Liverpool fans wait expectantly as Broughton and Purslow cross the minefield
By Phil Dickinson.
Liverpool’s nightmare season finally came to an end on Sunday in a 0-0 stalemate that again typified the sense of frustration hanging in the Anfield air. Liverpool twice struck the woodwork but were unable to break down an already relegated Hull City at the KC Stadium. The Reds could have moved up to 6th with a win, but in the end, players and fans alike seemed ready to play out the game and commit this season to the darkest recesses of our collective memory.
Thankfully, the nightmare on the pitch is over for the time being, but whether the club will wake up from the nightmare off it is yet to be seen. It’s time for Broughton and Purslow to hold hands and step out into No Man’s Land.
The thing that most disappoints me about these dark days at Anfield is that it appears the Kop is more divided than it has ever been in my lifetime. The inquest into what has gone wrong this campaign and who is to blame began as early as the turn of the year and, because of the complicated nature of the prevailing situation in the boardroom and because of a plethora of rumours, there isn’t a great deal of consensus.
I have repeatedly said in recent articles that I felt the tide had turned against manager, Rafael Benitez. There have been suggestions amongst some Liverpool fans that the vast majority of those who actually sit on the Kop, traditionally the last group of fans to turn against a player or manager, have had enough of the Spaniard, only a small section singing his name and joining in to save face. From my own experience, talking face-to-face with fellow Liverpool fans, I have struggled to find one fan who thinks Benitez is still the man to lead the club forward.
But at the same time, the internet still appears awash with blogs and forum post remaining loyal to the manager and, only yesterday, I read a very well-written article which suggested most Liverpool fans want him to stay and still “consider Benitez a hero”.
The problem throughout the course of this very public debate has been that the various pro and anti-Benitez camps, however big or small they are in reality, have tended to misrepresent each other. Supporters of Benitez have misrepresented his detractors as not being against the “Yankee Ownership”, while those hoping for Benitez’s departure have misrepresented his loyal supporters as using the “Miracle of Istanbul” to justify and vindicate anything Benitez does. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground.
And rumours about a senior board member feeding false details to the press about those “cancelled meetings” could only make this situation worse. The existence of some sort of boardroom smear campaign to oust the manager puts those who want a change of manager in a difficult position. It just further polarises people’s perceptions.
Liverpool Football Club is in danger of becoming a soap opera where management and ownership are supposed to be at loggerheads and you are only allowed to back one or the other. I believe a good number of Liverpool fans are actually reluctant to back either at the moment, proportioning the blame for this season’s failure much more evenly. The vast majority of the sympathy has actually been reserved for Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres, the two men who according to the media are most likely to depart in the near future. And who could blame either of them if that’s what they did?
I continue to make little secret of the fact that I feel Benitez has taken Liverpool as far as he can. I am finding his tactical inflexibility and defiant outbursts tiresome and I think a fresh injection of ideas could really reignite the careers of some players in the squad. While, I still hope he proves me wrong, I don’t honestly believe Liverpool will ever win the Premier League under his stewardship. And whether the title is beyond him or not, Benitez should still have comfortably sheered the squad he had this season back into the Champions League places. Despite Rafa’s excuses, seventh place is an utterly shameful showing for a club of Liverpool’s tradition and stature. But that doesn’t mean I think Benitez is a bad manager or that he hasn’t done good things for Liverpool Football Club. After all, winning the Premier League is not an easy task. It’s a tough league.
His tactical system, as stubborn as he is about it, has brought a large degree of European success, his squads are always instilled with a good sense of professionalism and his players always cross the white line knowing what their jobs are. His sides are rarely easy to play against. Despite his flaws as a manager and despite his mistakes, I’m not sure finishing seventh is something he could make a habit out of, even with a reduced transfer budget. Benitez has admitted he has made mistakes. One would assume he had learnt some lessons.
Benitez made it clear after the Hull match that he wants to stay. And, in the end, with any sale of the club likely to take up to 6 months to finalise, Benitez may have to be kept on. While I don’t subscribe to the opinion that Benitez is one of the best managers in the world, realistically, the level of manager required to bring home a Premier League title will not be forthcoming in such an uncertain boardroom environment. Incoming managers want assurances, not uncertainty. Until the club is sold we may have to count ourselves lucky we have a manager who is any good at all, not to mention willing to solider on under such a barrage of criticism.
The fact Liverpool haven’t qualified for next season’s Champions League does set up the possibility of a painfully inexorable decline in the club’s fortunes. It’s a dangerous, minefield situation which could take any number of different turns. The worst case scenario is that Torres and Gerrard both leave for pastures new and, with no sale of the club impending, Benitez has a pitiful transfer budget to rebuild the squad with. If you pay any attention to the media at the moment you’d think that this worst case scenario was inevitable. Gerrard to team up with Mourinho at Madrid? Torres to Chelsea? No marquee signings? An early season start in the Europa League?
That worst case scenario is not inevitable though and, if Torres and Gerrard do stay, Liverpool under the management of Benitez have every chance of retaking fourth place. Spurs and Manchester City are certainly growing in stature and will pose much more of a threat to the so-called “Big Four” than has been posed in years gone by, but it will take more than one season for either to race clear and officially replace Liverpool as Champions League regulars.
I continue to doubt Benitez’s ability to bring home a Premier League title, but I don’t doubt his commitment and I don’t doubt that he can haul us back into fourth place under the right circumstances. And, of course, providing he has learnt certain lessons from this year. Whoever the manager is, whoever the owner is, it is up to Liverpool to bite back on the pitch and show the fight that has been so sorely lacking this campaign.
In fact, why not stretch the mindless optimism as far as it can go? Steven Gerrard might see the World Cup as an opportunity to pull his socks up and make a personal mends, and when he lifts the World Cup as England captain that will serve as enough of a consolation to allow him to persevere with his Premier League title-less Anfield career. Not quite so inevitable, obviously. But nobody is quite sure what is going through the captain’s mind at the moment. The World Cup might be a timely distraction, particularly if he has to stand in for the perpetually injured Rio Ferdinand as England skipper.
But one mine going off could cause the whole field to go. New chairman Martin Broughton and managing director Christian Purslow have some very careful management to do over the summer. If replacing Rafa isn’t an option at the moment they have to have the bottle to wholeheartedly back him until the club is sold. Key players have to be told clearly what’s going on and we have to make it clear to those players that the club have no intention of flogging them for a quick 100 million.
While the media seem determined to tell the story before it has even happened, there can be absolutely no doubt that the next month is critical for Liverpool Football Club. I think most Liverpool fans are willing to accept that what we want and what we’ll have to settle for are two different things. Now more than ever is a time for realism. But what we do end up settling for doesn’t have to be the worst case scenario.
What do Liverpool fans think will happen this summer? What changes would you like to see and how realistic are they? Please leave your comments below…