The Last Word: Never mind the moans, look at the big picture
The media won't stop calling for the head of Benitez but the Anfield faithful keep dealing in the long term
Sunday 17 January 2010
I see Liverpool are 100-1 to win the Premier League this season, which happens to be the same price as the incumbent Prime Minister publicly admitting the existence of aliens. I'm thinking of placing £10 on the double, which would pay more than £100,000. Shall I go for it? Or play safe, and just back Gordon Brown coming clean on ET?
Yes, the Rafa Benitez jokes are doing the rounds. At least they are on message boards. In the columns, over the airwaves and on the telly, the outpourings are rather more serious. Indeed, these musings are as earnest as they are almost unanimous.
Certainly it would not be right to call these "neutral" discussions "a debate". That would imply there are two cogent sides to the argument. There aren't. Not in the media anyway. There is no argument. Rafa must go. It's a farce he has lasted this long...
Could they all possibly be wrong? And could the complete lack of ambivalence be down to the length of the execution? After all, there's only so many times one can lop off a man's head without it getting messy and, quite frankly, a tad tedious.
No. Not by their criteria anyway. Benitez ticks every box on the bereft gaffer's charge-sheet, from governing a plainly uninspired group of unworthy players to signing more crap than brilliance in his £200m-plus dealings.
But then there's the bigger picture which, as big pictures tend to do, only allows the here and now its percentage share of the canvas. First, there is the little matter of Benitez's achievements, which most would surely agree have established him as a manager who knows one end of football from another. A Champions' League and an FA Cup with Liverpool; two La Ligas and a Uefa Cup with Valencia. That's five titles in eight seasons. Hardly Mike Bassett, now is it?
If all this was in the all-too-distant past, what about the all-so-near past? Last season Liverpool happened to break a few records in not winning the Premier League. No team before have ever finished runners-up boasting so many points (86) and so few defeats (two). It was as close to a 19th League title as Liverpool have come in 19 years.
So which will come to be seen as the blip: '08-09 or '09-10? Well, see where Liverpool were when Benitez arrived. They had won three domestic cups in nine seasons and reached one European final (the Uefa Cup in 2001). In the League they had finished in the top two just the once ('01-02).
Now analyse what Benitez spent on a side who suddenly became good enough to reach the Champions' League final twice in three years as well as advancing to a semi-final and a quarter-final in the next two years. His net outlay is often quoted at being more than £120m – only Chelsea have spent more. But these figures are skewed, and a more realistic figure is £90m. That works out at about £18m per season, and with this he overhauled a squad which boasted six, perhaps seven players capable of performing at the highest level. That should be remembered when his spend is compared with those of Manchester United and Chelsea. Their training grounds were already beset with quality when Benitez showed up. We aren't talking level playing squads.
So is his record that awful in the light of all this? Put it this way, if a manager achieved the same results with the same finances in five years at, say, Tottenham, he would be labelled a miracle-worker. Except Benitez is not being judged on Spurs' history but on Liverpool's, if not his own. He is the victim of the Anfield succession.
It's inevitable he would be. People look at what is basically the same team who beat Manchester United 4-1 at Old Trafford in March (from that team only Sami Hyypia has left the club) and wonder what has happened. Have they become a bad squad overnight, simply because of the loss of Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa? Has the manager inexplicably lost the plot, never to recover it? Should five years of progress be deemed as woefully insufficient when compared with five months of mediocrity?
The media's answers seem to be yes, yes and yes again. The Liverpool faithful do not see it this way. Perhaps the hatred of the American owners does incline them to close ranks and stand by their footballing man, but they are the ones dealing in the long term. True, the Anfield boos rang out after the FA Cup exit to Reading on Wednesday, yet they were anything but resounding. One internet poll on Friday said 80 per cent of Liverpool fans still support the manager.
Maybe this particular majority recognised the beauty of a second chance. Benitez certainly does. He has been here before. After winning La Liga by seven points in his first season, the very next Valencia dropped to fifth and ended up trailing by 18 points. The Spanish press called for his departure, but the club held firm. A year later, Los Ches lifted the title again.
Will Liverpool's patience be anywhere near as rewarding? We are about to find out, as Benitez is safe for the season. From the sack, that is. His critics will not call off the dogs even if the top-four placing does materialise. They are in way too deep. Benitez is already a goner; under him the situation is irrecoverable. Goodness knows what they'll say if it isn't.
Letter of the week
As a Burnley supporter of some 45 years plus, I am sad to say that I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Corrigan's piece. Maybe we could have come to terms with Coyle moving to Bolton if he had not waxed so lyrical about his affection and loyalty to the club. However, he has gone and, apparently, taken most of our backroom staff with him. So be it. Burnley FC has been around for a long time and will continue to be so. The club will still command one of the most loyal and passionate fan-bases in the country – with or without Owen Coyle.
Sylvia Edwards, Manchester
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