Alan Hansen, Hypocrisy and Transfer Dreams

Posted by Paul Tomkins on February 7, 2005, 01:49:37 PM

Alan Hansen has no doubt forgotten more about football than I've ever known about the game; however, in recent months he appears to have sustained a severe blow to the head. What else can explain his total amnesia on the subject?

   It started over the summer, with his ill-informed comments that Benitez was even more defensive-minded than Gerard Houllier. You'd think someone in his position would actually check what took place in Spain over the previous three years, and especially last season. The man who has stood and sat alongside Hansen since 1981, Mark Lawrenson, had to be put straight by Spanish pundit, Guillem Balague, over the issue during Euro 2004. Before he even arrived, it appeared the knives were sharpening for Benitez. There was a feeling about Benitez lacking the correct credentials; this after his amazing exploits with Valencia. Hansen's statements were compounded by his claiming that Steven Gerrard needed to join Chelsea. (If he wanted 'instant' success, then maybe; but surely success is better earned with hard work, rather than bought?).

   All commentators on the game get things wrong. That's a given. And of course, you can be proved wrong one week, and then feel vindicated the next. (In my case, such as when I said Morientes and Baros would be brilliant together. After the first few games, there was little sign of this 末 until Baros won the ball for El Moro to score at Charlton, and then when both notched goals against Fulham; and Baros ran the channels superbly, while his partner's all-round game aided our attacking efforts). Of course, a few bad games, and you're back to the former assessment.

   What I find inexcusable in the world of punditry is the hypocrisy, and the changing of opinion to suit the situation; or that one rule is fine for one club, but that Liverpool have to do things differently. The club has higher standards than most, but it needs to be allowed to operate in the situation it now faces, and not on the assumption that the game hasn't changed in the last 25 years.

   For instance, I was disappointed that many of the very people who had praised Benitez for trusting the youngsters all season was then castigating him for playing them at Burnley. You can't have it both ways.

   It's about integrity. From a personal point of view, and going back to my earlier example, once I had said how much I was excited by Baros and Morientes dovetailing, my only option if it wasn't working would be to say: I got it wrong, they stink. I think I'd lose whatever credibility I have if I instead said: it was clear they were never going to work as a pairing, there was never any hope of them combining. You cannot simply change your opinion to fit with changing circumstances. Everyone can change their opinion, of course, when convinced by new evidence over a period of time; just not to suit the situation, and then change it back the next time the situation is reversed. Anyone can do that, as you are only proving how clever you are with the aid of hindsight.

   It saddens me to say that Alan Hansen now strikes me as a rather sad parody of the once-great commentator on the game. He sounds like he doesn't actually love the sport anymore (much like Mark Lawrenson; add the incoherent Peter Schmeichel, and you suddenly have reason to mourn the passing of Gabby, Ally and Andy, and even the awful Tactics Truck). It's a sad state of affairs when ex-Blue Andy Gray talks more sense on the game (with the odd exception) than a man you admired to the point of hero-worship; or that Chris Kamara's assessments on the game are more interesting, accurate and impassioned. Too much of Hansen's motive now appears to be to make extreme or provocative comments. I used to look to him for sense; now I see only sensationalism.

   He remains a legend in my eyes, and nothing he says will change my memory of him as a player; just as Souness will remain a great player, no matter how he tarnished his reputation afterwards. But Hansen always struck me as a top bloke, someone I'd love to sit down with to discuss the game. Opinionated, and even arrogant, but honest.

   Now I cannot bear to watch Match of the Day, to see him and Lawrenson looking miserable (or miserable and smug), and Peter Schmeichel talking in some kind of strange language that is neither English nor Danish 末 a language known purely as nonsense. What was once the best dissemination of ideas on the game is now a tired forum that 末 as galling as it is to admit 末 falls well behind Sky in terms of true insight.

   The latest example of how I felt let down came when Hansen went public on January 24 when, in his Daily Telegraph column, he suggested that Benitez made a big mistake in signing players from La Liga, and should have gone for proven British quality:

"However, he [Benitez] is suffering from the G駻ard Houllier regime when a lot of mediocre players arrived at the club. Unfortunately, Houllier as a Frenchman went totally French in the transfer market, shopping in an area he knows best. It didn't work out for him and Benitez is in danger of making the same mistake by going totally Spanish. Between the two of them they have created a conveyor belt of mediocrity.

   Now first of all, Houllier didn't go totally French in the transfer market. Henchoz, Barmby, Hamann, McAllister, Xavier, Arphexad, Heskey, Ziege, Finnan, Kirkland, Sjolund and Kewell all came from the Premiership (and a mixed bunch that lot proved to be; it also accounted for almost half of the money Houllier spent, if you discount Djibril Cisse, who arrived after he was sacked). Many more came from non-French European countries: Litmanen (from Barcelona), Biscan, Babbel, Westerveld, Song, Meijer, Dudek, Baros, Hyypia, and Kippe. (Two Frenchman, Ferri and Diarra, were also bought while plying their trade away from their homeland).

   Even allowing for Hansen's "totally" being some kind of approximation, it's still horribly incorrect. In this case, "totally" equals roughly one-third. When you take into account that many of Houllier's French signings 末 such as Vignal, Traore, Sinama-Pongolle, Le Tallec, Diarra, Madjani 末 were youngsters snaffled on the cheap merely as hopes (but not guarantees) for the future, it leaves just eight of Houllier's 'major' signings coming from the French league.

   It is the hypocrisy of Hansen (and others) that disappoints me the most. You could label the same accusation of Francophilia at Arsene Wenger 末 a manager Hansen has (rightly) never been slow to praise. And yet Wenger has won three titles and two doubles based on such a buying policy. Benitez could as easily be the Spanish version of Wenger, not the Spanish equivalent of Houllier. I hate the lazy conclusion that, given Houllier's French buys were mostly his least successful, it follows suit that Benitez will suffer the same fate in Spain. Surely these are two very different men, with unique individual qualities?

   Houllier made many great signings 末 that is undeniable. But did he sign anyone from the French league who could match up to Alonso and Morientes? Alas, no. (Although hopefully Djibril Cisse will prove a late exception, and Sinama-Pongolle and Le Tallec still have massive potential). Riise, signed from Monaco, was perhaps Houllier's best buy from Ligue 1. As good as Riise is, he's not quite in the class of Alonso and Morientes. So already 末 based on the early evidence (and that is all we can go on at this stage) 末 Benitez has recruited more astutely from his homeland. It took him six months, not six years.

   Hansen continues: "The most important aspect for Liverpool is that the players Benitez brought in had to be good enough to be in their strongest starting XI. That has not happened."

   So 末 Alonso and Morientes aren't good enough to be in the strongest starting XI? Excuse me, can you repeat that please, Alan?

   Two of the seven players Benitez has signed are more than good enough for the first eleven, and in fact, strengthen it considerably. That is one-fifth of the outfield team-sheet improved within six months. These are not merely good players, who are capable of only just holding down a place in the side. These are great players who offer new skills and dimensions to the team's play. You cannot dispute that.

   Luis Garcia's form has been very mixed (from the sublime to the ridiculous), but he offers something new to the first team, and after a difficult winter, appears to be rediscovering his form, with two fine assists in his last two games.

   It took him just half a season to equal the combined league goals tallies Diouf (three) and Cheyrou (two) managed in two full seasons, and he's already surpassed Robert Pires' first-season tally. Luis Garcia's second-half performance at Charlton was something we just never came to see from Cheyrou (who had that spell of scoring four goals in four games, but was still rarely involved in the action). It's fair to say we can expect more from Luis Garcia, but the lad has talent, and has influenced a number of games. He is still settling in, and has had to cope with life in a new country, and the birth of his son (all new parents know that it's a very difficult time).

   That leaves four players 末 Carson, Pellegrino, Nunez and Josemi 末 who cost a mere 」4.70m combined. Or, to look at it another way, the exact fee for Salif Diao. Procuring Carson looks a fantastic bit of business: the best keeper around in his age-group, with a very bright future, and more than capable in the present. Players like Carson are hard to come by; had the lad had a lengthy contract remaining, his value would have been closer to 」5m, and therefore prohibitive. The very contract situation that wiped money off Owen's transfer value has worked in our favour this time.

   It's far too early to write off the other three, despite each having some tough games and  coming in for severe criticism, but even if they only exist as squad players in the future, at an average of just over 」1m each and unlikely to be on sky-high wages, they're still very cheap additions to a squad that 末 once the dead wood had been offloaded 末 needed bolstering. They at least the chance to adapt before being cast into the wilderness, or described as 'failures'. If it turns out that some deadwood has been replaced by more deadwood, well, that's just life.

   But look at it like this: the two Benitez-bought players who will definitely improve the first team 末 Alonso and Morientes 末 cost 」16m. Good value for money, but still fairly big bucks, at an average of 」8m per player. The other five cost an average of just one-quarter of that: a little over 」2m each. Not every signing is designed to improve the first-team; many are to give depth to the squad, or to provide an alternative from the bench.

   As stated, Wenger and Ferguson have both made mistakes in the transfer market 末 but especially early in their tenures, when making radical overhauls. Hell, even Shankly, Paisley, Fagan and Dalglish bought duds 末 mostly from Britain, where they supposedly "knew what they were getting". Souness and Evans also bought plenty of flops from these shores.

   The trouble with improving a first-team like Liverpool's is that there are a clutch of 'decent' players that need replacing; and even half-decent players cost fortunes these days 末 especially from England. You can't just 'magic up' a series of quality signings who will all be guaranteed successes. The problem I have with people like Hansen, when he writes pieces like the one I'm highlighting, is that there seems to be criticism, but not a reasonable realistic solution. Buy great British players? Sure. But like, um, who?. Or rather, who is available and would cost under 」20m? If money was no object, Benitez would have spent it very differently. As it is, he's looking for bargains. Sometimes you get what you pay for, and sometimes you uncover an unpolished diamond.

   Hansen has been in awe of Chelsea this season. And yet all of Chelsea's major signings this summer (the ones who went straight into the first team: Peter Cech, Arjen Robben, Paulo Ferreira,  Didier Drogba and Ricardo Carvalho) each cost between 」10m and 」24m; Tiago was cheap for them, at just 」8m, and Kezman is a 」6m reserve. I'm guessing their average spend per-player was 」15m 末 more than our record signing. We simply don't have the kind of money to make a series of purchases like that; and despite not being "cheap", Alonso and Morientes will prove great value for money.

   Our record signing, Djibril Cisse 末 signed by Houllier, but a player Benitez rated 末 didn't even get a proper chance to prove if he was worth 」14m. But given his wonderful record in France, you could at least surmise that, once he had settled, he would have started banging in the goals and improved our first team. After all, at the time his leg snapped so gruesomely in two he had the exact same number of goals as Didier Drogba. Drogba has since radically improved, finding his stride and scoring plenty of goals. The comparison is especially valid, as both came to England from France with the burden of being their new club's record signing. While in France, Cisse easily outscored Drogba, and managed fully eight more league goals last season.

   Hansen continues: "He [Benitez] went for foreigners when in all honesty he should have gone British, inasmuch as you know what you are going to get by shopping in the home market."

   Again, this is another point I really do not understand. Hansen has previously lavished extravagant praise on both Jose Mourinho and Chelsea, as well as all of the Portuguese's signings. None of which were from the Premiership.

   Signing players from England costs an absolute fortune. It's hard to imagine the fees the club would have had to pay for Xabi Alonso and Fernando Morientes had they been at English clubs. Benitez was quoted 」14m when enquiring about the the availability of Jonathan Woodgate, the talented but injury-prone Newcastle centre back who ended up moving to Real Madrid. (Interesting, our injury jinx has stretched to players on loan, like Le Tallec earlier in the season, and to players we simply enquired about).

   For an extra 」2m Rafa procured both Alonso and Morientes. Wayne Rooney went to Manchester United from Everton for a 'mere' 」27m. Unless top English players are nearing the end of their contract, you cannot get them for a sensible price. Even foreign successes playing in the Premiership are over-priced.

   It is such a lazy argument to say "sign from the English market as you know what you're getting". You don't. There are no sure things in the transfer market, full-stop. Liverpool have signed enough players from the English league in the past who've looked good until they pulled on the red shirt, and wilted under the pressure.

   Last season Hansen was understandably sent into paroxysms of delight by Arsenal's glorious free-flowing football, and stated that while they weren't the "greatest ever" (without winning the European Cup), they did play the best football he'd ever seen in this country. Their historic achievement 末 in going a league season unbeaten 末 was duly noted and wholeheartedly praised.

   So let's examine how Wenger achieved this success. Was it built on a core of astutely-assembled British purchases? Well, there's Sol Campbell, the rock at the heart of their defence. But of course, he was a Bosman transfer; had a fee been involved, Arsenal would not have got him. (If only he'd chosen Liverpool instead in 2001 . . .).

   Okay, Campbell aside, let's move onto Richard Wright: 」6m well spent? Sorry, I've made you laugh and coffee has come out of your nose. Wright was soon sold to Everton at a big loss, after failing to impress at Highbury, and is now a reserve.

   Talking of Everton, there was the 」8m Wenger shelled-out 末 with genius prescience 末 for that sure-fire hit, Francis Jeffers. Oh God I'm sorry, you're now laughing so hard you're now choking on your food. Still, there was the 」2m handed over to Notts County for 15-year-old Jermaine Pennant. But he's not really had a look-in, and seven years later is about to be released. And Matthew Upson hardly grabbed the bull by the horns while at Highbury; some players just can't handle the pressure at big clubs.
   
   According to Hansen's logic, these are the kind of players Wenger was right to invest in. Meanwhile, you can only conclude, Arsenal were wasting their time and money with Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Fredrik Ljungberg, Jose Antonio Reyes, Dennis Bergkamp (imported from Italy by Bruce Rioch), Robin Van Persie, Lauren, Thierry Henry, Francesc Fabregas, Edu, Nicolas Anelka, Emanuel Petit, Marc Overmars, Kolo Toure, Gilberto Silva, et al.

   Why is this policy good enough for Arsenal, but not Liverpool? (The hypocrisy is now in place again, of course, as suddenly Arsenal, after a slump in form, lack "British character"; no matter that the same set of players made history last season, which involved coming from behind on numerous occasions to save or win matches. You don't go a season unbeaten without an extraordinary amount of character).

   The whole point is that no market leads to better purchases, as there are pros and cons wherever you shop. It is the individual player and his ability and temperament that counts, nothing else.

   For example, Wenger signed plenty of 'failures' from France and other European countries, too: Christopher Wreh, Gilles Grimandi, Pascal Cygan, Alberto Mendez, Jeremie Aliadiere, David Grondin, Nelson Vivas, Luis Boa Morte, Moritz Volz, Sebastian Sv舐d, Igors Stephanovs, Remi Garde, Stathis Tavlaridis and Kaba Diawara 末 to name just a few 'luminaries'. (If you've heard of half of those, you're doing well).

   Wenger has signed far more average and, frankly, rubbish players than he has world-beaters. But it's those few great signings that have made all the difference, as they have proved truly exceptional talents. In time the dross has been forgotten. Similarly, Alex Ferguson has bought both well and poorly at home and abroad, in almost equal measure. All managers sign duff players, from home and from overseas.

   But if Rafa knows Spanish football better than English football (and he will 末 until at least a season assessing the Premiership first-hand), then why not shop there? If it were the Ukrainian second division he was pilfering, fair enough. But it's the best league in the world, and four signings have been from their top three clubs.

   Can someone tell me where he could 末 in England 末 have spent 」10m more wisely than he did on Xabi Alonso? Precisely who are we talking about? 末 as you couldn't pay 」20m in England for a player half that good and that young. I mean (and my blood pressure is rising here), Kieren Dyer was recently rated at 」20m by Newcastle. That is the comedy of the English transfer market. That is, to quote Alan Hansen, knowing "what you are going to get by shopping in the home market".

   Any decent English-based player is ludicrously over-priced, and Hansen is surely only too aware of this. (But Hansen doesn't have to find the transfer fee in his articles, does he? 末 Benitez, as Liverpool manager, does). 
 
   Sean Wright-Phillips has been in stunning form for Manchester City for a couple of seasons now (having been very average up to the age of 21/22), but has no experience of European football and just a couple of England caps. And yet he's valued at 」20m+. (The combined cost of Henry, Pires and Vieira).

   There's nothing to say that Wright-Phillips, while a fantastic little player, would definitely make a smooth transition to a new club, with new expectations, and a gargantuan price-tag hanging over his head; he may well leave City and do brilliantly in a better side, but there's no guarantee about it. And at that price, you'd like to expect some guarantees.

   Even if he does do well, it might take time to settle. You often find players who come through a club's youth system build their confidence brick-by-brick over a number of years 末 being eased into the side with little expected at first, and gradually improving month after month. A bad start at a new club can shatter it in one blow. Their entire support system is no longer in place; and instead of being the kid who exceeded expectations, he is now the player unable to justify a massive price-tag; if he costs as much as Zinedine Zidane, why isn't he as good? Sometimes expectations have to lower again, before they come good. (This may happen with Cisse).

   If we had 」20m to spare and no other needs, then great, Wright-Phillips is the kind of player you look for. But if you ask me if I'd rather Rafa had spent 」20m on Wright-Phillips this season than on Alonso, Morientes, Nunez, Josemi, Pellegrino and Carson, then of course I'd say the latter. (just as Houllier had to opt for Henchoz, Hyypia and Hamann instead of paying over-the-odds for Rio Ferdinand in 1999). Six players will cost a lot more in wages, of course, but if Wright-Phillips had broken his leg, he'd have been no use to anyone; now, with Alonso out with a broken ankle, we can still call upon the other five players in the squad.

   Benitez has spent very well in his first season. If you compare everything in the careers and talents of James Beattie and Fernando Morientes, it's impossible to say that Beattie represents 」6m better spent simply because he's English.

   Beattie is a decent player, but one who doesn't know what playing in Europe or international football entails (beyond one or two caps and one or two games in the Uefa Cup), and has never helped a club win a single trophy in his life; Morientes is a great player, who has done it all, and more-or-less won it all: four Champions League finals (three wins), league titles, goals in Spain and France, and a phenomenal 24 international goals in 36 games. One is Premiership-class; but the other is world-class.
   
   You could argue that a player like Beattie will settle more quickly, given he knows the league and the language. On average, this will be true. But in a year's time, when Morientes is settled and speaks fluent English, who would you rather have?

   It is great credit to Benitez that he had Morientes watched in training for Madrid, to assess how the player was reacting to being fourth choice. The answer was that he was training even harder. Morientes never asked about wages 末 all he wanted to know was if he was going to get a fair chance of playing, having been treated unfairly by Madrid over the years. Can you imagine Kieren Dyer being unconcerned about the bling on offer? "Forget about playing, boss, let's get down to the nitty-gritty: how many Ferraris will I be able to buy?"

   The final thing with Benitez is not only does he know the Spanish market, but it is there his reputation is greatest. Did Alonso and Morientes want to play for Liverpool? Of course. But would they have wanted to play for a manager they didn't rate or trust? Would they have been as desperate to play for Alan Curbishley? These players had other options, and playing for Benitez was cited as a big part of their decision to relocate to Merseyside.

ゥ Paul Tomkins 2005

Note: this is an unedited "work-in-progress" from my upcoming book on LFC, with alterations for the web. As ever, to register a (purely provisional) interest in purchasing Golden Past, Red Future when it is published this summer, please email tomkins_lfcbook@btinternet.com. Many thanks to the hundreds who have so far expressed an interest.

View Comments | Post Comment

More