Debates about whether or not Rafael Benítez should still be Liverpool manager will rage on for as long as there is anything to use as proof for one side or other of the argument. He’s gone, but the debate about him hasn’t. And now there’s a debate about whether his replacement should be the last manager to win the league for Liverpool, Kenny Dalglish.
With Benitez, his performance for Inter will be used as proof he wasn’t good enough. Inter fans themselves won’t expect a repeat of the treble that Jose Mourinho left them with; Mourinho himself wouldn’t have expected to repeat the feat if he’d stayed. Expectations will be reasonable. But the usual elements of the English media and the hardcore extreme critics of Benítez amongst the Liverpool support will use it as proof of how poor he is.
A week ago, as we waited the official announcement of the news we knew was on its way, it became clear that next season was going to be no better than this when it came to the quality of internet and phone-in debate. Whatever Benítez was doing in his new job, if he took one, back in the Premier League every single Liverpool result would be used as proof that Rafa should have been sacked a long time ago, or that the club should have fought tooth and nail to keep him.
Those with points of view somewhere in the middle would have been found rocking quietly in a corner somewhere, peeping through fingers at the site of the last of the family silver being loaded onto trucks headed to the airport for a BA flight to the USA, stopping off at RBS and Midocean Partners on the way.
This article isn’t here to defend or to attack Benítez. He’s gone, he won’t be coming back – other than to make offers for players or staff he knows the club would struggle to refuse – and Liverpool fans have to move on too.
The extremists will never change their minds, but those who only became extreme in their own views the longer the extremists raged at them have to step back and consider whether it’s more important to defend their reputation for being right about Rafa, or more important to try and defend their club from the massive dangers it faces.
Criticism of the board has to be seen as that – criticism of the board, not a defence of Rafa. Praise for the next manager has to be seen as that – praise for the new boss not criticism of the old.
But that is far, far easier to say than it is to do.
By the time Houllier left, few people actually felt he should have stayed. The people who’d been critical of the outsider and foreigner from day one were glad to see him gone, and immediately set about complaining about the new outsider and foreigner. On the whole the early critics of Rafa’s were not fans of Houllier’s either.
This won’t be the case for the new manager. Last Wednesday morning it was impossible to say what the true split of fans was in terms of thinking Rafa should stay or go. The split would have been far more obvious, however, if you’d worded the question more along the lines of “Can we carry on like this?” Nobody felt it was right to carry on like we were; the difference of opinion was what should be removed first. But whatever the fans wanted, it was never going to be their decision.
The reason it could never be the fans’ decision was because the fans were so divided.
It was next-to-impossible for the club to sack the manager in the winter of discontent in 2007-08. By 2010 the new board could see that the supporters would just continue to argue amongst themselves if they sacked the manager or not. Instead of ‘Rafa must stay/go’ it would become ‘Rafa should/shouldn’t have gone’.
The point isn’t so much about whether they made the right decision. The point is they knew they could make any decision they wanted to without really worrying too much about the fallout.
And that is the most dangerous aspect of what has gone on for the past year.
Although fans didn’t have the power to do everything they’d like, they felt like they had power two years ago. Differences were put aside to allow one, large, powerful voice to send a message to the owners.
The power of that voice was still strong just over a year ago. Not as strong as it could be, but strong enough to see Benítez given a new contract and Parry let go in the name of trying to make things look a little rosier to the lenders. The picture they tried to portray was one that had the manager the fans wanted in place for five more years. To keep him happy, the CEO he’d clashed with so many times was replaced by a temporary one who could speak Spanish, negotiate transfer deals quickly and would hold the fort until a permanent CEO was appointed. Fans were about as happy as they could be with all the other concerns hanging over the club.
By the time the season ended it was hard for the manager’s critics to justify much of their criticism; a strong finish had left them in second place after the club’s first serious title challenge in years and Alex Ferguson really had been rattled, to the extent of having to call on Sam Allardyce to pretend to be upset. Liverpool didn’t win the league, but they nearly did. And they hammered the Mancs too in the process. Make no bones about it, Ferguson was worried. He knew he was going to lose his best player and here were Liverpool closing the gap.
He needn’t have worried though. Liverpool would widen the gap themselves, leaving it far wider than it had been for some time. A long, long list of factors can be put forward as having played a part, and although Benítez has gone a large part of that list didn’t go with him.
Unfortunately, despite the critics he had in this country, Benítez was one of the finest coaches in Europe but he will not be replaced by a coach in the same class. Before the critics interject, Benítez was one of those coaches that big club will pay big money to hire.
Could anyone imagine Manchester United or Chelsea head-hunting Roy Hodgson if they needed a new manager this summer? Would Real Madrid or Inter Milan try to persuade Randy Lerner to let them speak to Martin O’Neill? Liverpool are looking at coaches the big clubs wouldn’t even think of approaching. And unless Liverpool want to stop being described as a big club this is one of the most vital summers in years.
To put it simply, Liverpool can’t afford a top coach. So it’s time to gamble. Either it’s time to see if one of those coaches not on the A-list can become a top, world-class coach, or it’s time to look at the only other option open to us.
Kenny was an A-list coach, and then over time he stepped away from coaching. But he has made it clear he desperately wants the Liverpool job. He made it clear after seeing the list of candidates. He won’t have made that decision without first talking to people who are good, knowledgeable, football people.
The board asked him to help find a successor. He did; himself. But he’s too modest to say it.
But surely he’s the best option on the table.
He’s no more of a gamble (due to his time away from the game) than any of the others (due to their inexperience at the levels Liverpool aim to be at).
He knows which young players are showing promise, he knows which first team members are disruptive and need to be moved on. He knows which players are best to sacrifice if funds need to be raised.
And he’s a hell of a diplomat.
If he has problems with the board, he’ll talk them round and he won’t sulk if he doesn’t manage it. He’ll also have much more patience from fans. It would take some effort to spread false rumours about Kenny that put him in a bad light, too much for anyone to even try.
And people are worried that failure could ruin his legendary status. That people would lose their respect for him and that it would be too much to bear to see Kenny’s reputation in shatters.
Yet that should be the most compelling reason to push for him to get the job.
First of all, who’s to say he’ll fail?
Secondly, whose reputation is it? It’s not ours, it’s his. And he wants to put it on the line, he wants to risk it. He could spend the rest of his life sitting in the director’s box and enjoying the corporate dinners. But he’s spent a year up there, taking it all in, working it all out, getting it all sorted out in his own head. He wants to dig his tracksuit out and get back to where he belongs.
He wouldn’t ask if he didn’t think he could do it.
And if Kenny thinks he can do it, it’s the least the club can do for him. And the least the fans can do for him is to push for his appointment and get right behind him.