With the Spaniard potentially on the verge of leaving Liverpool, John Ritchie explains how he thinks Pepe Reina has been the victim of his impressive early years at Anfield.
“I have been through three dark nights of the soul at Liverpool and on all three occasions I have questioned whether I should stay at the club I have come to love. On each occasion I could have walked away. I had opportunities to continue my career elsewhere, but I never took that final, decisive step that would have severed my ties with Liverpool forever. Thankfully.
“For tens of thousands of footballers, Liverpool is a difficult club to join because it’s one of the greatest in the world. But I know from my own personal experience that is an even more difficult club to leave behind.”
— Pepe Reina (Pepe – My Autobiography)
Pepe Reina is a little bit special when it comes to Liverpool fans; we’re known for being a club that backs our players, but Reina is a little bit extra special, there’s an attachment beyond just the standard affections that fans have towards the squad.
For some that statement might seem odd, yet growing up watching the Reds from the days of crazy Bruce, you would know that Liverpool really struggled when it came to goalkeepers. It was a problem going back almost 15 years since Liverpool had last one the League. It was always the weak underbelly despite having one of the best defence’s around, Liverpool never managed to pick the right man between the sticks.
Reina joined Liverpool as the reigning European champions; we looked set to really push on and challenge for the Premier League title over the next few years, on the verge of becoming one of the best sides in Europe at a time where the title was swinging between Chelsea and United.
After the heroics of the Istanbul, Jerzy Dudek would have been forgiven for thinking he’d secured his place as Liverpool’s number 1 for another season. Yet there’s many in football who believe that the best time to rebuild is just after you’ve been crowned a Champion, the history books are filled with such stories, Bob Paisley’s European cup winning side, Alex Ferguson’s treble winning United and now Pep Guardiola will do the same after Bayern Munich’s astonishing treble this year.
So was the case with Rafa Benitez, who decided to perform some much needed surgery on Liverpool in his second season. Rafa was never one for heart over the head and so he picked Reina in the European Supercup Final; from then on in Pepe established himself almost immediately as Liverpool’s number one.
Bravery, distribution, agility, communication, passion, leadership and silky feet that could challenge even the best outfield player; Reina had it all. He was quickly heralded as one of the best keepers in the world and if it hadn’t been for the fact Casillas, Spain’s legendary captain happened to be in the form of his life, then Reina would have clearly been the number 1 keeper in one of the best international teams of the time.
Spectacular saves were common place, who can forget Reina’s amazing triple save against United, the Golden Gloves of the 07/08 season, the master of penalty shoot outs; Reina had finally filled a void that had been eating away at Liverpool for over a decade.
The image of Dudek on the bench in the final of the FA cup is one that still saddens me as a fan. Just a year earlier this was the man who had the game of his life in the champion’s league final, the stunning double save, the amazing penalty shoot-out. To see him sat on the bench looking on knowing his life at Anfield was coming to an end was something I personally took no pleasure in; Dudek was a good keeper, but the reality of the situation was that Reina was, at the time, a world class keeper. As much as we will forever love Dudek for that night in Istanbul, we all knew the writing was on the wall.
Reina won the Premier League Golden Glove award in his first three seasons at the club and in 2008 became the quickest goalkeeper in Liverpool history to keep a half century of clean sheets.
So Reina marched on, the Golden gloves award, his gloves from his 100th clean heet for the club donated to the museum at Anfield, he was slowly moving into the realms of a club legend and his performances matched his personality; bold, strong and authoritative.
Yet a consistent dip in form, the progression into the ranks of a senior player and the failure of Liverpool to secure the league title began somewhat of a downward spiral for Pepe. It’s interesting to read in his autobiography that around that he’d came close to leaving Liverpool no less than three times.
Reina describes these moments as a dark night of the soul; this is a reference to the famous Spanish St. John of the Cross, ‘the dark night of the soul’ a reference to the journey of the soul back to its unification with God, the journey from darkness, into the light. It’s not often you hear footballers refer to a transfer with such eloquence and sense of the gravity of his decision; however the implication was that Liverpool is where he wanted to be, but only if the club could march on back to where they belong.
Reina has never quite recaptured those early years at Anfield; it’s been widely reported and confirmed by Reina in his book that when the club was in the hunt for new owners, Arsenal approached Liverpool with an offer of over £20m. The offer was rejected out of hand which initially pleased Reina, however he was later to find out from the managing director of the time Christian Purslow that he would not be allowed to leave, his status in the game was important in helping Liverpool find new owners. The decision was not for football reasons, one the still grinds at him to this day.
He was assured none of the stars of the club would be allowed to leave until new owners had been found; their presence was paramount to the sale of Liverpool FC. However Liverpool ended up selling Mascherano, and the year before they’d sold Alonso. Reina felt betrayed by the club and again his form began to spiral.
Since then Liverpool are now on their third manager, under a new ownership and a new way of operating; each manager with the promise of bringing Liverpool back to glory, two managers have come and gone, Torres has gone, and Suarez looks next on the list for the exit door at Anfield. The third, Brendan Rodgers, has been given a different task to re-build the side, cut the wage bill and implement a different style of football, one well suited to Reina as La Masia graduate, a way he’s played all of his life.
Reina has shown glimpses in the second half of last season into what he’s capable of, he’s lost weight, he looks comfortable on the ball again and the issues he and the near post seemed to have, look thankfully to be reconciled for now, and with a new vein of form, he’s recaptured the relationship with a fan-base who was growing more concerned with each passing week. The flag of Pepe in the Kop, an honor reserved for only the finest of Liverpool players, still flying high.
Yet with all the speculation going on and on due to Valdes leaving Barcelona, some fans have understandably raged at the prospect of Reina going, and some who welcome a change and rightly point out that he’s been well below par in his last two seasons for Liverpool. Others point to his influence within the squad, his presence and calmness at the back, the fact Liverpool need stability in amongst the major surgery which is clearly taking place across the Liverpool defence in this summer transfer window.
The arguments rage from the rational, to the irrational, the more seasoned fan (me included) remember what it’s like to lose a top, top keeper. We’ve had it ourselves when Grobbelar left, United had it with Schmeichel, Arsenal had it with Seaman. When a top keeper leaves it’s very, very rare they are replaced with someone who can fill the boots left by their predecessor.
The stats tell their own story, indeed Reina compared to his rumoured replacement in Simon Mignolet looks well below par; let’s just put one thing to bed before I continue, we all know football is a game played on grass with round shaped leather objects, there’s a human side to the game, a mental one that stats can’t ever predict the outcome of, will the player cope with the expectation of playing for a major club? Is he mentally strong enough and has he been tested at the highest level?
Yet stats tell the story of a performance in more ways than one, Mignolet’s been in a worse team, with a far worse defence than Liverpool’s and still managed to stand out as performing higher than the League average.
Playing a sweeper role at times which is normally an element of the 4-3-3 or the 4-3-2-1 in order for your defence to sit higher up the pitch. Liverpool were unable to implement that system this year, the defence sat deep at times often causing confusion and mayhem in what seemed to happen with any set piece or ball crossed into the box. The resulting outcome is inevitable, the keeper gets forced onto their line and the defence becomes clustered in the box with very little room to manoeuvre, chaos ensues, goals get conceded. The reasons most likely due to Carragher’s lack of pace.
Reina’s wages are also an issue, he’s got 3 years left on his contract, one of the highest earners at the club, yet in truth he’s not delivered. Players being rewarded for mediocrity is something we need to put to bed at Liverpool and the owners may well realise there’s simpler cheaper options who are doing better than Pepe right now.
An issue which isn’t the fault of Reina is Liverpool’s lack of a top quality goalkeepers to challenge him and keep him on his toes and also more importantly the lack of a top quality goalkeeping coach, the current holder of the role, John Achterberg a former Tranmere Rovers keeper who in my view isn’t qualified to do to the job of coaching a world class player like Reina or able to develop players to the standard of those we need at Liverpool. This is not a dig at Achterberg but if Liverpool wants to ensure decent keepers maintain their form and compete, they need to address this issue.
It does remain to be seen whether Liverpool will sell Reina even if they do sign Mignolet, however it’s fairly certain they would need to. For one we want to reduce our wage bill and second, Rodgers needs the funds in order to either pay for Mignolet, or indeed reinvest elsewhere which it seems we are looking to do.
I for one will be sad to see Reina go, he’s relatively young for a keeper and realistically Liverpool could have 5/6 years of a player in peak condition that’s used to delivering on the big stage. His influence in the dressing room, his obvious likability and popularity seen often in the training pictures we see, or indeed the affection people seem to have for the stopper. You’ll notice if Spain score a goal, and Reina’s on the bench, the players often run up to him in order to celebrate.
The importance of that influence in a team is vastly under-estimated, and people shouldn’t forget every great team needs a leader and if anyone reading this thinks that the vocal leader on the pitch is Steven Gerrard then I’m not sure you’ve been watching enough of Liverpool over the years. As much as I love Gerrard, he’s very rarely vocal unless he’s incensed at a decision. Add in Carragher’s retirement.
If now is the end of the road of Pepe Reina, then the moral of the story is that he’s been a victim of his own success; a well paid player due to his obvious talent, very badly treated by the club over the years, who now is looking exposed just when he was starting to look like his old self again. A cruel ending some might say for a great servant to the club.
As Liverpool turn to Simon Mignolet, and in me you’ll find I’m an admirer of the Belgian, this is nonetheless a gamble by Liverpool, a big one at that- here’s hoping the gamble pays off; we all know what happens when we fail to do so.