Re: Steven Gerrard's Serialised Book -A Fan's Perspective-

Posted by E2K on September 16, 2015, 01:30:45 PM

Regarding 2008/09, since Steven Gerrard has brought it up: it’s disappointing, if undeniably predictable (given that the frosty relationship between player and manager which seems to be so faithfully outlined in the book was obvious for most of their time together) to read him make so much of something that meant so little, but let us be fair and even-handed here at least. He is of course entitled to his opinion without being insulted, but so are we. The quotes I’ve seen so far show clear evidence of tunnel vision. I wonder does he acknowledge in his book, for example, the fact that he and Fernando Torres were only able to line up together in 14 out of Liverpool’s 38 League games that season, or make the comparison to Manchester United who were able to call on Wayne Rooney (signed for £25m as a teenager four years earlier), Cristiano Ronaldo (on his way to obliterating the world transfer record in an £80m+ move to Real Madrid), Dimitar Berbatov (signed for £32m that season) and Carlos Tevez (a £30m+ player who, as I recall, eventually left Old Trafford primarily because he wasn’t guaranteed first-team football)? I doubt it, but it might reflect better on him if he did.

Rafa Benítez admittedly made some poor signings, as virtually every manager does, particularly towards the end of his time at Liverpool (but, I would argue, without sufficient finances to paper over those mistakes), and he had the option to keep £19m Robbie Keane that January as cover despite him clearly never really fitting into the team. But when you can’t pay Peter Crouch and Craig Bellamy enough to keep them happy sitting on the bench (both subsequently stated that the issue of first-team football is why they left Anfield) and you’re left with no choice but to find replacements in the same bargain bin populated by a blonde, ponytailed Ukrainian with a penchant for denim and a timid, ineffectual French youngster, the two signed for a combined fee of £1.5m, then losing the title by four points (and building a team that would ultimately be ranked number one in Europe around the same time) seems like a minor miracle in itself, especially when you’re only able to field the most lethal strikeforce in the League (arguably in Europe at the time), the fulcrum of your team, in less than 40 per cent of your games and you’re going up against a club with four of the best attacking talents in the world to choose between (it’s often called Ferguson’s second great team for a reason: because it was great).

These are factors that render connections between the infamous pre-Stoke press-conference in January 2009 and Liverpool not winning the title a few months later thoroughly moot. We have seen the statistics that Liverpool’s points per game and goals per game statistics actually improved afterwards, but even that doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that when Liverpool won 4-1 at Old Trafford in March 2009, Manchester United had Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Berbatov and Nani sitting on the bench. Liverpool, by contrast, had the relatively inexperienced Lucas Leiva deputising for the absent Xabi Alonso, 36 year-old Sami Hyypia filling in for Alvaro Arbeloa at short notice and Jamie Carragher moving to right-back where he hadn’t played regularly for five years or more. Manchester United had a marked advantage over Liverpool in terms of squad depth, and whether you blame the manager’s signings for that or the amount of money made available to him for transfers (and I personally would lean more towards the latter than the former, though both were undeniable influences), it was this factor that eventually saw Liverpool fall short, nothing else. As Rafa Benítez himself once said, “you cannot win mind games if you have a bad team…it’s easy to talk about mind games when he has a good team and he has won, and that was the case”.

Granted, I obviously wasn’t in the Liverpool dressing-room in the days and weeks following the press-conference, but common sense nonetheless makes it difficult for me to believe that Champions League winners like Alonso, Gerrard, Hyypia and Carragher, Argentina captain and double Olympic champion Javier Mascherano, and European Champions Pepe Reina and Torres (and Alonso again) would have been adversely affected to any great degree by their manager’s comments, especially when the Manchester United players had been listening to worse from their own boss for years (I wonder how Steven Gerrard would have reacted, for example, had Rafa ever said that he’s “from Liverpool and everyone from that city has a chip on their shoulder”?) Furthermore, Stoke was a ground where they themselves had only narrowly escaped with a 1-0 win a couple of weeks earlier in a game which might have seen both Rooney and Ronaldo sent off for violent conduct (the former for throwing an elbow, the latter for kicking out at an opponent) long before they managed to fashion a winner. Even then, Liverpool (without Torres for much of the game, who was returning from yet another injury, and Alonso for all of it) hit the woodwork twice and might have won with a little luck.

Steven Gerrard would appear to disagree, and that’s fine. I don’t believe that he or his ghost writer are sensationalising anything to sell books, I think it’s clear from the bits and pieces I’ve read that this is how he really feels. The quotes I’ve seen also lead me to wonder whether there is a connection between “I can pick up the phone and speak to all of my previous Liverpool managers” and Gérard Houllier’s comment in 2010 that “after Rafa Benítez left this summer, one of the players sent me a message. He said, ‘Boss, he hasn’t beaten you.’” They also pretty much confirm my long-held suspicion that when Henry Winter (who co-wrote his first biography) welcomed the Liverpool manager’s exit in June 2010 with a relish that appeared thoroughly at odds with his position as a supposedly objective writer and journalist, he was simply channelling the Liverpool captain’s own feelings. In fact, I would suggest that the following paragraph wouldn’t look at all out of place in this latest biography: “Now that this cold political animal has gone, Anfield requires a manager who can empathise with players, who understands they are human beings as well as professional footballers. Sometimes players need a boss who asks after their family or tells them ‘well done’”. And who doesn’t say anything out of line in press-conferences, of course.

“One time he did suffer a meltdown involving Manchester United and Mr. Ferguson…I was grabbing the couch, digging my fingers into the arms, feeling embarrassed for him. When I met up with England all the Manchester United players told me Fergie was just laughing at Rafa, saying: ‘I’ve got him. I’ve got him.’”

So what if they did? So what if he was? Any objective, clear-eyed analysis with the benefit of even two months’ hindsight would have concluded exactly the opposite once Ferguson rose to his opposite number’s bait after Liverpool’s 4-1 victory at Old Trafford in March and admitted putting his club’s sports technology department to work to disprove the claim that “the difference between us is maybe £100m spent on players and a big stadium”. Even Patrick Barclay, not noted for his love of either Liverpool or Benítez, acknowledged that “you don’t need a sports technology department to know how wrong the United manager is, just the back of a cigarette pack.” And the conclusion as to who truly “got” who would have only been underlined a few weeks later when Ferguson and Sam Allardyce bizarrely joined forces to fabricate charges of disrespect against Benítez based on the most innocuous of (self-deprecating) hand gestures during a 4-0 win over Blackburn in what had all the hallmarks of a coordinated attack.

“It seemed so unlike Rafa to talk in such an emotional way. You could see the anger in him”.

Er, no, no you couldn’t. This is just demonstrably false. You could tell he was nervous and outside of his comfort zone, but emotional? Angry? “Meltdown”? Absolutely not. This wasn’t, contrary to popular belief, a Kevin Keegan-style rant. Keegan, already broken under the pressure as he would be again a few years later in the Wembley tunnel as outgoing England manager, reacted to prompting from Richard “Did you smash it?” Keyes after the penultimate game of a season which was already basically over and let rip with a wide-eyed tirade, voice cracking, finger jabbing towards the camera. Benítez was led by nobody, made no physical gestures and never once raised his voice. There was nothing spontaneous about it; it couldn’t have been more deliberate had he been reading from a typed, bullet-pointed list…oh right, he was. One man had meticulously sketched out a plan of attack, the other just snapped. That’s the difference between an emotional response and a calculated one.

“He then railed against the fixture list and the timing of matches being skewed in United’s favour. Rafa was sounding muddled and bitter and paranoid. He was humiliating himself. It was a disaster.”

Hang on now, who was it that “railed” against the fixture list again? As recently as a week before the contentious press-conference, Ferguson, an arch-purveyor of the “siege mentality” approach, had stated the following: “I’ve been saying this for a few months, but our programme didn’t do us any favours and I think we have been handicapped by the Premier League in the fixture list. They tell me it’s not planned. I’ve got my doubts. I’m not saying what they do down there, but next year we will be sending somebody to see how it happens, I can assure you. I just don’t understand how you can get the fixtures like that.” The part in bold would appear to carry an implicit accusation of corruption, one that the Liverpool manager was, in part, responding to, so I would love to ask Steven Gerrard to expand on who was truly sounding “muddled and bitter and paranoid” at that time, or why it’s not ok or even embarrassing or humiliating for one manager to speak about Ferguson’s behaviour towards referees but it’s fine for others to do so (afterwards, incidentally, Graham Poll, a retired referee himself, stated that “Rafa Benítez has articulated what referees have been thinking for years – that Mr. Ferguson can say what he wants about them and the FA will allow him to get away with it”).

Back in 2005, in comments that evoked what the Liverpool manager would say of Manchester United some four years later (“they are always going man-to-man with the referees, especially at half-time when they walk close to the referees and they are talking and talking”), José Mourinho stated after the first-leg of a League Cup semi-final that “I know the referee didn’t walk to the dressing rooms alone at half-time…maybe when I turn 60 and have been managing in the same league for 20 years and have the respect of everybody I will have the power to speak to people and make them tremble a little bit”. Which was perhaps fair enough, unlike his baseless accusations of corruption which resulted in death threats to Anders Frisk and his family in 2005, or making more veiled charges of corruption involving Barcelona and UNICEF and gouging Tito Vilanova’s eye in 2011, or spending much of his second spell in charge of Chelsea shouting about conspiracies against his team. Sounds pretty muddled, bitter and paranoid to me. Steven Gerrard’s view? “For me, the ideal situation would obviously have been for Mourinho to have managed Liverpool”. Good grief.

“I couldn’t understand Rafa’s thinking in wanting to take on Ferguson, a master of mind games, when we were sitting so calmly on top of the table early into a new year”.

Well then Benítez, whenever he comes to write a biography himself, will no doubt be forgiven for expressing a similar failure to understand why his captain and most important player was out drinking and becoming involved in needless physical confrontations and landing himself on affray charges “when we were sitting so calmly on top of the table” (after a 5-1 away win). As for the “master of mind games” bit, there is no greater evidence of how large a grain of salt with which any reader of this book should take many of the opinions contained therein. He’ll make a fantastic English football pundit someday, Steven Gerrard, no doubt about it (assuming that Brendan Rodgers or a future successor doesn’t assign him that coveted coaching role at the club). He’s already drank the Ferguson Kool-Aid, which seems to afford automatic entry to the pundit club in and of itself. Never has the process of acting like a dickhead, sounding like a dickhead and, generally, just being a dickhead been given such a lofty title as Alex Ferguson’s “mind games”, and these people just queue up to regurgitate it.

Of course, a cursory glance through Ferguson’s “greatest hits” would tell you that Liverpool won the title handily in 1988 following his statement about Anfield that he could understand why teams “have to leave here choking on their own vomit, biting their tongue, afraid to tell the truth” (and Kenny Dalglish’s withering “you’ll get more sense out of her” response); Blackburn won the title in 1995 after he stated that they would have to do a “Devon Loch” to lose it; and Arséne Wenger won the double a season after he called him “a novice” who “should keep his opinions to Japanese football”, following up by clinching another title at Old Trafford in 2002 and going undefeated in 2004 as Ferguson protested that “they are scrappers who rely on belligerence – we are the better team”. Even Keegan in 1996, reacting to comments that Leeds and Notts. Forest wouldn’t try a leg against Newcastle, wasn’t a proper victim since the title was already gone by the time he snapped, due to his team’s utter inability to defend. And as for Rafa, well, he wasn’t putting members of his own staff to work refuting anything his opponent was saying or getting some other manager to fight his corner.

It’s an odd one. Ultimately the lesson from what I’ve read would appear to be that it doesn’t matter what you say or do as long as you end up winning in the end. “Fighting with the board, other managers and the press wasn’t the Liverpool way” he says (did Rafa ever really fight with the press, incidentally?), and yet calling a respected manager like Wenger “a novice” (or, perhaps, a “specialist in failure”), not speaking to the national broadcaster for years or poking a finger into another coach’s eye (literally fighting) all appears to be acceptable behaviour because there were trophies to show for it and because, as he says of Mourinho, “he created a special bond with each squad he managed…you heard it in the way his players spoke about him…I understood how they felt because they had shared such a big moment in their careers together…I never had that with Rafa Benítez. I would have had it with José Mourinho”. I wonder if that, then, is Rafa’s defining failure in Steven Gerrard’s eyes: that he wasn’t Mourinho? If so, it’s no surprise that so many of us are at odds with him on this one.

In truth, we can sit here and wonder all day, wonder why some behaviours are ok and some aren’t, wonder what Steven Gerrard must think of Pep Guardiola, for example, and whether it would have been more acceptable for Rafa Benítez, instead of reading out a list of “facts” in January 2009, to say of Ferguson that “in this room, he's the fucking chief, the fucking man, the person who knows everything about the world and I don’t want to compete with him at all. It’s a type of game I'm not going to play because I don't know how. Off the pitch, he has already won, as he has done all year. On the pitch, we'll see what happens”. On such matters we have but two options: (a) buy his book and find out, or (b) read his view of Mourinho that “the Liverpool fans would have loved him” and save our twenty quid.

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