Just a few short days ago Reds boss Rafael Benitez was talking about his love of Liverpool Football Club after he’d been linked with a move to Bayern Munich: “I heard about the rumours at the weekend, and it is always flattering to be linked with other big clubs – because it must mean you are doing something right. But even if I was approached I would tell whichever club it was that I am really happy with my club, my squad, my supporters and my city. There are still many things which I want to do here, so I am planning on being here for a long time.”
Rafa no doubt still does love the club, the squad, the supporters and the city – but how he feels about the owners of the club, George Gillet and Tom Hicks, is surely somewhat different given today’s events.
He’s already voiced concerns about the new regime since they took over, complaining in the summer about a lack of action or urgency in getting transfer negotiations moving forward. He was also forced to rethink his plans after the American duo clarified the situation about the budget he was to be given – much lower than he’d been expecting after earlier talks with the pair.
Thanks to some decent fees for players sold, and an increased amount of money coming in from TV rights, Rafa still got quite a good budget this summer. None of it came from outside the club’s own money, his budget no different to what it would have been without the takeover. It took an age for the owners to clarify this with Rafa, but once he was told the truth he accepted the situation. His mood improved further when he managed to capture Fernando Torres for much less than expected (and quoted) – just £18m, compared to the £26m often reported.
Liverpool are still unbeaten in the league this season, and despite a few too many draws are still only six points from the top. Injuries to key players have caused problems for the manager, who has often rotated his side as much through necessity as choice. Liverpool still need players in various positions to improve the quality enough to help bridge that six-point gap.
One player who has been vitally important for much of the season is Javier Mascherano. He was signed on loan at the time when the club was still in David Moores’ hands, but was under “due diligence” from the DIC consortium. The loan is soon up, and both the player and the manager want to take up the option to make it into a permanent deal. Mascherano doesn’t want uncertainty though, and said that although he wouldn’t consider playing for any other Premiership club, he wanted a deal sorted before the end of this month. Rafa went to great lengths to negotiate a deal, believed to be over five years and to include the player’s wages. All that was needed was for the new owners to agree to it.
And that’s where one of the biggest problems came from. Rafa hasn’t negotiated a deal that should upset the new owners, in fact according to various sources it’s actually a very good deal for a player of The Chief’s class, but the new owners are refusing to ratify it until they get over here next month. That of course is after Mascherano’s own deadline, and could be enough for him to look elsewhere. And he won’t have to do much looking, given the interest in him. The owners don’t want to talk about transfers at all until they are here, as they said in their statement today: “We will leave any talk of buying or selling players until we come across to Liverpool in December and sit down with the manager then.”
This is of course going to be unbelievably frustrating for Benitez. One explanation for the delays in the summer was because Rick Parry no longer had the authority to release funds for transfers, and Foster Gillett (George Gillett’s son) wasn’t yet over in the UK to give that authority. Foster soon arrived at the club, and only last month Rafa spoke of Foster’s office being close to his. Now, according to The Liverpool Way, Foster hasn’t been near the club since they played host to Arsenal, which was on October 28th.
A month may seem a short time, but that month saw allegations that the co-owners were no longer getting along with each other. In the summer there were rumours that Hicks was unhappy with the idea of Gillett’s son being given so much responsibility, without one of his own representatives being around. Hicks appointed someone to oversee his sporting interests and that seemed to ease the situation, as well as coinciding with Rafa getting to spend some money. Foster’s absence means that once again there’s nobody in the country with the authority to release funds. Rick Parry, currently chief executive, felt obliged to deny the reported rift between the owners – but why wasn’t Foster here to back that up?
The timing of the statement today from the new owners was clearly designed to try and put Rafa in his place. He’d said nothing out of turn in the press conference, except to mention he’d had a frustrating week. To those there that know his normal manner, his mood did seem less easy-going than usual. But there was nothing in what he said that couldn’t easily be played down as frustration at having much of his squad missing due to internationals ahead of a hated lunchtime kick-off, against a manager he’s had run-ins with ever since he arrived in the country. At least that was the case without this statement from the owners, which drew attention in a way that shows quite clearly there are serious issues at the club.
Rafa’s responses to potential interest in the England manager’s job were tongue-in-cheek, but carried a hint that he’d already started to think about life away from Anfield. If the new owners allow that to happen then they’ll find it difficult to visit Anfield again without hearing a great deal of abuse from supporters, and they know how loud Liverpool supporters can be. That’s unless they can somehow convince the supporters that they let him go for the right reasons.
Liverpool supporters prefer honesty, and are quite good at smelling a rat. The reports of the arguments between the owners said that they’d disagreed over one owner (Hicks) threatening to go back on his word about funding the debt taken on to buy the club and build the stadium. It was Gillett that was first interested in buying the club, but he knew he needed help from someone like Hicks to achieve it. If Hicks does go back on his word then it would be no surprise to hear of an angry George Gillett no longer happy with his business partner – and of course it would damage Hicks’ reputation as far as Liverpool fans were concerned.
On the other side of the coin it also has to be remembered that most of the negative stories about Hicks and Gillett have originated from sources most likely to tell Rafa’s side of the story rather than that of the new owners. Rafa has already fallen out with his long-term friend and assistant manager Pako Ayesteran this season, resulting in Pako leaving the club. It’s always possible that there’s a certain amount of game-playing going on, but that does seem unlikely from Benitez.
Rafa is a professional though, and he will – as he seems to have been told – concentrate on coaching the players he has got ready for Saturday’s game. The new owners – if they have got differences – need to settle them as soon as possible for the sake of the club, and the sake of their investment.