There was a widespread belief that Rafael Benítez was joking yesterday afternoon when he suggested that he might be considered a candidate for the job as England head coach, but Liverpool’s supporters are unlikely to find it a laughing matter.
That remark, laced with a typically self-deprecating joke about his poor English, was made against a backdrop of growing political unrest at Anfield, with strong indications last night that his relationship with the club’s American owners is nearing crisis point.
Benítez barely concealed his unhappiness at his weekly press conference yesterday, when, in response to questions about his position and his plans for the future, he said no fewer than 25 times that he was “focusing on coaching and training my team”. That phrase appeared harmless, but further investigation revealed that it was one impressed on him, to his dissatisfaction, by George Gillett Jr and Tom Hicks in response to his latest demands for support in the transfer market. His repeated use of the phrase has been interpreted within Anfield as a deliberate and dangerous swipe at the two American tycoons.
Benítez has been angered by a lack of dialogue from Gillett and Hicks in recent months, with sources at the club saying that, despite regular e-mail contact, they have spoken once since August. More troubling still are rumours of tension between the American co-chairmen as they look to finalise a refinancing package that would take the club £500 million into debt to finance the construction of a stadium on Stanley Park. Rick Parry, the chief executive, attempted to dismiss such talk last week, but Gillett and Hicks are known to have differed on several key issues since they arrived in a blaze of glory to complete their £415 million takeover in February.
The lines of communication between BenÍtez and the owners were reopened yesterday lunchtime – whether directly or not remained unclear last night – but relations are far from amicable. BenÍtez has demanded £17 million to sign Javier Mascherano on a permanent basis, having negotiated a deal directly with the player’s advisers, and a further sum to sign Ezequiel Marcelo Garay, the Racing Santander defender, and two South American teenagers in January, but the Americans feel that he is agitating unnecessarily and that, having been backed in the transfer market in the summer, he should concentrate on improving Liverpool’s position in the Barclays Premier League – a slur that did not sit well with the manager.
Only last week BenÍtez rejected an informal approach from Bayern Munich and talked of his desire to fulfil his many long-term ambitions at Anfield, but there was no such cheeriness yesterday as he arrived unusually late and in a dark mood after the pronouncement from the United States. Pressed on any issue beyond individual players and tomorrow’s Premier League match away to Newcastle United, he would say only that “I am focused on training and coaching.”
Informed that he was doing little to offer assurances about his future, particularly with his comment about the England job, he said only that “You have my answer” and that it had been serious, rather than light-hearted.
BenÍtez might have convinced himself that he was treading a diplomatic line in contrast to the outburst that dismayed the owners the morning after the Champions League final defeat by AC Milan in May, but Gillett and Hicks were not impressed when word reached them of his performance. Sensing that they were being dragged into a public power struggle, the two men took the unusual step of issuing a statement through the club’s website, saying that they will not be hurried into transfer activity and that all matters will be discussed when they visit Merseyside next month.
The statement read: “We made a significant investment in the playing squad during the summer and desperately want this team to succeed. There are some very important games coming up in the next couple of weeks and all of us need to focus on winning those games and getting the best out of the players we already have at the club. 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.”
Rather than placate BenÍtez, the tone of the statement appeared to put pressure on him in advance of a critical Champions League match against FC Porto on Wednesday.