The Aftermath: After Meeting Benítez

The Aftermath: After Meeting Benítez
October 23, 2009 Paul Tomkins

Perhaps naively, I didn’t expect this much coverage of my work when I went to meet Benítez; had Liverpool not been on a losing streak, most people wouldn’t have cared less.

As such, I feel compelled to write a follow-up piece, to illustrate a couple of further points, and explain for those who might not know me, where I am coming from.

First of all, before further analysis of where the club is at, let me put my meeting with Benítez into context, from my point of view.

I’m not a trained journalist. I am someone who failed his English O’ Level at 16, and again at 17. I had no time for books.

I’m someone who grew up loving playing football and drawing pictures; I eventually got an honours degree, but in Graphic Design (while my friends went off and got ‘proper’ degrees). This meant that in certain company I felt stupid, but I could do things with images and type, and that made me happy.

In my early 20s I started reading and, duly inspired, writing for fun. But I had a massive inferiority complex until I was 25, when, on a whim, I sat the Mensa test; when the results put my IQ at 150, for the first time in my life I said to myself “Hang on, maybe you have a way of seeing things.” For the first time in my life, I didn’t feel like a dunderhead.

(Note: I don’t talk to myself in the third person.)

As a writer, and as a “football analyst”, I try to work stuff out. I try not to regurgitate received wisdom, but look at where the game is headed. Where it came from is interesting; but where it’s going is vital. And I’d much rather trust a manager of international repute on that score ahead of an ex-player, or, even worse, a failed ex-pro who pissed or snorted or gambled his career away.

Sorry to again plug Soccernomics, but everyone interested in football must read it. One of its authors, the economist Stefan Szymanski, is a Man Utd fan, and that shows how good it must be for me to recommend it.

(He and legendary Dutch football writer Simon Kuper conclude that although Alex Ferguson is a top manager, United’s ability to have such a high wage bill during the Premiership years means that his success is only in proportion with what a man with his resources should achieve; not greater. According to this book, wages are nine-tenths of the law.)

People often email me for advice on how to become a journalist. I’m still not even sure if I am one myself. I didn’t take notes or record my conversation with Rafa, as it was not an interview, but a chat. I went to Melwood expecting a brief hello and the chance to watch training. Not a four-hour tour de force on tactics and transfers.

However, I can remember virtually every word, so fascinating was the conversation. Even an amnesiac would have found it hard to forget.

And of course, we weren’t stopping for him to say “this is off the record”; some of it was obvious, and some of it less so. It’s not in my interests to use the information for my benefit, and cause problems for Benítez, his team and the club as a whole. I certainly don’t want to say anything I shouldn’t have mentioned; but I do want to use what I know for the “greater good”.

And it’s not like he’s going to be phoning me up in the mornings to offer advice; I was given a behind-the-scenes look, which I can take forward with the way I analyse things, but now I am once again an outsider, just like everyone else. Above all else, I am a fan that wants a successful team and a well-run club.

Every club has its warts, and, to my surprise, I got a warts-and-all insight into his full tenure. However, I also got to see what is so great about the club, from its staff to its players and its new facilities. I got to know all the things that Rafa is excited and positive about, not just things he wishes had been done differently, either by himself or others.

So much is in place for success; but maybe the club missed an opportunity to build this summer, and that, combined with the form of some senior players (Gerrard, Carragher and Mascherano were all generally well below their super-reliable best), and injuries to others (including the longer-than-anticipated absence of Aquilani), have collided to produced a depressing sequence of results.

But you don’t throw the baby out with the bath-water.

Big Tease

Please note that I didn’t mean to make the previous article a “teaser”. Rafa told me some fascinating stuff, and despite being badgered by all and sundry, I won’t repeat it. The point was that, from what he told me, I felt reassured about his plans.

Everyone seems highly concerned about the identity of the youngster Rafa singled out for praise, but perhaps it was simply because he was one we saw on our walk. Rafa certainly rates him, but we must get away from this (understandable) obsession that the next young kid is the saviour. I don’t think Rafa was trying to tell me he’s the next Lionel Messi.

I wanted to make it clear, without going into confidential information, that I could see how things might have been different had Rafa got his first-choice targets over the past five years (although all managers lose out on players for one reason or another; unlimited funds obviously makes it easier, though).

I could see how fans’ perceptions of players can be based on a lack of the full facts, such as attitudes behind the scenes, and so on. For instance, today we have Jermaine Pennant saying that the players “needed more freedom under Benítez”; the very day before, Benítez was telling me a story about how Pennant abused what freedom he was given.

I had no interest in sharing that info (I think people could guess that Pennant was not the most level-headed of players), but now that the player speaks out against the manager, I think “why should I protect your reputation”?

Now, Rafa told me no such things about the current playing staff, so I’m trusting that this means that such problems no longer exist. So I don’t want people to be drawing the wrong conclusions.

Rafa did tell me what he wants certain players to improve upon, and again, that’s natural; I don’t think Bob Paisley ever went up to anyone and said “Lad, you’re perfect. You’re the finished article. Don’t strive to get better. Please, put your feet up, go rest on your laurels.” But Rafa also pointed out some of the more hidden positive qualities in almost all of his charges.

I could also see some players for the future who were perhaps not on the radar, although any manager will tell you that between 16-20, players can fail to develop as hoped. Getting to see Oz behind the curtain was more important to me than any titbits I could impress others with. I can now study these players with greater insight, to try and see what I might otherwise have missed. (Just as I did with Rafa’s DVD run-through of the Reds’ marking.)

The point is not to abuse the ‘insider info’, given straight from the horse’s mouth, because I wouldn’t dream of it in a million years; what Rafa told me only strengthened my belief in his ability to know what the problems are (even if he can’t dedicate press conferences to such issues). That’s more than good enough for me.

His trust was crucial, and the chance to maybe speak with him again in a year or two (hopefully after lifting some silverware) is my ambition; I want him to succeed so that Liverpool succeed.

Doing anything to harm Liverpool FC at its core level (the manager, his staff, the players, the fans, the club’s website), is not something that interests me.

As for the owners, I want to make it clear that I have no loyalty to them whatsoever. Everything I am doing now I was doing before they arrived, and I haven’t got the foggiest as to whether they plan to stay around in full, in part or not at all. I hope to be doing it long after they’ve gone, if that is their intention.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the team in the past five years, which is my forte, and less time focusing on the politics; Rafa certainly didn’t invite me to talk about the latter. And anyway, I’m not a politically connected Liverpool figure, and fully accept as much.

But I know that Spirit of Shankly have gone into such issues in great depth, and, of course, have spoken with the owners.

A major worry on Wednesday, having read what Gérard Houllier used to do with Chris Bascombe, was Rafa telling me to back ‘this’ junior player and slate ‘that’ senior player. But not once did he try to influence what I have to say – other than to correct a couple of my own minor miscomprehensions over tactical issues, as part of a tuition in the finer points of the sport.

The man I met appeared to have a normal ego; and yet he gets accused by some observers of it being ‘all about him’. That really baffles me.

This seems to be a misunderstanding of the fact that he doesn’t make it all about individual players. He tries to share around the responsibility, from himself to those who take to the pitch. He wants to keep everyone’s ego in check, so these inner beasts don’t override the hunger to succeed.

In showing me around, or moving from the canteen to the office, Rafa held open every single door for me. He introduced me to staff members as if I was someone. And he listened intently to what I had to say.

On the subject of confidence, I mentioned how, when I first moved from Sunday League to semi-pro (albeit not at Conference level), I felt horribly out of my depth. I stank. I’d had an invite from Howard Wilkinson’s son to have a trial at Leeds when I was 19, but I never had the hunger or belief to follow it up, and it wasn’t until I was 25 (by which time I having my first real struggles with my health) that I even considered anything beyond Sunday League, at which level I could score goals with my eyes closed.

When I moved to the semi-pro set-up, I doubted myself. I kept missing sitters, misplacing passes, and so on. Then one week I scored two late goals to win a local derby, and the next week, 35 yards out, I chested, and then teed a ball up with my thigh, before volleying it into the top corner. Two games earlier, I could have tried that 100 times and not got close.

35yarder

It’s hard to explain what goes through your head in a situation like that, out on the pitch. Maybe it’s that nothing does; instinct, and foresight, takes over, as you’ve almost already visualised the end result, without even being conscious of the fact. Being in the zone is almost like a lightness and clarity of thought; a positive emptiness.

But lacking confidence, you are bombarded by conflicting impulses. Your head is a mess; a muddle of what to do: pass? shoot? take a touch and then shoot?, as well as brief visions of everything that can go wrong; the ball then bounces up onto your shin, hits you in the nose, and you’re hopeless.

Anyway, as I rambled on, Rafa smiled, as if he knew exactly what I was talking about. (Thankfully, he didn’t ask me to replicate it outside.)

Do you get confidence back by being dropped, or sent to the reserves, or do you get it back by playing? I got mine back by playing. But as he said, you cannot buy it in Marks & Spencers.

Context

I’ve read some right old crap this week, like it wasn’t even this bad under Souness. Well, four or five games is not a great sample; four or five seasons is, and to average 78 points over the past four Premiership campaigns is superb; unfortunately, richer clubs with wealthier owners and bigger squads, paying more in wages, have been a little bit better.

It’s the same in Europe: Liverpool were recently ranked #1 on five-year showings. As Rafa told me (and as I’d also hinted at before), if Liverpool had won the Champions League Final in which they were the better team, in 2007, he’d still be revered; but because they won in Istanbul, when the inferior team, it’s now seen as too long ago, even if it was the greatest night of many Reds’ lives.

Under Souness, Liverpool won four out of every ten games. Benítez is up there with Paisley and Dalglish, having won almost six out of every ten games. The difference between 40% and 60% winning ratios is massive, given that no-one will last long with a 30% record and a 70% record is about as close to perfect as anyone will get over an extended period of time.

If most of your best players are injured, or carrying other concerns (such as Mascherano, not only unsettled by Barcelona but also captaining an Argentina side on the verge of its biggest disaster in many decades), then you will struggle. I’m sorry, but that’s plain logic.

Sympathy

As I drove home, I felt a great deal of sympathy for Benítez, especially as he tried to get a fit team together for the utterly vital game against United, unsure as to who he’d be selecting, and no doubt unsure up to the late fitness tests.

Let’s be clear: if the anti-Rafa brigade get their way, he will surely be well compensated. He will also be in a top job within no time at all. He’s far more wealthy and successful than I’ll ever be, so why should I feel anything for him?

Well, what saddened me was that he’s put in more than five years’ worth of incredible hard work, beyond the call of duty (while other managers golf for much of the week, he’s at Melwood), to keep building and building the club up and up – to get it to a 19-year high – only for it to look like it was collapsing within the space of weeks; weeks that included goals going in off beach balls and some of the best players in the world crocked when away with their countries.

Who deserves that? No amount of money would mean more to Benítez than lifting the title with Liverpool, or further European glory. But over-arching expectations from fans, dog’s abuse from the media, and little influence in places like the FA, mean that his efforts could come crashing around his ears.

Before I end, a brief example:

Rafa told me stories of utter scouting incompetence, and how he’d recently slim-lined the incomprehensibly long list of those who search out local talent, and professionalised the system; such changes are not widely known, but it’s all part of bringing all aspects of the club, many of which were not under his control, up to 21st Century standards.

Many fans have no clue how outdated some of the ideas where, but that’s all part of “Shanklyfying” the club. Remember, 50 years ago, the great man did not want to do things the way of the 1930s. He wanted to do things the way of the future; it was 1959, and he wanted to do things the way of the ‘60s. And while those methods are now outdated purely from the evolution of the game, at the time they were what was needed.

The problem Benítez faces is that too many people who were at the club 20 years ago (or even just in the game at that time) think that what worked then will work now; Shankly and Paisley would have stood for no such nonsense. Benítez won’t either.

But whereas Shankly had time to make such alterations (as did Ferguson when taking over another sleeping giant), modern life is not full of patience. And, to clarify a recent point, it’s not just a selection of snotty teenagers who can’t see the wood for the trees.

© Paul Tomkins

Note: given the unique situation this week, this piece is again free to all, to read and to share a link for. However, I have written a more light-hearted piece on the week for subscribers, and as before, only members, using the comments box below, can enter into a debate about this article.

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