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Rafa revolts

I t was a good week for Rafael Benitez. And, as a result, it was a good week for Liverpool Football Club. Last week, Rafael Benitez's warnings about the men who employ him and run the club were, at least partly, grasped by all.

Benitez has been misjudged, underestimated and written off by many who shape opinion on English football. He doesn't play the media game, but he understands it. Last week, the football world recognised what Benitez was the first to comprehend about Tom Hicks and George Gillett: that they posed a serious threat to his desire to manage a football club properly and, as a result, they threatened the existence of the club as it has been run for 50 years.

Benitez avoids bullshit: he doesn't indulge in it and he is not influenced by it. Last May after Liverpool lost a European Cup final they would have won if he had been allowed to sign the players he had identified the previous summer, Benitez called on the new owners to act. "We talk and talk but we never finish," Benitez, downcast and depressed, remarked in Athens. Tom Hicks' private response was swift: he wanted to fire the manager.

It was the first sign of American edginess. Benitez had strayed a little too close to the truth. In TV interviews before the final, Gillett and Hicks appeared consummate PR men. Gillett produced some dollars, then some euros to illustrate his point that they would be backing the manager. When the manager looked for more than the few quid in their pocket, they wanted him sacked.

Last November, Benitez's private frustrations turned to a public explosion when he responded to a private message from Hicks and Gillett by stating publicly that he was "concentrating on coaching and training the team". Hicks would later refer to it as a pout. Friends of Benitez had warned before the manager's outburst that Benitez was "going to send a message to the world".

The world has taken some time understanding it but last week they finally did. The Liverpool Echo's Tony Barrett, in the interview which revealed the plan to appoint Jurgen Klinsmann, managed to expose the thinking of Tom Hicks and perhaps saved the club from itself or at least its owners. Benitez was wise to them last year when they refused to consider signing Kaka Kaladze and told him to concentrate on coaching. They weren't losing confidence in a manager; they were struggling to find money. If they stay and Benitez goes, there is no evidence that any successor, even Jose Mourinho, will have more money. Liverpool will be an impoverished Newcastle United and that's very poor indeed.

Last week Mark Lawrenson wrote that when Benitez gently chided the Americans for their lack of knowledge of the European transfer market, he did not go far enough. Lawrenson suggested he could have said they know nothing about football.

Hicks' comments were a stunning abandonment of the traditions he had promised to uphold. They were also self-serving and cunning. The only reason Hicks and Gillett were meeting Klinsmann last November was not, as Hicks suggested, because they were frightened Benitez would leave but because they wanted to fire him. And the only reason they wanted to fire him was because Benitez had rumbled them: they had no money and their plans for the club were dangerous.

There had been warning signs. In an interview with the American press, Hicks remarked that against Manchester United in December, Liverpool had "played tight". They did not, he claimed, play like they believed they could win. Either he had learned fast or someone was in his ear. Either way, it told of an owner thinking he knew more than he did.

The feud between Benitez and Hicks has been compared to the situation at Tottenham when the club lost faith with a manager but this is a different narrative and a different club. The distinction is not that Martin Jol won nothing while Benitez has claimed the European and FA Cups. Hicks and Gillett have abandoned Liverpool's values and they have no plan B. If their ideas for saddling the club with debt are approved and they move on to dismiss the manager in May, as Benitez expects them to do, then the club itself will be in jeopardy and a manager will be just a patsy.

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Benitez is the son of a Madrid hotel owner and as a child he presumably spent many hours watching guests drawn from the business community talking shit. Hicks and Gillett are a new kind of businessmen, but an old-fashioned type of speculator. They are rich guys with no money who have provided one service during their 12 months in England and that is to offer an illustration of how capitalism works in the 21st century. They may soon depart with a profit of between £75m and £150m for their paper investment. Rich pickings.

But the sale of at least Hicks' share is essential if Liverpool are to survive and, if they do go, the club have Benitez to thank for exposing, firstly in May and again in November, that these were men with neither the money nor the ambition for the club he manages.

Tomorrow evening, there will be the most public display of disaffection yet from Liverpool supporters. Last November, they marched to support Benitez, now they will voice their opposition to the owners. The supporters have decided they too must adjust to the new world. Liverpool fans have always signed up to the belief that things are done "in-house". Managers were rarely booed; dissatisfaction with the board was usually kept quiet. But they too have changed.

A senior Liverpool figure during their days as England's pre-eminent club surveyed the mess last week and ruefully commented, "How can they do business like that?" Now the 'Reclaim the Kop' group is planning mass protest with chants directed at the owners and Foster Gillett, George's son, who is supposed to be the Americans' presence at the club.

Rick Parry and David Moores had the bright idea to appoint co-managers in 1998 when they gave Gerard Houllier (a man so well versed in bullshit that he could work for Hicks) and Roy Evans joint authority. Nine years on, they promoted even more dangerous lunacy when they let DIC drift out of the picture. Instead, Moores agreed to sell the club to Hicks and Gillett and Parry pushed the deal. At the time a former player, hugely respected at Anfield, was moved to ask the simple question: "How can there be two owners?"

Gillett may this week look for another partner or he may agree to back Hicks in a refinancing deal which places enormous debt on Liverpool -- something they promised not to do when they took over. If DIC come in, they will be treated as saviours, a role they were not necessarily cast in when they first agreed a deal to buy the club and their long-term commitment was questioned.

Now they are all Liverpool have got. Benitez and Parry are said to have put their differences behind them and both are united in opposing the plans of Hicks and the determination to place the debt on the club. These men who arrived eager and bright-eyed, who talked about the club's heritage and promised to learn the values of the institution they were buying and respect it, are now displaying their ignorance.

Liverpool handed over their club to men who knew nothing about football and knew a lot about bluff and bluster. Benitez realised their new frontier was a mirage in the desert. He did what he had to do. His future and the future of the club is now beyond his control.

This, it must be repeated, is not a story of a chairman losing faith in a manager. This is not Tottenham Hotspur or Chelsea. This is a manager losing faith with his owners, seeing through their promises, their false starts and computer-generated images. When the history of these days is written, last week may be viewed as the real Rafa-lution.


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