liverpool's stuttering start

Benitez left without a fall guy

August 27, 2009
By Chris Peterson

As Rafael Benitez flounders in a mire of his own making, it's easy to picture a happier scene being played out not a million miles away from Anfield.

Friends no more: Rick Parry and Benitez
GettyImages / JulianFinney.jpgFriends no more: Rick Parry and Benitez

A middle-aged man with grey, curly hair allowing himself a satisfied smile as he sits in front of the television at home or enjoys a leisurely round of golf. No, not Bill Kenwright. His name is Rick Parry, erstwhile chief executive of Liverpool FC. Or "Coco" to the fans who used to bombard internet message boards, blaming him for so many of Liverpool's ills.

Now Parry is gone, ushered out of the door at the end of last season, who is there left to blame? The American owners, George Gillett and Tom Hicks? Probably. Lucas Leiva? Definitely. Benitez himself? Surely not. Yet it was the Spaniard's demand for more control over Liverpool's dealings as a condition of signing his new contract in March that appeared to deliver the final blow to Parry's term in office.

Supporters had long accused him of mucking up Rafa's transfer deals. Of being too slow to the punch. Too conservative. They also blamed Parry for ticketing problems at the 2007 Champions League final in Athens, the delay in building a new stadium and the length of Andrei Voronin's ponytail.

If that wasn't bad enough, Hicks weighed in with a personal attack aimed at ingratiating himself to Benitez and his legion of disciples. The Texan described Parry's leadership as "a disaster", adding: "At the first meeting we had with Rafa he talked of the number of players he had missed out on because Parry was too slow. Too many times nothing happens."

So Parry is gone, Rafa rules the roost, Liverpool have landed all their transfer targets and the Premier League title is on its way. Well, that was the plan.

In fact, the perception is that Benitez's squad has actually gone backwards, not forwards, this summer. Two defeats in their opening three Premier League games - as many as Liverpool suffered in the whole of last season - would appear to support that view.

Against Aston Villa on Monday, Benitez executed his usual exit strategy when finishing on the losing side. A brief handshake with his opposite number Martin O'Neill and then first down the tunnel, slipping his spectacles indignantly into his top pocket. It would have been better if he'd left them there in the first place, so painful was the sight of Liverpool's surrender to a decidedly average Villa team.

In the days since there have been murmurings of discontent from supporters who know they came so close to a first title celebration for 20 years last season and were desperate to go one better this time around. One caller to a Merseyside radio phone-in even suggested Hicks and Gillett were deliberately keeping quiet and "giving Rafa enough rope to hang himself with".

Rafael Benitez
GettyImages / AlexLiveseyRafael Benitez: Feeling the pressure?

Some turned on Lucas, the scorer of a hapless own goal, while others re-opened the debate over Rafa's devotion to a zonal marking system. After Sebastien Bassong's winner for Spurs in the opening game came Curtis Davies' decisive header for Villa. The natives are getting restless.

But the truth remains that this is Benitez's team. He signed Lucas, Ryan Babel, Andrea Dossena, Charles Itandje, Voronin and Robbie Keane. He has left his squad too thin on the ground again and too reliant on Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.

And it was his plan to sell Xabi Alonso to Juventus last summer to fund a move for Gareth Barry that sowed the seeds for the Spain midfielder's controversial departure to Real Madrid earlier this month.

Parry cannot be blamed for that, any more than he can be blamed for Benitez's ill-advised decision to spark a public war of words with Ferguson last season that seemed to distract Liverpool far more than it did eventual champions Manchester United.

There are even suggestions the former Valencia boss has over-extended himself by taking on the added responsibility for transfer dealings which effectively means he calls the shots behind new MD Christian Purslow. There were similar concerns when Benitez worked for much of the 2007-08 season without an assistant following his fall-out with right-hand man Paco Ayesteran.

Benitez certainly believes in doing things his way, but you have to question whether Liverpool have been any more clinical in the transfer market this summer than they were under Parry.

True, the Anfield boss has had comparatively little money to spend. Although £37m went on Glen Johnson and Alberto Aquilani, he broke even by selling Alonso, Alvaro Arbeloa and Sebastian Leto. But both United and Arsenal's net spending is significantly lower than Liverpool's. Chelsea's is under £20m. Benitez is not alone here.

So what of his new signings? While no-one would question Johnson's impact since his arrival from Portsmouth - even though Benitez himself admitted he paid over the odds for the England defender - you cannot help but feel he will now be judged on the success of Aquilani.

The injury-prone Italian was still recovering from surgery to his right ankle when he arrived to sign a five-year deal worth £85,000-a-week, and will not appear until October when the public can decide whether Benitez has signed a worthy replacement for Alonso or an expensive flop.

By then, Liverpool's title challenge may already be history. Equally, the next four games against Bolton, Burnley, West Ham and Hull could see Benitez's side propelled back towards the top of the table and we will be talking about them as genuine contenders again.

Parry, for one, will be intrigued to see how it all pans out.