Sam Wallace: Liverpool needs Benitez to end power struggle and avoid the folly of Clough
Talking Football: Hicks is no more likely to hand over control than vote for raising the top rate of tax
Monday 02 March 2009
"At a football club, the man at the top is the chairman, then come the directors, then the fans, then the players and right at the bottom, the lowest of the low, is the manager." - Sam Longson, Derby County chairman, to Brian Clough in the film The Damned United.
Rafael Benitez will not have time to read The Damned Utd, but as of 27 March, he could always go to see the film version of David Peace's novel. The boozing and the smoking of 1970s footballers will not have much to say to Liverpool's quintessential modern football manager, a teetotaller himself. Nor will the primitive training sessions or the boggy pitches. He might see something of himself in Don Revie, with his dossiers on the opposition, but that is another story.
What may just strike a distant chord with Benitez is Clough's dysfunctional relationship with Longson, his chairman at Derby County. They came to despise one another although it was still Clough, who led Derby to a league title in 1972, who was forced to leave. In that story there is a lesson for Benitez after another extraordinary five days of triumph (defeating Real Madrid, ousting Rick Parry) and despair (all but surrendering in the title race by losing to Middlesbrough on Saturday).
Those words of Longson, which appear in the film, articulate perfectly the relationship between the archetypal old-school chairman of a football club and his manager. They reflect a view of English society too – of the belligerent boss and the subjugated worker – that we would all like to pretend no longer existed. But just ask the sacked workers at BMW's Mini plant in Cowley or – and in this case the financial hardship is by no means comparable – Luiz Felipe Scolari. Their bosses still wielded the kind of power Longson talked of.
In the course of removing Parry, Benitez has formed a temporary alliance with Tom Hicks. The pair hope that Hicks' co-owner George Gillett, exasperated with the defeat of his last boardroom ally Parry, will soon sell his 50 per cent stake. This clears the way for Benitez and Hicks to control the club. Then for the crucial questions that underpin Liverpool's future. How long will Benitez's alliance with Hicks hold? More pertinently, what happens if it fails? Are they doomed to be the Clough and Longson of 21st-century English football? With Parry out of the way and Gillett widely expected to be going soon, Benitez has a choice. He can maintain his peace with Hicks and settle down for what will, recent history suggests, not always be a satisfactory working relationship. He can sign his new contract and accept the frustrations of all partnerships between football managers and their club boards. He can stop short of asking for the moon on a stick and do his best for the club in the circumstances.
What you fear now is that the new peace will not endure between two men who have found themselves at loggerheads in the past. That ultimately Benitez is doomed to fight with Hicks the same losing battle that Clough fought with Longson. The same debilitating struggle that grips a football club when the manager is incapable of understanding that rich men do not give up their power just because the fans want them to. And they certainly do not do so for the man whom Longson considered "the lowest of the low".
No one is entirely sure what Benitez's ideal scenario is at Liverpool, other than that it would involve him making all the decisions. Ignoring for a moment the growing unlikelihood of a bid from the Middle East, a change of ownership would not ultimately suit him if it was to bring just as much interference from the boardroom as, say, is the case at Manchester City. Would he find himself any less likely to clash with a rich man from Dubai than he has with considerably less rich Americans?
Benitez believes he is doing the best for Liverpool. So now he should declare a truce and manage as best as he can under the circumstances. The club cannot afford Benitez falling out at some point with the new chief executive, whether it is the Hicks-appointee Ian Ayre, currently commercial director, or another candidate. The toppling of Parry demonstrates Benitez's power but he needs to stop there for the good of the club.
Ultimately Hicks or Gillett or a new owner will not give Benitez everything he wants. Because what he wants is the very essence of the power that a chairman or owner holds over a football club. He wants to make them obsolete. But, like Longson in the 1970s, the likes of Hicks, Roman Abramovich and the Glazer family are no more likely to hand over the control of their clubs than they are to vote for a higher top rate of income tax.
Better that Benitez lays down the cudgels now for Anfield's sake. What an extraordinary place Liverpool football club has become. The plotting. The feuds. The players think this. The fans think that. It is, in many respects, remarkable that they are still functioning, let alone capable of beating Real Madrid away from home. Parry is going and you can only hope Benitez is now prepared to leave the coup at that. Because if Benitez continues fighting the system, like Clough did at Derby, he will too one day soon find himself and his suitcase outside on the pavement.
Toast Carling Cup for spreading the wealth across all four divisions
At times the Carling Cup can hope for little more than ambivalence from the Premier League clubs but there is one reason above all that it is an important part of English football. Since the creation of the Premier League in 1992, it is one of the few mechanisms in football whereby the 20 clubs in the top division contribute to earning money for the other 72.
The Football League's new television deal which begins next season will earn £264m over three years. No one can be entirely sure what percentage of that BBC and Sky, who hold the rights from next season, place as a value on the Carling Cup. Estimates put it just below 50 per cent. Of course the Premier League clubs don't play in the Carling Cup for nothing but at least everyone in the four divisions benefits.
Gallas family affair offers novel answer to Wenger's woes
Friday night watching France beat Wales in the Six Nations and a radical solution to Arsène Wenger's lack of a holding midfielder emerges: how about the French centre Mathieu Bastareaud? He's big, mobile and aggressive. Best of all, he is William Gallas's cousin so unlike most of the Arsenal squad, he might even like Gallas.
Blues' song should go out in blazer of glory
It has long been a personal source of confusion as to why Liverpool feel the need to play "You'll Never Walk Alone" over the loudspeakers at the start of the game. It's not as if their fans don't know the words. Ditto Chelsea who invite a man in a blazer to stand on the pitch before games and wave a scarf above his head while singing "Blue is the Colour". If Abramovich was looking to do some more cost-cutting that would seem like a good place to start.
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