Weekend at Beni’s


Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies

Andy Dufresne, The Shawshank Redemption

It was easy for Andy Dufresne to say that. He knew he had a way of getting out, even if it took 19 years for his hope to be fulfilled. You can’t just hope for miracles. There’s got to be some degree of substance to your ambitions, otherwise hope is a dangerous thing which can drive a man insane.

For us Reds, hope has become an increasingly precious commodity. We skated incredibly close to the Promised Land between 2000 and 2002, but having come up short we seem further away than ever. Many players and millions of pounds have been sunk into that dream yet none of them has yielded the desired investment. The money seems to be scarce, if not exhausted altogether, and when that most magical of things, the free-scoring striker, is seeing to be letting us down, what else is there to turn to?

It seems that we have invested all our hope in Senor Rafael Benitez. In terms of players and money, the summer of 2004 felt like a further diminution of our status. For decades there has been a Top 5 in football and Liverpool always lorded it at the top of whoever the rest of the quintet was. Now there is a Top 3 and not only are we not in it, there is a danger of them galloping into the distance. There’s no getting away from the fact that Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal are, for various reasons, much wealthier than us. They also seem to have demonstrably better players. All we seem to have – apart from our history, which admittedly counts for something – is the manager.

Given the oft-repeated (in this article) poverty-stricken nature of our finances and our squad, the sense of calm that lies over Anfield at the moment can be entirely attributed to the manager, or more accurately what we hope the manager can do. His achievement at Valencia was nothing short of incredible. Reeling from the hammer blow of losing two European Cup finals on the bounce, failing to qualify for the Champions League moneyfest with the last kick of the season – a spectacular Rivaldo bicycle kick – and forced to get shot of some of their most iconic players, Valencia were in danger of vanishing without trace a la Leeds United. Instead they swept to the Primera Liga in a manner that probably caused that demented drummer to wrench his arm. They were better last season, regaining the title and skewering the much-publicised galacticos policy of Real Madrid. They even added the Uefa Cup for good measure. So deified was Benitez that the people of Valencia named two streets after him. It looked like he would have be carried out of the Mastella in a box.

Therefore let us be grateful for the Spanish policy of splitting the responsibilities for the team between a sporting director and a coach. Liverpool offered Benitez a dictator’s role at the club and he accepted it with satisfying speed. But that’s all we’ve offered him. The only positive thing, at least. He has inherited a club so badly in need of a cash injection that we were willing to allow a shady Thai businessman-cum-politician to buy the club at a knockdown – note that I’d take his money, but the old adage to use a long spoon when supping with the devil is one we’d do well to remember. The squad is stuffed with players who have been given so many last chances that cats would be envious of their survival skills. They’ve also got fat contracts that Mother Teresa would find hard to spurn, especially if given the choice between moving to some Calcutta-esque team like . . . well, I won’t mention any names in case it gets shoved down my throat later on in the season.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, we’ve now lost Michael Owen. Some have behaved as if this is tremendous news, finally getting shot of a man who never had our best interests at heart and whose insistence on being at the heart of things was proven to be a millstone around our neck. This is all a matter of opinion, but I find it hard to believe that people don’t view him as anything other than a world-class player, someone who has scored goals at all levels and – most crucially – under all manner of pressure. In a nutshell, we have lost a world-class player, and losing a world-class player is surely a bad thing.

Yet despite this catalogue of woe, the mood around Anfield is almost unnervingly upbeat. There were few howls of outrage when Owen left, the consensus being that we were right to get as much money as possible and better a lesser, wholly committed player than an outstanding talent with his mind elsewhere. The lack of transfer activity should have led to protests outside the ground. Instead there was a wait-and-see attitude, it’ll all come good in the end. The reason for this is simple: Benitez. The philosophy seems to be that he worked the oracle at Valencia and he’ll work the oracle at Liverpool. The evidence so far is good. Any failings, like the limp second half performance against Spurs or the debacle in the second leg against Graz, are laid at the feet of the anciens regime. Any positives are heaped on the current managers head, like the barnstorming second-half last Saturday against Manchester City. It’s probably just a coincidence that it’s the first time in five years that we came from behind at half-time to win. But no one is viewing it as such. It was Benitez’s tactical genius that turned it round. He is The Man, and with him at the helm we cannot fail.

Rafael Benitez: you have the hopes and dreams of England’s greatest club resting on your shoulders.

No pressure or anything.