Monday, 7 June 2010

LIVERPOOL FC: A response to Chris Bascombe's hatchet job

TEAR apart a poisonous presentation of something at Liverpool FC and you'll always get the same response: Why does it matter?

Just ignore it, will be the cry. Don't buy the newspaper, give the website a swerve, turn the telly off or change the radio station.

Admittedly for my own blood pressure it works a treat (I'm a much calmer man since I stopped listening to Talk Sport and those dents in the steering wheel have started to recede).

Adopting that strategy is all well and good but when apathy rules, people start to take the piss. And then you realise - misinformation does matter.

It matters because it's a distraction. A noise. It's like someone waving something shiny on the hard shoulder of the motorway - you end up looking when you should be braking to avoid the crash.

The latest distraction comes from Chris Bascombe. And the something shiny in his case is a freshly-sharpened hatchet.

Bascombe, formerly of the Liverpool Echo, and a Liverpool fan, now writes for the News of the World.

I don't buy the paper, I don't visit their website - not just because of their obvious link to The S*n but also because I don't enjoy their particular brand of journalism.

But it's still relatively easy to be exposed to Bascombe's work - it's a reoccurring thread in one of the Liverpool forums for instance. And like it or not, the NOTW is the biggest selling newspaper in Britain.

So Bascombe's words carry weight with some. Many will pick up that paper without knowing the background and believe every word.

I’m not one of them. In fact, I’d go as far as to describe his latest piece as a joke.

Coming just a day after a brilliant warts-and-all summing up of Rafa Benitez's reign by The Mirror's Brian Reade, Bascombe couldn't resist the temptation to plunge the knife into Benitez, the man who helped him win awards at the Echo - and secure a move to a national in the first place.

Because in journalism, contacts are king. Being a competent writer is only half the battle. To win the awards, to impress the big boys, you need a man on the inside. And who better than the manager?

But that was then. And when the Benitez-Bascombe relationship soured, the former Old Hall Street scribe didn't like it.

So when he kicks off his bitter, one-eyed piece with the line about Benitez forgetting about the players, about him having "minimal support", what's that based on? Because it's not fact.

Bascombe probably does still have some contacts at Liverpool - his key one isn't hard to work out, he wrote his book. But one player's view isn't necessarily the view of the whole squad - and shouldn't be presented as so.

So for Bascombe's yin in that he claims Benitez had little backing in the dressing room, I give you Tony Barrett's yang from a recent webchat he did for The Times.

Asked if player power had played a part in Benitez getting the sack, Barrett replied:

"This myth is being perpetuated to ridiculous levels now. I spoke to a very senior Liverpool player today, one who has been outspoken in his criticism of the owners, and he told me the Liverpool dressing room was no different to any other.

"There are players who don't like Benitez, there are others who do like him and there are those who change their opinion of the manager according to variables such as whether or not they are in the team and results."

So there's a view from the inside, from a player - and to him the Liverpool dressing room was no different to any workplace.

Yet to Bascombe, it's the frontline of a warzone.

The alleged evidence of how Benitez mistreated the players, too, is laughable.

Rafa Benitez signed Fernando Torres's hat-trick ball against Hull with 'Keep working'.

Funny how that sentence evokes no emotion when written on its own. Yet Bascombe dresses it up like Benitez had pulled down the striker's shorts and smacked his arse in front of the rest of the players.

It's the same with Henry Winter, a journalist that moves in similar circles, with his constant reference of the 'cold detachment' of Benitez.

I don't know about anyone else, but in my working life I've never had a manager that wraps me in a fur coat, puts me in front of the fire and tells me how good I am every five minutes. Why does a professional footballer need that kind of treatment - particularly one as good as Torres?

If signing a ball 'keep working' is the best evidence Bascombe can present that Benitez is 'cold' after six years, is it unfair to suggest he is clutching at straws?

Then there's the suggestions that Benitez was/is deluded, is some kind of crank - like his attacks on the owners were almost out of order, something he'd dreamt up and exaggerated.

Suggestions which, coming from a Liverpool fan, are startling. Bascombe, more than most, should be all too aware of the perilous position the ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett has put the club in - yet it’s almost swatted aside as a side issue.

So while Bascombe admits: "He had much to complain about due to the owners..." he goes on to say "Working for mad chairmen is an occupational hazard but most managers deal with it in a shrewder manner."

But most managers are not dealing with chairmen whose sole aim is to line their pockets. Most managers can rely on some modicum of support from their chairmen, and most chairmen have some idea about football and know, for instance, that if you need a centre half when you are trying to mount a title challenge, you don't go scouring the bottom end of the market.

The vindictive attack goes on and on, tempered only by the sentence: "He was and still is a world-class coach."

My guess is that came afterwards, probably just as he was about to hit send, when he thought: 'Hang on - let's make this a balanced piece..."

That lines appears before he walks off down another avenue - a route where it is clear on which side of the divide he was when the recent public battle of Anfield was taking place.

"Benitez thought he'd won his war. Instead he came up against Christian Purslow at a time when key players' form dipped and injuries took their toll."

Ah Purslow, all hail the suited-up bean counter - our saviour. Ask yourself this, have you ever known a managing director's name appear in the press so frequently? The Telegraph's Winter, the Daily Mail's Ian Ladyman, The Mirror's Dave Maddock - all time and again tellling us what a wonderful job this man is doing while at the same time attacking Benitez and often barely giving a nod to the club's off-field problems.

Anyone would think that some kind of briefings have been taking place...

And what of Purslow? Why is he still here? What's his role? And why is he now getting involved in football matters?

Wasn't it his brief to sell the club (or at the very least bring in some new investment)?

"Vulnerable, Benitez became more confrontational. Purslow soon found himself cast as panto villain amongst the clan referred to in Anfield circles as 'the Rafa mafia'. The poisonous leaks against Purslow were assisted by the careful manipulation of Benitez's sympathisers who laughably complained when the boss became the victim of his own smear tactics."

So what "poisonous leaks" are they then, Chris? Is it supposed to refer to the incident with Spirit of Shankly when "Cecil" tried to release some more spin to fans and SOS felt it was time to reveal what was really being said by a senior official about the future of our club?

Quite how that constitutes Benitez attempting to smear Purslow, I don't know. But it seems the only logical explanation. Otherwise I'm struggling to understand the reference, as are many others.

Whereas if you want evidence of leaks about Benitez being put out to the press by Purslow, well we can go back as far as November when Winter wrote:

"But it is known around Anfield that Purslow has talked to Benítez about his style of management, notably his cold detachment from the players"

Now THAT'S a poisonous leak, as is suggesting the former manager was deliberately missing meetings with Martin Broughton, the new chairman, when he in fact was preparing for a mammoth journey across Europe to Madrid.

Tearing shreds off Benitez isn't Bascombe's only agenda in his latest piece, either. He decides to have a go at fans, too:

"His departure should not only leave fans assessing where the club goes but cause some to re-think their own role. There's a flaw in the ethos of a club which too readily makes gods of managers."

"There's a well meaning but misguided element of Liverpool's support seduced by Benitez's chippy approach. They want Liverpool as a club and city to be belligerent street fighters and their extreme view of what the Scouse mentality is rooted in militant caricature. Benitez bought into this which is why his behaviour became so erratic."

There's also a flaw, Chris, in journalists who too readily accept the viewpoint of one player, or one boardroom suit, without considering what their agenda is; without questioning it; without offering balance.

As for telling fans how they should behave, what they should believe in - even what their politics should be, well who appointed you God, Chris?

Perhaps these fans who you mock recognise the state their club is in. Perhaps they recognise that there is a fight taking place and in Benitez they had an ally - what do you want, a puppet? A man who will watch as Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano and maybe even Torres are sold from under him, and will say nothing? A man who won't make a murmur when the promised budget disappears, or when yet another signing goes to the dogs because of tinkering and money watching?

Well not for me, Chris. There's problems enough at the club and Benitez, love or hate his football, was well used to dealing with them.

As you say, he was and is, a world-class coach - something Liverpool now look unlikely to attract.

But it's OK Chris, instead of asking the questions we really want answering - like why spend £6million giving one manager the boot, and £3m to attract an inferior one when we're skint; like why sack the boss without having a replacement lined up; like why target one-season wonders, second-rate nomads and men with less than desirable links and track records that don't stand up when you had a European Cup winner on board?

Instead of those, let's tackle what's really important: that the manager stopped giving you stories, you didn't like it and you couldn't wait to stick the boot in.

That makes you a much better Liverpool fan, Chris. Much better.