Hypocrisy of clubs' high morals a joke
FOR a man who repeated the same phrase 16 times during a press conference with his previous club, Rafael Benitez was remarkably relaxed last week when outlining his role as the person who simply puts out the cones on the Inter Milan training ground.
Just under three years ago, as his frustration grew over the lack of funds available to sign players at Liverpool, Benitez responded to questions about his future and the amount of money available to spend at Anfield by saying: "As always I am focused on training and coaching my team." Just to underline his feelings to the point where the pen ran out of ink, he said it 16 times.
Fast-forward to last Thursday and the allegations made by Roy Hodgson that Benitez had signed an agreement not to pillage his former club for the few players he hadn't fallen out with and the Spaniard's reaction was the same, only different.
"I am the coach and I cannot sign players -- that is for the technical director and the chairman," said Benitez with a smile. "I am fine like this -- I can focus on my work on the pitch and that is all. I am the coach, not the manager." To be fair to him, this time he only said he was the coach twice.
Perhaps the man who wanted control of everything at Anfield has changed. After taking on Rick Parry in the Liverpool boardroom and Steve Heighway in the youth set-up, and winning both battles, maybe he is seeking a more relaxed environment with the club who endured the greatest ego-maniac of all for the past two years, but also the most successful season in their history.
More likely, however, is that Benitez is having some fun with the media, whose breathless reporting of all things related to the transfer window will leave some needing a paper bag to prevent hyperventilation sometime around 5.0 tomorrow.
Benitez is far from alone in looking his inquisitors straight in the eye and filling their dictaphones with reams of words which are true at the moment when they are spoken but can turn in the opposite direction within hours.
Over the past few weeks, there have been several players who have been hailed by managers for their professional attitudes, spirit in the dressing-room and willingness to work hard on the training ground in spite of not being picked for the first team.
Such players aren't for sale -- at the moment -- because of their contribution to the club off the field but, if they decided they wanted to leave, the manager, bless his caring heart, "wouldn't stand in their way".
At that point, when an acceptable offer is made, the stalwart's feet will barely touch the floor as they are shipped out and replaced by somebody for whom a deal is already in place -- despite the new arrival having been contracted elsewhere just minutes beforehand. In the words of Sky Sports News, the transfer window SLAMS SHUT for another few months and the cycle begins again.
Football is rarely a game of upstanding morals but in the last few days of August and January its hypocrisy reaches laughable levels. But if a club doesn't want to sell one of its most important players, it's agents who are in danger of being killed in the stampede during the race for the moral high ground.
Two years ago, Tottenham were furious with Liverpool for their pursuit of Robbie Keane and regarded Keane's transfer as an "enforced sale". It took an apology from Liverpool, plus the small matter of £20.3m, for Spurs to drop the complaint they were ready to make to the Premier League.
Five weeks later, Spurs were twice bitten but not yet shy when they agreed a fee with Manchester City for the sale of Dimitar Berbatov, only for the player to be met at the airport by a United representative.
Again Spurs were fuming and, again, were ready to write a strongly worded letter only for United's final offer of £30.7m to calm them down. Amazing how comforting £51m can be to ease the fury.
Not to be out-done, Benitez and Liverpool were then unhappy with Tottenham's conduct when they tried to re-sign Keane and accused them of "tapping up" the Irish international.
Yet for all the outrage, few clubs have had the guts to keep hold of their player, turn down the millions on offer and accuse the other club of making an illegal move, so that the authorities could punish either the offending club, player or agent.
Were they to do so, it might stop the phenomenon but, like a manager who condemns the opposition yet fails to spot his own players' fouls, there's no chance of it happening -- the club on the receiving end this time will be the ones adopting the same tactics in future. Like Benitez and every other manager, what they've done in the past is no guide to how they'll act in the future.