Monday 22 January 2018

Axe will fall in Anfield rising

John W Henry's revolution needs a sacrificial lamb for progress to be made, writes Dion Fanning

John W Henry last week began a search for reasonableness in an unreasonable world. The history of English football is the story of success being achieved by the iron will and insanity of a domineering figure.

Even Arsene Wenger, a great reformer, knows only one way. It may be erudite and civilised and touched with genius, but it is his way.

No club can rely on genius. Chelsea might have found another method, but that won't be New England Sports Ventures' way. Roman Abramovich's bankrolling of the club in the early years allowed Chelsea to become a force. Jose Mourinho may have been the manager the club needed when they needed to assert their personality -- or assume his personality.

In Carlo Ancelotti, they have found a man who might allow them to be successful and even court popularity. Chelsea are a world away from Liverpool now. In 2009, Liverpool finished above them, an astonishing achievement given the wealth Abramovich pumped in while Tom Hicks and George Gillett were pumping it out.

Liverpool have a future now at least. NESV have made a dynamic start and they have demonstrated they are prepared to take risks in order to be successful. The appointment of Damien Comolli is a gamble. All major appointments are, but NESV are trying to do something that hasn't been done or, at least, has been done quietly in the past. Even the most powerful managers rely on other people's judgement. Alex Ferguson signed Bebe without seeing him, but ultimately footballers must know that the man they are working for wants them at the club.

Comolli's arrival, Henry says, will lead to a situation where "you build consensus". Ultimately, however, one man will be sacrificed if there is failure and it will usually be the manager. It is fashionable to say that a sporting director is the "continental model" but even in cultures where coaches are used to having sporting directors or players forced upon them by presidents, it is almost always the coach who pays for failure. That won't change.

NESV will work from the idea that if you recruit the best players and pay good wages to players who deserve it, the coach can be less important. There is statistical evidence to support this idea and that may be enough for them.

Liverpool's boot room was a place of consensus during the Bob Paisley era and may be the greatest example of what NESV hope to achieve. Football's reality is that managers are always taking recommendations from agents, scouts and others. The key elements are trust and perception.

But football has not changed in the sense that there must be an overarching figure. Roy Hodgson is not that man at Liverpool. Once it is perceived that he is not signing players, it will be interesting to see how long he survives. All the talk of continental models won't save a manager when the sense is that he has been weakened.

But Liverpool and Hodgson have had a good couple of weeks and not just because they have learned to win again. Three victories appeared to ease the pressure on Hodgson, even as it was becoming clear that his authority was being diminished by the energy and new ideas of NESV.

He had no option last week but to act like all was well. His powerbase, such as it was, has been all but eroded at Liverpool. He now has the support of Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard and the public backing of NESV, but that may no longer be enough.

Gerrard scored a hat-trick against Napoli on Thursday night which led Carragher to describe him as Liverpool's greatest ever player. There's a case to be made that Carragher, not Gerrard, has been Liverpool's most influential player over the past five years.

The Gerrard myth needs little encouragement to re-emerge so his hat-trick last Thursday obscured the reality that his season has been dreadful. There is growing evidence that his legs have gone and if Liverpool had been run as a normal club last summer, not one on life support, then it would have made sense to sell him.

A club like Wenger's Arsenal might have decided that last summer, if £30m was on offer, was the right time to get rid of Gerrard. He is 30 now and there is no indication that he will be able to replace his explosive force with the wit and intelligence needed to control a match.

All he ever had were reactions. World-class reactions, but reactions indicative of his restless personality. Occasionally he still reacts brilliantly as he showed on Thursday night, but the myth that Liverpool was built by Gerrard persists. Liverpool must hope this inelasticity in his reputation continues until the summer when they can sell him. But this afternoon, not 45 minutes against Napoli, will demonstrate the point Gerrard has reached in his career.

Liverpool, as a team, will be tested and even if they lose, which seems likely, Hodgson must ensure they show some fight. He has made much of the players he inherited. Henry, too, seemed to absolve him of blame for the ageing squad and when they point to players like Maxi Rodriguez and Soto Kyrgiakos, they have a case.

But Hodgson did nothing to change it. The signings of Paul Konchesky, 29, Joe Cole, 28, Raul Meireles, 27, and Christian Poulsen, 30, have done little to lower the age profile and even less to improve the quality.

There was also the curious decision to allow Jamie Carragher to sign a contract extension in the final hours of the old Hicks and Gillett regime. Carragher is needed at Liverpool, at least to remind players of their responsibilities. But he is fading fast as a player. His personality may be reason enough to keep him at Liverpool and he was close to the departed managing director Christian Purslow as well as being a supporter of Hodgson's.

But if he had any say in recommending Hodgson, then foresight is not one of Carragher's attributes.

Hodgson, it is said, would never have got the job if Liverpool were not in such crisis. After the divisive final year of Rafa Benitez, some felt that Liverpool needed a unifying figure. Instead they got Roy Hodgson.

It is unprecedented in modern times for the appointment of a Liverpool manager to be met with such a lack of enthusiasm. Some blame this entirely on the unwavering loyalty of a large section of Liverpool supporters to Benitez.

This phenomenon in itself is never explored. Football fans are usually castigated for their fickleness. Yet here is a group being condemned for their steadfastness, primarily because it doesn't fit in with the agenda that all that went wrong at Liverpool was Benitez's fault.

The problem now is not Benitez but Hodgson, despite the recent victories. If Purslow wanted somebody to help the supporters forget about Benitez, he could not have picked a worse man. His appointment was met with no enthusiasm and a repeated mantra from most that he needed time. Liverpool supporters, apathetic at best, seemed to be willing patience on themselves.

But there is no need to give a manager who has been in football 30 years time. If Howard Wilkinson had been appointed, few would have said give him time. Hodgson has a body of work which allows people to judge his appointment immediately: he is a Fulham manager managing Liverpool, as demonstrated by his reaction to any criticism.

Last weekend's victory was Hodgson's first away victory in the Premier League in 442 days. These were mainly good days for Hodgson; 442 days when he was feted and became manager of the year. Nobody noticed or cared that Fulham went most of last season without an away league victory. At Liverpool, they notice.

Since Liverpool's defeat to Everton, things have improved. At home to Blackburn, Liverpool attacked and hustled with purpose for the first time this season. Against Bolton, they got a break in a dull game and Gerrard won it for them on Thursday. But they are Hodgson victories and he will take them any way he can.

He has welcomed the arrival of NESV and the appointment of Comolli. He has welcomed everything and even apologised to Benitez. But Hodgson is isolated now. The men who appointed him have gone. He is working beyond his abilities and has problems above his pay grade.

John W Henry arrived, making sense and bringing reason. It may require one act of ruthlessness if Liverpool are truly to begin making progress.

Liverpool v Chelsea,

Sky Sports 1, 4.0

Sunday Independent

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