Liverpool Football Club lost their fourth game in a row on Tuesday night, for the first time in 22 years.
The snipers who’d gone into hiding when Liverpool thumped Manchester United 4-1 last season, staying there throughout the run that saw Liverpool finish second, seemed somehow glad to be able to show their faces again. More and more have come out of hiding as the season has gone from bad to worse.
As well as the snipers who only seem to appear during the bad times, seemingly unable to enjoy the good times, a lot of those fans who are there regardless of the results are starting to get restless. Somebody needs to be blamed for the problems, and for many of those now shouting about the situation the answer is as simple as swapping Rafael Benítez for another manager.
Ironically a lot of those who are recommending this ‘simple’ change justify it by comparing Rafa to his predecessor Gerard Houllier. But if swapping Houllier for Rafa hasn’t worked, why would swapping Rafa for the latest flavour of the month work? Especially if that flavour of the month finds he’s had to take a drop in his own wages to manage a club with expectations like Liverpool’s fans have – on a budget of a little less than nothing.
It’s understandable that people are looking at Rafa when they’re trying to find blame. Why is the Liverpool machine still not working like it used to? Is it as simple as swapping out that big component marked “manager” and installing a new one? Or should we first of all be looking at what is stopping that component from working as well as it did before it was installed here? Do we want to go the expense of changing it only to find the new version faces all the same problems and our machine still fails to work as well as we expect it to?
Comparisons with Houllier are easy, lazy almost, but don’t particularly help anyone. Those who go into hiding during the good times started to make that comparison as soon as they realised both Houllier and Benítez were foreign.
If you’re trying to fix a machine you don’t usually compare it to a broken one. You compare it to one that works, you find the differences and you hopefully find what needs to be changed, tweaked or reset.
The last time Liverpool lost four games in a row was when the manager was Kenny Dalglish. Liverpool had been a well-oiled machine since Bill Shankly first turned them into one in the sixties. When he stepped aside Bob Paisley stepped into his shoes and because the rest of the machine worked so well he was able to not only continue what his predecessor had done but improve on it.
Paisley stepped aside for Fagan, Fagan stepped aside for Dalglish. In Dalglish’s first season as manager he won the double, winning the FA Cup – a trophy Bob Paisley never won during his time as Reds boss.
But Kenny’s second season wasn’t quite as good. Liverpool fans stood by him, but the press and fans of other clubs were suggesting he’d only won the double in his first season because he’d inherited a squad that could more or less manage itself.
The Reds found out early that they’d not be retaining the FA Cup after going out in the third round in controversial circumstances.
They were held to a goalless draw on Luton’s awful plastic pitch and so a replay was required at Anfield. Luton’s supporters travelled up to Liverpool in bad weather to watch the replay – but their players weren’t quite so dedicated and simply didn’t make it. They’d left it too late and were stranded in Luton because of the snow. The game was called off.
Liverpool were unhappy with the arrangements for the rearranged fixture. Two days after playing a league game on the Saturday they had to play Luton in that replay. It was another goalless draw and at that time it meant another replay would be required. That was scheduled another 48 hours later, down in Luton, and a tired Liverpool side were beaten 3-0 and sent out of the cup.
Of course Liverpool fans directed their anger at the FA for allowing the situation to develop that way; it never really crossed anyone’s mind to criticise Kenny.
It doesn’t take a great deal of imagination to picture how that kind of defeat would be received today. Liverpool had failed to score in 270 minutes of football against Luton, and then got hammered 3-0 in the last game. Luton were in the top flight then but hardly a major force. It would just be an excuse to blame fixture congestion, after all both sides had the same amount of time between games. And if those players can’t play on a plastic pitch in front of only home fans why is the manager even picking them? Why did he buy them for that matter?
The next game for that side wasn’t great either. It was the first-leg of the League Cup semi-final and it ended goalless away to Southampton. Again Liverpool had failed to score. 360 minutes without a goal.
But Kenny was the manager at the time, and of course Kenny had earned a huge amount of respect thanks to his exploits on the field let alone off them, so by and large any criticism was constructive and venom was mainly reserved for the managers and players of other clubs, not our own.
Liverpool won the next game 4-3. Today that might be classed as a lucky win, but at the time it was enjoyed for what it was. All those games without a goal were forgotten. Liverpool got four in one game, three of them from Ian Rush.
Even mention of the scorer of the hat-trick would lead to criticism in today’s climate. Rush was in his last season before leaving for Juventus. Such an important player, yet he was going to be allowed to leave. The critics of today would put that down to the manager, for forcing the player out or for not trying hard enough to keep him.
The 4-3 might have ended the goal drought, but it didn’t lead to a run of wins. Liverpool drew the next game 2-2 at Villa Park and again, in today’s climate, the complaints about the dropped points would be heard long into the night.
The patchy spell did come to an end a few days later when Liverpool won what would be the first of six wins in a row. It was a 3-0 win at home to Southampton, a win that sent them to Wembley for the League Cup final. Not quite as glamorous as the FA Cup, but a trip to Wembley for some silverware nonetheless.
In today’s climate those snipers would be mysteriously silent – if there’s nothing to complain about there’s nothing to say.
That run of six wins ended when Liverpool lost at White Hart Lane late in March. That defeat was the first of the four defeats in a row, the run that has taken 22 years to be repeated. The second defeat was at Anfield against Wimbledon and was hardly the ideal preparation for the next game – the League Cup final.
That final was against Arsenal, and when Ian Rush scored after 23 minutes it looked like a formality for the Reds. Everybody knew that whenever Ian Rush had scored in a game for Liverpool they had never lost, a record that had lasted for seven years. Unfortunately that was the day that record came to an end. Arsenal won 2-1.
At the time it was of course disappointing, it was a long and subdued coach journey home after losing, but eventually fans would stop feeling sorry for themselves and sing about winning the league (again) instead – “and now you’re gonna believe us”.
Unfortunately a week later those hopes were dashed again. Rush’s special record was now gone, and as if to prove the previous defeat wasn’t just an exception to prove a rule he scored – and lost – against Norwich. That was four straight defeats for Liverpool.
Kenny still got support from the fans. Nobody accused him of jinxing Rush’s record by making him leave at the end of the season. Rush was respected for his decision to move on. Kenny was respected for his decision not to stand in his way. Would that be the same today?
After that run of four games Liverpool had six more games left, of which they won three and lost two. They dropped eight points in those last six games and ended the season in second place, finishing runners up to bitter (not quite so bitter then) rivals Everton.
There was no prize of a Champions League place for finishing second in 1987. There was no European football for English sides then anyway. The FA Cup’s stay in the trophy room was over; the League Cup didn’t come back. Liverpool had ended the season without a trophy, only the second time since 1975. And perhaps worst of all, they had to endure a year of boasting from the blue lot.
But, of course, nobody was angry with Dalglish. He’d done his best. Sometimes it didn’t quite work out, sometimes he’d made mistakes and sometimes he’d had bad luck; but he had the complete trust of the fans, people who recognised that games are sometimes lost because the other side are good, not because your own side is poor.
That meant Kenny was still in place in time for the following season. No public hints from major shareholders that suggested they would like a change of manager. No public spats or hints of rifts between any members of the board. And the support from the hierarchy at the club was only outdone by the support from the fans, who were firmly behind “The King”. They trusted him to sort things out; they let him get on with doing so.
And Kenny repaid that trust and that faith the following season. Almost 12 months to the day of that fourth defeat in a row against Norwich, Liverpool beat Nottingham Forest 5-0 in a game widely regarded as being a master class in how football should be played. It was one standout moment in a season they ended as champions, thanks in no small part to the 26 league goals scored by Rush’s replacement, John Aldridge.
They lost in the FA Cup final to underdogs Wimbledon, but as big a blow as that was it would never eclipse the delight of winning the league. To this day it remains the one prize that Liverpool fans want above all else, and that’s why so many fans feel so unhappy when Liverpool have bad spells in the league.
But if the fans of 1987 had been as venomous as the fans of 2009, would Kenny have been there to win it in 1988 (and 1990)? Would 1987 have been seen as just not good enough?
What did Kenny do to put it right in 1988? How did he turn a patchy season and second place into a season finishing top with only a bit of bad luck stopping it being a double?
As 1986-87 ended Liverpool fans would be wondering how it could be any better the following season if Ian Rush wasn’t going to be there to rescue them. Kenny came up with the answer.
He signed John Aldridge for £750,000 as a more or less straight replacement for Rushie – but had he left it at that the squad would not really have been an improvement on the one that had stuttered during the previous season.
He didn’t leave it at that though, he made two more signings that turned out to be two of the most important signings Liverpool have made.
John Barnes was signed for £900,000 and Peter Beardsley for a then-British-record of £1.9m to make sure that Aldridge would have the service and support he needed. The board had backed Dalglish by letting him make those signings, signings that added up to more than the £3m Juventus had paid for Rush at a time when TV rights were almost given away.
In some ways Rafa Benítez faced a similar situation with his squad in the summer of 2009. Xabi Alonso had left for Real Madrid, the side had finished second in the league the season before, Rafa needed do something to push that bit harder if he was to go one further and win the league.
And listening to comments from Benítez earlier this week, perhaps he’d tried to something similar to what Kenny did in the summer of 1987.
His replacement for Alonso was Alberto Aquilani. Unfortunately Liverpool signed the player knowing he’d not be available immediately as he was recovering from surgery, but the suggestion was that in return for having to wait until he could be used, Liverpool had got him at a lower price than he was worth. Time will tell.
Rafa also bought Glen Johnson, and clearly it was his attacking abilities that had caught Rafa’s eye. The deal was also done partly from funds that Portsmouth had still owed Liverpool and had been struggling to pay. Liverpool had needed a new right-back in any case with Arbeloa leaving in the summer.
Greek centre-back Kyrgiakos was signed as cover, at £1.5m he is handy to have in the squad but isn’t seen as anything more than the fourth-choice centre-back.
And that was the end of Rafa’s summer signings – but he spoke this week about a fourth target they’d been looking at buying. He never elaborated on why the player wasn’t signed, but all the signs are that Rafa just wasn’t given the funds to do it.
He’d had discussions with Valencia about buying David Silva earlier in the summer, and with Xabi Alonso eventually going for such a high fee many expected that Silva would be signed before the transfer window closed. But something seemed to change at the club, and despite statements to the contrary there remains a sense that Rafa’s funds were pulled at the eleventh hour.
For the first time ever, discussions about transfer funds were now including the costs of players’ improved contracts. But purely in terms of transfer fees Liverpool had more or less broken even, and that’s without taking into account any money left over from the previous summer’s budget as a result of selling Keane back to Spurs.
Silva was targeted as a player who could happily play in a number of attacking positions, a player who was highly rated by Rafa. A player who might have made the difference in some of those recent defeats.
In 1987 Kenny lost Rush but got Aldo, Barnes and Beardsley. He won the league.
In 2009 Rafa lost Xabi and got an injured Aquilani, Johnson and that was it.
Despite attempts to claim otherwise, it’s clear that at least one of the club’s owners is no fan of Rafa; recent comments attributed to him during a conversation with a supporter would do little more than undermine the manager.
Whatever their intentions individually or as a partnership, it seems clear that last summer the current owners were unable to deliver what Rafa needed in terms of funding. Public statements have been made to try and portray that everyone is happy, but Rafa seems more to have just accepted the situation than to have been happy about it.
Had Silva been in the squad at the start of the season Rafa might have put him into the position where Gerrard usually plays, dropping Gerrard deeper in place of Xabi until Aquilani was fit. Voronin had seemed set to leave the club, yet found himself retained having spent the previous season out on loan.
Liverpool’s owners need to find a way as soon as possible to get the money flowing in a way that gives the manager more than a break-even budget for transfers. If that means issuing new shares to in effect dilute their own share, or one of them selling his half and letting the other take control, or both of them selling up to new owners, something has to be done.
But in terms of the season we’re in, no amount of money will make a difference this side of Christmas. And with that in mind the support Rafa needs now is from his players and from the supporters.
If Kenny had been let down by the club’s owners in 1987, he’d still have had the fans on his side and he may still have pulled off the successes he did. Without the support of the fans he’d have struggled, he’d have felt demoralised and Liverpool’s decline could have started much sooner.
Rafa, and his players, need support from the fans. Constructive criticism where needed and praise when it’s due, but overall they need support.