by Jonathan Northcroft
Training and coaching. A top manager in a top post who declared an interest in giving it all up for the England job had to be in a funny mood. Rafael Benitez has done many brilliant things at Liverpool, but some odd ones too, and he may come to look back on this week much in the same way as his on-loan goal-keeper, Scott Carson. Like Carson, Benitez made an excruciating miscalculation. No ball slipped through his fingers, but a degree of job security surely did.
Training and coaching. When Benitez gave his regular press conference on Thursday, there was a pointed lack of rotation policy applied to the words he spoke. Here is a bit of how it went. “Rafa, would going out of the Champions League impact seriously on the club’s finances?” “As always, I’m focused on training and coaching, so why would I talk about other things?” “Is a deal close for Javier Mascherano?” “Nearly, but because I’m focused on training and coaching, I can’t say anything.” “Have you been in touch with George Gillett and Tom Hicks in the last few days?” “Coaching and training.” “You sound like something’s up, and your relationship with the Americans might be the problem.” “On the record and off the record. Coaching and training!” “Do you feel let down by somebody.” “Coaching and training.” And so it continued.
Coaching and training. Benitez was told to concentrate on this when, during the international break, he took it upon himself to broker a provisional arrangement to pay Mascherano’s third-party owners £17m to convert his loan stay at Anfield into a permanent transfer. Benitez also made moves to buy Ezequiel Garay, another Argentinian, from Racing Santander that would commit Liverpool to an outlay of at least £10m.
For Hicks and Gillett, squeezed by the escalating steel and interest costs that mean the projected price of Liverpool’s new stadium has more than doubled since their takeover, Benitez had gone beyond his brief. His bizarre press conference got him into further trouble. In its aftermath, a request for the Americans to respond was answered within minutes by a personal e-mail from Hicks. “It is time for Rafa to focus on winning important matches,” it read. Hicks went further, with the “shut up” message in an interview with the Liverpool Echo on Friday. “We told him [Benitez] to concentrate on the games coming up and nothing else. I guess he didn’t like that,” Hicks said.
Benitez’s jousting since joining Liverpool has generally strengthened his position, but he is finding the Americans, Hicks in particular, quite different adversaries from David Moores and Rick Parry, with whom he generally had good relations. Like the lady who swoons, he must have thought creating a scene would make Hicks and Gillett come running with the poultices. He was badly wrong.
Benitez might have also imagined stories that Bayern Munich want him would spook the Americans, and that linking himself with the England job would do similar, creating a situation in which he would get his way. But Hicks’s message was the opposite: “Shut up or ship out.” A tycoon who made his $1.3bn fortune in the bloody world of mergers and acquisitions would not hesitate to carry out any threat. Hicks and Gillett had previously strained to keep Benitez onside, seeing him as key to maintaining relations with Liverpool’s fans, whose goodwill they require after indebting the club by £500m as result of the new stadium and their takeover.
But now supporters are beginning to nurse little doubts about Benitez; the manager is in a weaker position and may not have understood this. He was entitled to a previous outburst after the Champions League final in May. Not now.
One reason is his travails in this season’s competition. Failure to beat Porto would see Liverpool eliminated at the group stage. Beating Besiktas by a record 8-0 was diverting, but danger remains. Maximum points are required not just on Wednesday but in their final match in Marseilles for Liverpool to progress. “The Besiktas match was a fantastic game for us, but against Porto the idea is just to win. We don’t need to score a lot of goals, just win. It is clear we must score and win and be ready for Marseilles,” Benitez said.
“Porto know that they have to win as well, because if Besiktas win [against Marseilles] they will have six points and can go into the last game [versus Porto] with a chance of going through. I feel Porto need to win and I think that might help us.” Hicks and Gillett next visit England on December 16 and have told Benitez any discussions about transfers will have to wait until then. It is the date of Liverpool’s home match with Manchester United, but also five days after the Marseilles game. If he is out of the Champions League, with all the income that entails, Benitez will face an awkward time in front of his masters. Coaching and training. The meeting will already be uncomfortable enough.