Any lingering doubts about the state of Rafael Benitez's relationship with his club's American proprietors were removed yesterday when one of Liverpool's co-owners, Tom Hicks, publicly told the manager to put his personal frustrations about transfer budgets aside to "concentrate on the games coming up and nothing else."
That message has also been privately communicated to Benitez though, judging by Hicks' comments, the Spaniard had not revealed his irritation with it until the bizarre press conference on Thursday at which he repeated 25 times a mantra about focussing on "training and coaching my team" in an ironic swipe at the Americans' orders.
Hicks, who yesterday defended the amount of money he and co-owner George Gillett have spent at Anfield since Liverpool's Champions League final defeat in May, is clearly of the opinion that the international break has created time for Benitez's frustrations about money – especially the £17m needed to make Javier Mascherano's loan permanent – to fester. The timing of his outburst is certainly odd, since it did not immediately follow a phone call between Liverpool and America on Thursday, as has been suggested.
"We brought in some good players and spent more money than has ever been spent before at this club," Hicks said. "We now have some crucial games coming up in the Premier League, and the Champions League and we want to see if we can win these games with the players we have. This was the message we gave to Rafa recently and I think during the international break he must have grown a bit frustrated about this. We told him to concentrate on the games coming up and nothing else and I guess he didn't like that. But, for the time being, we just need to be focused on what happens on the pitch."
The message, which developed a statement issued by the Americans on the club's website on Thursday, was even less subtle than Benitez's had been and will seem extraordinary to Liverpool fans brought up on mild, acquiescent ways of David Moores. Few clubs who move towards December still undefeated in league competition have known such a public spat – but such are the expectations of Benitez and the men who have bankrolled the summer spending.
The row also stems from differences in the way the Americans and Benitez like to do business. The Spaniard, whose history of rows with club directors includes feuds with Jesus Pitarch at Valencia, likes to deal directly with the owners. However, the Americans prefer to receive requests through the Liverpool chief executive, Rick Parry, than being harangued by Benitez.
The manager, who has not seen Hicks and Gillett since Liverpool's home game against Arsenal last month, will have to wait for an answer until after Liverpool's league game against Manchester United at Anfield on 16 December. That is five days after the Champions League trip to Marseilles which may dictate whether or not Liverpool progress in that competition. "George and I will be over in mid-December and that is the time to talk about other issues," Hicks said.
Sources close to the Americans admit there is real concern about relations with Benitez, which will do little to disabuse some Liverpool fans of the growing notion that the investors –– who will saddle Liverpool with £500m of debt next month by a planned refinancing of their loan to buy the club – are not the knights in white armour they initially seemed. That said, views from the club's chatrooms yesterday suggested that there is some sympathy for Hicks, too. "Rafa can't moan before every transfer window opens that we needs money when he has been backed so far," stated one fan .
The mood when the Americans do eventually arrive will depend on results and while today's visit to Newcastle is not the easiest, Fernando Torres is expected to be restored to the side. Defender Daniel Agger – more sorely missed than anyone during Liverpool's injury-plagued autumn – is back in training and also near to a return to the side.