This Is Anfield meets… Paul Tomkins: Meeting Rafa, the Media & Money

Esteemed Liverpool author Paul Tomkins was recently invited to meet manager Rafa Benitez at the club’s Melwood training ground, we caught up with Paul to ask him about the day and his new venture ‘The Tomkins Times‘…

Q. Paul, how did the meeting with Rafa come about?

A. I was asked for my phone number by the editor of the website; they only had my old number. I replied, joking that if Rafa wants me to play at the weekend, I’d dig out my old boots. A few minutes later, Rafa’s PA called, saying that he wanted me to come and meet him at Melwood. I was somewhat surprised!

Q. In your article you tell how candidly Rafa spoke about players in the first-team, reserves and youth team, were there any players singled out for praise who surprised you?

A. Not really. I was more surprised by some of the players he seemed more indifferent about – some who were disappointing him a little, and one or two youngsters whose attitudes were not right. Nothing major, though – although even with Torres and Gerrard he was telling me what they need to improve on, which is probably why he is the man who has got the best out of each of them, driving them to more, and more, and more.

I expected him to rave about someone like Pacheco, but he was very positive without going overboard. Perhaps this is because a) Pacheco is getting too much attention for what he’s achieved thus far, which might make people expect too much of a mere kid, and b) he has doubts over the physical side of his game, while we already have a will-o’-the-wisp in Benayoun and a very small side. But these are just my guesses. Clearly the lad has great ability and a good attitude.

What I did discover was that a lot of Rafa’s signings from the Premiership were just tactically unaware; a British failing, it seems, when the emphasis is always on heart and passion, and not enough about thinking. Too many follow the ball and make the team shape too ragged. He said he couldn’t understand why Robbie Keane kept dropping far too deep, despite being instructed not to.

Glen Johnson told Rafa that he’d learned more about tactics in five minutes at Liverpool than he had in the previous two years, and was loving the education.

Q. You speak of Rafa dis-spelling some myths regarding zonal marking and that one team defend similarly to the Reds just they have more tall players – come on then, who is it? Stoke?

A. No, not Stoke! But very much a dead-ball team. Rafa also showed me some examples of Andy Gray’s analysis that were very hypocritical, with some shocking marking only gotten away with because the delivery wasn’t right – he pointed out players free to score if the ball got past the first defender, and so on.

He also showed me how a certain team lined up man-to-man (supposedly), and out of the nine outfield players in the box, four were marking zones! But he does think the Reds lack enough people who can attack the ball. I know he wanted to sign a couple of big lads this summer, but when it came to it the funds were not there. Height is clearly an issue.

Q. You mention Rafa not necessarily having “friends in high places” and the media with England. Do you think Tony Barrett moving to The Times will help him a little, Tony has written a lot already in support of Rafa and it’s nice to see such writing in the national press.

PapersA. He was very complimentary about Tony, as I expected him to be, and as he should be. But he has so few allies, and doesn’t do the whole sucking up thing. He’s also not part of the English establishment, like Ferguson, Moyes, Allardyce, etc, who seem like a cartel to me. Then there’s the FA, where Man United have David Gill in an influential position. I put these points to him, and he acknowledged that it’s true, Liverpool doesn’t appear to have that same far-reaching influence.

Q. Your article about the cost of Premiership success, taken from Red Race, is extremely interesting, how long did it take to research the actual stats and cost of players – and how come the lazy journo’s in Fleet Street can’t do the same?

A. A lot of time researching, and for once I had some help on that front with willing volunteers. It’s almost impossible to get 100% accurate transfer data, due to the many clauses and the misinformation in the media. But even allowing for a tolerance of a few percent, it was eye-opening to discover that the Reds had the 4th most expensive squad in the Premiership at the start of last season, before being overtaken by City in January – and blown out of the water by them this summer.

Liverpool’s current squad is around £50m short of Spurs’, who are ranked 4th.

So Rafa’s supposed to have had all this money to spend, and yet if he had, he’d have a squad £100m more expensive. The trouble is, he’s had to sell so many players in order to buy better ones, or lost players like Crouch due to the inability to tie them to long, lucrative contracts. And then this summer, having sold Keane, Alonso, Leto and Arbeloa for almost £60m in 2009, he could only spend £36m of that money. To me, that is not a club with title ambitions, and maybe the club knows that it needs investment, and better deals – such as the new sponsorship – to bring it in line with the big guns. Christian Purslow seems to have the right idea.

What is more interesting is that the book Soccernomics talks about how important the wages are; that wages dictate 92% of success. In other words, more than nine times out of ten the biggest payers are the biggest winners. And Liverpool are only the 5th-biggest payers, in the 5th-biggest stadium.

Great history and fanbase, but history doesn’t win you trophies; ask Preston, Nottingham Forest and Blackpool.

Q. Have you ever spoke to any journo’s and attempted to put them straight? Any chance you can send a copy of the Premiership Success article to them all?

A. No, although maybe I should. I do tend to take them to task in my writing, and name names. Some are just disgraceful. And even some of the better ones tend to write something very lazy from time to time – such as Martin Samuel this week, who I’ve had to call out in an open letter on my site. There’s only a handful I think are beyond reproach.

I appreciate that it’s difficult for journalists covering all the clubs, as well England, and maybe even other sports, to have specialist knowledge of Liverpool. They tend to base their thinking on the snippets garnered from other sources. Unfortunately, too many just seem to make it up as they go along. Some are good writers who just don’t understand the game enough for my liking. But it’s also difficult due to the demands of editors who want more than the simple, plain truth. It’s not just criticism of Benítez, but all top managers or players during a lean spell – although Rafa does seem to have more than his fair share of real snipers out there.

Some also look at it too much from a player’s point of view – ex-pros certainly do. And too many ex-pros just spout off about what it was like in their day; I’ve used the example many times, but Shankly and Paisley didn’t give a toss about what it was like 20 years earlier, they moved into the future.

It also bugs me that players who drank, gambled, snorted, shagged and pissed away their careers, and who have never managed for any meaningful amount of time, now sit in judgement of a man who has won La Liga twice and the European Cup, both without anything near the most expensive side or biggest wage bill.

Q. Tell us a little about your new venture, The Tomkins Times

Tomkins TimesA. Pretty much my sole income was from book sales, but sales were seriously affected by results. After the Aston Villa game, sales dipped so low that I’d had enough.

I announced via my old blog that I needed to find something different to do, and a couple of people suggested a subscription site. I was sceptical, but a fellow Red offered to help me build a site, and after a decent start I’m getting new subscribers all the time. So I can try and write book-quality in-depth articles, but that aren’t out of date within a few months.

The biggest bonus has been the quality of members’ comments on each article. I didn’t really think about this side of things, but because there are no trolls or internet warriors on there – who’d pay to be a tit, only to get banned? – and because it’s effectively a private forum, people are making some excellent comments without fear of attack or derision. There’s some excellent debate on there, but more on the finer details than the kind of “U r stoopid, Benitez iz shit” nonsense that leaves everybody poles apart and just bickering.

Q. Any other books in the pipeline then?

A. No, although I could have written a couple on my meeting with Rafa, there was that much there! I may do a limited edition compliation of articles from my site at the end of the season, but only on a pre-order basis, so I’m not left with the hassle of having to shift excess stock months later, or the really tiring slog of trying to write a new book in the final months of the season, so that it’s out in time for the summer.

Thanks to Paul for taking the time to respond to our questions. Visit The Tomkins Times, here.