Straight-talking Americans risk being divisive in any language
Yesterday's developments added further strain to the already difficult relationship between Rafa Benitez and Liverpool's overseas owners. Ian Herbert and Nick Harris report
Tuesday 15 January 2008
Last November was a hectic month at the ranch in south California which is Tom Hicks' second home. Hicks enjoys doing his sport business there so he invited over Torii Hunter, the baseball centre he wanted to lure from Kansas City Royals to the Texas Rangers side he owns. Hunter could not be persuaded and yet there were higher hopes still for an engagement with the individual Hicks believed could help him sort out the chaos which was beginning to engulf a purchase he was becoming increasingly comfortable with – Liverpool Football Club.
Jürgen Klinsmann, better known to Hicks' business partner George Gillett than to him, arrived at the ranch with his Californian wife Debbie on a Thanksgiving weekend which coincided precisely with that now famous Thursday afternoon sulk in Liverpool during which Rafael Benitez repeated the words "I am focused on training and coaching my team" 15 times after he had been refused permission to wheel and deal in the transfer market.
It is unclear how long the meeting, involving Hicks, Gillett and Klinsmann, lasted but it was against that backdrop of strife the German was told he was the man the Americans wanted to take over if – or when – Benitez walked out. Klinsmann returned to his Orange County home aware of Hicks' irritation with the Spaniard, on whose conduct the American would make his views clear. It was on Thanskgiving Friday that Hicks ordered Benitez, in a message, on Liverpool's website, to "get the best out of the players we already have".
A provisional contract is understood to have been drawn up with Klinsmann there and then, though it seems to have been a subsequent drift of events – rather than a breakdown in negotiations between the parties – which contributed to Klinsmann not signing it. Benitez was talked around, Liverpool embarked on their Champions League escape act and, perhaps most critically, Hicks saw in the fans' pro-Rafa march along Anfield Road before the match with Porto just how much they supported the manager.
Hicks revealed tellingly, in a little publicised US interview only last week, that the passions of Liverpool supporters have taken some understanding. "My involvement happened relatively quickly, so it wasn't like I had been studying this for months. I did not have any appreciation of what the Kop was and how it is really the soul of the club," he said. The march seems to have persuaded him that firing Benitez would not be as straightforward as his shock decision, also in that hectic November, to sack his Dallas Stars ice hockey manager Doug Armstrong.
So that, for the time being at least, might have been the end of the Klinsmann connection, had not sources at Bayern Munich suggested late on Friday that a contract had been on the table for him at Liverpool. At first, Hicks had no plans to respond to the comments. The focus of questions put to him on Sunday morning was a newspaper report suggesting that he and Gillett may be ready to sell Liverpool to the Dubai Investment Company, a financial vehicle ultimately controlled by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, one of the world's richest men, which came close to buying Liverpool a year ago.
Hicks was busy and did not immediately respond to this, or to a subsidiary question about Klinsmann, but within five hours he provided the written statement to the Liverpool Echo which he seems to have thought might satisfy fans seeking some transparency, but which served only to astonish them and had prompted plans for a "get the Americans out" online petition by last night.
Hicks has a habit of speaking with a candour which, refreshing though it may be, seems not to augur well for Benitez. His assertion the day after Liverpool crashed to the 2-0 defeat in Besiktas, for example, that "[we] should be winning things. If [we're not], we'll have to have a meeting at the end of the year and understand what happened" was in the same bracket. But this is the most extraordinary of all. A club so used to civility that it parades ousted managers – Gérard Houllier – on the pitch before waving them off does not tout for a replacement while an incumbent is in place – and then reveal the fact on its website.
The club's former players were understandably astonished yesterday. "I haven't got a clue why he has come out and said this," Alan Hansen said. "Maybe the story was going to come out and he thought he'd be better off making a statement first. Whichever way you look at it, though, these events cannot do anything but undermine manager Rafael Benitez."
Benitez did not respond yesterday but there are only so many questions about the Americans' failure to back him properly that he can answer. Though he was angered by Sunday newspaper reports nine days ago that he believed he faced the sack, the reports were the product of a genuine sense of gloom he was conveying.
There was some daylight for him on Sunday when Jose Mourinho's representative, Eladio Parames, rejected suggestions that he might be in line for Benitez's job now that Klinsmann has gone to Munich. But after yesterday's developments, what scant trust that remained between manager and owners has gone and Benitez will surely soon be on his way.
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