02 December 2007

Back from the brink

December 2, 2007
Rafa Benitez has had his wrists slapped and realises he has to get on with it, starting at home to Bolton today
by Jonathan Northcroft (The Times)

Fans call it the “Rafatollah” and it was first borne aloft at the Carling Cup final in 2005. On Wednesday the oil painting of Rafael Benitez was paraded as 2,000 supporters demonstrated outside Anfield. Inside, “Rafa’s going nowhere” and “Ra-Ra-Ra Rafa Benitez”, were hymns. On America’s western seaboard Tom Hicks watched Liverpool’s game with Porto over lunch and was as merry about a 4-1 victory as any of the fans. “You could hear the Kop chanting Rafa’s name all the way across the Atlantic,” he joked.
By Friday, when he gave his regular press conference, Benitez was smiling too. Differences remain, communicating still needs to be done, but cordiality crept its way back into Liverpool Football Club over the past seven days. A manager has pulled back from the brink and, not for the first time, the old institution has walked on through the storm. Commitments have been re-avowed. Responding to wild stories Hicks is seeking to dispense with his shares, his spokesman said: “Any suggestion that Mr Hicks is planning to sell his stake in Liverpool Football Club is absolutely and categorically untrue.”
A back page last Sunday that stated Benitez would be sacked by now and replaced by Jose Mourinho also proved ludicrously speculative. Benitez’s pout at a press conference the previous week, when he repeated the phrase “training and coaching” in response to more than 20 separate questions, seemed adolescent. He was sent to his room by Hicks and co-owner George Gillett, but not kicked out of the house.
When the Americans arrive on Merseyside on December 14, for a long weekend during which they will take in Liverpool’s game with Manchester United, they will hold a meeting with Benitez and have some hard words for him, but neither side feels lasting damage has necessarily been done. Benitez is staying so long as the tantrums stop and he sticks to his contract remit. “I think the relationship was really good before. It could be a misunderstanding. It’s just a case of talking and I’m not really worried because I’m a professional, just trying to do my job. I have a lot of confidence we’ll win trophies and I’ll stay here for a long time,” Benitez said.
The roadmap to peace was marked out when Parry called Benitez to a summit on Monday. Liverpool’s chief executive relayed a strong message from the owners: carping, of the sort that saw Benitez complain Hicks and Gillett “don’t understand the European transfer market”, must stop. Parry also reminded the Spaniard to limit his involvement in transfer deals. The latter is not a new condition, but spelt out in Benitez’s contract, which runs until 2010. As coach, he is to identify players and those recommendations are the most important inputs in transfer policy, but it is for Parry to handle contracts and money matters and Liverpool’s owners to decide whether to sign the cheques. Hicks and Gillett were concerned when, during the international break, Benitez and his chief European scout, Eduardo Macia, embarked on a flurry of activity.
Benitez lined up two Bosman signings he wanted made in January, tried to push through the permanent signing of Javier Mascherano and explored buying Kakha Kaladze for £4m from Milan. The outbursts came when he was told to row back. In Benitez’s view, deals need to be done as soon as possible to avoid losing targets to other clubs. Parry is circumspect. Hicks and Gillett, mindful signings cannot actually be made until the transfer window opens in January, feel that while it is reasonable for their manager to explore options, squad reinforcing should always be a measured process and hard talking can wait until strategic, face-to-face meetings during their visit.
Kaladze, for instance, is 30 in February and has for six years been an irregular starter for Milan. There is scope for Benitez to convince his masters but they need to hear a case. Foster Gillett, George’s son and one of Liverpool’s four-man board, was back at his desk at Mellwood on Tuesday following a three-week trip to America, and his return may prove vital to improving communication lines.
Benitez and Parry won a European Cup in tandem but they are an odd couple, Parry’s methodical approach contrasting with Benitez’s more impatient instincts. They do not always move smoothly in tandem. Their efforts to keep Steven Gerrard in 2005 left the player “in turmoil” over what he felt were mixed messages, and it took an intervention from former chairman David Moores to convince Gerrard that Liverpool truly wanted him.
“It was easier when [Foster Gillett] was here,” Benitez said. Perhaps having the conduit back will reassure the manager who still appears to nurse doubts about his transfer say. Liverpool’s owners approved a record bout of spending in the summer, acquiring Ryan Babel, Yossi Benayoun and, for £26.5m, Fernando Torres. Sources familiar with the situation say there has been no change in Hicks and Gillett’s desire for Liverpool to win the very biggest trophies, which for them is a matter both of passion and smart strategy. Their goal could not be more ambitious: for Liverpool to become the greatest club in world football, popular not just in the UK but Europe, Asia, Africa and the US. It is why they bankrolled signings like Torres’s and handed huge new contracts to key players such as Gerrard. Sources also suggest the owners can see Benitez’s squad needs more depth in certain positions and there will be scope for January signings — so long as they are justified and it is Parry, not Benitez, striking deals.
Peter Crouch need not fear for his future. “I do not want to sell Peter,” Benitez said and sources say the owners, knowing Crouch’s popularity, want to ensure he stays. Benitez’s uncertainty about whether Crouch will extend his contract, which expires in 2008, is not caused by Hicks and Gillett, as some reports suggest but because he fears Crouch’s agents want him to move. Stories that the owners have fallen out over plans for the new stadium also appear unfounded with the sources saying their partnership is closer than ever. There are two rival designs for the stadium not because Hicks favours one and Gillett the other, but because a pair of architect firms, Dallas-based HKS and AFL of Liverpool, were asked for competing designs in the interests of getting the best price.
“Rafa hasn’t talked to the players about his problem. We know because we read the papers,” said Mascherano. Benitez paid tribute to his squad’s professionalism in performing so well at such an uncertain time. Across the Atlantic it has been noted that since Benitez got back to “coaching and training”, there has been an upturn in performances and results. Whereas Torres, Babel and Benayoun spent tracts of the early season benched, they are now being used and Benitez’s rotation policy appears to be at a slower spin.
Hicks and Gillett are serial team owners, who have dealt with numerous coaches, and know that when a team is malfunctioning you need to make changes. One view of coaching is that a coach should first examine his selection, training and tactics and only afterwards push to buy new players.
Benitez was moved on Wednesday. “Have you ever heard in all your life any support for a manager like this in football?” he said. “I do not think I’m Bill Shankly but some say I was fighting for the club over different issues and the people of Liverpool, normally they were fighting against the rest . . . so maybe that’s where they find a connection.” Benitez can walk on, but he must tread more carefully.

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