Singeing the King of Spain’s Beard

Ever worry that you might bump into a Liverpool player, past or present, and be concerned that you’d have nothing to say to him other than “ur, I saw you play once, so I did”? Well, I need never worry about such social awkwardness should I ever bump into Markus Babbel, for we shall be able to swap notes on the evil that is Guillain-Barré Syndrome. I never had it as bad as he did, nor did I have the privilege (ahem) of having Chris de Burgh place crystals on me to channel healing energies into my crippled form. But at least he could reassure me, as he has done unknown to himself for every day of the last four months, that a full recovery is not only possible but highly likely.

While laid up recovering, you get to think of many things, of shoes and ships and sealing wax, and cabbages and kings. Unlike Lewis Carroll though, I didn’t have the excuse of being doped up to the gills to be able to dwell on such earth-shattering matters. So thoughts turned to mundane items like how the Reds were going to bring the league title back to Anfield. An elaborate thesis was constructed on how the key to success was for lesser clubs to improve to the point where they could threaten the hegemony of the Big Four. Only by clubs who spent big in the summer, like West Ham, Newcastle and Spurs, raising their game to the point where they could take points off Man Utd and Chelsea, could Liverpool hope to close the gap on the Mancs and the Chavs. It was a risky strategy, one involving accepting several clubs competing for the Champions League slots in the hope that Liverpool could emerge from the pack to win the title. But at this stage, it’s a risk I was willing to take.

The problems with this game plan are now readily apparent. Relying on the likes of West Ham, Newcastle and Spurs – particularly the latter two – is like relying on a clown driving a car with square wheels and detachable doors taking points off Kimi Raikonnen. Meanwhile as those clubs were busy squirting water from a flower on their lapels at Man Utd and Chelsea, before being repeatedly punched in the greasepainted face for their troubles, we have seen two clubs, one traditionally comic and one deadly serious, put it up to everyone. We now have a situation where we have five clubs – Liverpool, Man Utd, Chelsea, Man City and Arsenal – looking like they are going to boss the league. So while we still have to think in terms of picking up 90+ points to win the league, we don’t even have the comfort zone of having a reasonably secure Champions League spot – not even via winning the thing! What a tangled web, yet one pushed clean from the consciousness when the low level irritation between the owners and Rafa burst into the open like a world’s-biggest-paella attempt that was too big for its dish.

So what gives? At the risk of this column shooting its wad early, I came to the conclusion at half-time of the Fulham game that Rafa was not going to win us the league title. Through the years, I’ve come to loathe the habitual miserabilists who populate the internet, smugly predicting Armageddon safe in the knowledge that if they’re right they can say ‘I told you so’, and if they’re wrong everyone is going to be too busy celebrating to remind them how wrong they were. We all have our doubts, such as when we found ourselves being battered in Istanbul by Milan. But you suppress the negative waves because, well, that’s what Liverpool fans do. Get up, sing You’ll Never Walk Alone, and if things don’t work out you have the consolation of knowing that you kept the faith. That’s the contract, and you feel like a splitter for not adhering to it.

But the accumulated crises do accumulate, wearing down your resistance. And the brain-dead performance against Fulham finally caused my resistance to crumble. How much money had been lavished on this squad? For them to be toiling against a patchily-assembled team of journeymen like Fulham was too much to bear. As it happened, Fernando Torres (who stands at the heart of this new thesis) came bounding to the rescue – please note that I am not so nihilistic as to wish for failure so as to clear the decks for success – but it was way too close for comfort, and at the very least I envisaged the new owners asking Rafa where he was going with such limp performances.

And maybe the question was asked. It has been to the credit of both Rafa and Gillett/Hicks that neither party has pretended there hasn’t been a problem or blamed the media for ‘misquoting’ them. Most people will instinctively side with the manager, but it seems to me that Hicks’ comment that Rafa should stick to coaching the panel that he has assembled has some merit. Consider, if you will, the case of Jan Kromkamp. Signed from Villarreal in January 2006, he looked a decent enough squad player and certainly made a difference as a sub in the FA Cup final that year. Yet by August he was gone. What was the logic of signing a player for such a short period of time? When you consider Rafa’s desire to sign two or three more players this January, it’s hard not to conclude that he just took a whirl on Kromkamp. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, meh. The owners will cough up some more money and hopefully we’ll eventually come up with a winning formula.

Except the owners are not made of money. Even Roman Abramovich has been shown to have his limits. They are entitled to say that they came up with a lot of money already for a lot of talent – not the least the aforementioned Senor Torres – and if you are not happy with what you have, you shouldn’t have signed them. Those of a cynical bent, like those Geordies picked up mouthing their disapproval at Fat Sam Allardyce, might suggest that you don’t know what you’re doing.

Maybe this is being too hard on Rafa, a graniteness borne of the explosion of rage that accompanied that miserable half against Fulham. There is room for a meeting of minds between the owners and the manager. Rafa was certainly a lot more emollient last weekend, and reports of him ‘blasting’ the owners seemed wide of the mark – perhaps a case of him being misquoted. Still, this kneejerk reaction from Reds in his favour is tiresome. Fans of other clubs have routinely railed against their respective boards and been deservedly become figures of fun because of it. The experience of blindly defending Souness and Evans and Houllier has taught me not to elevate the manager to the status of a god. For all of the splendour of much of what Rafael Benitez has accomplished at Liverpool – and boy, much of it has been more splendid than we anyone is entitled to expect – there’s a lot in the debit column. Fortune favours the brave. Will a time come when we pillory Gillett and Hicks for not being brave enough?