By Wayne Veysey | Chief Correspondent
When Tottenham provided Clint Dempsey with a timely exit from Fulham on deadline day, it did more than lay bare the power struggle between Brendan Rodgers and the Liverpool hierarchy.
It also provided a full stop to a fraught final chapter of Dempsey’s five-and-a-half years in west London, one which threatened to derail not just his early season but his professional career.
Goal.com can reveal in detail the depth of the hostility between the US international and his employers during a fraught two-month period, featuring bust-ups with his manager, an exile from the club, an official Premier League complaint and a strong-armed intervention from a millionaire owner.
Liverpool had laid down a marker by expressing their interest in buying Dempsey at the end of last season, even before Brendan Rodgers was appointed manager on June 1.
|DEMPSEY’S FULHAM RECORD
There was nothing official or ‘concrete’, in the parlance of football executives, but it was clear to Fulham over early summer that the Merseysiders were on the trail of the scorer of 23 goals last season.
So convinced was Dempsey – regarded as a human dynamo for his capacity to play in every game for club and country – that he was joining Liverpool that there was a seismic shift in his attitude to the club he joined in January 2007.
Fulham were informed he would be reporting late for pre-season training, which began in the first week of July. In the event, he was four days later than originally scheduled.
This breach of contract was reluctantly accepted by the club and manager Martin Jol, partly because they assumed a formal bid for the player from Liverpool was imminent.
It was not. There were informal discussions with the Merseysiders about a player-exchange for Dempsey – with Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing among the names that cropped up – but no offer, the first hint that the Anfield purse strings were being tightly squeezed.
Fulham, knowing how difficult it would be to replace Dempsey’s goals and impact in the final third, held out an olive branch by offering the attacking midfielder an improved three-year contract with the option of a fourth year. It was immediately rejected by the player who, at 29 and on the back of the best season of his professional career, felt it was the last opportunity he would get to sign for a Champions League calibre club.
The saga was brought into the public domain following an embarrassing error on July 18 by a website belonging to Fenway Sports Group, which published a link claiming that Dempsey was a Liverpool player.
The story was hastily removed but Rodgers addressed the subject in an interview the same day.
“Clint is a player we’ve inquired about, it is as simple as that,” Rodgers said. “Ian Ayre, our managing director, has spoken with the club to see what the position is. That is where we’re at. He’s a very talented player but we don’t like to talk about other clubs’ players.”
Rodgers assumed he was smoothing over a delicate situation but it prompted an angry response from Fulham. As revealed by Goal.com last month, the Londoners made an official complaint to the Premier League, claiming that Rodgers had broken the governing body’s rules by effectively ‘tapping up’ the American.
Meanwhile, the discord behind the scenes was growing. Three days before Fulham were due to fly to Switzerland for a week-long pre-season training camp that began on July 30, a confrontation occured between Dempsey and Jol at Fulham’s Motspur Park headquarters which ended up with the midfielder not going on the trip.
Jol claimed Dempsey refused to play, while the player told friends his manager told him he would not be travelling. What is not disputed is that, as explained by Goal.com, the pair exchanged strong words. In the words of one observer, they even “squared up” at one stage.
Dempsey made it clear that he wanted to quit the club for Liverpool and would do whatever was necessary to force a move. In turn, the Dutchman said the attacking midfielder would not be sold unless Fulham’s valuation was met.
“Clint himself told everyone he was going to Liverpool so we really thought there was quite a firm interest in him” – Martin Jol
While Fulham’s first-team squad was being put through their paces at an Alpine resort, Dempsey trained with the youth team. It proved to be only a temporary sticking plaster to what was becoming a gaping wound.
Wary that Dempsey’s unhappiness would spread to impressionable youngsters who looked up to him, the player was ordered to train on his own away from both the senior and development squads.
With the new Premier League season on the horizon, still no bid arrived from Anfield. However, there was no prospect of Dempsey being involved in the curtain-raiser against Norwich City on August 18.
Jol made this abundantly clear at his pre-match press conference by going public with Fulham’s side of the story for the first time.
In language that went beyond even Andre Villas-Boas’ simultaneous strongly-worded bulletins on Luka Modric’s Tottenham exit strategy, Jol said of Dempsey: “He is not committed to the club. He wants to leave. I would like to keep him, but I think it’s impossible. It’s a sad and an almost embarrassing situation. Clint himself told everyone he was going to Liverpool so we really thought there was quite a firm interest in him.”
Dempsey responded by using his Twitter account to make clear his dissatisfaction at Jol’s comments. “There are two sides to the story,” Dempsey wrote. “The truth will come out soon.” The relationship between player and club was now almost irreparable.
By this time, Aston Villa and Everton had also made enquiries about the American but Liverpool, who were still trying to get Andy Carroll off the Anfield wage bill, had not followed up their own interest with a formal bid.
It is understood this prompted a series of “emotional” responses from Dempsey towards senior Fulham figures as his dream move stagnated, although the player was aware that other clubs were on his trail.
Recognising the unrest he was creating, Fulham acted decisively. It can be revealed that 10 days before the end of the window the club went to the extreme measure of banning Dempsey from the training ground and ordering him to train on his own at a local sports ground.
Mohamed Al-Fayed is generally a ‘hands-off’ owner and chairman, leaving the day-to-day running of the club to chief executive Alistair Mackintosh.
But he felt that Dempsey was treating the club with disdain, behaviour that he took personally. Al-Fayed vowed that the American would not be granted a simple passage out of the club, even if it meant Fulham failing to off-load an unhappy player who could leave for nothing when his contract expired in 2013.
Conversations with Liverpool over a player-exchange for Dempsey continued in the middle of last week. Jordan Henderson and a number of junior Anfield squad players were discussed but an agreement could not be reached.
Villa sensed a late opportunity to end the rift between Dempsey and Fulham by making a bid less than 24 hours before the end of the window.
The offer, believed to be a £5m down payment supplemented by £2m in add-ons, was accepted by the Cottagers. Dempsey, however, rejected the move.
Positions were entrenched. With space on the wage bill freed up by Carroll’s loan to West Ham, Liverpool finally made a formal bid for Dempsey last Friday afternoon but offered an initial instalment of only £3m.
As the clock ticked down, Fulham refused to budge on their valuation for Dempsey. As far as the club was concerned, there was no route back to the first team for the club’s most prolific player.
There was even talk of an autumn loan to a Championship club. In the words of one insider: “the chairman wanted to teach him a lesson”.
With Dempsey on the brink and Liverpool and Fulham locked in stalemate, Tottenham came to the rescue just as the sun was beginning to set on deadline day.
Spurs’ hopes of replacing Rafael van der Vaart with Joao Moutinho were hanging by a thread and Daniel Levy made his now customary eleventh hour move to beef up the squad.
Levy matched Villa’s offer, Dempsey leapt at the opportunity to join a Champions League calibre club and a car was dispatched to take him to Spurs Lodge and put pen to paper.
Finally, the summer’s longest transfer saga was over. Tottenham had found a solution to their midfield hole, Fulham’s tough stance had been financially vindicated and Dempsey had finally got a move, albeit not to his first choice club. For Liverpool, however, the problems were only beginning.
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