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Friday, February 17, 2012

Benitez and Dalglish Both Victims of Anfield 'Victim Culture'

'I want to talk about facts' Rafa Benitez raged before the assembled media one Friday afternoon in January 2009. The former Liverpool manger, who's team were on top of the league at the time was taking a routine press conference when he reached into his pocket for a piece of paper and proceeded to launch an extraordinary tirade against Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson; famously dubbed 'Rafa's rant'.

'Rafa's cracking up' the United fans sang. The rest of football was divided between those who were sympathetic to the Liverpool manager's charges and those who were simply bemused by his sudden and seemingly unprovoked outburst.
Benitez's argument that January day centred around what he perceived as Manchester United's improper relationship with referees. He also questioned Sir Alex Ferguson's dissatisfaction with the fixture calender. Ferguson had no reason to complain, Rafa argued. In his view the fixtures had been kind to United. Let Fergie decide the fixtures in his office, he scoffed. The Manchester United manager already had an advantage over his rivals, Benitez claimed. By virtue of his status and longevity Ferguson had been able to manipulate referees and criticise them without censure. 'These are all facts' Benitez insisted.
'I will be watching United's game against Chelsea on Sunday' he said - presumably to make sure no undue advantage was afforded to the Manchester team by the officials – 'but the result will not matter if we win our game at Stoke, we will stay at the top of the league.'
As it transpired, Liverpool did not win their game against Stoke. They drew 0-0; one of series of costly draws that allowed United to claim their 18th league title; equalling Liverpool's record at the time and leaving Benitez exposed to the derision of United fans everywhere.
For many, Rafa's rant was the turning point in the title race. It may even have been the turning point in his Liverpool career and the beginning of a decline that eventually led to the club exiting the UEFA Champions League; a competition they haven't featured in since.


The problem for Liverpool was that Rafa's outburst did more than simply generate headlines and turn the heat up on the simmering resentment between England's two most successful clubs. The moment Benitez reached for that fact laden scrap of paper in his pocket he started a war that he could only win by claiming the league title. For himself and his players, the legacy of the rant was to be an unnecessary burden for the rest of the season.
Perhaps Benitez had hoped to use his airing of 'the facts' and his exposure of the inherent systemic bias toward Manchester United (as he saw it) as a kind of rallying cry to his men. It was to be the launch of a gallant crusade against the evil and unscrupulous hordes at Old Trafford. 19 years had passed since Liverpool's last title and by 2009 Benitez had assembled their first team since 1990 that looked capable of regaining the pinnacle of English football. They had the talent; they had the ambition. All they needed now was 'a cause'.
The war against Ferguson was to be it. Previously, Arsene Wenger had managed occasional interruptions to United's dominance with anti-Fergie campaigns of his own and it must have been an attractive proposition to Benitez; to prove his credentials by taking on the biggest beast of them all. It was to prove disastrous.
Far from appearing bold and gallant in his crusade, the Liverpool manager came across as paranoid, obsessed and out of his depth. The nervous anger in his voice as he delivered his, clearly rehearsed, rant was unimpressive and lacked the polish of a natural performer. To many, Rafa was just another hapless victim of Fergie's mind games.
To be fair, he was not the first high profile title challenger to have cracked under the insidious mental challenges constantly emanating from Old Trafford. In 1996 Kevin Keegan was reduced to a similar outburst as the pressure mounted in the league title race but Keegan was always an emotional character; unlike Benitez who until then had seemed restrained and controlled. Several unseemly public spats between Benitez and Liverpool's American owners followed and while Rafa's hostility toward the loathed Gillette and Hicks regime was popular with the supporters - as was his feud with Ferguson at the time - outside of Anfield his antics added to the general perception that the man was no longer in control of his club, his team or even himself. It was a perception from which he never recovered.


Fast forward to the 2011/12 season and it is hard not to detect echoes of Benitez's belligerence in Kenny Dalglish's handling of the Luis Suarez/Patrice Evra dispute.
Although it was Benitez, three years ago, who chose to wade into an avoidable conflict whereas Dalglish to large extent had the Suarez affair foisted on him, both men attempted to harness conflict to their advantage. It is also instructive that in both cases the enemy was Manchester United. By maintaining an off the field conflict with United, both Benitez and Dalglish sought to use the media to rally their troops against a common foe in the classic manner. Nothing focuses minds like a war.
Back in September referees were the target of Kenny Dalglish's anger. Several key decisions had gone against his side and the Liverpool manger was not happy; even suggesting that there was a conspiracy against his club. It was a ridiculous notion. Dalglish and Liverpool seemed isolated and somewhat erratic in their behaviour. In the aftermath of a defeat at Stoke, Dalglish was scathing. 'It is important to respect the referee but it is more important that referees respect my football club' he said before going on to suggest that, subject to the owners approval, the club might consider making a formal complaint to the FA . In the event, no such complaint was made. It was a farcical episode. But in hindsight it seems obvious now from his campaign against the refs, Dalglish - like Benitez before him -  was searching for a 'cause'. He would soon get one.
When the Suarez-Evra dispute arose it must have seemed like manna from heaven. Luis Suarez, the Kop hero, 'wrongly accused of racism' by a Manchester United player – and not just any United player but a player who many believed had a history of making false claims of racial abuse (Of course Evra had never before made a claim of racial abuse but that didn't matter). The sense of righteous outrage was overpowering and unfortunately, blinding.
Kenny had his cause and what a cause it was too. He was in his element. His indignation swelled; as had Rafa's three years before. Dalglish grasped the sword feverishly. The FA's request to both clubs not to comment during the investigation was ignored by the Liverpool manager. He needed his crusade. 'We want it resolved as quickly as it possibly can be and want the perpetrator punished' Dalglish raged in November; clearly accusing Evra. He was also critical of the length of time the enquiry was taking in spite of the fact that the delay was partially due to the busy schedule of Liverpool's own QC. 'Let’s make sure the person who is in the wrong gets punished' Dalglish insisted to the Liverpool Echo on October 29th. In the same interview he described the FA's behaviour as 'strange.'
In spite of the FA's pleas's for discretion Dalglish could not help himself; convinced, as he was, that his man was innocent.  Kenny finally had the cause he craved and it was irresistible.
But it was to prove a ruinous cause. Kenny had taken too big a bite this time and he was unable to chew it. Attacking the referees was one thing – individual referees have very little power away from the pitch – but taking on Manchester United was a different thing entirely as Rafa Benitez found to his cost. The enormous profile of United and the Man Utd-Liverpool rivalry inevitably combined to inflate the Suarez issue dramatically. As Benitez found out three years ago, the scrutiny and subsequent media storm was a nightmare.

                                                              Old School

Woefully out of his depth in dealing with Suarez/Evra issue, the Liverpool manager was exposed starkly. To some extent his ineptitude is understandable. Dalglish is old school; admirably so in many eyes. He is a man who often seems bemused and even horrified by the excesses of the modern media. He is the ordinary man in a world gone mad. Behold his demeanour in televised interviews; often faking amusement or confusion at the conduct of media types in order to convey his disdain for their strange and silly world. Occasionally he attempts humour – badly – and from time to time we also see flashes of anger. But Kenny's message to the media is always the same; I am normal and you are daft. It can be infuriating to behold. Whilst many of us would feel the same way when confronted with the silly questions and ridiculous hype of the sporting press, a Liverpool manager – who earns his fortune out of this ridiculous hype – must behave differently. Dalglish would do well to realise that when he talks to Geoff Shreeves or whoever else pokes a microphone is his mouth he is talking to the sporting public and should display some decorum. Whilst to his followers his behaviour can be endearing, it is clear to most that it is a transparent defence mechanism. Unfortunately for Kenny it is an approach which often backfires and leaves him looking foolish and out of place. It is also an approach which has now forced him into a humiliating apology.
Beyond his own reputation, Dalglish's inability or unwillingness to articulate himself in a proper way has also damaged the already fraught relationship between United and Liverpool. Tribal passions at Anfield and Old Trafford have flared alarmingly - notably on social media and the blogosphere - but also on the terraces where vile chants have resurfaced among the supporters of both teams. As a Manchester United season ticket holder, I have more than once been uncomfortable with the nature of certain chants articulated by some of my fellow supporters and I assume  that there are reasonable Liverpool fans who occasionally experience similar discomfort in their own stadium. In flammable situations such as the Suarez-Evra race row the public have come to expect the calming and professional embrace of the blandly reassuring PR machines to take a grip and restore normality; to cool the heated extremists amongst us. Modern football clubs invariably  issue the kind of  controversy free, sterilised statements  usually associated with middle eastern diplomats . When the claims of racist abuse first surfaced it would have been reasonable to expect a measued, calm approach from the Anfield hierarchy.
Unfortunately, Liverpool - and principally Kenny Dalglish – decided to go the other way.Their defiance inflated the matter dangerously. Dalglish, perhaps, had identified an opportunity to shape the controversy to his own advantage. Maybe he felt the conflict could be used to foster a siege mentality or to forge a bond between the players, staff and supporters; much as Rafa Benitez had sought to do three years ago. But whereas Rafa was gambling with the league title, Dalglish has gambled with his own, not to mention his club's, reputation as well as race relations in general.
Of course the hardcore supporter was all too willing form ranks behind Kenny; particularly given that the enemy's charge  was being led by the devil himself, Sir Alex Ferguson and his great church of the Antichrist, Manchester United; not to mention the 'odious boy who cried racism' (as the Liverpool faithful saw it), Patrice Evra. Suarez swore his innocence. Kenny believed him; the fans believed him too. The footballing public was treated to the t-shirt fiasco (even Suarez donned a t-shirt bearing an image of himself which is perhaps indicative of his mentality). Manchester United fans pointed to the 'scouse victim complex' as the wagon's were circled. 'We're not racist, we only hate mancs' the Liverpool fans retorted, perhaps tactlessly making light of a serious issue. Their club too was in denial.


When Suarez was found guilty by an independent commission and banned for 8 matches his club was furious. A statement disgustingly questioned Evra's credibility, as Dalglish had done previously. 'Hasn't Evra done this before?' Dalglish asked, adding insult to injury. In fact, Dalglish fingerprints were all over everything Liverpool said and did in response to the judgement.
But the independent commission's report was damning. Liverpool could find no grounds for an appeal. Instead they continued with the same silly behaviour they had displayed throughout the whole affair and issued a bitchy statement which cast doubt on the commissions findings. It was a lamentable strategy for a great footballing institution to adopt but it was consistent and apt in many ways. The 115 page commission report had shown Liverpool's defence of Suarez to have been amateurish, flippant and uncoordinated; in line with their public conduct. Dalglish was at the heart of that behaviour (It is hard to imagine the club adopting such an aggressive approach under Roy Hodgson.)
What Dalglish and Liverpool failed utterly to grasp from the start was that once Suarez admitted using the term 'negro' towards Evra the game was up. Liverpool argued that it was an acceptable way to address a black man in Uruguay, ignoring the fact that the offence was committed in England. The rest of their defence was equally shambolic and was surpassed in ineptitude only by their public utterances on the matter which seemed to have been worded by a die hard blogger with an axe to grind rather than a globally renowned elite football club's PR department.


Meanwhile, United had refrained from comment. It was the right way to behave given the serious nature of the charges and from the outset United seemed to grasp the importance of the affair and it's possible effects, beyond football, in society in general. It is lamentable that Liverpool FC were not so perceptive and remain in denial. They have still not acknowledged the harm that their stance has caused.
Luis Suarez is certainly guilty of calling Patrice Evra 'negro' in a heated exchange; that much is known. What is also known that Patrice Evra took offence to the term. It is therefore inconceivable that after all that has happened, Evra is yet to receive an apology. Suarez has never once shown any contrition. Instead, his weeping sense of injustice has dragged him into a spiral of denial and self pity. He has become ensnared in his own tangled web of lies. Throughout the affair he has sought to drag his victim through the mud, aided and abetted by his football club. Furious at Evra's violation of the 'what happens on the pitch stays on the pitch' ethos, (which he explained in a South American radio interview the week before the Old Trafford fixture) Suarez could not bring himself to say sorry. He is a man out of control.
Having served his eight match ban his first act upon his return was to pull Tottenham's Benoit Assou-Ekotto off the ball violently. He then proceeded to kick Scott Parker in the stomach. Soon atter he handled the ball the in the box and then laughably lambasted the referee for not awarding a penalty. The following Saturday he declined Evra's hand at Old Trafford, despite having assured his club and his manger that he would accept the Frenchman’s greeting. At the half time whistle he lashed the ball violenty into the crowd. The apologies that eventually followed were long overdue and fell well short of requirements.
When the statements were realeased on February 12th it was Dalglish who was most contrite. Suarez, for his part, made a half hearted apology to his manager and his team-mates; not Evra. It was left to Chief executive Ian Ayers to pass the harshest judgement. According to Ayers' statement, the Uruguayan had 'misled the club'. It is a damning charge.
From his conduct throughout this affair it is easy to suspect that Suarez misled the club from the very beginning. We know from the handshake incident that he is capable of lying to his manager and his employers. It is not, therefore, an unreasonable assumption he has been lying from the start – the independent commission certainly concluded as much.
By his refusal to shake Evra's hand, it is clear that Suarez does not have an appropriate level of respect for his manager or his club. As a youngster growing up in Uruguay he would have known very little of Kenny Dalglish 'the player'. We can assume too that LFC were not his boyhood favourites or he would surely have had more of an idea of what kind of behaviour is expected from those who turn out in the famous red shirt. It is also fair to assume that we have not seen the last of his wild streak.
When he said sorry for not accepting the handshake, Suarez's directed his remorse at Dalglish and others at Liverpool while the dry tone of his statement suggested the apology was uttered through gritted teeth. Few would bet against him embarrassing his club again in the future. It would be no surprise if he turned up on a South American radio station next week saying that he was not sorry for refusing Evra's hand; that he would do the same again if it came to it; that he should never have been banned in the first place; that he should be able to say 'negro' to whoever he pleases. In fact, it would be more surprising if we do not hear from him again on the issue.
That he should now be moving on with his football and attempting to put the Evra incident in the past is a truth that seems lost on him. His club and his manager must share the blame for his unwillingness to embrace this notion. Back in January, Liverpool accepted the sanctions of the commission but not it's findings. Their continued belligerence was ungracious and ugly given that the verdict was arrived at through a process that they submitted to willingly and wholeheartedly in the mistaken belief that their man was innocent. The harm that has now been done is immense. When Dalglish suggested that if Suarez was found not guilty Evra should be charged he was effectively saying that any black man who is racially abused had better be able to prove it or he himself should face punishment. What LFC have achieved is to make it less likely for abuse victims to come forward.
But why have they behaved like this? Not even the most anti scouse of United fans would seriously entertain the notion that Dalglish or Liverpool FC are racist. There are certainly racist elements among their support but then, United themselves, in common with most other clubs, have an minority element of that too. So why then have Liverpool and Dalglish allowed themselves to be exposed so mercilessly in the media? The answer lies in the self image those at LFC have of themselves and of their organisation.

Self Image

Liverpool FC has a unique culture in English football. It is an odd hybrid of the successful and proud institution mixed with a contrasting sense of outsider isolation and self pity. The feeling of grandeur comes from the club's famous on field exploits. The sense of victimhood is a by-product of social deprivation in the city and a sense of isolation from the rest of England. It is a strange mix. There are elements of the same cocktail at Barcelona and Glasgow Celtic too where Catalan and Irish nationalism have infiltrated proud and successful football clubs who might otherwise have cultivated more masculine and arrogant personas. While Liverpool's support is largely free of nationalist feeling, the club does have strong anti establishment, republican, trade unionist and socialist elements in their following which has helped shape it's confused identity. It is this conflicted identity and the club's resulting comfort in playing role of 'victim' that has made is so hard for Liverpool to accept it's culpabilty in this case.
Those who play the victim's role often find it impossible to apolgise or to see that they themeselves have done anything wrong. When the victim has transgressed he invariably blames his opressor for 'driving him to it.' 

                                                         Siege mentality

Throughout his tenure Dalglish has sought to erect the barricades around Anfield; to portray Liverpool as a club that stands apart from the rest. In his dispute with the referees he cast his club as the victims of a corrupt system; a system that had it in for the Anfield club. It was, perhaps, a clumsy attempt to foster the siege mentality – a frequently identified group dynamic used to encourage team bonding and to create a common purpose. Indeed Sir Alex Ferguson has employed it to great effect at Old Trafford over the years. But there are subtle differences in the roles Ferguson uses at Old Trafford and those Benitez and Dalglish have identified at Liverpool that may help to explain the behaviour of each club in the Suarez-Evra affair.
In Ferguson's vision, Manchester United are the vast and conquering imperial power; the unmoveable monolith. In his 'us versus them' scenario, he paints United as the grand monument under constant attack by pesky, small minded and jealous little forces that could never match up to the size and grandeur of his great club. Ferguson himself is the totalitarian dictator of his regime.
In the Anfield version, Liverpool are the lone bastion of gallant resistance against the great evil imperialist power. Dalglish, a legendary warrior in his youth, has now returned to lead his men into battle in his own image. But Dalglish is not the supreme power in this version of the story. The club is cast a sacred deity to which even Dalglish must bow. Unfortunately for him he must also answer to the club's owners. During his dispute with the referees Dalglish admitted that he would have to consult the owners before making a formal complaint. 'The referees must respect my club' he raged in the same interview, as though it mattered. It is hard to imagine Ferguson pleading with referees for respect.
Psychologically, the differences between the respective versions of the siege mentality are enormous. Liverpool, in essence, are happy to play to smaller role believing that to be the more gallant. United prefer the big role; spreading the good word through magnificence and strength. In Europe, Real Madrid have a similar arrogance.
'We're Man Utd, we'll do what we want' the Stretford End bellows arrogantly any time United benefit from a dodgy refereeing decision. Liverpool fans, by contrast, sing 'the fields of anfield road'; a variation on the Irish famine song, 'the fields of Athenry' in which a young man is deported to Australia by the imperial machine. It is a song well suited to the tortured victim mentality that was so evident during the recent controversy.

                                                        Beginning of the end?

With such a mentality ingrained into the Anfield support it is easy to see why Kenny Dalglish and his righteous crusade against the imperialist monster at Old Trafford was so irresistible; as was Rafa Benitez's attack on the dark Knight from Govan three years ago. But ultimately both adventures were doomed to failure.
In Benitez's case, only the league title would have brought victory over Ferguson. For Dalglish, a full exoneration of Suarez and subsequent vilification of Evra was the minimum for success. Both failed. Benitez did manage a 4-1 win at Old Trafford subsequent to his rant – indeed Dalglish may well win the Carling cup – but most would trace the beginning of the Spaniard's decline back to that Januray press conference.
In Dalglish's case the end may have begun during the post match interview after Suarez had refused Patrice Evra hand. It was a cringeworthy performance and one that left his club humiliated. While the enitre footballing world had witnessed Suarez ignore Evra's hand over and over through endless television replays Dalglish still could not accept that his man was in the wrong. 'That is contrary to what I was told' he insisted. 'You are band out of order to blame Luis Suarez for anything that happened here today'. It was as tragic a display as it was comical.
'When I went on TV after yesterday’s game I hadn’t seen what had happened, but I did not conduct myself in a way befitting of a Liverpool manager during that interview and I’d like to apologise for that' Dalglish was eventually forced to concede in his statement on February 12th. Many would say he has not conducted himself properly from the outset. Nonetheless his admission is startling; essentially claiming that Suarez put him on the spot. He was left floundering.
The climbdown was a humiliating blow to Dalglish's credibility and may well prove to be a fatal wound in his Liverpool career. His authority has been undermined before the world. His poor judgement has been exposed – as Benitez' was three years ago – with many now convinced that Kenny was misled and strung along from the very beginning by Suarez.
Sadly, whatever becomes of Suarez in the end is likely to be of comparatively little consequence to the Uruguayan. By contrast, Liverpool is deep in the heart and the blood of Kenny Dalglish. It may yet transpire that Patrice Evra was only the first victim of this lamentable saga. Should Suarez succeed in breaking the heart of his manager it will be a sad crime for which the Uruguayan and Dalglish's poor judgement will be equally culpable. For now, the Liverpool manager hobbles on; but how far can he go? 

                                                 Power and Control

When Rafa Benitez launched his attack of Sir Alex in January 2009 he was playing the same 'victim's advocate' role that Dalglish has played throughout the Suarez affair; the morally outraged guardian of a sacred club, threatened by a godless foe. Benitez cast Liverpool as the resistance to Ferguson's iron fist. His mission was to highlight what he perceived as an inherent bias in the system in favour of Manchester United and he sought to unite his Liverpool squad behind him in both his battle for 'fairness' and the club's pursuit of the title. What he actually succeeded in doing was placing extra pressure on his players whilst making himself look obsessed and foolish.
Three years on Kenny Dalglish has landed himself in the same mess. In cultivating his flawed siege mentality and playing the role that he has written for himself, he has only succeeded in undermining his own image and the image of the club he loves. His row with the referees was unseemly. His defence of Suarez has been disastrous.
He has hung a confusing and unnecessary burden around the necks of his players; some of whom must now be doubting Suarez's honesty; and he has had his own authority damaged by his admission of failure in the way he conducted himself.
Sir Alex Ferguson famously told Roy Keane that being a successful manager was all about power and control. Once you lose control 'you are dead.' It is a fact that since taking over at Manchester United in 1986, Ferguson has faced six different full time Liverpool managers. It would be no surprise if he were to face number seven before he retires.

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