When Liverpool lost on Saturday it was in the kind of circumstances that should have afforded the manager some sympathy. But with five defeats out of eleven league games, six defeats in the last seven games, any sympathy is going to be drowned out by the noise from the critics.
The media, and in particular the back pages of the tabloids, always need to have a manager they can stick their claws into and claim is on the brink of losing his job. They find a man who is down, and stick the boot in over and over again. They don’t stop until either his career at that club is killed off or he finds the strength – and results – to fight his way out. At the moment they’ve only got Phil Brown to distract them from their pursuit of Rafa.
There’s also a core pack of critics amongst Liverpool’s support who have been calling for Rafa’s head almost as long as he’s been the boss at Anfield. It’s so long since they started their campaign that it’s unlikely they can remember why it started; they want blood and it’s instinct driving them towards it.
As well as the founders of that group there are the others who joined at different times during his tenure, for reasons that can no longer really be used to justify their constant sniping. They just don’t like the man, even if they protest otherwise, and constantly have to find fault with him to justify their calls for his head.
Times like now are like manna from heaven for them.
It has to be pointed out that this doesn’t apply to all the Liverpool supporters who are critical of Rafa. Some are just following the words they read in the back of their tabloids, they just believe every word they read and take it all at face value. But Rafa is not above criticism, he does get things wrong and some of the more critical Rafa supporters can point this out without losing any balance in what they say. They would happily sit and talk to Rafa and explain their criticisms to him, they could look him in the eye and tell him straight why they think he needs to do certain things a different way, or to stop doing other things altogether.
And if at some point they felt he was getting more wrong than right, that it was time to admit it really wasn’t working out, they could face him, look him in the eye and tell him this.
Those critics are worth listening to. They want Liverpool to win things. They want Liverpool win things. The rest are cowards, bullies even, and they long ago stopped putting the club ahead of their own egos.
If Rafa left now the bullies would consider it a victory, whatever happened to Liverpool after that.
Liverpool start to recover on the field – that’s because Rafa’s gone. Liverpool stay the same – that’s because Rafa broke it. Liverpool start to plummet – that’s also because Rafa broke it. They’d certainly never admit their own part in breaking it.
This season has been terrible, there’s no getting away from that. The only consolation is that the other three sides out of last season’s top four have also been losing games, although not as many. Chelsea got beaten by Wigan, Manchester United got beaten by Burnley, there’s potential for more upsets yet.
But Liverpool need to concentrate on their own games, their own fixtures, and to look at the genuine causes for the poor results.
And that’s something that group of bullies won’t do.
Liverpool lost on Saturday, that’s all the bullies needed to hear. They certainly don’t want to look at the circumstances surrounding the defeat, Rafa’s down and they want to keep kicking him.
But Liverpool went into that game with a massive list of sick and wounded. Players who weren’t missing through injury were missing because of flu. And Rafa had to gamble and use players who weren’t fully fit.
Fernando Torres was the most noticeable of the walking wounded. He’s already been rushed back early from an injury, playing against Manchester United the week before thanks to a pain-killing injection. During the week he’s believed to have been one of those who was hit by the virus sweeping the squad, under normal circumstances a player in that situation would not have even travelled to London, concentrating instead on getting into better shape for the next game. But these aren’t normal circumstances, Torres was patched-up, given another pain-killing injection and risked for one hour.
That hour was a pre-planned decision. It’s a risk to play him at all, but it becomes a calculated risk if some thought is given to how long he would stay on the field. If he’d stayed on the pitch he might have been okay, but common sense says that he’d be more likely to sustain a new injury or aggravate the existing one. How would he be after the injection had worn off?
Rafa revealed that he’d weighed up whether it was better to start with Torres or to leave him on the bench and bring him on later. But he’s damned whatever he does: “The question is, if you don’t play Torres from the beginning, you will be talking about why he is not playing, so it’s a difficult decision. We decided to start with him because he can do a proper warm-up but, after, we knew we needed to take him out at certain moments.”
Medical advice told Rafa that Torres had to limit how long he was on the pitch, but medical advice counts for nothing when the boo boys are in full flow. As Rafa says, if he’d kept Torres on the bench he’d have had flak for that too, but he didn’t opt to start with him just to keep the press and boo boys happy.
Those who criticised Rafa for withdrawing Torres 60 minutes in will be the first to condemn him if it turns out the risk resulted in Torres aggravating his injury and needing much more time on the sidelines.
But it wasn’t like Torres was Rafa’s only injury concern. He said: “The problem that we have with injuries means we have to play without Gerrard, without Torres, without Johnson, without Riera and without a lot of players in too many games.”
Gerrard may need surgery on his groin injury, Albert Riera is out with a hamstring strain. Johnson managed to play against Manchester United last weekend but really should have been rested due to a muscle tear, he’s now a doubt for Wednesday too. Martin Kelly filled in brilliantly for Johnson in the 2-1 defeat against Lyon at Anfield two weeks ago, but injured his ankle in the game and is still not available. His replacement on Saturday, Philipp Degen, isn’t in the Champions League squad and won’t be available for the next three league matches unless Liverpool win their appeal against his sending off.
Liverpool will also appeal Jamie Carragher’s red card, which attracts a one-match ban. Carragher won’t be banned for the Lyon game, but with Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger – their other two first-choice centre-backs – missing on Saturday because of injury or illness, they really need that appeal to succeed. It still leaves them short for Wednesday.
Fábio Aurélio was another player in Liverpool’s sick-bay on Saturday, as was scorer of Liverpool’s second last weekend David Ngog. Sub-goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri had flu and so Liverpool had 19-year-old Hungarian Peter Gulacsi on the bench on Saturday. Alberto Aquilani was going to be on the bench on Saturday as he started to progress towards full recovery from ankle surgery – but he also came down with flu.
Vice-captain Carragher backed his manager over his sparing use of Fernando Torres: “We’re aware that Fernando has a lot of problems with injury at the moment. We’ve seen what has happened with Steven Gerrard. The manager and the physios know that the longer Fernando stays on the pitch, the more chance there is of him getting further injured. If Fernando’s injury had got worse at the end then we would have virtually no one for Wednesday.”
The critics still claim that injuries are no excuse, especially if anyone mentions the fact that injuries have plagued Liverpool for the whole season. For some reason the absence of key players like Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Daniel Agger, Martin Skrtel, Glen Johnson and others throughout the season is irrelevant, Liverpool should be able to manage.
Yet many of the critics claim all Liverpool’s ills can be attributed to Rafa selling Xabi Alonso. Not only do they ignore the fact that Xabi dug his heels in about a move, they claim he’s the difference between this season and last. But mention the absence of any of those other key players, through injury, and that’s clutching at straws. Surely if the absence of Xabi is such a difference they have to accept that the other injuries have had as much of an impact, particularly when Gerrard and Torres are missing or playing in pain.
Carra reminded supporters that they aren’t alone in their despair over this awful start to the season: “This is un-Liverpool like, but it is not just the fans who are disappointed, it is the players, the staff and manager.”
He was asked his opinions on the two red cards Liverpool got: “I thought Degen’s red card was a bit harsh, he didn’t go in two-footed. With mine I felt it was wrong at the time and I felt I got a toe to the ball. The referee was not in the greatest position and it is always a dead giveaway when the player you are tackling says at the time that I won the ball. Zamora actually turned to me and said I had won the ball, so that says it all.”
Even Roy Hodgson, Fulham boss, suggested it shouldn’t have been a red for Degen: “It was a lunging tackle, but it wasn’t dangerous because Dempsey did so well to get out of the way. I don’t think there was anything vicious about it. Had he not been sent off I certainly wouldn’t have been protesting.”
Rafa knows he’s got problems to deal with that are of his own making. He knows that money provided for transfers this year has been well below what was expected. He knows that if his changes at Academy level are to work it will take time. He sees players he knows are playing below their best. Whether it’s due to illness, injury, a lack of confidence or just a lack of effort is something he would like to address – but at the moment he’s struggling to find enough fit players.
The back-pages, with a few exceptions, care more about their headlines and sales than they do about Liverpool. That’s understandable, and nobody would expect anything different. That’s their justification for whipping up a storm and glossing over facts to paint a picture that fits with what they want – Rafa out.
But supporters surely want what’s best for Liverpool. If that’s the case, they need to stop using tabloid tactics to force Rafa out and start using some honest and well-thought-out reasons instead. Could they look Rafa in the eye with their reasons? Could they sit with Kenny Dalglish and give those same reasons without feeling they’d misled the club’s King? Could they look at themselves in the mirror if he left and the problems carried on, just with a different manager to blame for them?
It’s time to remember that supporting a club is about more than just showing off to friends about how big a fan you are, how many shirts you’ve bought or boycotted, or how you can memorise old squad numbers. It’s about caring for that club, and the people who work for it, and unless you’ve got some clear proof they’re going out of their way to harm that club on purpose then criticism needs to be constructive, and of the kind that you’d willingly say to their face.
These are testing times, not just for the manager and his players but for all of us. We need to start sticking together.
Fulham: 1 Schwarzer, 3 Konchesky, 4 Pantsil, 5 Hangeland, 6 Baird, 18 Hughes, 16 Duff (10 Nevland, 46), 23 Dempsey, 27 Greening (20 Etuhu, 86), 15 Kamara (11 Gera, 46), 25 Zamora
Subs: 19 Zuberbuhler, 2 Kelly, 26 Smalling, 17 Riise
Goals: Zamora 24, Nevland 73, Dempsey 87
Liverpool: 25 Reina, 27 Degen, 16 Kyrgiakos, 23 Carragher, 22 Insua, 20 Mascherano, 21 Lucas, 15 Benayoun (39 Eccleston, 78), 10 Voronin, 18 Kuyt (40 Ayala, 85), 9 Torres (19, Babel 63)
Subs: 42 Gulacsi, 38 Dossena, 26 Spearing, 28 Plessis
Sent off: Degen, Carragher
Goal: Torres 42
Referee: Lee Mason