Monday, May 10, 2010

The Beginning of the End

Sums up everything nicely:

In six months, the Benitez era will seem like a golden age

In the dressing room and on the balance sheet, Liverpool have fallen over the edge, writes Dion Fanning.

I f Liverpool thought this season was bad, the summer may have them looking back wistfully. The release of their latest financial figures might shake some sense into those who think that Rafael Benitez's possible departure will make things better. Liverpool, as the figures show, are in great peril. In six months, the Benitez era will seem like a golden age. 

The idea that Jose Mourinho can be parachuted in to save the club should crash up against the reality of these numbers. For the second successive year, the auditors, KPMG, expressed "material uncertainty" about Liverpool's ability to continue as a going concern. 

The new chairman Martin Broughton has had to appear before the Premier League to give a guarantee, which had to be backed up by the banks, that Liverpool will be able to fulfil their fixtures next season (anyone who saw Liverpool's performance in Portsmouth this season may question if that guarantee was given last season). Yet some people cling to the view that Liverpool need simply to sign a new full-back. There is no quick-fix for Liverpool. There may be no slow-fix either.

This weekend, it does not seem as inevitable that Benitez will leave. At this stage, the decay has affected him so profoundly that it would be no bad thing for him to go. At the very least, his departure would allow those who criticise his management to understand slowly what he was up against. Alan Curbishley won't be able to do much better.

On Friday, an internet campaign launched by a Liverpool forum resulted in journalists receiving hundreds of emails from supporters backing Benitez. It is customary for their loyalty to be applauded slightly patronisingly at this point before asking at what other club would a manager be backed in this way?

Benitez earned their loyalty by providing as magical a night as any Liverpool fan has experienced in Istanbul, defying Chelsea in the semi-final and challenging for the title last season. He earned their loyalty by being misunderstood, as Liverpool people feel they are, and he earned their devotion by rumbling Tom Hicks and George Gillett.

So when they chant his name or send an email, they are not displaying blind devotion. They are acknowledging the complications of managing a club that has no future until things change and recognising that Benitez has, imperfectly, managed until this season somehow to keep Liverpool competitive.

Once Liverpool's players started spinning about the race for fourth and once Benitez started talking about how the value of the club had increased during his time at Anfield, then things were destined to unravel. That was not Benitez's racket. At his best, he felt no need to point to his record because he didn't respect the people who were looking it up.

They were wrong about everything: wrong about his transfer record, wrong about rotation, wrong about how often he rested Torres. Yet they never shut up and they wore Benitez down. The reasons Rafael Benitez is no longer the right manager for Liverpool are exactly the same as the reasons he was such a successful manager of Liverpool. His stubbornness allowed him to ignore the voices that told him he should buy Michael Owen or play Steven Gerrard in his "favoured" central midfield position.

Then he became distracted and demented by the financial position and gaining control. His attempt to sell Xabi Alonso was a disaster -- not because Alonso was in sparkling form and it made no sense -- but because his return to form was achieved not by coaxing the best from him but by instilling a sense of resentment that made his departure inevitable.

One of the key tenets of Benitez's philosophy is that he does not get close to the players. There is nothing wrong with that but it works best if the manager does not hold resentments if the players react to that distance, as Alonso did. The sadness in the fracturing of the relationship with the player once known as 'Son of Rafa' was compounded when, having taken the biggest risk of his career at Liverpool, Benitez barely saw any of the transfer fee.

Instead, he was forced to gamble on a fragile player like Alberto Aquilani and the pressure was on once it quickly became apparent that the title would not be achieved as many had expected. Benitez had been exhausted by the battles he had to fight. He was contaminated by the bullshit coming down the line and the players appear to have had enough.

Just as his success masked the dysfunction of the regime he was employed by, his failures have hidden them too. Benitez took on Hicks and Gillett and paid the price: not the loss of his job but the loss of his vision of what the team should be. Like all obsessives, he is always at risk of losing touch with reality. 

Liverpool, out of the top four and with their most glorious footballer Fernando Torres agonising over his future, have more chance of sinking further next season than they do of reclaiming a Champions League place.

Torres is not bigger than the club, the old cliché that may yet be used by the accountants this summer after he makes an impact on the balance sheet, but there is a strong case to be made that it stands or falls with him right now. For many reasons, Torres is no ordinary footballer. He is loyal and curious about his surroundings. His talent ensured he would be a favourite at Liverpool, but his heart quickly bound him to Anfield. His disillusionment, not about last season, but about the future, is likely to see him leave in the summer. Even if the banks were to allow Liverpool to replace him, he is irreplaceable.

Broughton has announced that Liverpool do not need to sell him to service their debts but when £85m has been paid in interest since 2007, the needs of the money men can sometimes become insatiable.

Torres will have his choices and he may decide, despite their failure to qualify for the Champions League, that Manchester City are the best option. Certainly, they can offer a challenge in the future that Liverpool cannot. If they could persuade Torres then it would be a spectacular announcement of their intentions which could speak even louder than qualification for the Champions League.

Liverpool are being squeezed by teams who have been allowed to build and clubs that have not been so badly run. Tottenham's progress has been through shrewd investment and the acquisition of a squad that Liverpool can only envy. Peter Crouch might have stayed at Liverpool if he had been offered a contract that would have made his time on the bench bearable. Instead, he ended up at Spurs, along with Robbie Keane, who played no more time at Tottenham than he did at Liverpool but nobody seemed to notice before he headed off to Glasgow.

City and Spurs are ready to replace Liverpool. They have energy, ambition and new ideas. Liverpool are just trying to make it through the night. They have been ripped from their community by the decision of David Moores to sell the club to Hicks and Gillett. The desire of supporters to see the club return to ownership they understand has now been replaced by the pressing urgency to find somebody to rescue them.

There was a time when Moores and Rick Parry (who received a pay-off of £3m, the latest accounts revealed) searched the world looking for new investment. Moores could have borrowed on the club to build a new stadium instead of selling to the Americans, who were borrowing on the club to buy it, and Liverpool would be in a better position today. Instead, he made a rash decision and a poor business one for him and for Liverpool.

Those were the good days when the world felt it could trust people like Hicks and Gillett. Because there were so many of them, they must be doing something right.

Last week's accounts showed Liverpool's loss was 34 per cent worse than 2008's figure as £40.1m went on servicing the club's £351.4m debt to Royal Bank of Scotland and US firm Wachovia. These loans have been extended until the sale but the club is now, according to KPMG, "dependent on short-term facility extensions". They are living hand to mouth. And yet they claim that Torres doesn't need to be sold. They do not need to sell him, much as a wino doesn't need a bed for the night.

It is worth noting that the accounts were taken in a good year for Liverpool, a run in the Champions League and second in the league. Next year, if there is a next year, things will be worse.

But still they blame the manager. Benitez is said to be torn about his departure. A number of senior players would be happy to see him go and a number would prefer if he stayed. His management style is undoubtedly wearing on players but Liverpool aren't faced with too many alternatives.

Few managers will be tempted in the summer to join a club which may not still have owners and has no money. Martin O'Neill is the only candidate who appeals, especially if he feels he has done as much as he can at Aston Villa. Liverpool may not end up like Leeds but there is every indication they could end up like Newcastle, who, unlike Liverpool, had a stadium that gave them the revenue to compete. Liverpool have nothing, not even freedom, as that isn't afforded to the indebted. 

The days of standing on the edge of the abyss are over, Liverpool have fallen over the edge. Benitez seems reluctant not to fall with them. He staked his reputation on the club and he found that even when it plummeted, he didn't want to give it all up. 

He has been promised riches and finances at Juventus but still he hesitates. He is bound by something more. He is a flawed hero but history will see his management as no less heroic for the reality that it was doomed.

Sunday Independent


Anonymous said...

Stop dreaming Mr Khan...Wake up and smell the reality. Benitez is very much part of the problem. Together with the two owners, they bring shame to Liverpool.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad the season is over. One thing for sure, i cant stand Rafael Benitez anymore. A very stubborn and defensive-minded manager not fit for the Premiership.

Imagine Liverpool scored fewer away goals than Wolves in the just concluded season. What can you make out of this? One thing for sure, Wolves's spending is a fraction of Liverpool's.

The sooner the manager goes the better it is for Liverpool.

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