James Lawton: Liverpool must dither no longer – it's time to send for Hiddink or Mourinho

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The Independent Football

Maybe it was an act of cynical cruelty by Guus Hiddink to suggest he might be available for the Liverpool job – and an additional twist of the knife for the club's ravaged sense of itself that if it was to happen he would first seek a dispensation from his football godfather Roman Abramovich.

But then not if you believe that anything which force-feeds a hint of reality at Anfield, even the catastrophic public relations lurch of former director Tom Hicks Jnr, should be welcomed.

It is a point that has surely become inescapable, even as far away as here in Johannesburg.

You might have thought the tumult created by the Africa Cup of Nations, the controversies surrounding this summer's World Cup and the fine edge of a final chapter in a compelling Test series would have been sufficiently preoccupying to make analysis of the faraway Liverpool crisis somewhat marginal.

Not so. Even at this distance the basic point certainly seems to have registered.

A banner headline in this city's most important newspaper proclaimed, "Liverpool In Dire Straits – Shock Cup exit symptomatic of deeper malaise."

You could say that again, of course, but this time with no doubt a more receptive audience among all those fans who for so long have chosen to heap all the blame on a dysfunctional and tapped-out club ownership. This particular contribution to the problems cannot be ignored, not for a second, but it has been perverse for some time to suggest that all Liverpool need is a few Arab oil wells and a new infusion into the war chest of Rafa Benitez.

Benitez has not been bereft of spending power – more than £230m of it since he arrived six years ago – but then you look where most of it has gone, and the team development it has brought – and you understand easily enough, and all over again, why the mere mention of a Hiddink – or a Jose Mourinho – is guaranteed to provide a previously missing perspective.

No one can doubt that the fans' pressure group who call themselves the Spirit of Shankly have been treading fertile ground when assailing the meaning of the American ownership but in their zeal to "get the Yanks out" – an understandable enough ambition in itself – they appear to have missed one of the most vital aspects of the problem.

It is that what happens on the field, assuming that players are paid according to their contracts and that team-building finance has been provided, will always be in the remit of the manager. It is his ability to inspire players, to make them a coherent unit, most basically of all, give them the desire to play not only for themselves and their fans but also their boss, the man who ultimately will decide on their futures.

How long is it since Rafa Benitez was able to create any degree of confidence that such a dynamic was in place?

Not consistently, you have to believe, since the waning of his undoubted knack of turning impressive survival instincts into stunning, if not easily analysed success at the highest level of the European game – and in no way of consequence at all since the failure of his most promising challenge in five attempts for the Premier League title and the rather brutal exclusion from Europe at the quarter-final stages last season at the hand of Hiddink's Chelsea.

The rest has, of course, been an unmitigated disaster, a separation from any sense of meaningful progress, a process underlined most damagingly by the sale of Xabi Alonso and the purchase of Alberto Aquilani.

In Rafa We Trust, proclaimed the Kop, but surely not on the evidence unfolding before its eyes.

Why sack Rafa now, without a decision on his successor and at a cost of up to £20m? It is because each day he remains in the job seems to increase the torment of all concerned. He is talking in riddles now, blaming referees and a malign fate. Who or what is served by this prolonging of agony? Certainly there is no benefit that can be placed against the old truth of the professional game that if you lose the dressing room it is not a passing mishap.

Football teams are shaped by the will – and the confidence he can inspire – of one man. If anyone should understand this implicitly it is an organisation that chooses to call itself the Spirit of Shankly.

Against Reading this week the spirit of Shankly, and that of the club his inspiration launched to a new level of performance and expectation, lay in pieces. There were groans of disbelief in the restaurant bar where the game was seen live here and a local pundit, one apparently strong in his loyalty to the Liverpool cause, declared, "I never thought I would see a Liverpool team play that badly."

Presumably, he had missed most of a season of ever-increasing ineptitude. Those who haven't, including those who have responsibility to check the freefall, cannot have been so surprised, still less stunned, that Reading from the lower reaches of the Championship came to rule at Anfield.

Now all we lack is the strength of someone to enforce the reality of Liverpool's plight. Whether it is Hiddink or Mourinho – the choice here would be the Dutchman but the latter's ability to make himself a messiah is a potent calling card indeed – is, relatively speaking, a mere detail. In the meantime someone like Kenny Dalglish is perfectly equipped to perform a holding task.

His most crucial function would be to make Liverpool feel a little bit more like the seriously competitive football club they used to be. At any distance you care to mention, this seems less like an option than a duty that can no longer be reasonably delayed.

United nightmare furthers case for financial controls

Protests over the Glazer way of running Manchester United have never had such fuel as the admission of the American family that at some point their debt-loaded operation may involve the sale of Old Trafford.

It is a shocking possibility, a veritable theatre of nightmare and those who warned about such possibilities long before the first dark wisp of a credit crunch are entitled to redouble their fears.

However, and despite the huge significance of what happens at a club of such accumulated glory and glamour, there is a wider point to be made.

It is that the vulnerability of United sends a message into every corner of the world's most popular game. It is that the financial management of football screams out for new levels of controls and supervision. The Premier League need look no further than Manchester United and Liverpool to take the lead.

Poignant reminder of Semenya's daily agony

In all the difficulties and moral quandaries of the Caster Semenya case it is easy to forget we are considering the life and hopes of an extremely wounded human being.

We had a poignant enough reminder this week, however, when the world 800m champion refused to break cover here in South Africa following unconfirmed reports that she will soon be allowed back on both domestic and international tracks following tests designed to determine, at least on some practical level, her gender.

Instead, her family spoke about a daily agony – and humiliation.

Semenya's father, Jacob, said, "I can't say I would be happy or not [if the hopes of a return were confirmed] because of all the pain my daughter has suffered because of those people [the IAAF ruling body]." A sister, Winnie, added, "Someone should apologise."

Yes, someone should. But then if nature, in all its ambiguities started, when would it stop?