If Liverpool think they are in trouble now, just wait until Rafa walks
Published 17/01/2010 | 05:00
L iverpool's traditional January crisis has momentum this year. Perhaps this is because it follows on so swiftly from their December crisis which had been directly prefaced by a November crisis that in itself was merely an extension of the October crisis which would not have come about except for their September crisis simply being a continuation of their August crisis that was merely a hangover from their close season debacle.
For much of last season they were in crisis too, even for the long periods when they were top of the league. During those troubling times it was generally agreed that Rafael Benitez must be doing something right, although nobody could agree on exactly what it was.
The best they could often come up with was the signing of Javier Mascherano. He deserved no credit for signing Fernando Torres. That was a no-brainer, except for all the smart men who didn't sign him.
Winning matches was then at least a part of it, but there has always been a great reluctance to give Benitez credit for that, with the view often being that he won the wrong ones.
He didn't understand the English game, they said, as he went on to win the European Cup, perhaps giving the fans their finest moment in Liverpool memory, something they have, much to the displeasure of the media, been reluctant to forget about ever since. Last season, Liverpool challenged for the title, performing as well as they had in 20 years, beating the teams they were supposed to beat.
Now that Liverpool have stopped winning matches, there is no reason to search desperately for reasons to praise Benitez. Liverpool are a team designed for knockIf -out competitions and now they have lost the main feature of teams designed to win knock-out competitions: the ability to win matches.
For some perspective out of the reach of the phone-in callers who wonder why Peter Crouch is not playing for Liverpool (Crouch turned down a new contract at Liverpool so it would be an egregious breach of employment law if they continued to select him now) or suggest David Bentley as the missing link, it is worth revisiting Liverpool's January crisis from last season.
There were a number of reasons to criticise Benitez last January, but the main one was his treatment of Robbie Keane who, according to the critics, hadn't been given a chance. Keane started nearly every league game during his time at Liverpool but, again, that didn't matter. Keane rarely starts for Tottenham but that is understandable because Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe are untouchable. If he leaves White Hart Lane, nobody would see it as a failure of Harry Redknapp's famed man-management skills.
In some ways, it is the same this season. Liverpool have had a poor time, but, in the context of this crazy season, only the exit from the Champions League has been truly damaging. The FA Cup remains an irrelevance and would have been ignored by those who now stress its importance if Liverpool had won it.
The crazies have been bolstered by comments from ex-players like Ronnie Whelan. In the devalued currencies of punditry, Whelan is the Zimbabwean dollar, but he found a few places where his money was good last week.
As the phone-in callers deal in the superficial, it is worth contrasting the praise handed out to Alex Ferguson last week, when it became known that he was acting under some severe financial constraints, with the treatment of Benitez. Despite starting with a number of advantages like a massive stadium and a team used to winning titles, United are now utterly dependent on Wayne Rooney. Liverpool, at least, are utterly dependent on two players.
Benitez has never known a day at Anfield when the club wasn't being spectacularly badly run. Since the sale to Hicks and Gillett, the problems shared have become problems doubled.
Last week, Liverpool's new owners were again giving an indication of how far they had sunk when Tom Hicks Jr resigned after telling a fan in an email to "blow me, f**k face, go to hell, I'm sick of you."
This was pithy and to the point but, in the age of outrage, it understandably provoked a lot of anger among Liverpool fans. It did not change their fundamental position on any member of the Hicks family. They wanted them out beforehand and they wanted them out afterwards. Hicks' wild email made no difference and, it has become so normal, that nobody even wonders about the disruption to the team.
Nothing that Benitez achieves seems to change the view that Liverpool are in crisis. So this season seems to be a continuation of the bad years, bad years when Benitez was winning against all odds.
He has made a few mistakes. Perhaps he should not have talked about Liverpool's debt to such a degree as it has undermined the club and, in constantly looking to re-sign Emile Heskey, he has looked like being the first employee who instigates his own constructive dismissal.
He is probably too far gone now. The forces he tried to take on, the media he treated with contempt in particular, create their own momentum and affect confidence. Liverpool are a complex, dysfunctional club and they judge Benitez on the superficial to the end.
Liverpool have been talking about their disappointing season since they lost to Aston Villa in August. The reality is that only in recent weeks has the league title become virtually impossible but I would guess privately Benitez hasn't ruled it out.
Benitez remains true to a value system that he has employed since he arrived. On Wednesday night, once more he refused to engage and, once more, it was another reason to criticise him. The presenters, the reporters and the phone-in callers all seemed to assume they were more upset about the defeat to Reading than Benitez. In their world, so free of compassion, perspective and insight, they were probably right. In the real world, they were, as so often, wrong.
So I hope he stays true to his code as they hound him from the job. He has been a resounding success but it may be time to walk away. He deserves more than the contempt of pundits like Whelan. Benitez cares too much. He should address those who have stacked the odds against him and, one last time, tell the truth in language they might understand: "Blow me, f**k face. Go to hell, I'm sick of you."