When last summer Rafael Benitez convinced Messrs Hicks and Gillett that he was the man to take the club forward over the next five years, it seems highly unlikely that his key argument was that the fans would be unhappy were the American owners to show him the door. Perhaps I’m being naive, but surely there was more to it than this. Whatever way the club’s owners have allowed themselves to be painted since taking control of one of football’s most famous institutions, they should not be seen as fools in business terms.
So, the decision to grant the Spaniard more or less total control of all football matters at Anfield would not have been based on sentiment or even concern for the club’s fans. If the track record of both men is anything to go by, the decision was based on the belief that the Spaniard is well equipped to take the club forward – and make them some money.
So as pressure mounts for the Liverpool hierarchy to stick or twist – stick with Benitez or twist in the knife and finish his tenure – it will be interesting to see whether the weight of argument put forward by the Spaniard last summer is more powerful than the subsequent slump in the club’s fortunes.
On balance, it should be. However, media coverage of Liverpool’s travails this season has amounted at times to a witch-hunt, with Benitez as its sole target. It’s hard not to get the impression that sections of the media are hell bent on bringing down a big club manager – with the Spaniard the most likely candidate due to a troubled season at Anfield. It’s as if they want to break the Spaniard, upping the ante until he walks or is pushed out the door.
Obviously, Benitez cannot be absolved of all blame for Liverpool’s stuttering season. After all, was the club still in contention in the title race and at the sharp end of the Champions League, then the pressure would not be so intense. Or so you would think. But think back to last season when Liverpool achieved their best-ever points total in the Premier League and pushed United all the way in the title race, and even then, Benitez came in for uncommon criticism in the media glare.
At the heart of the matter perhaps is not the Spaniard himself, but the club he represents and people’s memories of its former greatness, the unrealistic expectations such memories engender and the sense of disappointment when those expectations are dashed by the club’s failings and the power of its better resourced rivals.
The big picture shows that Benitez has taken Liverpool forward in his tenure. That the club seems to have stalled this season is ultimately not a strong enough argument to see the man lose his job. As a club, despite no longer being the kind of irresistible force it was in the 1980s, Liverpool has at least been restored to the top table of European clubs (this season excepted). This is in no small measure a result of the diligent work of the committed Spaniard.
However, media-driven short termism and the lack of patience that seems to permeate all walks of life these days threaten to wash that work away. Building Liverpool into a club that can be self-sustaining financially and that can compete sensibly with those around them is a long-term project. Liverpool have an awful lot of ground to make up and do not have the luxury of the kind of resources afforded to the likes of Chelsea and now Manchester City to make it all happen almost overnight.
What Liverpool need is a committed manager with time (in terms of age) on his side. They need a manager with a track record of competing against the odds when out-resourced by his rivals – capable of taking advantage of their slips and off seasons. They need a man who is passionate about the club and is single-minded in his vision of the game.
And ultimately, that is what Liverpool already have. It may not seem like it to many right now, but as has been shown time and again in football, patience is a virtue – it may not make the kind of headlines a voracious media devours, but it has been the foundation of countless great clubs and the making of many great managers.
Liverpool need to keep the faith. Let the man do his job.