Players' lack of loyalty a vile reality
Roy Hodgson may have thought he had used up most of his career surreal moments in his stint at Fulham, but the face of Liverpool's new manager confirmed he had been wrong.
The expression of the veteran coach filled with a mixture of befuddlement, anger and, no doubt, more than a little sadness as he was repeatedly asked why Javier Mascherano had missed the night when Manchester City had offered their strongest hint so far that they may be on the point of buying success.
Given the situation he has inherited at Anfield, Hodgson was understandably evasive. However, he could stonewall only for so long. "It's fair to say," Hodgson eventually conceded, "that Mascherano didn't play because his head wasn't in the right place."
Nor was his heart, plainly. He didn't travel to Eastlands, he didn't see Sheikh Mansour sweep in for his first visit as the owner of football's wealthiest club, he didn't see his old comrades Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard fold beneath the weight of a City team on whom £350m has now been spent, for the most basic of reasons.
Liverpool were no longer his team, no longer part of his life. He wanted to be in Barcelona or maybe Milan with his old boss Rafa Benitez, and he wasn't interested in the terms of his contract.
Was Hodgson angry, disgusted, despairing of the future of a game in which there now so often appears to be only so much loyalty that it can be extended to no one but oneself? "I hope you understand that in my position I cannot answer any more questions," added the man who, at that moment, must have been yearning for the romantic ambience of Fulham's picturesque ground beside the River Thames. As Hodgson fidgeted, it was certainly hard not to suspect that football had indeed come full circle.
Back at Fulham 50-odd years ago, arguably the best player in English football, Johnny Haynes, was told by his club directors that he could forget the overtures from the Italian game that would surely have guaranteed his financial future. He would have to be content with what Fulham were prepared to give him.
Now, we were being told that Mascherano couldn't bring himself to play for the club that had been paying him each week roughly three times the average yearly wage. No, the only thing that mattered was that he wanted to get the hell out of Anfield. Not next week, next month, but now.
It may only have been of fleeting comfort to him, but Hodgson was scarcely in a unique position. If he had any doubt about that it was swept away within a few hours when Tony Pulis, manager of Stoke City, alleged that he was told by his reserve goalkeeper, Asmir Begovic, that he wasn't interested in playing in a Carling Cup tie against Shrewsbury Town.
Begovic strenuously denied the club's claim. He hadn't said that he wouldn't play, only that his head was "scrambled". Why? Because Chelsea were interested in his services, and there was talk of a move from Fulham.
Did we say surreal? Football's worst horror is in fact now rooted in a vile reality. It is that the tyranny under which great players like Haynes and Tom Finney were required to operate has now been totally reversed. Now it is the players who appear impervious to any call on natural justice, still less basic loyalty.
When Mascherano staged his rebellion this week you couldn't but wince at the praise he received for his performance on the opening day of the season against Arsenal. He had, it was said, performed with splendid commitment despite the fact that his departure was so imminent. He had, believe it or not, bothered to try.
No wonder the embattled Wigan Athletic manager Roberto Martinez cried amid the wreckage of a 6-0 defeat by Chelsea, "I can't wait for the transfer window to close at the end of the month. Then, we will know our squad. We can hope to develop the character and the focus of our players. As it is, no one seems to know what is happening from day to day."
Meanwhile, Manchester City parked £90m worth of talent on their substitutes' bench on the night Liverpool were denied the services of one of their most valuable contracted players.
Liverpool were cuffed to one side, the City fans had rarely been so jubilant and the beaten manager was asked to explain why Mascherano wasn't around to remind us why so many rated him the best defensive midfielder in the 2006 World Cup -- back when at least some of the players still thought it was important to appear worthy of their hire.