Archive for March 2007
Saturday, March 24, 2007 by Paul Grech
Eighteen games in nine months – roughly a game every two weeks – is what England’s most promising players are being allowed to play. That is what reserve team football has been reduced to following the changes brought into effect by the Premier Reserve League this season.
What was once the venue to catch a brief glimpse of the star player coming back from injury has been turned into a part-time competition with no real sense of purpose. With managers increasingly less inclined to allow senior players play there, it has become a half-way house for kids too old to play in the academy leagues but too young – or simply not good enough – to be given a chance in the first team.
Viewed in this context, Rafael Benitez’s complaints about the validity of this league make perfect sense. Can the likes of Jack Hobbs, Craig Lindfield and Paul Anderson really learn that much from playing such a limited number of games against players they had routinely come across just months earlier when they were still in the academy?
Benitez clearly thinks not. His belief is that the only way for them to improve is to come across more experienced, possibly better players.
That view is clearly borne out by the experiences of the two Liverpool players who have been unconditional success whilst out on loan. A couple of months away at Sheffield Wednesday had been enough to win Scott Carson a place on the England squad for the World Cup but it is at Charlton that he has really proved that he has the temperament to be an excellent top flight keeper.
It is something that the Carson himself has admitted. “When I go back to Liverpool at the end of the season, which I think will happen, they will see a different person and a different player,” he said. “I've now got the mental strength to play for a big club. I would like to think I would give Rafa Benitez a headache next season.”
The same applies to Adam Hammill who has been a revelation for Dunfermline. “At Liverpool I was seen as a maverick player,” he explained. “I would do something good, then something bad. But since coming up here I have worked on my effort for the team, rather than just myself. I have become a team player. I am not surprised, because I knew I had that in me. But at Liverpool you were perhaps aware of having to do that bit extra just to get noticed.” And that something extra can hardly happen if you’re playing every other week, he might have added.
Where Benitez is wrong is in believing that the Spanish model could or should be transplanted to England. Most Spanish clubs below the Segunda Liga are semi-professional at best and have limited expectations of progressing beyond that level. With most Conference clubs now having full time players, it is a completely different situation in England where clubs hold on to the hope that they could fight their way to the Premier League.
Forcing reserve sides into the equation would not only skewer the promotion mechanism (such clubs cannot play in the same division as their seniors) but also kill off interest in these divisions as the recent experiences of German regional leagues has shown.
Benitez’s idea is not as revolutionary as some might believe: back in the 70s the then Rochdale manager Brian Green argued in favour of lower league teams acting as feeder clubs to the big boys*. And there have been plenty of his current counterparts who are, indirectly, voicing their agreement: Tranmere manager Ronnie Moore has already said that he would gladly take on some of Liverpool’s young players.
There are still problems. Benitez has already said that he sees anything lower than the Championship as being good enough for his players whilst the club to which they are loaned must share, at least roughly, the same footballing principles. Moore, with his reputed enchantment with playing direct football, might not be the most attractive proposition.
That view, however, doesn’t extend to Accrington Stanley to whom Liverpool have just loaned two players. Defender Godwin Antwi marked his debut with a man of the match performances whilst keeper David Martin kept their first clean sheet in months during that same game.
And that might be the future for Liverpool. With an already sizeable Scouse contingent, Stanley might be the ideal club to whom to loan five or six players each season, help build up their facilities and see move up through the divisions. Reserve team football might have the place to watch tomorrow’s start in the past, but it is increasingly likely Accrington that they’ll be playing in the future.
* I’d like to say that this is due to extensive research that I’ve done on the subject, but in reality it is something that I’ve just read in Mark Hodkinson’s excellent book Believe in the Sign.
Sunday, March 18, 2007 by Paul Grech
I’ve always had the greatest respect for David Conn. His articles are invariably extremely well researched and he knows what he’s talking about. His book the Beautiful Game remains one of my favourites, a revealing read on how the game has been sold out.
This opinion about Conn doesn’t change despite this piece about Liverpool’s American takeover. Although the actual details had been largely kept secret, it is not as if no one knew or suspected that the new owners were borrowing money.
Equally the tone of the whole article was out of line from the somewhat sensationalist approach of its title which makes me suspect that it was all the work of some overzealous editor.
Actually, I’m not exactly correct when I say that there’s nothing really new in the article. Burried towards the end there’s a brief mention of the fact that David Moores put in £10 million of his own money so that Rafael Benitez could buy David Kuyt.
It is a revealing insight into Moores character and how unjustified those who criticised him were.
It also says a lot about how stretched Liverpool’s finances were. Conn also reveals that the signing of Alvaro Arbeloa came about only because of a £3 million windfall from Milan Baros’ sale by Aston Villa to Lyon.
This explains Benitez’s frustrated comments on the eve of the League Cup game against Arsenal when he complained that Liverpool couldn’t compete financially for the sort of young players that Wenger was signing. Without outside investment, Liverpool risked becoming one of the also rans of English football. And that, if anyone is in any doubt, is why Liverpool fans haven’t been asking too many questions about the American takeover.
Friday, March 16, 2007 by Paul Grech
Just how many goalkeepers does Rafael Benitez intend to buy? At the last count there were four: Pepe Reina, Scott Carson, David Martin and Daniele Padelli. And that’s not counting the Dane Martin Hansen who joined up directly with the academy and who, by all accounts, has been playing exceptionally well in the youths’ run to the semi-final of the FA Youth Cup.
Yet that has not stopped him from signing another keeper in the form of Australian Dean Bouzanis who has been loaned back to Sydney FC until the start of 2008. Bouzanis apparently spent some three weeks on trial back in January and left enough of an impression for the club to offer him a permanent deal.
Indeed, he would have joined up with the squad immediately if it weren’t for the fact that he can’t work in England until he is over seventeen years old.
This is not necessarily a bad thing as he will now be able to learn from Sydney’s regular keeper Clint Bolton with some first team experience not being excluded. For a sixteen year old kid, that is quite an achievement.
Then again, Bouzanis has always over-achieved. A regular for the Australian U17 when he was just 15, he stands around 6 feet tall and growing. Every coach who has handled Bouzanis says that he has massive potential, which explains why Benitez was so eager to sign him. But, as with all the young players coming in, it will take time to determine whether that potential will be fulfilled.
by Paul Grech
Book Review - Rough Guide11s: Liverpool
I’m not one who pays much attention to what the back covers of books say. All too often this tends to be full of self-praising rhetoric with very little about what the book is actually all about.
Yet the back cover of the ‘Rough Guide 11s: Liverpool’ splendidly captures what the book is all about when it contains “all you need to know about the Reds, and quite a lot you don’t need to know but will enjoy finding out.”
For indeed, despite the pocket sized nature of the book, it is brimming full of statistics facts and anecdotal information much of which is surprisingly captivating.
The concept is simple in that eleven choices are made on a wide range of subjects. As such you get the top eleven Absolute Best Moments, best anthems – with lyrics included which will please the recently launched Reclaim The Kop campaign – as well as the choice of goalkeeping understudies.
It won’t take you long to get through this book, and if you’re looking for a serious read you’d better look elsewhere. Yet, talking as someone who approached it sceptically, I have to say that it is easy to find yourself engrossed by this book, eagerly going through the pages reading one choice after another.
It is written intelligently by people who have obviously done their research well and which stays well clear of the clichés (well, apart from the front cover that goes It’s Not Trivia – It’s More Important Than That) that could have easily filled such a book but would have also greatly limited its interest. A little gem of a book that is surprisingly gratifying.
by Paul Grech
‘Warnock for England’ might not be a chant that’s likely to catch on easily given the almost universal disdain towards the Sheffield United manager who bears that name. In Blackburn, however, they’re quickly re-assessing such notions.
So much that by the time Blackburn came back for the player in January, Liverpool were willing to sell, a move that saddened many fans yet which had also become inevitable. At 25 the player needed games to progress and whilst at Liverpool he would have gotten the occasional game, he was never going to get an extended run in the side.
Tuesday, March 13, 2007 by Paul Grech
After another impressive game against St. Mirren, Dunfermline fans are quickly running out of superlatives to describe on-loan winger Adam Hammill. So they’re turning to song. This hilarious piece features not only a Hammill inspired adaptation of Yellow Submarine but also some clips showing that the lad truly deserves a song about him.
Saturday, March 10, 2007 by Paul Grech
One of the defining moments of Gerard Houllier's time as manager was when Liverpool were drawn to play Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 Champions League quarter final. Leverkusen was the team everyone wanted to face basically because they were considered the weakest side still in the competition.
Only they weren't. First Liverpool and then Manchester United were dumped out of the competition before the Germans were beaten - somewhat fortuitously - by Real Madrid in the final.
It was of that game that I remembered as soon as Liverpool were drawn to face PSV in the quarter final of this year's Champions League. The Dutch side was the one that everyone was hoping to meet so it is a good draw...provided that it isn't approached too lightly.
A famous banner goes by the legend of 'what we achieve in our lifetime echoes in eternity'. On this occasion, that would sound like a warning.
Thursday, March 08, 2007 by Paul Grech
Andrei Voronin. Of all the names linked with Liverpool following the American takeover, that of the Ukranian striker appeared to be one of the more spurious. It had all the hallmarks of quote let slip by an agent in order to get his client a better deal either by his current club or else by some new employer.
Instead it was all too true. A four year contract and a glowing reference by Rafael Benitez later and Andrii Shevchenko’s favoured strike partner is eagerly taking English lessons whilst looking for a flat on Merseyside.
Few at Leverkusen seem to be upset by his departure. The more indulgent saw him as a talented striker who struggled to find consistency or fully fulfil his potential. Others, however, were less generous branding him a lazy player who is often unwilling to track back or do much work for the team. They grudgingly admit that he has some skill, but not when it comes to scoring goals.
Worryingly the latter seem to be very much in the majority.
Perhaps aware of the mounting scepticism, Benitez has countered by pointing out at his record in Germany where Voronin has regularly scored around ten goals each season. The fact that he is joining on a Bosman free, he argued, has been interpreted by some that he is not worth anything when in reality Liverpool would have been forced to pay £4 million had he still been contract bound.
Which, admittedly, isn’t going to raise the excitement stakes. The fans are expecting big name transfers not a player about whom the current fans hardly seem to think much about. Few will be willing to write him off before he even joins the club but at the same time it’s unlikely that you will come across anyone admitting (at least truthfully) that they’re looking forward to seeing him play or that he will improve the side.
But Voronin wasn’t signed with that aim in mind. He will boost Benitez’s options up front, the fourth striker in the squad. Whether he’s willing to accept that position, or if he’ll fight back to win a regular spot, will probably determine whether he will change the opinions that have already formed about him.
Monday, March 05, 2007 by Paul Grech
In football, one man's injury is another's opportunity. The injuries suffered by Liverpool midfielders at various points during the season allowed Danny Guthrie to get a chance in the first team earlier then expected. Now, injuries to a number of Southampton midfielders have handed him another opportunity of regular football as he moves to the southern side for the next month.
Every time I've seen Guthrie play, he's impressed regardless of the position he's been asked to fill. And that is quite indicative. In the recent past there was the experience of Darren Potter who, despite being well considered when playing for the reserves, never looked at ease when asked to play on the right hand side of midfield for the first team rather than his favoured central role.
Not so Guthrie who has done well on the right, on the left and in the centre of midfield. Even if most opportunities saw him stay on the pitch for a few minutes, he still put in some nice touches and showed the kind of intelligence that is indicative of a player who has the talent to make it.
What he lacks is experience and that is what he will gain at Southampton. Adam Hammill, who has been in great form for SPL strugglers Dunfermline,has just gone on record to say how important this loan spell has been for him and how much he has learnt. So too it will be for Guthrie who shouldn't have any problem in coping with Championship football.
Saturday, March 03, 2007 by Paul Grech
It was the worst possible defeat, a goal in the dying minutes of a game Liverpool had absolutely dominated. Not only that, but it also virtually means that United will win the title even if, given how the game unfolded, they certainly can't lay any claims to having won the league on Merseyside.
At the same time, there are plenty of pluses to take home. Starting from the heart and determination shown by the players or how they managed to peg back what is one of the best footballing teams in Europe.
Earlier during the week, one paper went out with the headline that Gerrard was "risking the fans' wrath" for saying that he admired United's attacking play. It was typical of the way that every little comment is blown out of all proportion and sensationalised. What Gerrard said is what anyone with any appreciation of the game of football would agree with. Which puts into perspective just how good a game Liverpool played today.
Take Craig Bellamy. Nemanja Vidic will be hard pressed to name a player who has given him as hard a time this season. Or Jamier Carragher, who was once again immense. So too, it must be said, was Steven Gerrard despite being played on the right. Regardless of what the pundits say, Rafa knows best and it showed today.
Rafa will have also noted what needs to be improved. Working on Sissoko's passing should definitely be one of them. But, above all, he needs to have strikers capable of finishing games off.
A little bit more composure in front of goal: how many times have we said that this season? Had Liverpool won all the games where they dominated, United would have had more than Chelseas to contend with.If Benitez has a list of transfer priorities, a striker who can guarantee twenty goals a season should certainly be on top.
Above all, there was that little piece of luck that always seems to favour winners. Look back at the time when Liverpool used to run away with the title each season and you will find plenty of stories about dramatic victories. Hopefully, this will be part of the learning process. It will fuel the players' hunger, serve to motivate them for the rest of the season and show that they too deserve a bit of champions' luck.
Starting from next Tuesday.
Friday, March 02, 2007 by Paul Grech
"We didn't have the complete conviction that he was ready for it. Internally we have talked about Jordy a lot. That doubt stayed after Liverpool expressed their interest. I say that without bitterness, because I wish Jordy all the success at Liverpool.” Famous last words perhaps, but the views of Ajax technical director Martin van Geel are hardly likely to fill Liverpool fans with hope about their latest acquisition Jordy Brouwe.
At nineteen, the Dutch striker is the latest player brought in by Rafael Benitez with an eye for the future. As dictated by the Liverpool tradition of the early eighties, he is likely to spend the next year or so in the reserves before hopefully proving van Geel wrong.
He will have every opportunity to do so. Gary Ablett’s reserve side desperately lacks a recognised goalscorer, something that Brouwer should rectify. Before leaving he was the top scorer at Ajax’s B team with twelve goals whilst last season he scored twenty eight times for the youth side.
Apart from a spot in the first team, Brouwer should also challenge Peter Crouch for the ‘nice touch for a big man’ clichés that the England man might have thought he had cornered. 6 foot 3 tall and growing, he’s certainly a big lad yet he’s also strong, fast and good with both feet. As he showed during an U19 friendly against England last year, he’s quite capable of powering his way past players. He might not yet be the finished product – his tactical awareness certainly needs improving – but the basics are there for him to become a very good player.
Which is exactly what Benitez said about Brouwer a couple of days after he had signed. Despite van Geel’s misgivings, Benitez is confident they’ve signed someone who will make it. Time will tell who is the better judge.