Former Liverpool midfielder Sammy Lee is looking more likely to be offered the job of assistant to Reds manager Rafael Benítez.
Lee’s departure from Anfield last time round was when he took up an offer to work full-time for the England national set-up under Sven-Goran Eriksson at the same time as Rafa arrived as the replacement for Gerard Houllier. He’d been first-team coach for Liverpool up until then, a position he’d moved into after a time as reserve coach.
As the only existing Spanish-speaking member of the coaching staff when Rafa arrived in 2004 it was expected that Sammy would stay on, but he felt it was time to try a new challenge. A year later he took the job as assistant to “Big” Sam Allardyce at Bolton, before getting the job as boss himself at the Horwich-based outfit right at the end of last season. Unfortunately that was one phase of his career that didn’t work out and he left the job in October.
Shortly after this rumours began at Anfield suggesting that Rafa was trying to get Sammy back on board as a replacement for Pako Ayestaran, who left in August. These rumours were boosted when Sammy and Rafa were seen watching a reserve game at the Halliwell Jones stadium in November. Later came claims during the early days of the board-room troubles that the move was blocked because Pako was on gardening leave and with his wages still being paid there was no money in the budget for another coach at that level.
Rafa spent most of the season without an assistant, but when it was announced last week that first-team coach Alex Miller had taken a manager’s job in Japan it was finally accepted that Rafa needed some help with his workload. Sammy is said to have been at Melwood last week.
Earlier today it was reported that Lee had been in talks with chief executive Rick Parry yesterday, with more talks set to have taken place today. The appointment has now been agreed by the current joint-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, according to the Liverpool Echo.
The Echo also reports that Ukrainian striker Andriy Voronin could go on loan to Stuttgart next season on a short-term deal. Voronin scored a contender for Liverpool’s goal of the season but on the whole has failed to impress Reds fans. He had been signed on a Bosman deal in the January 2006 transfer window, at a time when the club was still waiting for DIC to finalise their first bid for the club.
Rafa is working hard to improve the squad, and although some money has been made available to him he will also be looking to make the most of player sales. One of those players looking almost certain to be sold is another striker, Peter Crouch, although that won’t be purely Rafa’s decision, the England international is looking for more first-team starts than he has been getting at Anfield.
Reds captain Steven Gerrard feels that the current Liverpool side has a great foundation on which to build a genuine title challenge next season – but suggests that the club should be looking at more than just Bosman signings like Philipp Degen. Aston Villa’s Gareth Barry is one of Rafa’s targets, as Martin O’Neill was the first to officially confirm, but Gerrard feels some world-class players should be added to what he feels is a strong spine: “In my opinion, our spine is as good as anything in the world,” he said. “If you look at the quality we have down the spine, it is fantastic. We have other good players as well, though. It’s difficult to say how many world-class players we need to buy. You look at the points difference and over the last few years we have made it smaller. Playing against the Arsenals and Chelsea, it has been close. We are giving them good games which are tight and get decided on small details.”
It might not take world-class players as such, but one point Gerrard is clear on is that the closing gap shouldn’t be allowed to open up again: “If we can make the team a little bit stronger, have a few more options and match-winners, and make the team a tiny bit better defensively, we can do it. Other teams are going to strengthen and become better sides, so it is important we do the same. There is a lot of money in the league – teams and squads will become stronger in the summer. It’s important we do not fall away. We want to stay up there with the best.”
Liverpool’s excellent form at the tail-end of the season came with Rafa using a largely unchanged team for each match, but it’s more difficult to do that when the games are coming thick and fast as they tend to in the first half of the season. Gerrard says the squad needs to be strengthened: “To keep doing well in the league and Europe we need to strengthen the squad, there is no doubt about that.”
Gerrard says he isn’t party to Rafa’s targets and ideas as far as new players are concerned, other than gaining an assurance that the manager is doing all he can to improve the squad: “I don’t know much about Rafa’s transfer plans. He doesn’t call me in and tell me names, but he does assure me and the other players that if anyone becomes available who would strengthen the side, then he will go out and buy them. We say it every year, but it’s massive. Other teams are going to strengthen and become better sides, so it’s important we do the same. It’s important we don’t fall away. We want to stay up there with the best. It’s important Rafa gets the right backing above him as well.”
That backing is likely to be fairly restrictive until the ownership situation is resolved, and perhaps that was on Gerrard’s mind as he warned against setting targets too high: “Obviously I have to be careful that I don’t send expectations through the roof again, but for me I am desperate for it. I believe in this team and this manager, and believe we can make it happen. We need help and new players, and the manager needs help from the board to make these signings happen and make us stronger. I do expect us to be involved next season.”
In truth though, for all the other troubles and issues that played a part in dropped points over the season, some teams should not be getting points against a side aiming for a crack at the title: “The title slipped away because of silly results against teams we should be beating. You don’t have to take maximum points from the top three if you perform perfectly against the others, but we haven’t done that.”
As well as the owners approving whatever signings can be afforded in the club’s current state, and Rick Parry proving his critics wrong in terms of his abilities to capture players before they get tired of waiting for a phone call, Rafa Benítez needs to persuade his wife Montse to let him take his phone on holiday with him.
Rafa laughed: “I don’t tend to have too much time away from football, but I will try to switch off for a bit. I will have to try to hide my mobile phone, and if my wife can’t find out about it I’ll try and keep it on me, but if she finds it, I’m sure she will throw it in the swimming pool!”
As for his holidays: “I don’t like the beach too much, but I don’t mind being around a swimming pool or maybe going up in the mountains. When you are at such a big club as Liverpool, everybody knows who you are and it’s not easy to get away from people on holiday. Last summer, I was by the swimming pool and a kid was playing football wearing a Liverpool cap. He passed the ball and it came to me, so I tried to dribble it past him, and we were playing for five minutes. After we’d finished, his father spoke to him and said ‘do you know who that is?’ The kid says, ‘is it a Liverpool player?’ and his dad replies, ‘no, it’s the manager!’So after that he was with me playing football the whole week! He was the only one who hadn’t recognised me, and he was wearing a Liverpool cap!”