Reports in the Sunday press claiming “a friend of” Rafael Benitez had spoken of the manager’s fears over his future once against stirred up the storm that has been hanging over Liverpool Football Club throughout the winter. Today Rafa Benitez spoke out to say that none of the claims came from him.
It’s not unusual for managers at any club to wait until the cameras and microphones are all switched off at the end of a press conference before imparting some information that they’d like to see reported, but reported without their name on. It also isn’t unusual for those involved in the game to use members of the press to put their story forward – again without any direct quotes – by speaking to them off the record. So when a story quotes “a friend of” or “someone close to” a player or a manager it often actually means that player or manager was speaking, but off the record. Often – but not always.
It’s certainly a tactic the club and the manager have used this winter, but there seemed to be problems with the way this particular story was reported at the weekend. Certain journalists have stronger links to Anfield than others – despite having his critics Chris Bascombe now of the News of the World is one of those, as is Oliver Kay of The Times, to name just two examples. If one of those mentions information received from someone close to someone at the club, it’s certainly worth reading carefully. Obviously less so if it’s a journalist with little connections to the club, if at all. It’s not been unknown for some reporters – particularly on Sundays – to use a story they got third-hand via a celebrity connected to another club entirely, unconcerned about how it might just be that their source had been lied to. There’s a laughable example spoken about here.
Those reports on Sunday appeared just as Rafa was preparing his team for the FA Cup clash with Luton. He was asked about the quotes repeatedly, and denied any involvement in them. Then came the realisation that Rick Parry was setting off to New York for a meeting later today with the owners about the new stadium. Rick Parry denied that the meeting had been arranged purely to discuss Rafa, which was true because it was arranged some time ago to discuss those downgraded plans. However he didn’t deny that Rafa’s future might be a part of the discussions, and given that there has still hasn’t been any unequivocal backing of Rafa as being the man to take Liverpool towards the day they finally move into that new stadium, it’s no surprise that Rafa’s future remains high on the list of topics on the back pages. Again today the press talk about Jurgen Klinsmann being a potential new manager at the club, a move that would finally put to bed any ideas that the owners understand this club and the game of football.
Rafa is clearly worried that those reports might give the owners the ammunition they are waiting for in order to fire him. He’s used the press before to get information out to the supporters, almost like a huge “Help!” sign to those who might have thought from the outside of the fortress that all was okay inside. But he says this latest round of claims has nothing at all to do with him, other than maybe a misunderstanding of what he said after the latest pre-match press conference at Melwood.
Speaking to the Liverpool Echo, Rafa said that the “dead man walking” stories were wide of the mark: “I was shocked when I was told about the stories in the Sunday papers and when I saw them for myself I was even more surprised. I don’t know how many times I have to say I only see my future at Liverpool Football Club before certain people believe me, but I will say it again because it is really important that everyone understands this.”
He said: “I love the club, I love the fans, I love the city and I am very, very happy here.”
It certainly wouldn’t be Rafa’s decision if he did leave. He’s keen to keep on improving the club on the field, and has a long-term vision of how he’s going to do that. He’d have liked more financial backing to help the improvements come sooner, but as long as people understand the difficulties in being behind the club’s rivals on spending then he’s more than happy to keep going on the usual budget. He’s certainly not been actively seeking employment elsewhere: “I do not see my future at Real Madrid or Inter Milan or anywhere else. I see my future at Liverpool and this is where I want to stay. So to see my name linked with other clubs in such a manner, as it was in certain Sunday newspapers, really disappoints me.”
Despite the claims he’s made about how he’d like the future to pan out, it’s highly unlikely that he truly believes he’s got the full backing of the owners. However he does want to show the owners that he’s willing to get his head down and do the best for the club. Whatever he thinks privately – and the lack of public support from the owners won’t make him feel too positive about his future – he wants to help put on a public face of unity between him and the board.
That’s what made the reports on Sunday so upsetting. They had used the “sources close to” angle making it sound like Rafa was once again attacking the owners: “The fact that the newspapers said that the stories had come from a source close to me is what disappoints me most,” he told the Echo’s Tony Barratt.
According to Barratt, Rafa thinks the stories were twisted by journalists he spoke to privately after the last weekly press-conference, and what was said and what was printed differ substantially. Rafa said: “I was asked several questions about my future. I answered honestly, saying that there had been misunderstandings in the past but they are now in the past and that I am now working very well with the club’s owners and Rick Parry and we all have the same objective – to do our very best for Liverpool Football Club.”
Unfortunately that’s not how it was reported: “Then,” says Rafa, “just a couple of days later, I see quotes that are supposed to have come from me or from a friend of mine saying I don’t see my future at Liverpool. All I can say is no such quotes came from me and I know my friends well enough to know that they did not come from them.”
The quotes on Sunday did little if anything to help Rafa’s cause. That was one of the first of a number of signs that seemed to point to him not being behind the claims. He said: “I can only assume that the conversation I had with the journalists from the Sunday newspapers meant something different to them than it did to me, but they were not my words. That is why I am speaking to the Echo, I want to clear up any confusion and put my side of the story.”
And he reiterated his desire to stay at Anfield for the foreseeable future and to bring us more of the glory days like we saw in Istanbul in 2005 and Cardiff in 2006: “I want to completely commit myself to Liverpool Football Club. I do not see my future anywhere else because I do not want to go anywhere else. I want to win trophies for my club, for our fans and for the people and I still believe we can do this. I think back to the Champions League Final in Istanbul, to the FA Cup Final in Cardiff, to the Super Cup Final in Monaco and so many other great occasions and I know just what this great club is capable of.”
And again he was quick to praise the fans who’ve shown tremendous support for him. Not every supporter agrees with his tactics every game, but most reasonable fans know that he’s the best manager the club has had for some time, and that a lot of this seasons troubles weren’t helped by the troubles in his relationship with the owners that go all the way back to Athens. Of the fans he said: “The backing of the supporters has been fantastic. As I walked onto the pitch at Luton on Sunday the fans were singing my name and that means so much to me. That is why I want to achieve even more success and I believe we can do that.”
Liverpool have improved since Rafa arrived, and although his critics feel that they’ve not improved by enough, they’ve still managed to make up some ground on their rivals without having the same financial backing. Rafa and his scouting network have been recruiting youngsters from across Europe and South America who under the eye of reserve coach Gary Ablett are showing a lot of promise for the future. Rafa knows that developing youngsters in-house rather than buying them when they’ve got expensive price-tags is one way of keeping the squad at a high level in the future without spending the whole budget on the depth of the squad. In a couple of years’ time, he’d like to be spending his budget on much higher-quality players rather than it being eaten up by keeping up the numbers.
Rafa said: “There has been so much improvement here over the last couple of seasons and I believe there is still a lot more to come. The squad is now the best it has been since I first came here and we have many young players who are only going to get better. So I have no wish to be at any other club. This is a truly special club which means so much to me.” For most, the feeling is mutual.
He still doesn’t have a say in his future, the owners can do as they please of course, but it won’t be his decision to leave: “All I can say is that I want to be here this summer and many other summers after that.”
Rafa seems to have accepted that the owners do not intend to add any extra funds to the transfer kitty, despite the different impression they gave as last season drew to a close. A lot of his frustrations in the summer stemmed from a lack of communication about just how much money he was to be given. And as frustrating as that news turned out to be, that he would get much less than expected, at least he was then able to work on a list of targets based on that budget. For the winter transfer window he assumed he’d get what was already left over in the summer, alongside being able to sell some players and use that as funding. But the board weren’t keen on this for some reason, and told Rafa he wasn’t allowed to discuss transfers. Rafa only started negotiations himself because he was tired of the laid-back approach of Rick Parry, who had lost targets for Liverpool in the past as a result of his approach. One example relates to Theo Walcott. Arsenal bought him in a deal that could go as high as £12m based on various clauses, paying out £5m upfront. Just months earlier Rafa had made enquiries about the youngster – a Liverpool fan like his father – after being advised by one of the club scouts about the potential he was showing. Southampton were demanding a fee of less than £3m which Rafa felt was acceptable. The player was happy at the chance of joining up with his boyhood idols, and his family were happy to move up north with him. However Rick Parry allegedly decided that the fee was around £500,000 too much and refused to do business. Soon the player’s value went up and he was out of reach by the time Arsenal made their move. It was also a narrow escape that saw Steven Gerrard remain a Red after Parry almost let him join Chelsea.
However, having had a chance to voice his concerns about Parry’s past to the owners, it now seems Rafa is willing to trust the Chief Executive to get some deals done with the limited budget on offer. The acquisition of Martin Skrtel is one deal that Parry has negotiated so far that looks to be successful. Skrtel has now passed his medical and has agreed personal terms; all that remains now is for the owners to approve that deal. There is also – according to Momo – a deal close to completion that would see the Malian international join Juve, but again the owners would need to sanction that deal, via Rick Parry.
If Momo does go then perhaps it’s a good sign for the future of Javier Mascherano. Rafa would be reluctant to let Momo go if he thought Mascherano wasn’t going to be around as part of his midfield options, but would certainly choose the Argentine international if he had to pick one over the other. Liverpool’s owners have still not offered Javier and his owner the permanent deal that had been discussed by Rafa last November. In fact that was another sign that the quotes attributed to “a close friend of Benitez” in the News of the World on Sunday (not by Chris Bascombe it must be pointed out) were a little dubious. The “friend” was reported to have said: “There is also the problem of Javier Mascherano. He will not sign because he does not know whether the manager is going to be there this season, let alone next.” The player can’t sign if there is no deal on the table to sign, and it would hardly help Rafa’s cause to claim that Mascherano himself was stalling on the deal.
Rafa is doing all he can to keep his job and help Liverpool towards a glorious future. It’s now up to the owners to back him strongly, and support him in his aims.