Liverpool face the prospect of Rafael Benitez's contract dispute seriously undermining their title push after he publicly rejected the deal being offered to him yesterday and demanded complete control of transfers.
Although the club's co-owner Tom Hicks (below) later attempted to defuse the issue with public words of support for Benitez, there is astonishment among some at the club that Benitez has aired his rejection so publicly – and just three days before a crucial Merseyside derby. Hicks and co-owner George Gillett are understood to have been united, during the contract talks to date, in their view that the corporate structure of every Premier League club, in which the manager answers to a chief executive, should apply in Liverpool's case.
Though Benitez's involvement in transfer negotiations is welcomed, his demands that he should have even greater control than that enjoyed at Manchester United by Sir Alex Ferguson – who puts his transfer requests to the chief executive, David Gill – do not fit with the Americans' idea of how a business should be run. Hicks, who has the better relationship with Benitez, suggested he was prepared to tolerate a period of discussion on the subject. "Rafa is going to be coach of Liverpool for the next five years, and we will work through all this," he said.
But Benitez does not appear to be ready for compromise and unless Hicks is prepared to rewrite the Liverpool business model, the prospect of him walking out on the club this summer appears to be a real one. The Real Madrid manager's seat may be in the back of his mind, if Juande Ramos falters as many believe he will.
Currently, Liverpool's chief executive, Rick Parry, has control over spending, his being the final call on the requests for players that Benitez gives him. But Benitez, whose deal runs out in 18 months, took issue with that. "The owners feel the manager's decisions need to be subject to the chief executive," Benitez said. "But I know that I am subject to results and to our fans and they are the best judges I will ever have." But when Benitez was urging Hicks and Gillett to pay £18m for Gareth Barry last summer, the fans told him precisely what the owners were at the time: that he was not worth the price Aston Villa were asking.
The owners refused to grant Benitez the money to buy Barry because his original estimate of the player's value had been £10m to £12m and they felt they were being asked to pay over the odds. The Barry saga continues to be a cloud over Benitez's credibility with the Americans – one of several pieces of evidence to their mind that the current corporate structure is correct. The Aston Villa manager, Martin O'Neill, was unhappy with the way Benitez was seen to be unsettling his captain and his club's American owner, Randy Lerner, is a friend of Gillett.
Gillett held lengthy talks with the Spaniard on two visits to England late last year. But another concern within the Anfield hierarchy is the large turnover of players since Benitez's arrival in 2004. The other contractual sticking point is Benitez's desire for control over Liverpool's academy, though this is a side issue. The owners are of the view that, while the incumbent first-team manager's coaching philosophy should inform the academy's, continuity, as managers come and go, dictates that Benitez should not control it.
Benitez is hardly a frequent visitor to the academy. The number of overseas players in the academy, an issue the vice-captain Jamie Carragher said in his biography troubles him, is also something of which the owners are aware.
Hicks' decision to make a public response, as much out of keeping with the so-called Liverpool Way as Benitez's statement, is puzzling, to judge by the fact he and Gillett have shared the same stance during negotiations.
It is seen by some as part of the American's continuing attempts to curry favour with fans. If Benitez's time at Valencia is anything to go by, then this dispute may see him leave. In 2004, after taking the club to two league titles, he resigned after falling out with the club's director of sport over the failure to buy the players he had singled out.