James Lawton: Benitez's treatment of Keane has become close to a gruesome joke

Did Keane receive any of the ego massaging that produced superior displays at Spurs?

Tuesday 27 January 2009 01:00

Whatever private uncertainties crowd the mind of Steven Gerrard they are clearly not so great that they prevent him from confirming – as thunderously as anyone in the history of the game – the truth of one of the more poignant assertions of the old pros.

It is that a football field can sometimes be not an arena but an island – a place where all the troubles and the confusions of the real world can be set aside, for a glorious interlude of 90 minutes. Diego Maradona, George Best and Paul Gascoigne proclaimed this even as they rummaged in the remnants of their talent.

When the brilliant coach Malcolm Allison, whose life as a player was both complicated and tumultuous, was told that his career was over because of tuberculosis he immediately reflected, "I'll never go out there to play again, knowing that I'm safe between the touchlines, that nothing can touch me as I do the thing I love most."

In Gerrard's case the requirement is to do rather more than hold back a worrying distraction that will not be resolved until his court appearance in March. It is to prop up, with amazing diligence and force, a football club at times so dysfunctional its close proximity to the Premier League champions and leaders Manchester United, and continued presence in the Champions League and the FA Cup, is beginning to stand logic on its head. Or, at least, that would be so if it were not for Gerrard's extraordinary ability to rise so far above both his own crisis and his club's disarray.

Gerrard, with the conspicuous help of the re-emerging Fernando Torres, has become Liverpool these last few weeks, far more, certainly, than the tetchy and eternally self-justifying manager Rafa Benitez and American owners whose attempts to turn a profit on the most successful club in the history of English football are beginning to sound as plaintive as the sales technique of Molly Malone.

A harsh verdict on Liverpool's operating technique? This is only, surely, if you can ignore the £20m scandal at the heart of Anfield – one that at the weekend became something close to a gruesome joke.

Robbie Keane's plight is, at the level of professional ambition, nothing less than a personal tragedy. It reached its nadir when he was told he could no longer claim a place on the bench. Here we had a harsh spotlight indeed on Benitez's fight for a contract that would put him in charge of all transfer dealing. Of course the manager's position is correct, in both theory and practice, as long as the best tradition of English football is maintained in the working arrangements of men like Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsène Wenger and Martin O'Neill.

However, Benitez's campaign needs a lot more illumination if it is to gain any credence in the middle of the Keane affair.

One strong theory on Merseyside is that the summer preoccupation of Benitez was Gareth Barry and the push to sign Keane was stronger elsewhere – and not least in the office of the chief executive, Rick Parry. Could this really be so, and if it is, could it possibly condition the appalling treatment of Keane, a player of accomplishment, even overachievement at Tottenham, who came to Anfield wearing his devotion to the Liverpool cause on his much-travelled sleeve? His short Liverpool history is more than anything a study in humiliation. It's true his early performances, his failure to relate to the game of Torres, sent out an almost instant warning that £20m had been misspent. But who was the author of the mistake, and what serious efforts were made to rectify it?

Did Keane receive any of the ego massaging that produced superior performance at Tottenham for Martin Jol and Juande Ramos, neither exactly kid-glove specialists? The evidence is to the contrary. Keane has indeed played poorly at times, but not with a consistency that would make his relentless fate of substitution seem any less a kind of open-ended grinding down of his spirit.

Typically, the Dubliner threw him himself into training yesterday and if sometimes his body language this season has touched, perhaps understandably, a degree of despair – especially on the loneliest trek in football after your number has been called – he is at pains to stress that his non-appearance at Anfield on Sunday for the Cup tie against Everton was at the suggestion of the club.

The inference has to be that the Keane situation has become so embarrassing that Liverpool were in no mood to provide gratuitous picture opportunities.

A huge part of the problem, no doubt, is that just as Keane and Torres failed to establish a natural rapport, the one struck up between the Spaniard and Gerrard is at times nothing less than sublime. We saw that in Gerrard's equaliser against Everton, a move that carried a beauty and a purpose which were scarcely nullified by the fact that the goalkeeper Tim Howard should have got down to smother the shot.

Keane's agony is Gerrard's glory – and perhaps, it needs to be said, Benitez's point of redemption in a season so littered with confusion. The Spaniard has never accepted the myth that Gerrard is a great, controlling midfielder, but rather a superbly equipped attacker, almost a force of nature when his power wells up so inexorably as he goes forward, with, for example, the irresistible timing which inspired the breathtaking service from Torres on Sunday.

This is part of the football landscape Keane is never likely to tread, a point made scornfully by Sir Alex Ferguson when he questioned his £6m move from Wolves to Coventry. Such a judgement, however, was no deterrent to a career which boasts the distinguished landmarks of Elland Road, San Siro, White Hart Lane and Anfield. It is a journey which deserves a more satisfactory climax than his desperate experience.

Of all the victims of Liverpool's bizarre season of politics and corporate doubt and off-field controversy, Keane is surely No 1. Gerrard? For a little while at least, he has created his own world – one he rules absolutely.

No glamour in money-grubbing

Those who who believe that English rugby's embrace of professionalism has always veered between the shaky and the inept can hardly be encouraged by news that the Premiership is considering extending its fixture list. Nor that the extension will create an uneven programme, with "glamour" games being played not twice but three times.

If the grab-all Premier League of football entertained such a plan, it would be heaped with scorn, despite the fact that the wear and tear on the players, while considerable, is not remotely to be compared with that suffered by their rugby cousins.

Money-grubbing, in preference to a grown-up assessment of what costs the market will bear, is never attractive. This is even more so when it is done at the cost of athletes who already take disturbing levels of physical punishment.

Hysteria on hold after Murray loss

Andy Murray's exit from the Australian Open, which was accompanied by an admirable absence of excuses, will not be an unmitigated disaster if it teaches his more hysterical boosters a lesson. The British disease is to heap the certainty of ultimate success on to the back of mere outstanding potential. It is such a killing tendency that we can only marvel again at the success of someone like the great Nick Faldo.

Shire folk need to look ahead

Lord Marland's bid for the chairmanship of the English Cricket Board is said to be in trouble in the shires. One problem, we are told, is that he once voiced the astonishing view that the county game was in desperate need of serious review. Another is that there is much scepticism about the ability of the former treasurer of the Conservative Party to drum up the £100m necessary to secure the game's future without the help of a Texas billionaire of unsurpassable vulgarity who also happens to "hate" Test cricket.

If it is really true that Giles Clarke, who proudly oversaw the landing of Sir Allen Stanford's helicopter at Lord's with the starry-eyed enthusiasm of some Polynesian islander looking out for "cargo" and presided over the fiasco of Kevin Pietersen's captaincy, is the red-hot favourite, we have another reason to tremble over the future of the old game.

Some counties are apparently unwilling to listen to the new contender's pitch. Why not? Might it just be an ungovernable fear of looking in the mirror?

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