James Lawton: Liverpool are left to pay painful price for turning their back on a proud tradition

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The Independent Online

By courtesy of various banks Tom Hicks and George Gillett are still owners of Liverpool football club and so, by way of celebration, they are apparently to make a peace offering to Rafa Benitez, the Champions League-winning manager who at times this season has been made to feel about as indispensable as a slapdash boot boy.

However, neither of these eminent American businessmen should imagine, for a New York nanosecond, that the waters of the Mersey are suddenly lit up by the flames of a thousand bonfires.

The placatory gesture is said to be the £17m permanent signing of Javier Mascherano before the transfer window closes next week.

Mascherano is an important player, providing invaluable balance to the team when paired, as he almost invariably is in the most important matches, with the gung-ho marauder Steven Gerrard, but the fact that he may shortly be gift-wrapped before being presented to the embattled manager is still a dismaying indicator of Liverpool's affairs. It shows how far, and how quickly, the club have gone downhill since former chief shareholder David Moores took the Americans' money (approximately £88m of it) and thus formally ended decades of football management that shone like a beacon into every corner of the English game.

Moores' windfall was, organsationally and philosophically speaking, Liverpool's typhoon. It blew to hell a wonderful tradition born of a unique mixture of passion and common sense. The same could not be said of the hugely profitable sell-outs of such as Martin Edwards at Manchester United, where the club's football legacy has been ferociously guarded by Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir John Hall at Newcastle and Sir Alan Sugar at Tottenham. Hall and Sugar both sold clubs where logic and sheer nous had long been on the run.

No, there isn't an argument. When Moores finally relented and drew down the curtains on his bizarre support of the long moribund Gérard Houllier regime and then decided to sell to the highest bidder he was unquestionably surrendering the equivalent of football's Holy Grail.

Ferguson may have had some mischief in mind when he made a similar point from the Arabian peninsula this week, but yesterday's news of a new Hicks-Gillett financial package did nothing to distract from the force of his point. Liverpool, said Fergie, used to have class, they knew how to do things, they followed a sure-fire pattern that had long brought the highest successes, as in a shoal of league titles and European Cup triumphs.

One reason, we are told, for Benitez's long frustration in the Mascherano matter is that the Liverpool board considered the acquisition of the Argentine a "non-impact" signing.

What is a "non-impact" signing? Something, presumably, that does not necessarily grab every available inch of headline space. Mascherano is already part of the Anfield furniture; he does not split the heavens with 30-yard strikes, he is not a show pony, a gallery player. He does the vital work of orchestrating defence in the pivotal area of midfield. He makes winning tackles and when he passes the ball he does it swiftly, not with great flourish (that is the work of Gerrard or Xabi Alonso) but with a feeling for bite and continuity. He has the Argentinian football intelligence and a generally excellent temperament.

This is why Argentina have earmarked one of three available places to Mascherano in the over-age section of the team who will bid for an elusive Olympic title in Beijing – and why Benitez was so keen to avoid losing a player he considered perfect for his needs.

The whole point of Liverpool used to be that, as long as he held the job, the manager of the club did not have to allocate a particular status to any signing. A player was a player and if he was considered vital to the growth of the team he was signed. Even Shankly made the odd mistake, once ruefully admitting that his signing of the striker Tony Hateley was maybe not his most conspicuous piece of team building, despite the big man's knack of heading in goals. "Today he was a double-decker bus with a two-stroke engine," Shankly declared of the man for whom he had broken the club record transfer at £96,000.

Tommy Docherty, then manager of Chelsea, who had earlier also broken his club's record fee for Hateley at £100,000, was unimpressed by Hateley's passing skills. "They should be headed 'to whom they may concern'," Docherty said. The point was the same as it is today. Signing players will never be a precise science. It is part instinct, part gamble. In properly run clubs managers have always been given the privilege of knowing who they want – and why. They are also permitted their mistakes, as long as they are too few to mention.

Benitez wants Mascherano and now the odds are that he will get him. But no one, least of all Tom Hicks and George Gillett, should expect any grovelling signs of gratitude. Managers worth their salt expect to manage, as a right and not some passing gift from the counting house.

Has Murray missed his moment?

Andy Murray is looking better now than when he was blasted out of the Australian Open in the first round by the unheralded Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, but these surely remain days requiring some considerable reflection.

It's true Tsonga's march to the final has been quite remarkable. His overwhelming of Rafael Nadal came like a force of nature, but then who would comfortably back him now against the more sustained and stunning growth surge of Roger Federer's straight-sets conqueror Novak Djokovic? Murray does aggression as well as anyone, but the assumption that he is an inevitable Wimbledon champion-in-waiting has, let's face it, taken a battering in Melbourne. As the great Federer floundered, Djokovic did more than aggression. He did the conviction of a natural-born champion.

If it really is tennis's equivalent of the changing of the guard in Melbourne, Murray now knows how far he still has go for a place at the front of the parade. Watching Djokovic strike down Federer was to receive again the message delivered on the opening day of the tournament. There really is no such thing as a champion-elect. Only moments that have to seized against the fear they may never come again.

Wenger must be wary of discipline breakdown

Emmanuel Adebayor's escape from Football Association censure for his clearly visible headbutting of a team-mate should be no encouragement to Arsenal to slide away from the implications of such a breakdown in discipline. Arsène Wenger has another potentially beautiful team. It is unthinkable that they should descend to the status of a rabble. Unthinkable, yes, but not unprecedented. Arsenal are a team who deserve to be pointed to the stars – not a return to "Pizzagate".

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