The Scousers are famed for their sense of humour. Not that there are many Liverpudlians of a red persuasion laughing at the moment after Barnsley’s impudent victory at Anfield last Saturday, a result which has condemned Rafa Benitez’s boys to be the butt of everyone’s jokes for the next few days.
It’s human nature — let alone football etiquette — to revel in the misfortune of the great and mighty. We were all sniggering at Arsenal’s mauling at Old Trafford and if Chelsea had been downed by Huddersfield at Stamford Bridge, we’d be wetting ourselves. The bigger they are, the more humorous the fall.
So what now for Rafa and his players? They’re not the first side to suffer the ignominy of losing to lower league opposition. A morale-boosting win over Inter Milan at Anfield in midweek went a long way to papering over the cracks and a respectable late rally in the Premier League, closing the chasm that currently exists between the top three and the Reds, would certainly not go amiss.
And yet the feeling persists that there are long-term, fundamental problems at the club.
There’s no argument that Rafa is a good manager. Liverpool have deep pockets and the fans are nothing if not loyal and vociferous. And yet Liverpool still feel like a club that, for nearly two decades now, have taken one step forward and two back.
In truth, the sense of inertia has hung over Anfield long before Rafa traded in the Spanish sun for Merseyside. The appointments of Graeme Souness, Roy Evans, Gerard Houllier and than Benitez were all hailed as the dawn of a new era and each time they’ve been false.
Now for me, Liverpool’s problems are essentially twofold. The first is the club’s disastrous transfer policy. The second is the crushing weight of history.
First, the transfers. Over the last decade, the Reds have made a succession of signings that have consistently failed to make the grade. Buying one or two flops could be considered unfortunate but to have spent millions over 10 years for so little reward is more than careless.
Think about it. Who could Liverpool fans point to in the last 10 years and say, hand on heart, proved to be the quality of player the club expects? The kind of player who would get in the best Man United, Arsenal or Chelsea teams? The kind of player who can actually win you titles?
Torres? Of course. Anyone else? Now I’m struggling…
There’s been plenty of good players. International players. Players who’ve enjoyed 10-match, maybe even season-long purple patches. But no-one to rival the impact made by the likes of Thierry Henry, Cristiano Ronaldo or Didier Drogba — all three of whom were instrumental in leading their team to the big prize.
Not convinced? Well I give you the likes of Diouf and Bellamy, Cisse and Voronin, Zenden and Biscan, Gonzalez and Cheyrou, Heggem and Traore, Baros and Diao, Kuyt and Garcia.
Why Liverpool have got it so spectacularly wrong eludes me. It’s not a case of not giving the manager money, it’s a case of consistently making the wrong moves in the transfer market.
So what of Liverpool’s long and illustrious history? It’s obviously a strength, a source of understandable pride but it is also increasingly proving to be the club’s Achilles Heel, especially when it comes to the managerial appointments.
Going back to 1990 and the club’s last league title, it’s easy to trace the story. Kenny Dalglish left in 1991 and in keeping with the Boot Room philosophy, they went for Souness. For the first time, bringing back a favourite son did not work out but rather than abandon the policy of keeping things in house, Evans was installed.
This was no more successful and reluctantly Liverpool ‘went foreign’ for the first time with Houllier. Six years later Rafa pitched up.
But even when the Reds broke with tradition and looked to the Continent, they couldn’t quite shake the belief the manager needed at least five years in the hot seat to sort things out. That’s why they stagnated under Houllier when all the signs were there he wasn’t the right man and that’s why many neutrals and — whisper this one — even some Liverpool fans are now thinking the same about Rafa.
Liverpool don’t want to demean themselves by chopping and changing managers. That’s what ‘lesser’ clubs do. The problem is not getting the wrong manager, it’s refusing to accept that you’ve made a mistake at all. The collective denial at Anfield goes on and until they let go of the glorious past, the barren years look set to continue.
Written by Ian Spragg of Sport Media Solutions, previously published at 4sportsake.com.