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Direct Abuse: A Dark Day for LFC

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The one thing Rafa Benítez surely never expected when swapping the political machinations of Valencia for the stable-run Liverpool FC was interference from the board. And as fans, we surely never expected it, either.

It’s been one of the worst weeks for criticism of the manager, and up there with the ‘crisis’ from January 2005, just four months before the Reds won the Champions League. The Daily Mirror quotes an unnamed Liverpool Director, who has done the unthinkable and gone public with his thoughts on Rafa Benítez.

Again, as with Alan Hansen’s comments this week, it wouldn’t be so bad if the criticisms weren’t so wide of the mark. But of course, given the club does its business exclusively behind closed doors, it would still be bad. Very bad.

It’s a difficult time at the moment, and there’s every chance this outrageous behaviour will help the rest of the club unite behind Rafa. It could prove to be the best thing that happened, particularly if the person in question leaves the board; I’m sorry, but you just don’t do such a thing. A club with in-fighting quickly becomes a joke. If you’re not pulling together you’re falling apart.

What I don’t get is that Rafa should know his best team. “Normally, by the time you get to October, you’d expect the manager to know his best team and stick with it but there are no signs of that happening now. I don’t think he could tell you what his best team is,” runs the quote.

Has this Director actually watched Benítez work since he arrived, or has he been living in an ivory tower? Did he actually see the kind of heavy rotation Rafa used to win two league titles in three years in Spain? When has Rafa ever stuck with the same side, including throughout the excellent season in 2005/06? Was he chiding Rafa for resting players ahead of the Champions League quarters, semis and final in 2005? And is he not watching what Alex Ferguson is doing at Manchester United, who has rotated as heavily as Benítez in the Premiership this season, but somehow managed to escape being tarred with the same brush?

Maybe Rafa doesn’t know his best XI, but then again his entire methodology works on the basis of picking the best XI to beat the team in front of him. At times he may have one eye on the next fixture, too. But if anyone thinks he doesn’t believe the teams he selects can win games, they have to be insane.

It’s the best XI for the circumstances; slow opposition defenders might mean Bellamy instead of Crouch; small ones might mean Crouch instead of Bellamy. And so on. At Valencia Rafa barely used his talisman and the fans’ favourite, Pablo Aimar, in the first half of the season. He unleashed him in the second half, and boy did it win dividends.

It’s this kind of forward-thinking modern management that Rafa is all about. And the innovators in life are those who look forward, not backwards. Bill Shankly was an innovator. He did things his way. He changed things at Liverpool, updated them. No doubt it scared a few Directors, and there was no instant success; there was also a seven-year period between league titles. Shankly didn’t look to what won the league 20 years earlier, but what would win it this season, or the next.

Maybe it’s too late this season to win the title, but we should not be throwing the baby out with the bath water. Benítez has proven his quality, and earned breathing space with it. Does every setback have to be a full scale ‘end of the world’ disaster?

With so many new players needing time to bed in and find their confidence, and with key players like Carragher, Gerrard (who was also switched about last season), Hyypia and Alonso below par ‘“ perhaps due to unrelenting football in the last 24 months ‘“ it’s never going to be easy to say for sure what the best XI is. In football, that changes with form, injuries and, in Rafa’s case, tactical considerations.

This is the modern big-squad age, and the flipside to never rotating, aside from fatigue after January, is that you have ten top-quality disillusioned players who are needed in case of injuries and suspensions, but who are effectively frozen out. That can present its own problems.

With Benítez, while Peter Crouch may feel aggrieved to be rested after a two-goal display, at least the striker knows he’ll be back in soon. He knows Rafa rates him. The reward for playing well is to be in the 16 on matchday; that’s the motivation. The penalty for not producing, as Robbie Fowler found earlier in the season, is not even a place on the bench. Fowler got his turn again on Wednesday and put in the kind of virtuoso display that will be rewarded, even if it might not be with a start in the very next game. He’s back in the frame.

The comments the unnamed Director made about expensive signings also seems insane, seeing as all the expensive dead wood (as well as some good players, lest we forget) was signed by Houllier. Benítez, like any manager, has messed up with some signings, but his mistakes have all been offloaded fairly quickly and without sentiment, and with the exception of Morientes, who cost £6m, all his flops have cost very little. And even Morientes was no £28m Seba Veron.

How can Benítez be paying ‘over the odds’ for players? Was Xabi Alonso over the odds? Momo Sissoko? Daniel Agger? Luis Garcia (whose goals in 2005 earned the club three times his transfer value) ?

Did Reina look expensive last season, when he kept the most clean sheets, but did so with the joint-highest save percentage in the league? Or does a loss of form mean a player is actually rubbish? Was the fee for Bellamy over the odds, when he’d have cost twice as much but for a clause in his contract? Was Crouch, with 20 goals for Liverpool in the last 11 months (plus 11 for England) and some superb link-up play, too expensive at £7m? And as for Kuyt, it’s far too early to tell, but he looks like he’ll prove a big success. His stay in England has coincided with his dad’s cancer, so he’s had a lot to contend with since the summer.

Only days ago Alan Hansen was saying that Liverpool have paid too little for players, claiming the club got ‘maybe’ players as they didn’t pay top dollar. Which is interesting, as the sublime Scot himself cost in the ‘maybe’ bracket in 1977, precisely four times less than Kenny Dalglish that same summer. If comparing with today’s prices, Daniel Agger, who is still younger than Hansen when he arrived at Liverpool, would be a definite ‘maybe’ player. But without wishing to over-burden him, Agger is the closest we’ve had to Hansen. He’s a thoroughbred.

Paying big guarantees nothing. Around the time the Reds paid £2.3m for Dean Saunders and £2.2m for Nigel Clough, Manchester United paid £1.2m for Eric Cantona. I could go on ‘“’“ there are examples of bargains, and there are examples of severely overpriced players. Meanwhile, some expensive players are worth the money, and some cheap ones are worthless. It all depends on the individual: is he good enough? And then it’s down to how he settles, luck with injuries, etc.

It’s ‘putting the boot in’ week. It follows on from Scott Murray, in a Guardian blog, claiming that Benítez is just a cup winner, like Gérard Houllier, and not a league champion. Rafa’s success in Spain is couched with the suggestion that he was regarded as ‘lucky’, and the need to say such is beyond me. It beggars belief.

I can’t for the life of me fathom how taking a club that hadn’t won the league for 31 years, being given no money to spend, while having to face the two superpowers of Barcelona and Real Madrid, and then winning the league twice in three years (while still being good enough to simultaneously add a Uefa Cup for good measure) can be considered lucky? Especially when there was a widespread belief that the referees were favouring the big two.

I know it’s a different league, but it’s precisely this pedigree that marks out Benítez as a winner, and why he has my trust and my faith. Without that success under his belt I’d have more doubts, but he knows what it takes in the long haul. Valencia were written off in those seasons, too, lest we forget.

In England it was an even harder task facing Benítez, as I pointed out in 2004. But who else could have taken Liverpool as far in the past two seasons?

Seriously, who could have done better in the circumstances? Chelsea were even richer than Barcelona and Real Madrid, and at the time Benítez arrived, Liverpool were already a whopping 19 points behind the Blues, who’d also just made the Champions League semi-final. Chelsea had also appointed their own great coach, so closing the gap was a mammoth task, as the Stamford Bridge outfit bought every single player they wanted, and disrupted others, like Liverpool’s own Steven Gerrard and Arsenal‘s Ashley Cole.

Meanwhile, Manchester United have spent massively on players. It doesn’t mean guaranteed quality, as I said earlier, but great wealth gives more choice. But since Benítez arrived, they’ve won the League Cup and the FA Cup, compared with the Reds’ FA Cup and, um, err, European Cup.

Also, let’s not forget something I’ve pointed out on numerous occasions: Liverpool won 25 of 38 league games last season, which was a higher percentage of wins than in 17 of the 18 title successes. That puts the task facing Rafa into perspective. Despite the poor start, we are actually better placed than a year ago (six points closer to Chelsea), with a far “easier” fixture list remaining. We don’t need to go on two great runs as of last season, merely pick up points at a steadier rate and avoid the dip in form that blighted January-March.

Although there have been other slumps during Rafa’s tenure, it’s been two great years, followed by two mediocre months this season. If we have no faith, no long-term view, we’ll end up the kind of club that switches its manager every three weeks; and we all know how successful such clubs tend to be. Patience can be difficult, but sometimes there’s no alternative. It’s better to get there in the end, than to keep changing direction only to end up back where you started, or totally lot in the wilderness. You have to have a vision, and stick to it.

The criticism of Benítez has grown ridiculous. This is a slump, and no one should be feeling happy right now. But it’s one of the darkest days I can remember in the club’s history, where someone important within the club would go to a national tabloid to criticise the club’s manager. I’ve always been proud of the way the club handles its affairs, but if individuals want to start behaving like they’re at Newcastle United, then that’s the best place for them.

But then again, I wouldn’t even wish that on the poor suffering Geordies.

© Paul Tomkins 2006

An Anfield Anthology is available to pre-order from, from where it will remain exclusively available.

Also, The Red Review is available from shops and online stores from November 1st, and signed pre-release copies are still available from, including as part of package deals with my other books.

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