January 24, 2009

Bloodless Coup

I have a client, Marathon Sports Travel, who will take you 'to the heart of the action', whether that's at places such as Anfield and Murrayfield, or whichever foreign field plays host to the bloodied Lions of Great Britain & Ireland or to the red-shirted heroes of Munster or Manchester as they battle to be conquerors of Europe.

But I have a challenge for them. More than any of these places, I want to be taken to the heart of the action at the European Cup Final at the Olympic Stadium in Rome in May 1977, or to the FA Cup Final at Wembley in May 1986. In fact, I'd happily settle for any of the more run-of-the-mill matches that were played up and down England and across Europe by own red-shirted heroes anytime from the early '70s to the mid '80s.

You see, I'm a Liverpool fan, always have been, always will be. Que sera, sera and all of that.

But I realised something awful last weekend when the current Liverpool team stumbled yet again and allowed Man United to take charge of things at the top of the Premiership table: I don't care anymore.

Now this isn't a question of sour grapes or of being a fair-weather fan or anything. It's just that I don't recognise Liverpool anymore. They're no longer my team or our team, they're Benitez' team. They no longer show the spirit that marked out the great Liverpool teams (even those who finished second-best from time to time in England or Europe).

This is a team which gives the ball away without a thought or shuttles it fearfully from one player to another, back and forth, forward and back, because most are unwilling to take responsibility. When many of them get the ball, they don't seem to know what to do with it.

This is is a team of little intelligence. Sure, there's no shortage of endeavour or brute courage but this team is unrecognisable from the Liverpool teams of old, which played with confidence and style, and which had leaders in every position who were unafraid to seize the initiative and make something happen.

Today's team often bear a haunted look, as well they might, for the ghosts of old aren't even consigned to the record-books; many of them have turned pundit and dissect the performances of the current crop of players with the same calculation and edge with which they broke down opposing teams and turned defence to attack in an instant.

Rafael Benitez has carefully built a mediocre team in his own image and squeezed the life out of this great club as he's done so. Under his watchful eye, players who arrive filled with hope and brio wither away. Is there a single import who has improved during his time at Liverpool? Players shrink under his management and when they move on they often seem to find a new lease of life and to rediscover their old verve and intelligence.

I do not like what Mr. Benitez has done to 'my' Liverpool one bit (mind you, his predecessor was hardly any better). I remember being similarly offended by what some of the awful advertising of the late '90s did to 'my' Guinness.

So Marathon Sports Travel, please don't take me to see Benitez FC, masquerading in the colours of my team. Take me instead to the heart of the action at even the meanest fixture in a Liverpool campaign sometime in the late '70s or early '80s.

I don't even care if they win, though I'll be shouting myself hoarse until the very end. I just want to see Joey Jones or Ronnie Whelan or Kenny Dalglish play the game the way the Liverpool game is played. With confidence on the ball, with skill and with courage but, above all, with real footballing spirit.

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