It is no exaggeration to say Liverpool’s next managerial appointment could well represent the most significant since that of Bill Shankly.
Back in December 1959 the club were languishing in the second division of English Football, a bewildered outfit miles adrift of the days trend-setters Wolves and Spurs. When Shankly seized the reins at what he called the city’s ‘biggest toilet’ he accepted a blueprint to secure promotion and eventually challenge for the first division title. He achieved both feats within three years and in the process spawned the Empire that was Liverpool FC – a footballing juggernaut that would dominate the sport for three decades.
Succeeding Shanks was of course daunting, akin to following The Beatles onstage at a music festival. History tells us how brilliantly Bob Paisley managed that particular transition, itself a massive appointment. Likewise was the decision to hire Kenny Dalglish in the wake of the Heysel Disaster, another crossroads the club handled superbly.
Nevertheless it may be argued this next changeover outweighs all of the above in terms of importance, for the very future of Liverpool hinges on it. Indeed, we stand on the precipice of mediocrity – behind us a glittering history we have dined on for a number of years – before us the very frightful tag of ‘also-rans.’ Fenway Sports Group simply must hire the right man or face the possibility of commanding a stagnant ship.
Not only will our latest incumbent be charged with revitalising an underperforming squad, he will be expected to equip them to battle financial heavyweights such as Manchester City and Chelsea. Navigating a route into the Champions League is now tougher than ever, a seven-way tussle for a mere four openings. And given just how far the reds fell short this season, the likelihood of leapfrogging our closest challengers is hardly burgeoning.
Then there’s the Kenny Factor. A huge percentage of supporters, including myself, remain not only miffed but angered at Dalglish’s dismissal. Granted the reds league form was quite abysmal but any right-minded fan could surely appreciate his was a work in progress. Two strong cup runs (and one success) should have enabled a stay of execution – until Christmas at the very least. If one man in Liverpool’s long and distinguished history warranted a dose of loyalty it was Kenny Dalglish. THE iconic figure of our time, he deserved far more than to be shuffled out of the backdoor. An unceremonious sacking, the entire episode has left a bitter taste.
And whoever picks up the baton will be forced to clear-up that mess. If his remit wasn’t hard enough, replacing Dalglish complicates things ten-fold. Kenny’s legion of followers will bemoan The King’s firing for weeks, months, even years to come but unless FSG acquire a world class alternative those voices of discontent will grow incessant. At the very least our would-be boss needs to hit the ground running otherwise the inevitable calls for restoration will ring around Anfield.
Fenway’s ownership now enters its most critical phase. In many respects they have a clean slate, a blank canvass to work from. John W. Henry and Thomas Werner inherited Roy Hodgson, who inadvertently forced the appointment of Dalglish. The latter was never their preference and it could be argued Hodgson’s tenure was prolonged only to delay installing the fans choice.
Now they need to identify not only a manager but a Director of Football and Chief Executive. Their nonsensical appointment of Damien Comolli hardly inspires confidence and one can only hope those advising them are clued-up.
But announcing a totally new boardroom will take priority from here-on-in and set the tone for the rest of their tenure. Filling these vacancies however may only delay any announcement on Anfield. Just what is going on with the stadium issue? It has been eighteen months since the Americans seized control of the club and in that time we have heard various rhetoric about how plans to build a-new and redevelop are under consideration. The delay is beginning to mirror Axl Rose’s refusal to release his Chinese Democracy album and again threatens to disillusion fans.
The Spirit of Shankly have already caused a stir by writing an open letter demanding greater transparency and communication – signalling the fact that cracks are starting to show. This has in-turn sparked a war of words between sections of the fan base, in-house fighting echoing the era of Hicks and Gilett. For what its worth I still trust in Henry and his consortium but the coming weeks will define their governorship. The Liverpool Way is seemingly being cast aside, which may not be a bad thing if it brings us into the here and now, competing for honours we have lost sight of in recent times. The last thing anyone wants is protest marches and widespread apathy. Rewinding two years will undo any progress achieved in that time. Judgement on Fenway should be reserved for a little while yet, at least until they show their true hand.
In terms of potential managers supposed candidates nearly number the girls Jermain Defoe’s cheated on. It seems a stint on Championship Manager earns you odds of 33/1, alongside a conveyor belt of who’s who in the coaching world.
As of today Brendan Rodgers, Jurgen Klopp and Frank de Boer have all distanced themselves from the position. Roberto Martinez is known to be meeting with the club, as will Andre Villas Boas. In truth neither man excites in the vein of a Jose Mourinho or Pep Guardiola. Yes, Martinez speaks well and sets his teams up to play attractive, attacking football. But that, alongside the ‘achievement’ of keeping Wigan up should hardly qualify you for the Liverpool job. In fairness, he also enjoyed success at Swansea but taking charge at Anfield is a completely different ball game.
Rightly or wrongly the expectation is you should be winning every fixture. And lest we forget this is a man whose side lost eight on the bounce during the winter. Have such a run at Liverpool and you’ll be booted out the door faster than you can say Emerson Boyce.
Villas Boas is a complex case. His disastrous spell at Chelsea must be put into context. The Portuguese had the audacity to dismantle the old guard – in the process alienating JT and Lamps. How dare he? Subsequent results were due in-part to the politics of the dressing room, underlined by their resurgence under Roberto Di Matteo. His spell at home in Porto was hugely impressive; as are his links to top scouts he’s apparently in contact with at present. The attacking style of play will please supporters yet the defensive disarray evidenced in West London will frighten them just the same. A smart, dare we say arrogant talker, he will interview well and probably tick all of Henry and co’s boxes.
My personal preference would be a return for Rafa Benitez. Conflicting reports suggest he is under consideration, which is only right given his past success and the fact he openly harbours a return to Anfield. Towards the end of his tenure I was openly critical of Rafa who, I believe, took his eye off the ball somewhat in the midst of off-field issues. That is not a slight against him as such, because he was standing up for the club and its well-being. Anyone who has read Brian Reade’s compelling ’44 Months with a Pair of Cowboys’ will appreciate the chaotic conditions in which Benitez was forced to work. Up until that final season however the Spaniard had improved Liverpool year-on-year. Under his stewardship we were well-organised, hard to beat and competitive. He also attracted a host of top players to the club and had money not been withdrawn may have built upon our second place finish in 2008/09.
To this day Benitez has an army of staunch supporters and his possible return would appease a number currently bewildered at our seeming direction. If given decent funds to rebuild this team he would gladly set-about the task, refreshed by a much-needed break from the game. The one thing that may deter FSG however is his thirst for confrontation. If made to work under a Director of Football there would be the constant threat of things descending into farce, like an unsavoury episode of EastEnders. For Phil Mitchell and Derek Branning read Rafa and Txiki Begiristain, Fabio Paratici or whoever fills that position. Before Christian Purslow’s ill-advised arrival Benitez had complete autonomy of matters his end and he will always crave that authority – no matter who outranks him.
The only other serious contender I can see is Fabio Cappelo. By all accounts the Italian believes he has one last job in him and wants it to be in England. His record is actually second to none – winning the title with every side he’s ever managed. The World Cup aside, his time with England was also impressive (results-wise) and had it not been for cosying-up to the despicable Terry he’d be leading the team into the Euros this summer. At 65 his age will probably count against him, as may his limited English, but if the owners go by track record alone he is surely the stand-out candidate.
Suggested links to Guardiola are fanciful. We may still be a huge club in name and stature but the rebuild job at Liverpool is so big it immediately alienates the top brass.
If I were a betting man my money would be on Martinez. He was the first man lined-up for interview and seems to fit the criteria FSG have laid-out. Whoever inherits Kenny’s throne has a massive job on their hands. The somewhat misguided expectations of us, the fans, can make the role a poisoned chalice. Yet, by the same token, fulfilling those lofty aspirations will earn immortality and hero-worship forever more. The next in line will view that as something worth striving for.
Whatever unfolds in the next week or two it is undeniable that Liverpool are at a crossroads. A wrong turn now may not be salvageable; a right one could bring about a brave new dawn…