It may sound like paranoia, but the English media really are out to get Liverpool boss Rafael Benítez.
It’s not really that he’s getting special treatment in that respect; he’s just the best candidate right now for that role.
The higher profile the manager, the higher the chance your campaign will sell papers or draw viewers in. And Rafa is about the highest profile target available.
The BBC will tell you what happens if you stand up to Alex Ferguson – and few other news outlets have the bottle to do the same. Chelsea’s bosses are changing so quickly these days that the press don’t have time to start a campaign against one before he’s been sent packing with his compensation cheque.
The other “top four” manager, Arsene Wenger, isn’t actually in charge of a top-four side at the moment. Arsenal are six points below fourth place in the league and well out of touch of top spot, but for some reason Wenger’s comments aren’t picked apart, or his every decision placed under a microscope.
The actual other current top-four manager is Martin O’Neill, who could change his name to Marmite O’Neill to demonstrate how he is viewed by many people. He always has something to say, and if he was the current target of the media there’d be plenty to pick at. As it is, his side are currently doing better than expected, and with Arsenal doing so poorly, the pressure is less of a problem than it might be. If his gamble to send a shadow squad out to contest the UEFA Cup backfires, and his side don’t take full points in the league at the weekend, maybe Rafa will get a little bit of a rest. Maybe.
Of course now that Rafa is the centre of attention for the media, all he can do is to put out his strongest team every game, using his strongest formation, attacking from the off without ever looking like conceding a goal, and finishing the game as several-nil winners. Much less and there’s something that the media can pick at.
That only relates to post-match coverage though. Anything less than a convincing win tonight will see more “Rafa to quit” or “Rafa to be sacked” headlines. But even if there is a convincing win, the fallback is use the dispute over his contract, or – if any player fails to smile when being substituted – to bring up player unrest.
Tonight’s match is in Spain of course, homeland of Rafa and a number of his stars, and a lazy angle might be to say that one or more of the Spanish contingent were homesick, even more so after spending some time in Madrid. And Madrid was Rafa’s home, the place he first started to coach.
Rafa’s links to Real Madrid always make it easy to stitch some story up about him moving there. And it’s not just the press making stories up – rumours flying around supporters start to get some credence, yet most of the time they are no more credible than those that blue-scarved fish-wives like to spread through the city about the Liverpool players they’d love to see on their team’s books.
When it’s an Evertonian telling a bare-faced lie about the health of Daniel Agger, it’s easy to see their reasons for telling such lies. They support Everton. They hate Liverpool.
When it’s a newspaper telling the lies, again it’s easy to see why. It might be annoying, it might be shameful, but it sells papers.
It also unsettles a side. Negative stories about certain players often appear just before a big match, and it’s not just Liverpool it happens to.
But although those reasons are understandable, it’s difficult to justify the spreading of malicious rumours about Liverpool FC when it’s a so-called support spreading those rumours.
Newspapers have to be more careful than the scaremongering fans spreading rumours to other fans, knowing their rumours are false. Newspapers have to be wary of any legal action. But it doesn’t stop them from misleading people.
Two recent stories caught my eye, mainly because they actually prompted a denial from the two players involved.
The first was a relatively harmless story, but although the false accusation levelled at the player was frivolous, it’s illustrative of how easily the English press can print unfounded stories.
The player was Fernando Torres, the accusation was that he was a big fan of ITV’s Dancing on Ice and hoped he’d be able to compete on the show one day! The tabloid report said Torres “wants to appear on TV’s Dancing On Ice,” but that Rafa Benítez was “horrified at the prospect of his £20million hitman coming a cropper.”
The story, in the Daily Star, even carried what it said were quotes from Liverpool’s number nine: “The television in England is very good and there is a lot that I enjoy to watch. There is a programme called Dancing On Ice where a celebrity and a skater perform together. It is very artistic and elegant to watch. One day perhaps you may see me on the programme, too.”
It then went on to claim that other team members knew all about his “love for the Sunday night ITV1 show”, before quoting a “club insider” who said Torres arranges to get the show recorded if he’s away with the team. This insider, who maybe hadn’t heard of Sky Plus, supposedly said: “He’s going to have to wait until his playing days are over before he hits the ice. Can you imagine Rafa’s face if he was told his £20m star player had injured himself doing a pirouette on the rink? It doesn’t bear thinking about.”
For 24 hours nobody really questioned the story. It wasn’t exactly a big story after all, and raised a chuckle from anyone who showed any real interest. But it annoyed Torres enough that he had to dismiss it the next day. He told Liverpool’s own official website that the whole story was complete nonsense.
He said: “I get used to people making things up about me, but this is absolute rubbish.”
He’d never even heard of the show: “I’ve since been told the show is very popular in England, but the first I knew about it was when one of my teammates pointed out the story in a newspaper yesterday.”
“I’ve never seen the programme or know how it works and certainly don’t want to appear on it. The story is being reported everywhere as if it’s fact, but it’s a complete fabrication and I wanted to make that clear.”
The only harm done really was that Torres probably has a new nickname at Melwood as a result. More people will have heard the original story than heard his response, and no doubt some commentator will refer to it on a frosty day’s fixture in a few years. The Daily Star didn’t even mention his response, let alone apologise for their original story or explain how it came about.
That story hit the press in the same week as another one about Liverpool keeper Pepe Reina, and had it gained enough credibility it would have been much more harmful to Liverpool than a claim about a player wanting to be an ice dancer.
In this case it was more a case of carefully-chosen words than a completely made-up story. But the principle is the same.
The story carried a quote from Pepe’s dad, himself a former keeper. Miguel Reina played for Atlético Madrid when Pepe was a child.
But before it got to the quote the article said: “Liverpool face a big fight to stop keeper Pepe Reina leaving the club for Atletico Madrid. Reina is keen to return to Spain for family reasons, although the Anfield club had hoped to delay any move for many years.”
For Liverpool fans, if one of the club’s most important players is itching to go home then that’s quite a bombshell. The article then quoted Reina’s dad: “Pepe is crazy about playing for Atletico and I will try to convince him to move as soon as possible.”
Now that didn’t quite seem to be saying the same thing as the words that had come before it.
It’s almost certain that Pepe loves the idea of playing for his boyhood club one day. Most players would. Craig Bellamy and Robbie Keane wanted to, even if it didn’t work out as they’d hoped. And – with all due respect to Atlético – if it’s a move to a club not quite as high in the pecking order as their current club, it’s likely to be a move they’d want to make late in their careers. No doubt Pepe and his dad have discussed that exact idea – but Miguel would love to see it happen sooner rather than later. As most dads surely would in his position.
The quote was given to Radio Marca in Spain, and a fuller version of the translation read: “My son has seen the red and white colours since he was small and he would love to play for Atletico. This weekend I am going to see him and I will talk to him about it. Pepe is crazy about playing for Atletico and I will try to convince him so that he does it as soon as possible.”
So Pepe’s dad was going to see if he could work on his son, to see if he could persuade him to move back to Spain sooner rather than later. And Pepe does want to play for Atlético one day.
But the article didn’t really make it sound like that. “Family reasons” makes it sound like there’s some crisis back home. And rumours doing the rounds often claim that either his wife is unhappy here or that he is homesick. That rumour does the rounds with any non-Scouse Red.
Rather than letting it grow from a bit of twisting of words into a full-blown “Pepe wants to go home” story, Reina Junior felt it important to clarify what the true story was.
He said: “It’s my father who made this declaration because he wants me to play for Atletico, but as far as I’m concerned, I don’t. If one day I was to think of moving back to Spanish football, Atletico would be my first option because it’s a club I have a lot of affection for.
“Nevertheless, saying that I want to move to Atletico right now is wrong because I’m happy at Liverpool.”
It wasn’t even Pepe’s dad who said he wanted to move to Atlético now. But still, Pepe couldn’t have made it much clearer. He’s happy at Anfield.
It was actually refreshing to see people from this club speaking out to put the media right. We need to do it a lot more.
So much of what we’ve read in the last 12-18 months about the owners, potential buyers and the manager has been reported with as much truth behind it as those two stories. It becomes more and more difficult to find the truth. In fact we’ll probably miss the truth, when it does come out, as yet another boy cries wolf.
Stories on the ownership situation are losing credibility all the time, mainly because nobody – not even the two owners – is really sure what’s going to happen next.
Most of last year’s stories about that situation were fuelled by the aims of one involved party or other. Liars accused liars of lying, and were often lying as they did it. Some of them turned out to be all mouth, as the saying goes. Even those who seemed to have no motive than to do some good for the club would be working on trying to boost their reputation, and in turn the fee they could charge for interviews.
Armed with all that double-dealing, papers had no problems at all in adding extra twists when it suited.
Stories about the manager probably deserve even less credibility than many of those relating to the ownership.
In many ways Rafa Benítez doesn’t help himself. He could sometimes do with either saying nothing at all, or just telling it how it is. When he drops cryptic hints, it leaves so much room for interpretation that he can’t really expect the truth to be told.
There are, without doubt, a lot of people looking to see him fall from grace. Inside and outside the club. Inside and outside the fanbase.
It was no surprise that the impact of his outburst about Alex Ferguson was overplayed.
Liverpool had played more games than United when he spoke out, so regardless of how Liverpool performed United could close the gap by six points without Liverpool kicking a ball. But although that doesn’t account for the points dropped in drawn games, it does make it somewhat misleading to blame the outburst for the whole of the difference in points now compared to then.
Few people argued with what Rafa actually said about how United are treated by the FA and referees – but few people really expected the FA to respond to the points raised. By not charging Rafa over what he said, the FA avoided evidence being brought up that might leave them having to answer some questions themselves. And although it was hardly done in a nice way, and probably overplayed itself, Steve Bennett has been punished for some comments recorded by undercover reporters. The referee Rafa found the most unbelievable where United were concerned has allegedly been told he won’t be asked to referee at the top level next season.
Rafa was criticised, mocked even, for the Robbie Keane saga. But that whole situation has been full of claim and counter-claim, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever hear the full story. What doesn’t seem to have been denied is that Rafa thought he was getting both Keane and Barry, and that he’d have sacrificed Keane if he’d known he was only going to get one of the two. Whether he also felt Keane was overpriced isn’t clear, nor is it clear if his treatment of Keane was down to Keane’s attitude and form or his own anger at the way he lost out on Barry.
Whatever happened, when transfers go wrong it’s the manager who gets blamed.
Liverpool aren’t going out buying Rafa players he’s never asked for, but he understandably feels frustration when he’s not allowed to prioritise which of his targets to go for first. He feels frustration when delays before following talks up lead to players going to other clubs, or fees going through the roof. He feels frustration that he’s powerless to stop this happening.
And that has been an issue for him since before the current owners arrived. It was something they were told the first time they met him.
It seems they didn’t actually believe him. It was his word against Rick Parry’s. Whether they took Parry’s side or stayed neutral, they didn’t believe him. But he was determined they would believe him, one day.
That determination eventually played a part in the owners approaching Klinsmann and the whole storm of him “concentrating on coaching”. It wasn’t until he finally got to explain all of this face-to-face, in front of the whole board, including Parry, that he finally seemed to get anyone’s attention.
It was at some point after that meeting that the two owners stopped working with each other. Did Hicks begin to support Rafa as a result of his dispute with Gillett? Or did the dispute begin because Hicks felt Gillett was wrong about Rafa? We can only speculate until somebody puts their hands up and tells us, and the owners have never said publicly why they actually fell out with each other.
But they are still at odds, and their relationship is strictly professional. Gillett still wants out, but there aren’t any buyers. Hicks still wants to stay, but doesn’t seem to be able to find a partner to help him buy Gillett out. If he can’t find a way of getting control, he might just be tempted to sell his half too, against all he’s said before, but there just aren’t any serious buyers around.
The lack of a decent working relationship between the owners is helping those with an axe to grind against Rafa. And one of the owners still has an axe to grind against Rafa.
Hicks has publicly supported Rafa ever since they got over that Klinsmann-related row. Cynics might say he’s doing that for the wrong reasons, but whatever his reasons he is behind Rafa about as much as he can be. Hicks and Rafa haven’t had a bad word to say about each other since the turn of last year, not in public at least, and although it’s pretty much a professional relationship it is relatively amiable.
Gillett has had problems with Rafa that pre-date that meeting with Klinsmann. His views on Rafa haven’t weakened at all in the time that’s passed. In fact Gillett’s views on Rafa are completely at odds with Gillett agreeing for Rafa to get a new contract.
It seems remarkable that Rafa has even been offered a new deal, let alone one that includes many of the clauses and conditions he’s asked for.
But it actually confirms a little more that Gillett is looking for a way out.
Fans will argue all day about what will happen if Rafa leaves.
Some believe that Jose Mourinho will come running, accept the challenge on offer, with the limited budget included, and turn Liverpool into Champions by the end of his first full season, glossing over the fact he’s guilty of many of the little annoyances that they use as weight in their “sack Rafa” arguments.
Others think that it would lead to an exodus of the best players and a serious risk of the club dropping out of the top places in the table and spiralling towards doom.
It would take a massive amount of luck for a new manager to improve on Rafa’s work enough for it to almost guarantee the league. And if that amount of luck was around, Rafa would win the league with it himself. Dropping out of the top four is certainly possible though, even Arsenal have seen how possible this season, and their manager is some kind of hero to many of Rafa’s critics.
When you look at the extremes in terms of how people predict the future should Rafa stay, those extremes are much closer. One set of fans argue he’ll win the league next season and to not write this one off just yet (even Jamie Carragher has said that about this season). The other set of fans will say he’ll never win the league as Liverpool boss, but they all admit he’ll win occasional silverware and keep the club in the top four.
And that’s almost certainly why Gillett is happy to give Rafa a contract, conditions apply.
Despite his personal differences, he clearly feels Rafa is the safer bet.
Yes, a new manager would have a big impact – but that big impact could just as easily be a big negative impact as a big positive one.
By keeping Rafa at the club, it guarantees (as much as it’s possible to in football) that Liverpool will stay in the top four and compete in the Champions League every season.
And with Gillett waiting for a buyer, he wants to see the club at least retain its position, and of course its value. Even if he has to sell in a way that see Hicks take control, he wants that to leave him with as much profit as possible.
We can say the same with Hicks. Whether it’s in the long-term or short-term, he came to Liverpool to make money. The more value the club has, the more money he’ll make when he does sell. The easier it will be to attract investors or convince banks if he wants to stay.
Rafa knows this. He’s in a strong position. And so he’s making sure his demands are met as much as possible.
Rafa knows that there really isn’t any way to tell how the future ownership of the club will go. And he wants a contract that works for him regardless.
We’ve read he wants a clause where he can leave without compensation being due if the club is sold to new owners.
I believe that this is inaccurate.
As is the idea that he’s trying to get a deal that makes it easy for him to go to Real when they decide they want him.
If Real wanted Rafa, they’d have no qualms about paying compensation to get him. They’ll negotiate a deal with Liverpool, and they’ll pay it. As they and other clubs have done before.
And if Rafa had already made it clear he wanted to leave, his position would be pretty untenable anyway. It’s a red herring, as is often the case.
Very few people really know what is preventing Rafa from signing his deal.
Maybe he’s got tired of some sections of the support joining in with the media in putting his every act under a microscope and twisting it into something different. Maybe the rumour he’s about to leave is actually accurate, because he really has had enough.
But that’s very doubtful, for now at least.
Rafa needs to work out if it’s better to let the press work with nothing, to work with something too small to use without twisting, or to work with something that is real but far too mundane compared to their often-crazy theories.
But it’s not just the press he has to contend with. And it’s difficult to see how a Liverpool fan can honestly say it’s good for the club to have fans lying in wait for any sightings of any slight chinks in Rafa’s armour before launching yet another attack on him. The best they’ll do is to make no difference, after that they can only really cause damage.
The press will keep at Rafa now until that contract is signed, they smell blood and they’re going for the kill.
But they don’t, on the whole, support Liverpool.
And believe it or not, Liverpool are actually playing a game tonight. One that would have seen us classed as underdogs a few years ago. If we’re underdogs now, it’s because of the external pressures that are being placed on the manager and his players. Apart from that, we’re on a par with the big clubs in Europe again. We’re capable of beating any of them – but shouldn’t be condemned if once in a while one of them gets the upper hand.
But if we don’t stop this civil war, the one that far too many fans are fighting in, we’ll only be able to play those big European sides in friendlies.
If you can’t be friendly, if you can’t enjoy this hobby that must cost you a fair percentage of your spare cash, maybe it’s time to see if, unlike Fernando, you are more suited to Dancing On Ice. Maybe it’s time to join your local Amateur Dramatic group. Maybe you just need a little bit of a rest from it all, a break to think again just what football is supposed to be all about.
If we can’t enjoy the build-up to a match like tonight, something has gone badly wrong. Although by the time you’ve read this, there’ll be no build-up left!