on their interest in Liverpool FC. The article also speaks of the new stadium as a £500m project, in fact the last price quoted for the stadium is £300m, and that was before recent falls in the price of steel and other construction costs. This was for the second US version of the stadium, the original version from the Texan architects being scrapped as being too expensive at £400m.
Dubai, or people speaking on their behalf, have been trying to spread the word for a couple of weeks now that their interest was coming to an end. Their offer was made five months ago and whatever its actual value it was not high enough to persuade Hicks to sell. Since the offer was made Hicks decided to postpone plans for a retail development in Texas, and then of course the new stadium in Stanley Park was postponed indefinitely, which suggested to some that Dubai’s predictions would soon come true.
As DIC, and later as a more generic “Dubai”, the Arabs have consistently and confidently predicted Hicks would be forced to sell the club. Their valuation of the club is the highest they feel they can pay and still be able to make a profit from it; they seem to believe that Hicks’ own valuation would eventually match theirs as his own financial desperation increased in the face of the world’s market’s turmoil.
But what seems to have often been forgotten is that as embarrassing it is for Hicks to shelve plans like the new stadium for a while, that’s still quite a few large steps away from the prediction of him being forced to sell the club to avoid ruin.
The claim in the paper that Dubai were about to throw the towel in, and the rumours claiming the same for the past few weeks, didn’t tie in with the fact that those people working for Dubai since this bid began are still working for Dubai. And not everyone who is getting information from that direction is being told they’re calling it a day. So is it something they’re spreading to see if it makes Hicks panic?
The same, in reverse, could be said about another rumour that has been around for a similar amount of time, which also got some press coverage on Sunday. Robert Kraft’s name has been getting whispered anew – along with another name – for the past couple of weeks, and it’s been a surprise it’s taken this long for the link to see light of day in black and white. The rumour has been suitably vague in terms of how much of a stake this interest would represent. Theories start out at a small share which would see £100m injected into the club as cash, passing through the idea of it being a 49% or 50% share which would end George Gillett’s time at the club, before hitting the idea of it being a full takeover.
They remain theories, because any truth to the story is being kept extremely close to the chests of those who know about it.
Piecing various hints and snippets together, Kraft would not be taking the club over alone, so if both Hicks and Gillett were to leave it would be a new consortium taking control.
The weekend story, in the Danish media initially, mentioned due diligence had begun.
Kraft spoke about buying into Liverpool in January, around the time when Hicks and Gillett were about to sign up for the refinance package. He said: “We haven’t ruled it out completely, but I’m worried a little bit. I want to be able to win whatever we do. But there are no rules in terms of spending on players.
“We would never want to be in a business where we couldn’t compete and right now some of the structure doesn’t allow you to compete on a level playing field.”
He recalled time he’d spent previously looking at buying into Liverpool FC: “I spent a lot of time with Mr Moores and his group in Liverpool and we know something about building an opportunity. The fan base in Liverpool is a lot like the fan base of the Patriots when we bought them. They are dedicated fans if you give them a quality product and they know you are doing their best to win.”
Further developments at the club today (Monday) suggest something really is about to happen – but whether the “something” will happen soon if at all really is open to debate.
And of course it’s perfectly plausible that this information is being leaked to see if it persuades Dubai to up their offer.
With various people involved in the various attempts to change the ownership of the club in some way, it’s no surprise we’re getting different versions on what is happening.
The same applies in many ways when we talk about what the events were that would eventually lead to Jurgen Klinsmann being offered the job at Anfield should Rafa leave.
Whatever the circumstances, Liverpool fans were stunned to hear Klinsmann had been seriously considered for the job. He had no club managerial experience at all. His only job as a manager was a stint as manager of his national side. But that was a national side who’d qualified as hosts for the World Cup, playing every game at home, and not making it to the final. To most fans it was almost as ludicrous as hearing Howard Kendall’s name linked to the job at Anfield.
One extra worry is that although the owners can try and excuse their ignorance because they’re new to the game, Rick Parry and David Moores aren’t new to the game and don’t seem to have flagged up the obvious – to us – problems. George Gillett had the idea (he’d met Klinsmann prior to coming to Anfield), Tom Hicks went along with it (he says he double-checked his credentials on the net), but what were Moores and Parry thinking?
A few small voices suggested we’d been hard on Klinsmann, that he wasn’t as bad as we made out. To be fair we were speculating how bad he would be; we didn’t know for sure. Well the need to speculate is over now – he’s started his new job at Bayern, so how is he doing?
So far Bayern have had an awful start to the season.
They are currently lying 11th in the table, a weekend win over Karlsruhe their first in the league since mid-September.
They’ve got just 12 points from 8 games, compared to 20 points from 8 games at the same stage last season, before Klinsmann came along.
Klinsmann inherited a side that had just won the German League and Cup double a side that went to the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup, going out to the eventual tournament winners.
It’s not at all a comforting thought to imagine where Liverpool would be now had Klinsmann been given the job.
DIC, or Dubai, are said to have spoken to the manager universally despised by Liverpool fans, Jose Mourinho. This was during the bad spell Liverpool went through, and how far it would have gone is unlikely to ever be known. But the former Chelsea boss is already talking about coming back to England in a couple of years: “I have to win first. I like difficult things. After Inter I will return to England, but I want to win here first. I have a contract with Inter, but when that finishes I will definitely return to the Premier League, I like it a lot.” Is that the sound of seeds being sewn for a Sunday morning article next weekend?
On the field
Facts are so hard to come by when talking about the off-the-field happenings that it’s far better for the health to concentrate on what’s happening on the field. And what’s happening on the field is not exactly good for the health of anyone with a heart condition.
3-2 wins, after being 2-0 or 2-1 down, are great viewing for the neutral, or from the safety of an end-of-season DVD. But during the game itself they make for worrying viewing, and Rafa will be doing all he can to try and make sure Liverpool don’t have to fight to come back from behind.
But that sounds like criticism, and with the start Liverpool have had to the season that seems unfair.
Luck is usually something that deserts us, but not always, as Istanbul showed. But luck alone doesn’t win games, and again like in Istanbul it’s hard to stop a team that are determined to win.
Why the determination isn’t there at 0-0 is something Rafa needs to work on, but after falling behind there’s no real way to fault Liverpool. Daniel Agger’s part in the first two goals on Saturday says a lot about the club this season. He made a mistake, he was perhaps being far too complacent, and Liverpool were behind. Then came the determination to get back into it, and to see a central defender set a goal up in that fashion was quite special. Sami Hyypia’s back on the bench breathing down his neck, so Agger knows he’s got to be on his game to keep his place now, let alone when Martin Skrtel comes back.
Competition for places is strong, and it seems that most of those facing that competition are prepared to wait for their chance rather than go around grumbling about it. Daniel Agger was reported to have had a little grumble about not being in the team, but seems to have been keeping his options open by not signing a new contract rather than getting his agent to offer him to other clubs.
If Liverpool can get a point against Atlético in midweek then they only need to win one of the last three games in the group to progress, and Rafa may choose to pick a team for Spain with one eye on London.
Chelsea and Liverpool are neck and neck on points; Chelsea’s rapidly expanding goal difference is all that’s keeping them above the Reds. Sunday’s game is big – a win for Liverpool would send confidence through the roof – but it’s not a title decider. By Sunday it’ll be billed as such, but it’s important for fans and players alike to not treat it like the winners will be champions. A defeat shouldn’t be the start of a run of poor form feeding on the depression from losing a game billed as even bigger than it was. But a win shouldn’t lead to a run of draws that had their roots in over-confidence from winning a game hyped up as the be-all and end-all of the season.
The clocks change next weekend, British “Summer” Time ends, and that’s when football usually starts to get really serious. Let’s hope Liverpool take the first points of winter.