Liverpool boss Rafael Benítez says he’s going to get some legal advice in response to claims made by Neil Warnock about his team selection against Fulham last season.
Warnock’s side Sheffield United were relegated last season when, despite having lost far too many games over the course of the season, Rafael Benítez ensured they went down by not picking his strongest team.
It was of course all Rafa’s fault, Warnock having planned the season down to the finest tiniest detail and having expected Fulham to lose against the Reds. Instead his plans were in tatters. After not expecting to have to win their last to avoid the drop he found that his team had to win it after all. In fact they only had to avoid defeat – a draw would do. It was in their hands, but that wasn’t the point – Warnock expected Rafa to make his side safe, and he let him down.
So on the last day of the season it was pretty much down to Sheffield United to guarantee their own safety. Stop Wigan, and they were safe with Wigan down in their place. Warnock also knew that West Ham United could go down instead if they lost against Manchester United, but he’d began to start thinking that other teams weren’t willing to help him. They weren’t – United beat United as expected, just not the actual United everyone had expected.
And the other United in this story, the Sheffield one, lost 2-1. Relegated on goal difference. Equal points with Wigan, but one goal worse off.
And a point behind Fulham. Yes, one whole point, which was one of the three that Rafa Benítez had so unfairly allowed Fulham to take far too easily.
Liverpool had sent Sheffield United down. All that hard work Warnock had put into losing just twenty of their 38 games all season, grinding out eight draws, for nothing.
Bolton manager Gary Megson was in Warnock’s position this season, one of the relegation candidates along with Fulham and worried that Rafa would once again save Fulham from the drop. Actually Megson’s comments were a little more considered, but Warnock piped up from wherever he’s been to warn him about the evil ways of Liverpool’s boss.
“Integrity, doing what is right for the game, comes way down Rafa’s list of priorities,” warned the man who once claimed he’d been spat at by a Liverpool player when replays showed nothing of the sort had happened.
He had a theory: “Maybe Rafa gets a yearly hamper from Harrods for his team selections.”
But at least 12 months’ of reflection on events had taught Warnock something, and he was keen to warn the others sides of something he’d only just worked out. You’ve got to actually try and win your own games: “My advice to Reading, Bolton and the rest would be, if you’re expecting any favours, don’t hold your breath. They will have to do it themselves.”
No doubt Steve Coppell and Gary Megson called urgent meetings with their staff on hearing this groundbreaking theory. A new slide has been added to the presentations given to trainee football coaches across the country. You can survive and succeed by winning your own games!
Even though the other coaches were by now calling players in for last minute changes of tactics and wouldn’t have heard any more, Warnock carried on: “The fact of the matter is that if Liverpool were already out of the Champions League and needed to win to get fourth spot, they would play their strongest side. Instead, I fully expect them to play a weakened team at Fulham.”
They did, as it happens, as Warnock would no doubt have done last season had his side made it miraculously to the FA Cup final after having already secured safety. In fact, without wishing to be disrespectful to the clubs with smaller budgets, a weakened Liverpool team is a match for any other team outside the top four in the league if all the players perform as they can. Smaller clubs can put weakened teams out but won’t necessarily be calling on internationals and experienced campaigners. And Liverpool’s team on Saturday won, 2-0. With the likes of Fernando Torres on the bench should the likes of England international Peter Crouch not be able to get the team in front.
And Liverpool did need to win really – defeat on Saturday and they would have one less game in which to get the four points needed. It was a strong team, with the risks of losing weighed against the needs for a stronger team for Tuesday. Rafa’s view would be that they had four games to get four points in the league, but against Chelsea in the Champions League they could be as good as out of the final with a poor result in the first of two games.
Without going back to check the details, Liverpool’s opener that season was against Warnock’s men, and Rafa
What Warnock always fails to mention is just how weak, if that’s how he wants to put it, the Liverpool side was that allowed his side to open the season with a point, with only a late penalty stopping it being a Sheff U win.
The players that started in both the season opener at Bramall lane and that loss at Craven Cottage were: Reina, Hyypia, Sissoko, Bellamy and Fowler. Pennant played in both games too, a late sub against Warnock’s side. Warnock’s side even had the advantage of Kromkamp lining up against them before he was finally offloaded. It was a weaker team against Fulham, but hardly the strongest against Sheffield United.
Still, for someone who fits the description of “sounds like an old woman” whenever he starts to speak those details aren’t worth mentioning. “It’s part of a big club’s mentality,” said old mother Warnock, “They look after themselves and they don’t bother about anyone else.”
And has this anger been festering? “The whole story that Sheffield United were going down and me having a pop at them afterwards was just treated like fish-and-chip paper by them. Liverpool didn’t care because they weren’t the ones getting hurt by it all.”
And, nearly a year on, having had time to calm down and come to terms with the fact that his expected replacement Premier League job didn’t come up, how is he? “”I’m still very bitter about it.” Really? “And personally I hope Liverpool never win another trophy under Benitez. I like them as a club but I would be very pleased to see them win nothing.”
Stories that Everton have him lined up as their next boss are wide of the mark. Even they aren’t that bitter. Well, they are, but even they aren’t that desperate.
Rafa probably won’t actually take any action against Warnock, but he was wise to point out just how far Warnock was going with by implying, even in a half-joking manner, that there was some kind of inducement in place. The Liverpool boss said of the comments: “Somebody told me. We knew he was bad as a manager and prehistoric, but we didn’t know he was a person like this. I will speak to my lawyer. We don’t need to waste time with him.”
The top of Warnock’s head probably flipped off completely at point.
Rafa went on: “Every manager has a responsibility for his team selections in every game and I also have a responsibility to use my squad. I picked a team I believed could win the match. We now need, after this win, just one more point to ensure fourth place in the league, even if Everton win all their remaining games.”
It’s not the first time this season Rafa has threatened legal action. When self-confessed Chelsea fan Rob Beasley took Rafa quotes from El Mundo in February and used them somewhat out of context in an article that appeared under an “exclusive” tag Rafa said his lawyer was writing to Beasley.
Although the News of the World has never been officially boycotted by the club, and sits under its own editorial roof as much as the Times or even Sky Sports News does, Rafa chose to demonstrate how misleading the story was by putting the paper in the same category as the reviled Sun: “It’s no surprise. Everybody in Liverpool knows that there are two newspapers that you cannot trust, this is one of them.”
Written by a Chelsea fan, it had appeared on the day of the Chelsea match at Stamford Bridge, and suggested the writer was worried about the threat of a side in the middle of a poor spell of form.
In what was still thought to be a difficult time for the boss with relationships between him and the owners still being rebuilt, the headline was potentially devastating: “It’s your fault – Benitez in new blast at owners”.
But Rafa explained on TV about how the story was inaccurate: “He talks of it being an exclusive; but the journalist is lying. I was talking with the Spanish press – he was manipulating everything. So he’s lying.”
And although it’s been clear since that Rafa was probably referring purely to Hicks rather than Gillett as this was during the latter’s self-imposed exile, Rafa tried to explain that he was on good terms with the owners: “I have contact with them, especially with Mr Hicks, because he was talking about Mr Hicks and I think he is lying – well clearly he is lying, because I did not talk with him.”
Beasley’s thoughts on Rafa had been made clear on Sky Sports’ Sunday Supplement programme, in which he called Rafa a “snide” and a “petulant spoilt brat”.
In the end nothing further came from this, but it was clear to all to see that Beasley had pushed things somewhat with this story, even if he’d been careful to put himself into a position where any legal action would be an open-and-shut case.
Beasley had said that Rafa had “again risked the wrath of Liverpool’s American owners by blaming them for ruining his team’s title hopes,” and attributed to Rafa the claim the owners had “de-stabilised the club and undermined all hopes of winning the Premier League.”
Beasley defending himself at the time, in an email to a reader of this site. He said: “As for Sunday’s article; the first thing you need to know is that Robert Beasley is NOT a liar and I resent and refute any suggestion that I am.”
He gave examples of major stories he’d broken, including going undercover to expose the Combat 18 group that attached itself to Chelsea, challenging Ken Bates until Bates banned him from Stamford Bridge, exposing Matts Willander as “the first drugs cheat” as well as uncovering the Chelsea tapping up of Ashley Cole.
In the case of Cole it could be argued that exposing the meeting in public meant Arsenal had to tackle the issue rather than try to ignore it, and that Chelsea included any fine in their budget. Likewise with his mention of how it was him that revealed a visit by Spurs executive Paul Kemsley to Seville to “tap-up” Jaunde Ramos. He said “Guess what? Paul Kemsley remains a good friend of mine despite that story. Why? Because it was true.” And again, probably helpful.
And he pointed out he was sure Rafa wouldn’t win any court case against him: “I have NEVER lost a legal challenge to anything that I have written.”
He also said, “I do not read El Mundo, I do not speak Spanish, I did not even know that Rafa Benitez had given El Mundo an interview. I only became aware of it on Saturday lunchtime when I was contacted by a highly regarded journalist in Spain and told about the El Mundo article. The highly-regarded journalist in Spain then provided his translation of the El Mundo article.
“I then discussed the content with my Sports Editor who agreed I should write our own article based on the Benitez interview. I then wrote the News of the World article based on that translation. I did not invent any of it and I did not put “exclusive” on the story or write the headline.
“I did not claim that Benitez had spoken personally to me. I trust the highly regarded journalist in Spain as he has an outstanding track record going back over many years.
“I do not have it in for Rafa Benitez. (Why bother? He’s doing a great job of self-destructing all on his own! ). Yes, I did criticise Benitez heavily on Sunday Supplement but I gave my honest, personal point of view. Did you want me to lie?
“The truth is I personally don’t like the Benitez style of play, his style of management or his personality. But then again even Liverpool’s own stars are saying that – and you lot know it!
“I do not dislike Liverpool FC. I grew up in the Shankly years and cut my teeth as a reporter in the Paisley/Fagan era and have always admired Liverpool FC as a class act. I didn’t see them as rivals to my team Chelsea. Liverpool were on a totally different level. Happily it’s the other way around now (LOL).
“I love to hear the Kop in full voice. The night you lot knocked my own team Chelsea out of the Champions League (first time!) my ears were ringing for hours after. It was an awesome atmosphere. Respect. (The ball didn’t cross the line, though,)
“I am confident I have written more critical stories about my own club Chelsea than all the other top clubs put together. So much for being biased. That’s because, like you guys, I deeply care for my team and will defend it against anybody – especially those who run it.
“That’s why I congratulate you Liverpool fans on the challenge to your current American owners and their antics. Something the NOTW should be credited with highlighting on your behalf!!
“I love football, I love the banter, I love the rivalry and I love the fact that we all care. I loathe bigots, racists and hooligans.
“Hopefully see it from my perspective too. I’m sure you still think I’m a Chelsea scumbag but you should hear what Fergie and the United fans think!!”
And with alarming prophecy – “Up the Chelsea – see you in the Champions League, maybe.”
Meanwhile, Matt Hughes might want to re-read what Rafa really did say about tomorrow’s clash as opposed to what he implied he’d said. Under the headline “Rafael Benitez questions spirit of Avram Grant’s Chelsea” Hughes said that Rafa had “belittled Avram Grant’s role at Chelsea by describing Liverpool’s Champions League semi-final opponents as Roman Abramovich’s team. In the first bout of psychological sparring before tomorrow’s first leg at Anfield, the Liverpool manager claimed that Chelsea’s style of play has not developed under Grant and that they remain wedded to the attritional football favoured by José Mourinho, his predecessor.”
Straight away you start wondering about descriptions like that. In his own tongue Rafa Benítez is probably one of the most articulate coaches in Europe, but in English, and even though his command of the language is improving all the time, he just doesn’t speak like that!
Hughes also said that “In contrast with the antipathy that he felt towards Mourinho, Benítez has enjoyed cordial relations with Grant, but that has not stopped him questioning the Israeli’s contribution. Benítez has always insisted that Abramovich’s spending power has been the main reason for success at Stamford Bridge and Mourinho’s departure has done nothing to change his mind.”
So with those two paragraphs “above the fold” it was no surprise to see on looking further down the page that Rafa was not quite speaking that way. Rafa actually said: “There’s no difference between this Chelsea and last year’s Chelsea, only in the press conferences. I think it’s more or less the same. I was watching the game at Everton on Thursday and they were playing more or less the same.
“As I’ve said before, the key to them was Abramovich. In the past I think they have built a fantastic team. You may miss José, yes, but not me. It could be they have less spirit than under Mourinho, you know maybe better than me. I have enough things to do at Liverpool now.” And of course Rafa’s quotes are not always the thoughts flowing off the top of his head, the key issues on his mind, but responses to leading questions.
And he actually had praise for Grant’s side, he wasn’t being critical: “They were in the final of the Carling Cup. They are in the semi-finals of the Champions League. They are in the race for the title. So they have enough good players to win. We must be really careful.”
After the attempts to unsettle the squad by linking Gerrard with Chelsea, and articles twisting Rafa’s words like this, it does sound like the London-based press want to help the West London side make it third-time lucky in the semis of this competition. Bet Chelsea’s “twelfth man” in the shape of the press is a transparent little insect in terms of the impact it will have on Rafa’s men, given what they’ve been through this season.
And that’s before our “twelfth man” gets started. And Chelsea have met that fearsome roaring beast before. The Kop are waiting.