Rafael Benitez's position at Liverpool is bordering on untenable after confirmation by the club's owner Tom Hicks that he and business partner George Gillett held secret talks with Jürgen Klinsmann in November to sound him out about taking over at Anfield.
Hicks, who confirmed the meeting had taken place after sources in Germany revealed that discussions in America had resulted in a provisional contract being drawn up, said the talks had been triggered both by the "communication issues" he and Gillett were having with Benitez over transfers and by Liverpool's poor form at the time. "We attempted to negotiate an option, as an insurance policy, to have [Klinsmann] become our manager in the event Rafa decided to leave our club for Real Madrid or other clubs that were rumoured in the UK press, or in case our communication spiralled out of control for some reason," Hicks said.
Though Hicks insisted that Benitez now had his support, it is understood that the Spaniard would have been fired had Liverpool not qualified for the next stage of the Champions League and, though he remains in place, the open courtship of Klinsmann, which has echoes of the way Tottenham Hotspur pursued Juande Ramos before eventually sacking Martin Jol in October will dismay Benitez, a man of high intensity who has been trying for weeks, with mixed results, to maintain a facade about the strength of his relationship with the Americans.
Though Spurs' pursuit of Ramos provides a precedent, Hicks broke new ground by describing the German as "a very impressive man" in a full statement published on the club website. Some might even see that as an attempt to provoke Benitez into leaving the club altogether and it will make the Spaniard the focus of intense scrutiny yet again tonight as Luton Town arrive for an FA Cup third-round replay. But the statement, made to the Liverpool Echo late on Sunday, seems to be more of a miscalculation on the part of Hicks, seeking to pacify Liverpool fans through transparency, than any deliberate attempt to persuade Benitez to call it a day.
Questions also surfaced yesterday about whether the Americans will even outlast Benitez. It emerged that Hicks and Gillett, whose purchase of Liverpool is built entirely on loans, would have sold a stake to the Dubai Investment Company, which came close to buying the club a year ago, had they been able to agree a price with the pair last October. Talks between the two parties over the sale of a proposed 10 to 20 per cent stake are understood to have reached an advanced stage, but a disagreement on the £1bn valuation placed on the club by the Americans stopped DIC from investing.
But it is the Klinsmann revelation which will alarm the club's fans most. Gillett, who knew the German through US sports contacts, made the introduction to Hicks, who said the aim of the meeting was "to learn as much as we could about English and European football". As justifications go, it was utterly unconvincing.
Hicks added: "After George and I had our long and productive meeting with Rafa following the Manchester United match [on 16 December], we put all of our issues behind us and received Rafa's commitment that he wanted to stay with Liverpool. We never reached agreement on an option with Jürgen. Rafa has both of our support, and our communication has greatly improved."
Benitez again mentioned last Friday the value of Foster Gillett, George Gillett's son and the Americans' representative at Anfield who is now back in the office which adjoins his own at the club's training ground, and Hicks said that the two meet there every Monday morning with the club's chief executive, Rick Parry. Hicks added: "The two families always try to have a telephone meeting on Mondays, so we all are on the same page. We all want to win more games."
But winning any games has been a problem for Liverpool, whose title hopes all but vanished after the dismal draw at Middlesbrough on Saturday – even though the Liverpool fans' chants throughout for Benitez underlined again how much support his Champions League success still carries in Liverpool. Winning the FA Cup now looks like the minimum requirement for Benitez to stay beyond the summer. "From our point of view, we want to win the FA Cup again," he said yesterday. We still want to win the title, but also we want to win the FA Cup."