Roy Hodgson will take charge of his first game as Liverpool manager tonight and finally there’ll be something other than his CV to judge him on.
Except judging him on the performance of a team made up mainly of reserves and youngsters against the champions of Saudi Arabia, in pre-season, is obviously unfair. If it was the whole of the first team squad in action it would still just be a practice match that had more to do with getting players to fitness than trying out new tactics. It wasn’t set up on the basis of finding the right kind of opposition at the right time for the squad to get into the swing of pre-season. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to work out some of the reasons why “the Club” might want a bit of exposure in Saudi Arabia.
The Club seem more determined than ever to paint over the cracks in order to present a picture of harmony and professionalism that is most certainly still not there at the club. It must be stressed that this is not the fault of Hodgson; there is absolutely nothing to suggest he’ll be anything less than professional in his role as “manager” of the Reds. He’s determined to do his best with whatever resources and control he’s given and that is how he must be judged.
What might prove difficult is working out exactly what those resources are. We know the club have lied and misled us in the past and absolutely nothing has changed at the club to make that any less likely to happen again. Roy’s willingness to work with whatever he is given undoubtedly did him no harm when being considered for the job, but were the club also hoping he’d “keep ‘mum’” about anything that they might prefer to be kept quiet?
Well maybe that’s where it starts to get interesting. It’s early days yet but already there are signs of Roy standing up to those above him in the Club’s hierarchy. There are signs he is making sure he’ll not be the puppet or patsy that so many people predicted he would be. And if that is what he’s doing, he’s also doing it without fuss.
Yesterday he was asked about the futures of the club’s most financially valuable players. He dropped a hint that Gerrard may have already been spoken to about a possible move away: “Clubs can get into players’ ears and make promises. It destabilises the club and the players and we can’t do anything about it.” Roy certainly wasn’t born yesterday and knows how agents and club boardrooms operate. He’ll have seen quotes made earlier in the week by someone working for Real Madrid suggesting that Liverpool had named their price – albeit a high one – for Gerrard. Rather than an emphatic “no”, it suggests Real (or any other club looking at the player) have been given a starting point for the negotiations. If such discussions have taken place, nobody at Anfield has told the manager: “What we haven’t had is a club wanting to buy Steven Gerrard,” said Hodgson.
He also said he didn’t want to sell Torres, but then he also made sure the press were aware that it wasn’t him who’d had the final word with the World Cup winner: “Christian Purslow was also at the meeting and chatted to Fernando for a lot longer after I left but my chat with him was only about football matters.” What was the MD’s chat about? Torres has a long and lucrative contract that doesn’t need to be extended, so it certainly wasn’t that and Martin Broughton is the board member dealing with the sale process being run by Barclays Capital.
A week before Hodgson was officially announced as the new manager the MD spoke to the Italian media, in what fans who took his words at face value thought was an assurance the board wouldn’t instigate any transfer deals in the absence of a manager: “At this moment the only objective of the club is to find a new coach and then to evaluate the whole roster of players with him. I cannot confirm the interest of Fiorentina for Insua, even if in Italy he is highly regarded, for example at Lazio who often came to see him in person last season. I don’t think the player wants to leave Liverpool. When and where he’ll do this request, regardless of the difficulties of the club, we’ll talk.”
Yet any hopes of the club avoiding starting any transfer business when still without a manager were dashed when the new manager spoke to Italian media himself last week. Hodgson said a deal to sell Insua to Fiorentina was already in progress before he arrived: “I saw him play in the last three days and I like him both as a player and on a personal level. However, talks with Fiorentina started before I got here, so I don’t know how advanced they are. I cannot say if Insua will stay at Liverpool or not. I’ll have to discuss that with the club.”
And whatever Hodgson wanted, it now seems certain that Insua has played his last game for the club. A €5m bid is believed to have been accepted and the young left-back is not in the side for tonight’s friendly.
It isn’t just outgoing players that Hodgson is distancing himself from. Strong speculation that Nice striker Loic Remy was due to become the club’s latest signing was played down by Hodgson, who made it clear if it happened it would be nothing to do with him: “He’s a player who was mentioned to me by the scouting department and a player the club were following before I came. He’s a player I know very little about. If I am going to be interested in a player I am going to have to watch him playing, study him and make judgments which I have not been able to.”
Remy himself seems to think there is strong interest from the club: “Liverpool is a legendary club. I am very excited by the thought of playing there. It has a magnificent stadium and a fantastic public.” Reports even go into details of how the potential fee might be paid – the total fee of £12.5m would be paid in instalments, the majority upfront with £5m of it to be paid later. This wouldn’t be the first rumour about potential transfer targets that proved to be unfounded; clubs and agents often link players with other clubs to help their own cause. But what will be interesting is how the club explain it all away should the transfer actually go through.
When Yossi Benayoun’s departure to Chelsea was officially confirmed a club spokesman issued a statement suggesting the deal was done before the previous manager had been sacked: “Yossi’s departure was agreed between the player and Rafael Benitez a number of weeks ago. Everybody at Liverpool FC wishes him well for the future.” There is little doubt that the club were still in a position to cancel the deal in the weeks between that earlier agreement and the deal actually going through over a month after the old manager’s departure. Was that option ever given to Hodgson?
But it’s not just the suggestions that the club have been instigating transfer talks without his input and before his arrival, he also couldn’t make his displeasure any clearer about tonight’s opening pre-season fixture: “I don’t know if I am looking forward to it because I would have liked my first game as Liverpool manager to have been in charge of what people would regard as a Liverpool team. There will be a lot of players playing tonight who are being thrust into first team action far, far too early. The average age of the team is about 20 and we’re playing the champions of Saudi Arabia, a team that does well in the AFC Champions League.”
“When choosing the level of opposition you should really choose a level which is suitable for the sort of team that you can put out. We don’t have enough senior first team players here to put out that type of team, and also it has come fairly early in our preparations.” After a season that was plagued by injury amongst all the other problems, the last thing Liverpool need this season is more of the same, but Hodgson suggests this match poses exactly that kind of risk: “We are working very hard physically and I have to be careful that in these games we don’t lose players before the start of the season.”
Maybe we’ve spent too long reading between the lines of the last manager’s comments, but if we are suspicious then it’s little surprise given the dishonesty the current hierarchy have displayed to each other, let alone to staff and supporters, during their acrimonious reign. Until the club is sold and certain board members depart that suspicion will always remain.