James Lawton: Benitez given a raw deal by owners who fail to understand Liverpool's rich heritage
The overture to Klinsmann puts Liverpool in Newcastle territory
Tuesday 15 January 2008
There was a time when you didn't audition or even interview for the job of managing Liverpool. It came to you because you knew how the place worked and you had proved that you had absorbed all of its lessons. You knew about loyalty and the difference between building a team and chance and speculation. Shankly, Paisley, Fagan, Dalglish weren't just a series of managers. They were an apostolic succession.
More than a decade of change separated Rafa Benitez from those days when he arrived at Anfield as a man of high achievement and passionate nature, but he seemed to understand what he was inheriting, give or take a few lost years.
He had some big lessons to learn about English football and even his warmest admirers would concede that he has still to master some of them, but a Champions League win, another appearance in the final, and the FA Cup won him entitlement to more than a little patience and respect.
At least that was until yesterday when the apostolic succession might have been a wet leaf trampled into some obscure pathway in Stanley Park.
Now it seems that in the eyes of Liverpool's owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, the manager of Liverpool Football Club has one overriding purpose. It is to say yes to the owners. Of course they don't put it so bluntly. They talk about the need for communication – and what happens when it breaks down. Hicks spelt out the effects of such a denouement yesterday. He even had it on the Liverpool website.
What happens is that you line up an alternative manager – in this case Jürgen Klinsmann. Perhaps this was the most astonishing aspect of yesterday's development – not the confirmation of the approach to the former coach of Germany, who is now taking up his first post in club football with Bayern Munich, but the pious, self-congratulatory public revelation of it.
This wasn't a news item. This was a threat to the independence of a football man who, before winning the Champions League and the FA Cup for Liverpool, won two Spanish titles, under the shadows of the hugely financed Real Madrid and Barcelona, and the Uefa Cup for Valencia. "Klinsmann," said Hicks, "was an impressive man."
He is also a stick with which to beat Benitez if he gets up the nerve again to tell the owners who he believes should be signed if Liverpool are to move on to be legitimate challengers to Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal. It was Klinsmann when relations between the manager and the owners cooled last November. Who will it be next time? Perhaps Jose Mourinho if he is still in the market or, given the apparent lack of feel for the traditions of Anfield, perhaps even Big Sam giving the long ball another airing in another new and unreceptive pasture.
Reading the statement of Hicks yesterday, you couldn't but go back to his joint outpouring with Gillett when the takeover deal was made less than a year ago. It was a mellifluous little entreaty, almost a love song to the Kop. Here is the key passage: "Liverpool is a fantastic club with a remarkable history and a passionate fan base. We fully acknowledge and appreciate the unique heritage and rich history of Liverpool and intend to respect this heritage in the future."
But how do you respect something properly if you don't really understand it? How do you "acknowledge and respect" a heritage if you don't know how it happened? Liverpool have won the English title 14 times in the 80 years since Newcastle, who are supposed to be the joke entry in the senior list of contenders, last got their hands on it. That's a title arriving at an average of every fifth or sixth year. In Europe Liverpool's five titles leave them in third place, behind Real Madrid (nine) and Milan (seven), and this, no more than the accumulation of domestic glory, has nothing to do with managers willing to doff their caps whenever they meet a director.
The brutal fact is that the confirmation of the already poorly kept secret about the overture to Klinsmann put Liverpool nowhere more firmly than in Newcastle territory.
Newcastle have an owner who gets his inspiration from the banter that accompanies the drinking of Newcastle Brown and the wearing of souvenir shirts. Liverpool have a joint command who presumably believe that their candour over the Klinsmann move is going to enhance their reputation for strong, wise leadership. It is quite hard to know who is further away from the realities of making a successful football club.
Certainly, those who have fretted over Benitez's recent erratic behaviour – and will never endorse what sometimes seems an egocentric preoccupation with rotation for its own sake – are now much more inclined to rally to his somewhat tattered banner. He left Valencia with tears in his eyes, which is not always the most convincing sign of a man in charge of his ambitions, but his intensity now adds to the belief that he is suffering in a way that he does not deserve.
It was also instructive to go back to the seeds of the crisis which emerged last November. Then, Benitez explained quite chillingly, saw the change of climate. He said: "We had a meeting on the day of the Arsenal game [when Liverpool were denied what would have been a huge victory by some late brilliance from Alexander Hleb and Cesc Fabregas] which was really positive. After this something changed. They told me to focus on coaching and training because Rick Parry will be looking after the signing of players."
This wasn't a shift of policy. This was a death sentence for a manager's belief that he controlled, in the way of a Ferguson or a Wenger, the destiny of his team.
Here is the Hicks' website version of the fissures which developed when the financing of the new stadium in Stanley Park came into conflict with Benitez's anxiety to seal up the back of his midfield with the £17m permanent signing of Javier Mascherano: "In November, when it appeared we were in danger of not advancing in the Champions League, and were not playing well in our Premier League matches, and Rafa and we [Hicks and Gillett] were having communication issues over the January transfer window, George and I met with Jürgen Klinsmann.
"We wanted to learn as much as we could about English and European football. We attempted to negotiate an option, as an insurance policy, to have him become manager if Rafa left for Real Madrid or other clubs that were rumoured in the UK press, or in case our communication spiralled out of control for some reason. After George and I had our meeting with Rafa following the United game [lost 1-0 at Anfield] we put all our issues behind us and received Rafa's commitment that he wanted to stay with Liverpool. We had not reached agreement on an option with Jürgen and we are both pleased for him that he has a great opportunity to return to Germany as coach of a great club. Rafa has the support of both of us and our communication has greatly improved."
There is nothing like an ultimatum as an aid to communication. The one made public by the ownership of Liverpool is not quite spelt out in black and white but Rafa is surely not in desperate need of any help from the decoding department of the secret service. In the unlikely event that he is, an amateur offering might well be sufficient. It would say: "Forget about winning the Champions League and the FA Cup and that loyal fan base that we were extolling on the day we took over, there are plenty more hands to hire out there."
Another reality is that in those days of glory, when Liverpool ticked along as if by remote control, the club had, as Hicks and Gillett so recently said, its own unique place in the football world. It wasn't a cash cow. It was an expression of belief in a passionate commitment to doing all those things that had guaranteed such brilliant success for so long. Chief among them was a belief in the judgement and the integrity of the man in charge. You gave him respect. You certainly didn't tell the world you had been hawking his job behind his back.
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