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Archive for July 2008

The Truth About Gareth Barry

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Thursday, July 31, 2008 by Paul Grech

Most newspapers have come out with slightly different version of the 'Liverpool miss out on Barry' story. Typically they quote Martin O'Neil who said that Aston Villa and Barry's advisers had agreed to set Wednesday as a deadline upon which, if nothing was heard from Liverpool, then Barry would agree to remain at his current club.

That deadline came and went and, despite some rumours insisting that a deal was close, O'Neil's claims probably put an end to it.

The implication in this take of the story is that Liverpool and Rafael Benitez failed to raise the money required in time, despite being seemingly ready to sell half his squad in order to fund this deal.

Which is somewhat irritating because the truth is that Liverpool refused to be held at ransom by Villa and O'Neil. Although Barry is valued highly, that estimation does not reach the £18 million ceiling set by O'Neil which is what really killed the deal rather than the need to scrounge together enough cash.

Not that Benitez is rolling in it but, if he really was that desperate for money then there is no way in which he would have managed to sign Robbie Keane, a transfer that came about in a couple of weeks and for which Liverpool agreed to pay £1 million more than what Villa are asking for Barry. In this case, Tottenham's valuation of the player matched Liverpool's so Benitez was willing to pay it.

The opposite applies for Barry. It isn't the deadline or Liverpool's inability to find the money which killed the deal but rather O'Neil who priced him out of the move.


Injury Benefits for Right-Back

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008 by Paul Grech

One player’s ill fortune can be another’s stroke of luck. That’s how it has always been and that’s how it could prove to be for Stephen Darby.

Several twists of fate seem to be opening up the path to the first team for the young right-back. Alvaro Arbeloa’s surprise decision to request a move back to Spain coupled with the annoying (but predictable?) injury to Philip Degen means that there is only Steve Finnan ahead of him and even the Ireland international could be gone soon if rumours are to be believed.

Not, it should hastily be added, that Darby doesn’t deserve any playing time he gets. Over the course of a season no reserve team player matches his consistency and dependability. Everyone within the coaching set-up swears by his talent, even though they don’t really need to since any claim about his ability would be backed by anyone who has watched the reserves with any degree of regularity these past two seasons.

All that matters is for the one person who really counts to decide that he is a viable option. Rafael Benitez has used Darby with a fair degree of regularity so far this pre-season and that – hopefully - is an indication that he could start making his mark on the side. To say that the defender hasn’t disappointed is a massive understatement: ask most supporters who they would prefer given what they’ve seen in these couple of games and Darby would beat Degen hands down.

His performances have proven that he has the quality to play at the highest level so what’s holding him back? Like your average school leaver trying to find a job, he’s being asked for the only thing that he doesn’t have: experience. It is hard to blame Benitez for his reluctance to adopt someone with such limited knowledge of how to deal with playing in the Premier League especially since he’s looking to get his full-backs to push on, something that needs a fair deal of tactical maturity on the part of the player.

Much easier, from his point of view, to go for someone with playing experience , something that he can do with a degree of ease by looking abroad for players. Which is at the root of a much wider problem.

When people argue about the negative influence of foreign players on English football, it is the likes of Darby that should be kept in mind. His isn’t a talent that will immediately stick out nor is he someone who tends to opt for the flamboyant option. With him you get exactly what it says on the packaging, dependability and strength, yet he needs time to fully develop all aspects of his game something that, under normal circumstances, he is unlikely to get. More likely is the scenario where he is forced to sit out games by arrivals of doubtful quality – yet, crucially, more experienced - like that of Degen or else make do with a period on loan.

Such skepticism is understandable when seen in the context of the lack of progress registered by the club’s youth team players. Not that Benitez wouldn’t like to give them an opportunity but rather because the stakes are to high: a bad game or a negative result and the pressure would be on him for taking an unnecessary gamble or failing to improve the squad adequately.

What he needs is for a player to make the break-through, someone towards whom he can point as a success whenever he decides to test out a young player. Nobody questions Arsene Wenger when he signs some unknown from the French league because he has a track record in being proven correct when he makes such decisions, regardless what happens to the player in question.

Then again, Darby could be that first one to emerge for Benitez. After all, it seems that destiny has already been giving him something of a push up the ladder and, whatever else is required, he will make up for through sheer hard work.


The Lad Can Play: David N'Gog

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Friday, July 25, 2008 by Paul Grech

Excuse our indifference but we’ve been through this before.

No matter how hyped up the transfer of David N’Gog is, it is hard to get excited. Any flattery lavished on the French sounds far too similar to the praise devoted to the likes of Anthony Le Tallec and Florent Sinama Pongolle before they joined.

Both were ultimately disappointments at Anfield, even if Sinama Pongolle subsequently re-discovered his form in Spain kicking off arguments that a longer stay at Liverpool would have seen him do likewise in England. A similar fate awaits David N’Gog, or at least that is the over-riding feeling. That he is seen as blocking the path of two young strikers already at the club, Daniel Pacheco and Kristian Nemeth, hasn’t done him any favours either.

Those reasons, along with the expectation about the much more keenly anticipated potential signing of Robbie Keane, have watered down the excitement that traditionally accompanies any transfer, especially as it keeps getting highlighted that N’Gog only scored one goal in nineteen league appearances for Paris St. Germain and that he is the cousin of Jean Alain Boumsong, with the tacit implication being that he isn’t any good.

As if a player of his age –nineteen - could be expected to have featured more prominently or scored more proficiently. In Paris, his path to the first team was blocked by club legend Pedro Pauleta and French international striker Peguy Luyindula. Add to this the disastrous season endured by PSG where they only managed to avoid relegation on the last day of the campaign and you start getting a feel as to why N’Gog was used relatively sparingly and why he failed to score more regularly.

It certainly isn’t because of any lack of talent. Those who have likened him to Nicholas Anelka (and Thierry Henry) didn’t have to tax the originality department that much seeing that his main characteristics are speed, technique and ability with the ball.

In particular it is the first element of those three that immediately catches attention. It is also why often he was used on the side of midfield, using his acceleration to get behind defences. It is not a tactic that is alien at Anfield, seeing that it was exactly the ploy adopted for Ryan Babbel throughout most of last season.

A similar period of marginalization possibly awaits N’Gog as well until he adjusts better to English football. At least for him there isn’t the risk of being called up to the French Olympic team which increases the potential for an early debut, even though N’Gog has already been at the heart of an international conflict.

The son of a Cameroonian father and a French mother, he was strongly courted by the Cameronian national team in order play at senior level but eventually opted for France as have many others before him. Within the country there is also the feeling that it is a question of time before N’Gog does make it to the national team, such is his potential and quality of play that he often puts on show for the French junior sides.

The trick now is getting Liverpool fans to have the same belief in him.

Interested in reading more about Liverpool's young players? Find many more profiles here.


A Look At: Football Dynamo

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008 by Paul Grech

Hopes around Russia’s probabilities at the European Championships weren’t that high. True, they had Guus Hiddink, a master in getting teams to outperform expectations, but their limitations were deemed to be too much even for him to overcome. After all, they’d qualified for the championships largely because of England’s incompetence and their defeat to Croatia in the final group game.

Of course, that isn’t how it turned out to be. Russia were one of the tournament’s great entertainers – their demolition of Holland in the quarter finals was arguably the best match of the whole competition - and Andrei Arshavin emerged as the true star of the tournament.

This, coupled with Zenit St. Petersburg’s greatly undervalued UEFA Cup success – this is a side that trashed Bayern Munich to get to the final – and the continued emergence of players from the Russian league where Liverpool’s Martin Skrtel is the latest example has raised the profile of the Russian game.

Given this background, Marc Bennetts' book Football Dynamo could hardly have been better timed.

Attracted by the writing of Leo Tolstoy and other litterary greats, Bennetts decided to spend a year studying the language and culture in Moscow but has stayed there for over ten years.

Not that it was always easy. Understandably for someone in an alien culture, he was initially attracted by football, something that he could easily comprehend and feel an attachment for.

Yet rather than being simply a passing interest this has developed into a true passion for the local game and this book is the result of that.

The chapters are loosely dedicated to individual sides and, through a wide range of interviews – Oleg Romantsev is the only who he fails to talk to - coupled with his personal insight on Russian culture, Bennetts manages to convey what each club is about. He accepts the negative perceptions that outsiders may have of the Russian game but, rather than trying to put up arguments about why these views are incorrect, he tries to explain them so that they no longer seem so strange.

It is a successful approach, none more so when it comes to dealing with the subject of match fixing. For all the progress that has been registered and for all the money available to the likes of Zenit St Petersburg and CSKA Moscow, it is impossible to get round the rumours of corruption. Bennett never tries to give an answer as to whether this exists nor does he ever try give the impression that he will be in a position to do so, even though he does ask the question an awful lot.

Ultimately, he himself is trying to convince himself either way. Everywhere he goes, he is met by official denials and unofficial resignation that corruption is part of the Russian game. Yet neither view is overwhelmingly convincing leaving the read with the overwhelming sensation is that, whilst corruption might be present, this isn’t as widespread as some make it out to be.

Football Dynamo does not have too much historical depth to it which is acceptable since Bennetts has opted to focus on what has gone one since the break-up of the Soviet Union. Even so, certain mistakes – such the claim that Liverpool never faced a Soviet side: what about Dynamo Tbilisi? – should have been polished up.

Yet these are minor quibbles. Bennetts' passion and fascination for the Russian game are infectious and, coupled with his inquisitive thirst for deeper knowledge, are elements that help make this a hugely entertaining book.



Further book reviews can be found here.


Phil Ball on Why Alonso Is Staying

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008 by Paul Grech

For anyone with a passing interest in Spanish football, Phil Ball's articles are a must. He is knowledgable about the game there without coming over as being too pretentious or having insider information.

Yet, admiration of Ball as a writer have nothing to do with this post: a piece in the latest edition of the magazine When Saturday Comes' weekly e-mail roundup is the source of inspiration. As a resident of San Sebastian, and a supporter of the city's main team Real Sociedad, he has always been a huge fan of Xabi Alonso.

So too, apparently, is his son whose devotion to the player has also meant him starting to follow Liverpool. Or, at least, that is what transpires from Ball's recounting of a recent encounter with the Liverpool midfielder.

“July 14, 2100 hrs, San Sebastián, Spain. My wife is at the tennis club
playing padel – a strange game imported from Argentina that is taking the Basque
Country by storm. Between sets she phones to inform me that Xabi Alonso is
playing on the court next to her. He’s still on his hols, staying at his dad’s
just down the road from us. I tell my 12-year-old son, who grabs a thick
felt-tip and his Liverpool shirt from his bedroom, jumps on his bike and
high-tails it to the tennis club, some five minutes away, shirt flapping from
the handlebars. An hour later he returns, with shirt duly signed in Basque.
Above the illegible signature it reads ‘Harryenzat, besarkada bat’ which to the
uninitiated means ‘To Harry, with a hug’.

‘Did you speak to him in English?’ I ask my son. He tells me that he only
spoke in Basque to the great man. He also tells me that Alonso, apart from being
a half-decent footballer, is also a consummate padel player – which is going
some, since there can’t be too many places to practise on the Wirral. ‘So what
did you talk about?’ I persist. ‘I asked him where he was going next season.’
‘And what did he say?’ ‘He didn’t say anything. But I said to him “Liverpoolen
geratu eh!” (Stay at Liverpool, eh!)’ ‘What? You shouldn’t have said that. What
did he say?’ ‘He said “Noski” (Of course).’ So there you are. Juve might as well
stop the bidding. WSC exclusive – Xabi Alonso says he’s staying at Liverpool,
and he said that to my son outside the padel court in San Sebastián, which means
that it must be true.”

Details on how to subscribe to the WSC Weekly Howl can be found http://www.wsc.co.uk/content/view/242/48/.


Young Defender Off to Spain

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Monday, July 21, 2008 by Paul Grech

Miki Roque is expected to join FC Cartagena on a season long loan as the young defender tries to put his career back on track.

One of the many young players brought to the club by Benitez in his first months in charge, Roque progressed better than many had expected and even made his Champions League debut against Galatasaray. Since then, however, things have gone decidedly downhill.

First he was sent on loan for a couple of months at Oldham but the League One side only used him to bolster their squad and rarely gave him any playing time. Then last season's loan at Xeres, which was designed to give Roque the experience that he lacked, failed to turn out as planned with Roque making just one appearance for the relegation threatened side.

His chances of making it at Liverpool seem remote, where Mikel San Jose is emerging as the central defender most likely to find his way to the senior squad, yet the club is still determined to give the player the best chance of making it elsewhere once he leaves Anfield.

That no Segunda A - the Spanish equivalent of the Championship - team has shown an interest in Roque is telling but a season for the ambitious Murcia side who has already made six additions to the squad this summer might not necessarily be a bad thing for Roque who has the talent and application but now needs a bit of luck.


A Lesson in Hypocrisy

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Saturday, July 19, 2008 by Paul Grech

No club, regardless of size and financial strength, likes to lose players even more when they feel that the buying club acted illicitly in order to get to the man they wanted.

That Tottenham are the ones complaining - as they have done over Liverpool's move for Robbie Keane - is hugely ironic. Last year they were the ones who made a move for Juande Ramos whilst not only was the Spanish manager still contracted to Seville but Spurs' own manager Martin Jol had no idea he was about to be replaced.

Yet there's no need to go so far back. This summer they've already been at the heart of a highly controversial move for Crystal Palace teenager John Bostock that eventually led to a tribunal decision deemed scandalous by Palace owner Simon Jordan.

Perhaps, this complaint is more of a face-saving exercise where the Tottenham board are unwilling to face the fans' questions about the future of the club after the sale of both of their strikers so are therefore trying to make it look as if they are the victims here.

A nice trick that might work on some but which should fail to fool many.


The Lad Can Play: Diego Cavalieri

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Monday, July 14, 2008 by Paul Grech

When your club is linked with a Brazilian, you’re bound to hope that it is with a midfielder or a striker, such is that country’s tradition. Learning that the player involved is a goalkeeper is therefore always likely to be a disappointment. The likes of Julio Cesar (Inter) Heurelio Gomez (PSV / Tottenham) and Doni (Roma) may have made their mark as excellent goalkeepers but the bias remains.

So it is that Diego Cavalieri’s arrival at Anfield has been met largely with disinterest. That Benitez, reportedly struggling to stretch his financial resources, has paid £3 million for him hasn’t helped. The players previously linked to fill the soon to be created void, Birminham’s Maik Taylor and Fulham’s Anti Niemi, would have been much cheaper and - given their experience in the Premiership – perhaps better options.

After all, Liverpool had tried to be clever in signing a back-up to Pepe Reina a year later and been left disappointed. Charles Itandje had arrived with a reputation of being a promising goalkeeper who would be more than capable of stepping up should the need arise. Instead, the Frenchman ultimately proved to be inadequate and a shocking display against Barnsley in the FA Cup determined his fate.

Cavalieri arrives in similar circumstances. Little is known about him yet whatever information has been gleaned sounds promising. He’s a good keeper who will be a more than able deputy for Reina, we’ve been told. At the same time, he was largely a reserve at Palmeiras so how good can he really be?

“For what it's worth, I rate him and I think Liverpool are getting him for a very good price,” that the opinion of Jon Cotterill, football commentator for TV Globo in São Paulo and the author of the blog on Brazilian football Pitaco do Gringo.

Overall, Cotterill’s impressions of Cavalieri seem promising. “Cavaleri is 25, approximately 6ft 4" and a Palmeiras youth product who turned pro in 2002. He picked up an italian passport earlier this year, which made it considerably easier for Liverpool to sign him.”

“He's a good shot-stopper but needs to work on his command of the area. He also has the Brazilian habit of trying to punch everything away instead of holding on to the ball.” The latter isn’t necessarily a problem given that Reina initially had the same habit, one that wuld appear has been coached out of him.

As for the worry about Cavalieri being a substitute at Palmeiras, Cotterill seems to uphold the views that this is only because the regular – Marcos – is something of a club legend. “I've seen quite a lot of him and I think he's actually better than Marcos because he doesn't make as many clownish mistakes.”

That of a goalkeeper is a delicate role precisely because you’re either in the side or else you’re not: there’s only one spot available. It isn’t easy to know that you’re unlikely to get a chance regardless of how hard you try. In that regard, Cavalieri comes with the right mentality: he’s already used to being second choice yet at the same time seems determined to keep on progressing.

He remains a strange choice yet is increasingly looking like the right one.


No More the Loan-ly Guy

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Friday, July 11, 2008 by Paul Grech

A footballer’s life can turn in ninety minutes. There are games that define some players’ careers – a goal in a major final, for instance - whilst for others it is an injury from which they never fully recover. For a few, however, it is the ignominy of being identified with a particularly high profile error that keeps on haunting them.

Scott Carson is dangerously close to falling into that latter category. When Steve McLaren chose him for England’s crucial home game with Croatia, he was simply fulfilling what many had prophesized – and demanded - for the young goalkeeper. Hyped up as the best English keeper, little notice was given to his lack of experience especially at games where so much was at stake.

In hindsight, it was a huge mistake. Easily at fault for two of Croatia’s goals, Carson abysmally failed to prove his worth and for most of the game looked like someone who dearly wanted to be somewhere other than the Wembley pitch.

Perhaps he could imagine what lay in store for him as, along with McLaren, he was pinpointed as the reason for England’s elimination which was followed by the inevitable brutal criticism. Quickly forgotten were his heroics for Charlton despite the club’s relegation or his fine form for Aston Villa till that point of the season. Decidedly in the past was the praise for this young goalkeeper because all that mattered was how his errors had cost England.

It was the sort of situation that would have gotten to much more experienced players, let alone someone of Carson’s age. Inevitably his form suffered and from then on his play became progressively worse. An unfortunate situation that only reinforced the image of Carson being damaged goods.

His misfortune was compounded by what was happening between Liverpool and Aston Villa. Rafael Benitez’s decision to go for Gareth Barry didn’t go down too well with Martin O’Neill who promptly dismissed any offer by Liverpool to put in players as make-weights in the deal.

Despite his late season dip, Carson had done well enough at Villa and was widely expected to join them, even if the £10 million fee quoted by Benitez looked decidedly inflated. Had there been the willingness to do so, that fee would have probably been negotiated downwards. Instead, caught up in the escalating fued between the two clubs, it became a serious point of contention about which no one was willing to back down.

All of which has put Carson’s career on hold. Perhaps frightened off by the reported transfer fee or else by the memory of his game for England, few clubs have expressed an interest in him. West Bromwich Albion were one of those few but their offer was to take him on loan something that suited neither Liverpool nor the player.

Having spent the past two seasons at Charlton and Aston Villa respectively, he now needs stability in his career to be able to progress. With Pepe Reina just four years his senior, it is unlikely that his chance at Liverpool will ever come regardless of how long he waits. For him to stay at Anfield makes little sense, something that everyone is aware of.

At the moment, however, he doesn’t have much choice. With Aston Villa out of the equation and West Brom’s approach not really an option, the only ones to have made some noises about Carson have been Middlesbrough and Stoke even if neither club have pushed this past the rumours stage.

All of which must be terribly frustrating for Carson who will be aware of how important it is for him to play at the highest level on a regular basis if he is to get another opportunity to prove his worth in an England shirt. And to prove that for him there is life beyond those ninety minutes against Croatia.


Hard as Nails

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Thursday, July 10, 2008 by Paul Grech

Despite the scepticism that met his arrival, Martin Skrtel has so far proven to be an excellent buy. Most certainly his tough image has elevated him to cult hero status which is why this image by Kit Nelson hits a note.




This image has proven to be so popular that Kit is now doing a limited batch of shirts with the design. They're retailing at £16 in all sizes with UK postage fee of £2 and more details can be obtained by sending him an e-mail. To view all of Kit's design, most of which make for excellent wallpapers, visit his gallery here.


Talking of shirts, I've just ordered this from the Sam Dodds, who have an excellent range of Liverpool shirts. Not only are they much more orignal and attractive than the official merchandise, but they're also significantly cheaper as well.


Keeper Passes Medical and Gets Ready to Sign

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008 by Paul Grech

According to the Brazilian newspaper Folha, Palmeiras goalkeeper Diego Cavalieri has passed a medical at Liverpool and will join the club on Wednesday.


Cavalieri's agent Juninho Parmigiani is quoted as saying that, apart from some details, the deal is practically done. " We will conclude everything tomorrow," he is quoted as saying. "He's already had the necessary medical examinations, talked with some of his new team-mates and has been impressed by what Rafael Benitez had to say to him."

Toninho Celilio, sports manager at Palmeiras, also confirmed that a deal is imminent "I spoke to him today. He has completed the examinations and is very happy. There are some clauses still being discussed but nothing that can block the deal."

No transfer fee has been mentioned as yet, although a figure of £3 million has been mentioned


Consistency Holds the Key for Liverpool Success

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Monday, July 07, 2008 by Paul Grech

It is impossible to call him anything other than a legend. To this day Phil Neal remains the only Englishman to have won four European Cups and did so at a time when the competition’s name was truly honoured as only a country’s champions could compete in Europe’s premier competition. Indeed Neal won the English title eight times which, along with four League Cup wins a UEFA Cup triumph, make him one of the most successful players of any era.

He was also one of the most consistent, playing 365 consecutive games or rather practically eight seasons without missing a match, something that seems inconceivable in an era where rotation has found a place in the football vocabulary and barely three weeks pass without players being rested.
None more so then at Neal’s old club Liverpool where Rafael Benitez has often had to fend criticism that he changes his team too much. Benitez’s argument always hinges on the need to do so in order to keep players fresh, something that doesn’t really sit comfortably with Neal.

“I don’t think football has changed that much. I think that the reason that players are rested is because they have a big squad. We didn’t have the luxury of a big squad or rather we didn’t want a big squad. Bob Paisley took over from Bill Shankly and if they had from 16 to 18 players it was enough for their season. You don’t need 40 players because you get muddled as to who is good and who is bad. If you’ve got too big a squad I don’t think that helps the manager.”

It seems to be the antithesis of the modern mentality where the big means good as far as squads are concerned. Yet Neal’s views on the importance of a settled team were played out in the manner in which Liverpool brought to an end their season.

“ I think that Rafa in the last six weeks of the season really changed his opinion. I went on record prior to the Sunderland game and appealed to him to play the best team for the rest of the season in the games that we had left. He has amended his 5 to 6 changes here and there every other game, he’s found a system that fits his players. It shows how far he can go next year and we wish him well.”

That final comment is extremely telling. Although he’s not shy from expressing his opinions and disagreements, unlike certain other former Liverpool players Neal is of the opinion that Benitez is the man to manage Liverpool, especially as he now seems to have found the formation that works with his players.

“The system should suit most players and I think that Rafa has discovered that. Whether he continues with it will be interesting to see but I’m sure he will. He has options, however, to change players.”

“We just need to beat the Premiership leaders. We haven’t done that regularly in the league. There will always be times were we drop points at Wigan but we did that in our days too. It is really being in the race with ten games to go. We’ve always been adrift of that slot. Our players don’t know how to win the Premiership but they’ve got to be in the race. With ten games to go they’ve got to be in the race not twelve points adrift. They need a level of consistency that they’re striving for and that is not far away. And I think that Rafa is the man for it.”

Like any other fans, Neal has his opinions on which players Liverpool need in order to continue their progression –“we just need two impact players out wide” - but, whoever comes in, it is unlikely to see a repeat of Neal’s transfer to Liverpool from Northampton who were then in the Third Division and when he, at 23, was already feeling that “my chance had gone”.

Indeed top flight clubs no longer seem interested in taking players from the lower leagues, something that saddens Neal.

“I still think that there is talent out there and it is sad to see it being put aside. Myself, Keegan, Clemence and Rush we all came from the lower leagues but that doesn’t seem to happen any more. We thought we had one in Jack Hobbs who came from Lincoln and hoped that he would do well. He had a dip in the first team but obviously with Skrtel coming in it is looking unlikely. It is now up to Hobbs to go away from Liverpool and prove to Benitez that he was wrong.”

There are plenty of others for whom that advice would suit as progress from the reserves to the first team has been slow. Admirably, Neal seems to be well in tune with what is happening at that as well “Jay Spearing is quite player. Robbie Threlfall went to Hereford on loan but he’s a good left-back who I liked. The boy Stephen Darby as well, he’s a steady player. I don’t know what Rafa is looking for but if he is looking for star quality throughout all positions then he won’t have a good team. You’ve got to have the workers.”

“But that’s his job and that’s what he gets paid for. What I like about him is that he makes up his mind very quickly. If he feels that a player isn’t what he wants he’ll sell them on.”