Plea For Perceptive Punditry

Plea For Perceptive Punditry
November 30, 2008 Paul Tomkins

Liverpool will never win the league while Rafa Benítez keeps tinkering. That is the view of renowned intellect, existentialist and bon viver, Stanley Victor Collymore.

Are we having our intelligence insulted by a ‘wife/(Ulrika)-beater’ and ‘dogger’ who wasted his career and, to my knowledge, has never managed a football team, and has therefore not developed the knowledge of what it actually does take to win the league?

How did he form such a damning a judgement based on one team selection, when the coaching staff at Liverpool will have seriously pondered the decision with all the information at their fingertips? And why did Chelsea drop points at home when they didn’t ‘tinker’?

Was Collymore at Melwood all week, monitoring the fitness of the players and their sharpness in training, and how they were faring after being away with their countries? Of course not. After all, Stan barely put in an appearance at the training ground when he was being paid fortunes to play for the club; Roy Evans’ job was made so much harder by his most expensive signing (a British record, no less) regularly failing to turn up at Melwood. Evans said that by the end, all the players were laughing at his excuses for another no-show.

Why is it that every time Liverpool drop points, it’s about the players who aren’t selected by the manager?

Perhaps Liverpool would have beaten Fulham had Alonso played instead of Lucas. Who knows? Lucas is a box-to-box player, although admittedly one low on confidence and yet to really prove himself in England. He clearly has lots of talent, in order to be the Brazilian league’s Footballer of the Year at just 20, and a full international. Yes, he’s struggling, but some might argue that playing games can only help him.

Without Steven Gerrard, Benítez went for a midfielder who could get up and support the two strikers. So it was hardly a negative move.

Had it been 0-0 at home with Alonso and Mascherano, the criticism would have been ‘bloody Benítez, two holding midfielders at home to this shite, yada yada’. Had it been 0-0 with Torres supported by Gerrard, it would have been ‘bloody Benítez, one up front at home to crappy Fulham’.

Last year Benítez was criticised for omitting Torres from two 0-0 draws. This year, he played in both disappointing scoreless games, against Stoke and Fulham; this time, it was another player being left out who was the problem. Ah, right.

Sensationalist headlines courtesy of Mr Collymore and his ilk are par for the course. Asked why he liked to perform sexual acts with married women in cars parked in front of strangers, he told The Observer (the newspaper, not the man gathered with tissues in hand): “The sex part of it was one per cent – the buzz of it is the danger of being there.”

If that isn’t attention seeking, it’s hard to know what is. It’s hardly intelligent, considered behaviour, especially so if you are a well-known celebrity whose discovery will lead to front page tabloid headlines.

I don’t want to be prudish about what anyone gets up to –– God help me, I’m not going on a nauseous Daily Mail-style puritanical rant. People’s personal lives are their own business. But the decisions Collymore has made in his life and in his career, and which have fallen into the public domain, suggest someone who is not able to make very wise choices. So how does that suggest he’ll be good at analysing anything?

We all make mistakes, but his judgement has been poor; and what a manager relies on is his judgement. And that’s why this ‘superior’ knowledge, where he advises Benítez on what he’s doing wrong, irks me.

I don’t mind ex-players (or indeed, anyone) suggesting their preference, or pontificating on what they like to see; but it’s the certainty of their conclusions that, to me at least, often invalidates their opinion.

If Alan Hansen had said in 1995 that “it’s harder to win something with kids”, no-one will have remembered it as folly, and simply agreed that, on the whole, it’s probably true; the fact that he said you “can’t” is what tripped him up, because at times in football almost anything is possible. “Can’t” closes off all other options. But it’s seen as better and bolder to say “can’t” or “never” or “worst-ever”.

It may sound like a case of semantics, but there’s a big difference between saying something is unlikely to saying it’s impossible. Part of the problem is the headline writers, who may take something out of context, but the pundits seem happy to take their cash for saying outlandish things.

It’s not about wanting the world to sit on the fence, but instead accepting that there are very few certainties in football. In Spain, the media were certain that Rafa’s rotation would not lead to success. How wrong you can be?

Like Collymore, I have never managed. Unlike Collymore, I don’t keep handing out ignore-at-your-peril advice to a man with far greater footballing acumen. We can all have opinions, but some of these pundits, as purely ex-players with no experience of the other side of the curtain, are so unqualified.

What happened to employing insightful pundits like Jimmy Armfield? – older, wiser men who have managed at the very top level? Are those type of experts considered too dull to be brought into the fold now?

If you want to talk about footballers, then by all means speaks to footballers. But if you want to talk team-play, tactics, selection issues, then why not find someone who’s had to actually consider these things beyond where they, as an individual, are affected by such decisions?

I met Collymore when he was a Liverpool player, and he was as nice as pie. He’s certainly an interesting character. I’d be very interested to hear him speak about the pressure of being a footballer at a massive club, and how it can all go wrong. But how it can all go right? Hmmm. You don’t have much experience of that, Stan. Not enough to lecture someone who does.

Sky have a lot to answer for in their selection of pundits over the years, particularly on their Soccer Saturday programme. Paul Merson, Rodney Marsh, George Best, Charlie Nicholas – ‘characters’, but often also boozers who let their natural talent go to waste. And almost always individuals, rather than team players.

It’s almost the after-dinner speaking set, not the coaching elite. They may have some great stories, and witty anecdotes, but great insight into what’s going on now? Which is a shame, as Jeff Stelling is the best anchorman in football. At least Phil Thompson knows what it takes to be a winner at the highest level, as well as coaching at the top-level for more than a year or two.

The same can be said of ex-Man United players like Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Roy Keane. But what are they all doing now? Certainly not soundbite punditry.

When he’s critical of Liverpool, I have to ask what does Matt Le Tissier know about the cut and thrust of the chase for major honours? This is someone who spent his career in mid-table mediocrity rather than test himself at a big club. I don’t actually blame Le Tissier for his lack of ambition; he wanted to enjoy playing, and I respect his loyalty to his local club. But don’t then tell a manager who has won a long list of honours what it takes to win trophies, when you spent your career avoiding them.

Le Tissier may have been ten times better than Benítez as a player, but when it comes to knowing how to shape a team, how can he compare?

Only Kenny Dalglish has earned the right to criticise Benítez with any credibility, as the only living Liverpool manager to have a better record. But of course, Kenny keeps his counsel, knowing that a manager has to be given the freedom to manage.

Then there’s Jamie Redknapp, another Liverpool player I met some years ago, and another nice bloke. I understand that as a Liverpool stalwart he is under pressure to be neutral, and like Alan Hansen, can perhaps bend too far the opposite way.

My problem with Jamie, however, relates to his dad. He defers to everything Harry does, and understandably so. However, why doesn’t he analyse Benítez in the same way? After all, the latter has a far superior record over the past decade; yes, Rafa’s also managed bigger clubs, but perhaps that also reflects his quality.

I may have missed it (and if I have, I apologise), but I haven’t seen Redknapp Jnr suggest that Redknapp Snr has got something badly wrong, or that his methods won’t work. Where are the headlines suggesting that Harry won’t succeed at Spurs unless he follows a suggestion of Jamie’s? If he shows that much respect and deference to his father, then it should apply to his father’s peers, and arguably his betters.

So how many great individuals make great managers? Very few, if any. Those who do, like Dalglish, Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cryuff, were schooled in the art of teamwork, at multi-European Cup-winning clubs. These were not selfish, greedy stars, but orchestrators of the game from within.

There is a great quote from Bob Paisley which I used in Dynasty, relating to Dalglish:

“Few great players make the transition into management. The reason is that great players are normally like soloists in an orchestra. They perform alone and tend to look down on teammates with lesser ability. That was never Kenny Dalglish. He was like a conductor. He brought other players into play. He understood that not everyone was blessed with the greatest of skill. He had patience both as a player and as a manager.”

It’s almost like the difference you experience when you become a parent. No-one can prepare you for the way it changes your priorities; you are no longer your own primary concern. Your responsibility is to others, and you have to put the ‘family’ first. I think players only realise what it takes to manage once they have that responsibility.

Until then, they are often like selfish teenagers, who want only what is best for themselves.

On Liverpool’s relatively meagre resources, I felt a year ago that winning the league had become almost impossible; but the word ‘almost’ was important. The fact that it’s now looking more realistic (if still far from a certainty) is something to celebrate.

And Benítez got the Reds to this point this season by making ‘controversial’ rotations that no-one mentioned because the Reds won; but you can’t win ‘em all.

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