Aston Villa manager Martin O’Neill has launched a scathing attack against Liverpool counterpart Rafael Benitez for stating “prolonged discussions” had taken place between the pair over the possible move of skipper Gareth Barry to the Reds.
O’Neill insists the only contact regarding England midfielder Barry had been two phone calls made to him by Benitez – the first three weeks ago and the second last Friday.
And O’Neill claimed the second of those by Benitez was “to cover his own backside” after Liverpool’s £10m cash-plus-players bid for Barry was leaked to the local Merseyside media.
The former Celtic boss described Benitez’s behaviour as “disingenuous” and questioned whether the Spaniard was “trying to make a fool out of us all” over his campaign to try and sign Barry.
O’Neill said: “I have never denied we had a conversation – but we have not had prolonged discussions. Benitez is quoted as saying ’he knew my idea and I knew his.’ What idea did I have? I didn’t have an idea apart from saying ’Gareth Barry is not for sale.’
“He spoke to me about Barry, about being interested. I told him I would obviously put this to my owner (Randy Lerner) who I think deserves to be told about any of these things.
“I said to him I would assume Randy’s viewpoint would be concurring with my own – and that was the case.
“The next time I spoke to Benitez was last Friday morning. He called me, to ask had I seen the offer for Barry which had come to us on the Thursday.
“I told him I had seen it. Again our viewpoint wasn’t going to change and that it was only after the phone went down that I realised the story had broken already in the Liverpool media.
“Rafa was only on the phone to me to cover his own backside. That is all. I phoned him back immediately to say I was amazed to find out this should appear in his local paper.
“That is the last time I spoke to him. This ’prolonged conversation’ over a period of three weeks is not prolonged at all. It is simply untrue and it is disingenuous of him to say we have had prolonged discussions.
“We have not and he knows that. He knows that clearly. It is not true.”
O’Neill added: “Is Benitez playing you for a fool? Rafa said something about ’we will wait until the end of the season because he respects our viewpoint.’ Rafa doesn’t respect anything. That would be my view.
“In the last two years we have tried to conduct our business in a proper fashion and we have succeeded in doing that and I find myself here going down the Liverpool way of conducting business, the modern Liverpool way of conducting business through the press.
“I felt today I had to answer him because it kind of gets out of control.
“Villa fans are very anxious for us to try and keep Barry and they would be more than disappointed to find out we have been in ’prolonged discussion’ with Liverpool. That is not true.
“Any phone calls between us have come from Liverpool. The way Benitez is portraying it is as if I am in agreement. It is not true.”
O’Neill is also baffled at how Benitez can put a £15m price tag on Peter Crouch and then makes such a meagre offer for Barry when he is playing more regularly for England than the former Villa striker.
He said: “I am not here to promote a price for Barry. It is not on the agenda but it is interesting to note that Benitez can put a price on a player (Crouch) who has got one year left of his contract because he plays for England.
“I think he must have forgotten that Barry is playing more regularly for England than that player and yet he can come up and talk about a £10m offer which includes some money and some unnamed players which would make Gareth worth about £2m.
“It does make a laughing stock of what he was saying beforehand. Maybe he is trying to make a fool of us all. It is incredible. I couldn’t have been more angry this morning.”
O’Neill also reiterated his desire to try and break into the top four and challenge the likes of Liverpool.
He said: “I would say at this minute Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and then Liverpool are very strong – and so they should be. They’ve spent enough.
“At the end of it all, that is where we are trying to get to. That is our aim. Why shouldn’t we have that aim because it is a half decent football club here?”