Reading between the lines

Steven Gerrard‘s admission that this season has disappointed him should be a wake-up call to the club. He’s venting his frustration and anger that yet another year has slipped by without Liverpool so much as mounting a title challenge beyond the autumn. It should be how the vast majority of Liverpool fans feel, and I get the impression that a growing number are beginning to see that the problem is, as Gerrard hints, the manager. But not all of them and not those fans who chant Rafael Benitez’s name at the match every week. It’s the match-goers who seem to be keeping him in a job he no longer deserves to have.

Gerrard is 28 in May and at something like the peak of his career. He probably has three years tops to be Liverpool’s driving force and the continued source of inspiration when push comes to shove. Now without deifying him or minimising Fernando Torres’ impact, Gerrard is the mainstay of this Liverpool team, our jewel in the crown. When he speaks, just as when he plays, he demands attention. If he is expressing his unhappiness, he should be expressing the unhappiness of the fans. If he is not wholeheartedly supporting the manager, this is how the fans should feel. He is a Red through and through and he works day in and day out with the players we have all been critical of this season. As club captain, he is better placed than anyone to know whether the players at Anfield are capable of taking the challenge to Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea, and he suggests they are.

‘œWe believed we had the players to challenge for the title, and we wanted that one more than any other trophy available to us,’ he said. ‘œI still believe we have the squad to be a hell of a lot more competitive than we are right now.’

Rafa BenitezIf it’s not the players’ fault, then logically it can only be the manager’s. Gerrard mentions somewhere mid-sentence that Liverpool have ‘œthe manager…to compete for the Premier League‘, but he also reckons we have the stadium and the players to compete as well, which are no more than half-truths. Besides, no player in Gerrard’s position is going to come out and lambast the manager, much as they might want to. There is a bit of previous between Gerrard and Benitez, if you want to look for it. Gerrard’s autobiography suggested that his relationship with Benitez is no more than professional, and distinctly less warm than the one he had with Gerard Houllier. Not a problem if the manager is getting results and maintaining title challenges into a new calendar year, at least. But Gerrard has been conspicuously distancing himself from making any favourable comments about Benitez all season. He’s no fool. On the evidence of his latest outburst, he is using the media with all the savvy you would expect from someone who has been at the top of his game for almost a decade. The time is right for the club captain to tell it like it is.

‘œI am not going to pretend that even winning the Champions League – and we are a long way away from it at the moment – will make up for the disappointment of the league campaign,’ he continued. ‘œI’m pretty gutted every time I look at the table and see the gap between us and Arsenal at the top, and even the gap between us and second and third.’

This is what I want to hear from players at Liverpool: no bullshit. There is hurt and ambition in what Gerrard is saying – and that should be how every Liverpool fan feels. It’s not good enough to win the Champions League if we’re so far off the top domestically. This is the spirit of Shankly talking, not the ‘˜fourth-is-fine’ brigade, who appear happy to dine out on the special Anfield atmosphere reserved for European nights and overlook the radical shortcomings the manager displays on weekends. Gerrard is not belittling the Champions League, of course he’s not. He’s just putting things into the right perspective for a club with Liverpool’s domestic pedigree: fourth wasn’t good enough under Roy Evans (who didn’t have the safety net of the Champions League for finishing fourth, or even third) and then Houllier, so it can’t be good enough for Benitez. Being the best in Europe seems to take less than being the best in England – that can be the only conclusion otherwise Liverpool would be at the very least perennial title challengers going into Easter. In the wake of the par-for-the-course 2-0 win over 10-man Internazionale, Benitez expressed his frustration at not being able to grasp the English game.

Benitez said: ‘œIn Europe you can approach a game tactically in a different way. In England it is a different style of football and more difficult for the manager to influence what goes on. It is not as simple to influence the game with tactics in England the way it is elsewhere in Europe.’

InterIf ever there was an admission that the manager does not know how to win the Premier League, this is it. For Benitez, it all boils down to tactics and nullifying the opposition, be they Sunderland at home (Jamie Carragher at right-back?) or Chelsea away (Dirk Kuyt at right-wing?). Like Gerrard, I don’t want to be hearing the same old story about “next season” 12 months from now. Stalwarts like Gerrard and the 30-year-old Carragher, the fabled Scouse heartbeat of the team, do not have that long left to win the Premier League. There are no more of that kind of quality performers coming through the ranks. Enough of their careers has been wasted languishing miles off the pace and talking about how things have to improve. Next season things have to change. Next season there cannot be the uncertainty that Benitez brings with him to team selection, tactics and therefore results. Next season there must be a man in place who can make a difference from the off, who can make everyone associated with the club believe they can be the best again. Yes way, Jose.