Rafael Benitez said he wanted to stay at Liverpool for 10 years to “create a new chapter” in the 18-time English soccer champion’s history. Fifteen months after saying those words and signing a new five-year contract, he was gone.
The Spanish coach’s six-year stay at Anfield ended by “mutual consent” yesterday after the team’s seventh-place Premier League finish marked its worst campaign in 11 years. He’ll get a 6 million-pound ($8.8 million) payoff, Sky reported.
“If you have a bad season you are always under pressure,” Ray Houghton, who played in Liverpool’s last championship winning team in 1990, said in interview. “Rafael Benitez is no different.”
His exit creates more instability at the team. American co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett put Liverpool up for sale in April, saying they’d transfer it to owners committed to take the club through its “next level” of growth. Plans for a new stadium stalled amid the credit crunch, and net debt of parent company Kop Football (Holdings) Ltd. rose to 351 million pounds. Some fans were vocal in their support of Benitez in disputes with the owners.
“It is very sad for me to announce that I will no longer be manager of Liverpool,” Benitez said in a statement. “I’ll always keep in my heart the good times I’ve had here, the strong and loyal support of the fans in the tough times and the love from Liverpool.”
In a reference to the club anthem he added, “thank you so much once more and always remember: You’ll never walk alone.”
Benitez didn’t sign a new contract until the owners granted him more control over player trades. That resulted in the departure of former Chief Executive Officer Rick Parry, whom Benitez blamed for missing out on transfer targets.
“He won a power struggle with Rick Parry and wanted more control,” Houghton said. “Once you get it though you have to deliver. Losing 11 out of 38 league games isn’t good enough.”
Liverpool Managing Director Christian Purslow and Kenny Dalglish, who coached the Reds to their last league title, will conduct the search for a successor. U.K. bookmakers make Aston Villa’s Martin O’Neill the favorite, with Fulham’s Roy Hodgson and ex-Chelsea boss Guus Hiddink among other possibilities.
Benitez, who won two Spanish league titles and the UEFA Cup at Valencia, has been linked with the vacant position at European champion Inter Milan.
Liverpool finished 23 points behind first-place Chelsea in the last campaign. That meant the club won’t play in the Champions League next season, its first absence from Europe’s elite competition since the season before Benitez arrived in 2004.
“As an ex-player I think it’s been too long since Liverpool last won the league,” Houghton said. “It’s crucial they bring in the right manager to steer the team through some pretty murky waters.”
Benitez, 50, started his tenure by claiming the European Cup in 2005, masterminding a victory over AC Milan that looked improbable at halftime after his team trailed 3-0. Three goals in six minutes overturned the deficit before Liverpool triumphed in a penalty shootout.
He captured the F.A. Cup the next season and the team reached another Champions League final in 2007, where AC Milan prevailed 2-1. However, Benitez failed to end Liverpool’s league title drought.
“Rafa will forever be part of Liverpool folklore after bringing home the Champions League following the epic final in Istanbul, but after a disappointing season both parties felt a fresh start would be best for all concerned,” Chairman Martin Broughton said on the club website.
In April, Liverpool named Broughton as chairman to find a buyer for the club. News reports said that after talks with the new executive, Benitez was frustrated at a lack of funds to strengthen the squad.
Benitez’s transfer policy has come under close scrutiny by supporters. He earned praise for capturing star striker Fernando Torres for 21 million pounds and goalkeeper Jose Reina for 6 million pounds early in his tenure. Recent deals haven’t been as successful.
Robbie Keane signed for 19 million pounds in July 2008 before returning to Tottenham six months later for 7 million pounds less. Alberto Aquilani, bought from Roma for 20 million pounds in the last offseason, didn’t start a Premier League game until Dec. 26 because he arrived injured.
Altogether, Benitez spent 249 million pounds on players during his tenure and recouped 140 million on sales, Sky reported.
“At the end of the day you’re judged on your results and your buys,” Houghton said.