The Last Word: The good Kop will tell Benitez when time is up
Liverpool fans are the best judges. They won't turn on Rafa and he will get the chance to turn it round
Sunday 25 October 2009
It's not much of a debate when one side is making all the arguments and the other is simply shaking their head and saying, over and over, "In Rafa We Trust". But that is Liverpool Football Club, for you. And the game should not want it any other way.
In an era when managers continue to be fired without being afforded anything resembling ample time to prove themselves, Anfield remains one of the few glorious contradictions. No manager should – or will – exit the Shankly Gates feeling justified in complaining of a premature departure. But such is the vehemence of Benitez's critics, they are using this cherished quality as yet another rod with which to beat the beleaguered Spaniard. It is a blind and baffling faith, they say, which is giving a false level of security to a manager whose reign has been built on falsehoods. They also appreciate, however, that Benitez is not going anywhere. Not when the Kop is behind him.
Perhaps if Manchester United were to win there this afternoon the boos would grow more vociferous from those that were first reported at the end of Tuesday's defeat to Lyon with all the significance of a cuckoo's call in April. In reality, a few boos do not signal a revolution. Frustration, maybe, but then, after their first four-match losing sequence since 1987 this is entirely natural. Time, not to mention the boot-room culture, is squarely on Benitez's side.
It may seem scandalous for a journalist to suggest so, but perhaps the fans are the best judges in this regard. True, you cannot have it both ways. In one breath you cannot criticise Steve Gibson at Middlesbrough for putting the fans' instincts above his own when sacking Gareth Southgate and then, in the very next, praise the Liverpool owners for bowing to the majority verdict.
Of course, nobody is about to do the latter as George Gillett and Tom Hicks play the villainous roles in this veritable footballing pantomime. They command all the hissing and today this will manifest in yet another demonstration in and around Anfield. In the last few days, just one of many arguments formulated against Benitez is the suspicion that the hated American duo are taking all of his flak. That is overlooking one very important factor. The main gripe with Hicks and Gillett is they have bought into the investment rather than the dream. And that has nothing whatsoever to do with Benitez.
The 49-year-old gaffer is separate from this ire. The fans are complaining about an ethos rather than anything as palpable as results and for that reason Gillett and Hicks should not be seen as smokescreens for Rafa's failings. This protest was planned before Lyon and was done so in the wider context of debt and unfulfilled promises. It is as cheap to accuse Benitez of letting the Yanks carry his can, as it is patronising to the protesters. Give them a little credit.
The Liverpool faithful are not stupid, are not the gullible fools some have painted them out to be. They are able to see the manager's faults, or at the very least would understand the basis for the perceptions.
They have witnessed it more than anyone, so know all about rotation and zonal marking. They know that no club with meaningful silverware in their sights should ever have to rely so heavily on the thigh and groin of two players, even when they are as influential as Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard. They know that Xabi Alonso should not have left and that essentially this was a man-management issue, just as Craig Bellamy and Nicolas Anelka were before. No, this pair were not so obviously missed as much as the cultured midfielder, but it is hard to look at a squad bereft of proven strikers and not wonder. Just as it is with the case of Peter Crouch or even Michael Owen, or even with the detractor's prized charge sheet of 76 signings for £230m.
Anfield is wondering; it is fairly sick with bemusement. But what stops this from boiling over into the demands for instant recrimination is the Liverpool belief structure. To ask them to turn on their manager is to ask them to turn on their club.
Of course, it has a lot to do with the good grace he earned with the 2005 European Cup, the 2006 FA Cup, the 2007 European Cup final and with the Premier League runners-up placing last year. It might even have something to do with the win-loss ratio in his first 200 games which says he must only tip his stats to Kenny Dalglish as the best Liverpool manager of modern times. Yet it is also all wrapped up in Benitez being one of them and caring like one of them. Call it naff, call it naïve, call it destructive; but do not dare doubt its authenticity. They will give their man the chance to turn it around, just as they always have.
Thanks to the fragile state of Hicks, Gillett and the Liverpool finances this is rare, even unprecedented power that these Liverpool fans enjoy. They should not be ridiculed for their faith, although some will claim they will end up being damned by it. Believe it, they will let Benitez know when they think it's time. They did so with Gérard Houllier when the loyalties split in their Good Kop, Bad Kop routine.
Everyone else may feel the interrogation of Benitez's credentials is reaching its climax. But in the only examination chamber that truly matters, the light has yet even to start swinging.
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