Competition can raise standards and performance. However, in football the introduction of competition does more. It disperses the smoke and smashes the mirrors and gives the audience a glimpse of the reality; we see past the showman and get closer to the true man. The arrival of competition for the number one jersey at Liverpool Football Club will prove a case in point.
Pepe Reina loves competition. Simon Mignolet loves competition. Brendan Rodgers loves it too. Pepe and Brendan love it so much they book a table, go to a restaurant and discuss how amazing it is. Unfortunately, Simon couldn’t go for that bite to eat because he was scared he’d be fined by Paolo. But that’s just made him more determined to try even harder to get there next time. Missing his tea will bring the best out in him. Reina knows this; there’s no surprising him. Competition is great.
The only problem with the current competition spiel is that rightly or wrongly many people don’t believe a word of it. Long gone are the days when Liverpool fans lie back and passively feast on what they are told like a reclining Cleopatra devouring grapes, adoringly fed to her by oily eunuchs. Too much water has gone under the bridge for this to happen.
This distrust is only exacerbated when taken in the context of the current football transfer circus. Both players and managers alike walk a non-committal tightrope which they dare not fall off. If (and it’s a big if) Reina really wants a move to Barcelona but he knows he may not get his move, he dare not misplace his step. If he does he may miss the safety net of the team he ‘can’t say no to’ and land in a lion’s den of those fans most easily irked by disloyalty.
Similarly, Brendan Rodgers won’t want to be seen to be haphazardly firing one of his most popular players out of a cannon only to leave the fans staring up at a Liverpool shaped hole in the big top four at the end of the season. This could feasibly happen if Mignolet has a case of the same stage fright which has inflicted many good players when they make the step up to Anfield.
If this is the script being played out by those inside the club, then the reality is it probably doesn’t need to be.
Reina has been a loyal enough servant that a desire to join Barcelona and leave the club which hasn’t fulfilled its post-Istanbul promise will be understood by most fans. Even if he publically serenaded Barcelona but his love was unrequited he would still be held in high regard. There is enough hope amongst fans that he can rediscover his impeccable form of 2006 to 2010, and his presence at the club next season would be welcomed.
On a personal note, seeing him buying a giant Toblerone in Home and Bargain a couple of years ago made my day and for that alone I’ve always given him the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure others would think he was just a flash footballer ostentatiously splashing his cash about, buying oversized confectionary. I would argue he was in Home and Bargain.
Sorry, I digress.
Brendan Rodgers does not need to fear major fan backlash either. The decision to buy Mignolet does not appear rash and can be justified by both Reina’s prolonged dip in form and the attraction of a younger, cheaper and very competent keeper in Mignolet. There are plenty of fans who believe it is time for a change between the sticks.
So, Reina’s competition has arrived in the form of Mignolet, and Mignolet will now act as a catalyst and go some way to resolving the uncertainty surrounding Reina. One of a number of things will now happen as a consequence of Mignolet’s arrival. Each will give us a different perception of Reina’s true character.
1) Reina is true to his word, stays and respond positively to competition, either raising his game and keeping his place or professionally accepting the role of understudy to Mignolet.
In doing this he will reveal that he hasn’t been putting a show on to keep us happy, and has meant what he has said. He will demonstrate that he is the top bloke he appears to be.
2) He will leave Liverpool for Barcelona.
In doing this, again, we will see there has essentially been no façade. It’s something we could reasonably have expected him to do based on things he has said, and based on the respective positions of both clubs in world football
3) He will leave Liverpool for another club but not Barcelona.
This is where serious questions would be raised about Reina’s intentions all along. Much of what he has recently said about wanting to stay at Liverpool wouldn’t ring true. The absence of the bespoke dream club would mean that in the fan’s eyes there would be no good reason to leave our dream club, which we all hold dear to our hearts. In this scenario, the choice of new club would reveal the extent of the farce we have been subjected to. Think Torres vs Alonso!
4) Lose his place to Mignolet and respond negatively, posting him a heart in a goalkeeper’s glove, skewered with a rusty nail. Even worse, just not be that arsed and happily keep taking the money while warming the bench.
I’ll stick my neck on the line – none of this will happen.
5) Crumble under the pressure of real (not Brad Jones) competition and become a shadow of his former self.
Think Torres vs Drogba at Chelsea.
Whichever of the above happens (and I suspect it will be 1 or 2) the certainty is that the arrival of Mignolet as competition will, for better or for worse, resolve the uncertainty which has been hanging over Pepe Reina’s long term future for some time now.
There are precedents at Liverpool, that competition will force a player’s hand one way or another either confirming or changing the fan’s opinion of them. The arrival of Fernando Torres in 2007 signalled the end for Peter Crouch. Back then Torres was one of the best strikers in the world and Crouch simply couldn’t compete in a team that played with one up front. He departed in 2008 bemoaning a lack of game time. This could be interpreted as throwing in the towel. However, and I would suggest correctly, fans accepted and were quietly impressed by a player who simply wanted to play. He left on good terms, maintaining his reputation as an honest lad. Yes, he earned a bucket load at Portsmouth but nonetheless he took a step down to do what he gets paid handsomely for when he didn’t have to.
From a personal point of view I find it hard not to compare this to one single incident involving Andriy Voronin. I will always remember when we beat Manchester United 2 nil at Anfield in 2009. Torres got the first, Ngog the second. Watching it back on telly later that day, I was struck by the complete lack of reaction from Voronin (who was a substitute as usual that day) when we scored. Everybody else on the bench went ape while he sat unperturbed, looking like he had just remembered he’d left the gas on. Andriy was clearly on planet Voronin and it appeared to me that he didn’t care whether he got a game for us or not. His complete lack of reaction gave some (arguably open to interpretation) insight into the man.
Other positive outcomes include Carragher who fought off competition his whole career, cementing his image as the hardworking grafter.
Also, Vladimir Smicer turned around some fans’ perception of him as a lightweight luxury player, when having lost his place and spent most of the season sitting on the bench he popped up when it mattered scoring the second goal and a penalty in the Champions League Final. Oh look, he’s absolutely buzzing his tits off that he scored in a Champions league final like you or I would. Maybe he does care. I always liked him anyway.
And so, back to Reina. The arrival of Mignolet has disturbed the status quo. The ambiguity about Reina’s future will stop because the competition has started. How he responds in the coming weeks and months will give us insight into whether the eulogising of competition was sincere.
To Reina, I would say, stay and fight for your place. Force both yourself and Mignolet to push yourselves to be very your best. And, if Mignolet proves to be the better keeper then at least know you have driven up standards and impacted positively on the team. Go on…I’ll buy you a Toblerone. Honestly.