Hicks targets Benitez in effort to reassert control at Anfield
Liverpool's co-owner Tom Hicks visited the club's training ground again yesterday in the wake of Tuesday's 1-1 Champions League draw against Chelsea. The Texan millionaire, accompanied by his son, Tom Jnr, was setting foot inside Melwood for the second time within 24 hours.
The tactic appeared to be another attempt to try to curry favour with the club's manager, Rafael Benitez – who has a prickly relationship with Hicks and his co-owner George Gillett – and show who is in charge of the club. But it also placed Benitez in a difficult position and, although the Spaniard has skilfully dodged attempts by Hicks to portray him as his ally, it will not have been well received by Liverpool supporters.
Benitez has insisted he will not hold talks on the club's future without both owners, and the club's chief executive, Rick Parry, being present – which is a sensible decision. Benitez is also thought to be sanguine about the prospect of Dubai International Capital buying into the club, and eventually taking control, especially as it has been made clear that he will be retained and will be given the transfer funds he craves.
Despite Hicks' continued bullishness, in public at least, that he can buy out the 50 per cent share of the club that belongs to Gillett, it appears increasingly certain that DIC will effectively acquire that stake within the next two weeks, even though a legal bar on the sale is not lifted until the end of next month. Once the deal is complete it will pile the pressure on Hicks to sell, even though DIC accepts that, at best, he is a truculent character.
The next few weeks are crucial. With the season drawing to a close the ownership issue has to be settled. No one should want to go into the summer uncertain of who owns the club. DIC is aware that Hicks is struggling to gain the finance he needs to take control and has been told by his bankers that it may, indeed, be time for him to sell up, especially with the credit markets putting the squeeze on his businesses.
If he continues to hold on then DIC, once it has bought out Gillett, can, according to a source, start to question whether Hicks is in a position to fulfil his financial obligations as a co-owner. If, for example, DIC pledges to provide £20m for Benitez to spend this summer in the transfer market it can then ask for Hicks to match that sum. Failure to do so might leave him in breach of the undertakings he took when he bought into the club, although that depends on the detail of the agreement he signed with Gillett.
DIC is also anxious, as are Liverpool's fans, to push ahead with the plans for a new stadium, which the two Americans promised to deliver but have so far failed to do. The stadium is vital to Liverpool's future and, again, DIC could aggressively question Hicks as to how he can provide his part of the financing for the move. It could develop into a messy, public spat.
Representatives of DIC – including the chief executive, Samir Al-Ansari, and chief negotiator, Amanda Staveley – accepted Gillett's invitation to be his guests in the directors' box for Tuesday night's game. Both, who are expected to take up roles on the Liverpool board once control is gained, are also likely to attend the second leg at Stamford Bridge next Wednesday.
Their commitment to Liverpool appears genuine, not least because, in pure business terms – and DIC is a hard-headed organisation – there is not a lot of sense in the price it is paying for the club. The Americans bought Liverpool for £220m last year and it now appears likely that DIC will have to spend up to £500m to gain full control. That it is now prepared to do so shows that it has serious long-term intent.