Liverpool''s Special One By: John Dykes
The whistle had not long gone at the Madejski Stadium and Liverpool’s fans were celebrating a highly entertaining Carling Cup win over Reading. The victorious players trooped off the pitch relieved that a tricky opponent had eventually been overcome. Yet one player lingered on the pitch on Tuesday night. Fernando Torres made his way towards referee Martin Atkinson and, through a couple of gestures and an awkward word or two in English, got what he wanted: the match ball. Okay, it may have been a third-round tie in English football’s least glamorous competition but a hat-trick is a hat-trick, and Torres wanted his memento. Good for him. It was a simple gesture which will have struck a chord with any of us who feel that football is being over-complicated. A throwback if you like. There is so much talk these days about squad rotation, scientific testing of players’ fitness levels, tactical selection and recovery time that it’s easy to overlook the game’s fundamentals. One of them has it that a striker wants to play and score goals in every game going. And if he does play, and scores a hat-trick, he wants the match ball. Go back and listen to the TV commentary on Tuesday’s game, or re-read every match report and you will hear and see the same opinion: Fernando Torres should have started for Liverpool in last Saturday’s miserable 0-0 home draw with Birmingham. It is an opinion which has been voiced vociferously from the Kop to Anfield’s Carlsberg Lounge (packed with former Liverpool legends) to ESPN’s Singapore studio (where Steve McMahon was positively purple with outrage this week). It was an opinion which was also put to Rafa Benitez post-match at the Madejski. His reply: "I have four good strikers and pick the one I want. I don’t mind criticism, I just think of what is best for the team. I think the supporters know that. Torres knows why I left him out. Was he happy? All of the strikers want to play in every game." The easy comeback to that is, "four good strikers, maybe. But what Liverpool’s supporters really want is - if you’ll forgive the phrase - a special one. Now, don''t get me wrong; this isn''t the pre-cursor to an anti-Rafa Benitez rant. It’s not my place to question the wisdom of a man who has done what he has in football. But it is my job to offer some kind of insight into the man who seems to have polarized fans’ opinions of late. With that in mind, I was fortunate to spend a half-hour in Rafa’s company at Liverpool’s Mellwood training complex last week.
In the course of a wide-ranging interview, he spoke eloquently and persuasively about the defining moments in his managerial career both in Spain and England. In doing so, he reinforced the belief that Rafa Benitez is a thoroughly impressive, totally professional and extremely likeable individual. He also addressed the burning issue of Liverpool’s priorities this season. Benitez knows only too well that the Barclays Premier League winners’ trophy is the piece of silverware that the fans crave right now above all others (the Champions League included). He is also perfectly happy to address criticism of his squad rotation policy. With just a flicker of annoyance across his otherwise serene features, he admitted that sometimes it irks him to hear fans calling for one player or another to start a game when Rafa himself knows the player is injured or not ready for action. And therein lies the only possible criticism of Mr Benitez: he is so utterly dedicated, so totally absorbed in his work when it comes to preparing his team to achieve his goals that he loses sight of some of the more extemporaneous aspects of football at a club like Liverpool. Indeed, the word existential might be even more appropriate. Anfield. Saturday. 3 pm. That''s what I’m talking about. In these days of lunchtime and teatime kickoffs, re-scheduled games and European commitments, the once-revered Saturday afternoon slot for league mas become an annoyingly infrequent occurrence in the eyes of most of Liverpool’s fans. While they accept that times have changed in the world of football, they still romanticize the things that made Liverpool such a magical club: the Boot Room, the Kop, the magical strikers (Dalglish, Rush, Fowler), the pub at 5 pm on Saturday after a home win. Had Rafa not been so absorbed in his calculated, professional-to-the-nth-degree preparations for Saturday''s game against Birmingham, he would have taken note of the groups of Norwegian, Spanish and Chinese fans arriving for their once-in-a-lifetime experience.