Liverpool’s players are determined not to the let the off-field speculation continue to have such an impact on their on-field performances as it did in their last four games prior to Tom Hicks finally admitting the owners had indeed planned to sack Rafa Benitez should they fail to go through to the knock-out phase of the Champions League.
Before that, Liverpool had drawn four league games in succession, three in the league and one in the cup. The players were undeniably performing below their usual levels for large parts of each game, but there’s a view within the camp that the players should not blame the turmoil over ownership on the results.
Midfielder Xabi Alonso is the latest to say that what goes on outside the dressing room should not have any impact on the players’ performances, telling Setanta Sports: “You are playing for Liverpool and maybe you have lots of news around the club, around the manager, around the players. Whatever is said outside the changing room, it stays that way and we try to keep with the same idea and work as a unit. We think that is the best way of carrying on.”
There’s a feeling amongst the squad that by admitting there is a good reason for their poor performances, the players will continue to perform that way. They’ll not be able to break out of that train of thought until the turmoil is resolved – and there seems to be no rush for that from the owners.
Vice-captain Jamie Carragher said last week that he was wary of blaming off-field situations for on-field problems: “I think this is just an excuse – as it was at the start of the season to point to assistant boss Pako Ayesteran leaving when we were poor. The last nine or 10 games haven’t been good enough. We are all aware of what is going on but all we can do as players is concentrate on doing it on the pitch. Anything that goes on off it is nothing to do with us.”
Carra’s one of the few players not to put in a poor performance in recent games, perhaps because he is so determined not to let the DIC takeover bids and threats to Rafa’s future mess up his game: “I know some people say what happens off the pitch affects players – but it doesn’t affect me. Why should it? I am paid to play. Your wages are still coming in, you are still playing for Liverpool, so I don’t know why it should affect players.”
Liverpool managed to get back on track on Tuesday night by beating Luton 5-0 at the second attempt. It was a much-needed confidence booster. Tonight they face a potential rival for a top-four place in Aston Villa. A defeat for Liverpool would see them drop to seventh, which even with a game in hand would add pressure onto the manager and his players. Carra says the players have to put more effort into performing as expected: “We know we need to improve over the next few weeks. As players we have to take responsibility to sort things out on the pitch. We had a few bad results at the start of the season and everyone was talking. I said then you have to be strong mentally to play for Liverpool and that things happen off the pitch but you can’t let it affect you.”
Carra knows full well that the manager gets stick at times for his rotation policy and for playing players out of position, not to mention tactics that don’t seem appropriate for the opposition. Carra doesn’t hold with the view that Rafa has been distracted by recent events: “Rafa takes a bit of criticism for the teams he picks but we haven’t noticed a change in him. It has just kept on going as normal – we train and get on with it.”
Record-signing Fernando Torres spoke in the Spanish press about how he felt Rafa would remain at the club, despite that threat hanging over him: “It’s all a lie. Benitez will not leave and he will not be sacked. I can’t see that happening. I don’t think English football has lost its patience like it seems.”
Defender, and occasional winger, John Arne Riise was one who spoke out for Rafa last week, telling the Norwegian media: “It is sad that he has to experience what he has right now. The only way we can help him is by getting good results, to give him more confidence [from the owners].”
As well as that win over Luton, the players will have had a boost to team spirit thanks to their belated Christmas party. It was fancy dress, Gerrard going as an old man on a mobility scooter, Carra as the X Factor’s Rhyddian, Crouch as a penguin and Riise as batman, amongst others. The players got the next day off to recover.
Rafa himself feels that the off-field events might just have given team spirit a boost too. After months of innuendo and press reports, with selective denials of selected claims, it was pretty clear that Rafa’s future had been under threat. The admission on Monday by Hicks finally confirmed it, and so now there was no denying it. The players now knew without doubt why some (not all) of Rafa’s decisions had seemed odd.
He won’t speak too much about the disagreements, after being ordered not to, but felt able to say that his team were together more now: “It may have brought everyone closer together, for sure. There was unity on Tuesday – the team showed they were working together in the cup win. When you play well and score five goals after some draws, it shows the team spirit is much better and the confidence of the players can be higher.”
Rafa sees team spirit as a very important attribute for a successful team: “That’s one of the keys if you want to win trophies – you need a good team spirit. It’s easier when you are winning, so we need to win some games in a row and everything will be much better.”
So if Rafa can keep them from feeling demoralised, he might just be able to see the team go on a bit of a run: “I think there is a greater determination among the players now, and they showed character the other day. We played well, but it wasn’t just about winning, it was about scoring goals and playing good football.”
He was asked if the players had spoken about his treatment from Hicks and Gillett and the other rumours. He has to be careful how he answers these questiosn: “Yes, the other situation comes up briefly, but not too much, but usually I am in my office preparing the training and maybe five minutes before I’ll go and speak to the injured players and then go out on to the pitch and talk about what to do in the next game.”
He’s planning to at least try and make it harder to sack him by winning games: “I know the best answer as a manager is to win games, now, always and forever. If we can keep the team winning, it will be easier. We will try to do that. I think it will be easier if we do that, because people will talk about a Gerrard hat-trick or Carra playing 501 games.”
Rafa shares the traditional view that no single person is bigger than the club, he says the players should be playing for the sake of the club, not him: “At Liverpool, the most important thing is the club. I like to see my players winning games because it is for the supporters and for the club. The main thing is that when you go up to the stadium and hear the supporters you must always give 100%.”
Before the Klinsmann revelations and the Luton win some had started question if Rafa had, as the clichéd saying goes, ‘lost the dressing room’. It seems not: “The players and myself have a fantastic relationship. I didn’t go the Christmas party, but the relationship is good! We have spoken before about how important it is to do the right things for the club. We need to do our best for the club. The team needs to talk on the pitch. And it is important for me to do the best for my club also.”
Reports over the weekend once again spoke of Foster Gillett’s disappearance from Liverpool, and the relationship between Rafa and Hicks was described as being ‘like a Tinderbox’.
The official line, from Hicks at least, is that all the issues came to an end after the Manchester United game, when the meeting between the owners, the manager and Parry allowed all sides to put their views forward. Although the relationship could hardly have got much worse than the owners preparing to sack Rafa, he did say in last week’s interviews that at least they speak more often now: “Communication is much better now, it is true. After December 16 we have had meetings on a Monday and the communication is good. It is better.”
Rafa actually does feel that the off-field situation has hit performances on the field, but says that he and his squad must fight to stop it having any more of an impact. “The fans saw character and quality this week from the players. You cannot say that things off the pitch do not affect people, it is really difficult. The players know. And I have some experience in football of similar things. We must concentrate, win the games and keep going. It has certainly been different this season to the previous seasons I have had here. Everything has changed, but we must still try to do our best in the three competitions we have left.”
Tonight will see the supporters once again show their support for Rafa, but also to show their contempt for the owners. Gillett has cleverly stayed in the background during this mess, letting Hicks take all the heat, and Hicks is the main target of the fans’ fury.
Rafa really doesn’t know how long he has left at the club, Hicks’ claims now that he supports the manager not being anything like enough to convince anyone that Rafa’s going to get time to recover from the mess this season has been at times. But he’ll do all he can to bring some more glory to the fans he adores so much: “My thoughts are clear. Our supporters are the best in the world – magnificent. I am really pleased with their support and I will try to make sure the team wins every game and I do my best – that is the best thing I can do for the fans.”
Tonight’s game against Villa will be far from easy, the Midlands side not challenging for a top-four place out of luck. There could be a debut for new signing Martin Skrtel.