Wednesday 21 February 2018

Ruling a fallen empire

Roy Hodgson must pick up the pieces after the follies of his predecessor

Roy Hodgson. Photo: Getty Images
Roy Hodgson. Photo: Getty Images

Few football clubs on earth have less incentive to trawl back through their recent history than Liverpool, but if the task is bleak, it is also necessary.

It might just mean the Herculean job facing new manager Roy Hodgson is saved from near instant 'death by ridicule' over the failure to kill off Northampton this week before a progressively numb and dwindling Anfield crowd.

There always had to be that doubt expressed by Kenny Dalglish on whether the new man was the right choice to guide the stricken giant through a crisis that is becoming increasingly, and nightmarishly, surreal.

His achievements at Fulham, where demands were so much less oppressive than the ones he faces now, spoke more than anything of a calm, knowing veteran who could fiddle his way to a certain level of glory.

It didn't announce a miracle worker at the highest level of the game, which is pretty much the job requirement rallying Liverpool has so transparently become.

Certainly, it is a challenge of an entirely different order from the one Hodgson met so successfully at Craven Cottage and perhaps the clearest indicator of this came with the insipid performance at Old Trafford last Sunday. That spoke of the lowered morale that has accumulated down the years and it might have been more cruelly exposed but for another defensive breakdown by United.

This week, though, we have had a more definitive statement of Liverpool's plight. It is of a club revealing growing evidence that it has become little short of dysfunctional, both on and off the field. Yet, if defeat by Northampton, from the bottom tier of the Football League, was still another assault on the spirit of the Liverpool faithful, it did bring one benefit to the embattled Hodgson.

It defined the root of his immediate problem. He simply doesn't have a quorum of adequate players.

This was the charge levelled, eventually, at both his predecessors, Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez, but the difference in Hodgson's situation is that they had years to select the performers they deemed up to the job of maintaining and developing Liverpool's place in the game.

One brutal fact screamed out of the latest Anfield debacle. When Hodgson came to pick his starting team, he turned to seven of Benitez's hand-picked signings, including five -- Sotirios Kyrgiakos, Daniel Agger, Lucas, Ryan Babel and David Ngog -- who cost a combined total of £27m.

Hodgson also fielded Daniel Pacheco, a star of Spain's triumph in the recent U-19 European Championships and had the pick of one of English football's most expensive academy production lines, but if the manager's brief reign is already under the most piercing scrutiny, he cannot be denied his claim that the team he sent out should have been far too good for opponents from Division Two.

Sickeningly, it wasn't, no more than the one that contained Pepe Reina, Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres and Jamie Carragher was able to make much of a case that it belonged on the same field as United a few days previous.

There is not much new to say about the disaster-slick represented by the club's American ownership. It wouldn't have happened if the Liverpool board, and especially the then chairman David Moores, had been properly alert to the dangers implicit in a deal so heavily based on speculative borrowing, or if the Premier League had vetting procedures in keeping with a multi-billion pound industry.

The rest is a tragic story of an attempt to get out from under a set of circumstances that become more worrying with every frantic move by the owners -- and each new indication that one of the most fabled clubs in football has about as much auction room appeal to serious bidders as a piece of Victorian bric-a-brac.

What is beyond dispute now is that Hodgson has been bequeathed the results of a Benitez regime that became increasingly exposed for its failure to galvanise a first team of some individual brilliance but an unshakeable core of mediocrity.

From his fortress of escape at San Siro, Benitez wages tit-for-tat warfare with his old employers, including the claim that it was an impossible burden to work with people who didn't know anything about football.

He would be better advised to keep his head down while attempting to fill the shoes of Jose Mourinho, who has always managed to banish any drift in morale and squad strength -- something Benitez presided over in the years that followed his initial successes in the Champions League and the FA Cup.

The rating of the first triumph in Istanbul in 2005 will always be subject to debate. For Liverpool loyalists, it was an achievement of brilliance to be ranked with the earlier successes of Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan.

For others, it was a freakish success partly fuelled by Milan's extraordinary collapse after half-time -- during which they were heard to be celebrating their 3-0 lead -- and Benitez's good fortune that he had time to replace Harry Kewell and think again about the equally strange absence of organiser Didi Hamann.


This is history, but the problem is it seems almost inconceivable that it was made a mere five years ago. Benitez constantly pleaded poverty in the transfer market, while regularly throwing away millions on players short of requirements, and now Hodgson has to deal with the consequences.

Defeat by Northampton in the Carling Cup is one of them, adding a little more to the humiliation that came against Reading in last year's FA Cup. Another is the sense that Liverpool, finally, have been cut adrift from the serious end of the Premier League.

What can Hodgson do? He can say sorry, which he did copiously yesterday, he can play for a little time and hope that over the next few weeks he receives at least a fraction of the blind faith offered to his predecessor. 'In Rafa We Place Our Trust', shouted the banners long after it was clear to the rest of the football planet that among Liverpool's problems was a collapse in leadership -- and even basic judgment.

Benitez bemoaned his lack of transfer funds, even after splashing out £19m on the football invalid Alberto Acquilani and stockpiling the biggest squad (65) in the European game.

But then, perhaps Benitez knew he wouldn't be around to bear the cost. Judge a manager by what he leaves behind is one of football's oldest commandments. However he fares, Hodgson may find it hard to avoid offering a withering verdict. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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