THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

As the press pick apart Liverpool's fall from grace, Tottenham and Manchester City's Champions League 'play-off' sparks a punfest in Fleet Street

Liverpool began the season hoping to win a 19th League championship. They ended it with 19 defeats. Rafa Benítez guaranteed supporters a top-four finish, but the club dropped to seventh place in the league, went out of the FA Cup in the third round and faced the ignominy of being knocked out of two European competitions. To put it mildly, the 20th anniversary of their last Championship-winning season has not been their most memorable. Putting it mildly, however, is not one of the charms of British newspapers. If the facts were difficult reading for Benítez, he will have wanted to avoid the back pages.

The mood of the press was neatly summed up by one Telegraph headline: Benítez must leave now or risk besmirching Liverpool’s proud history. The paper’s Kevin Garside suggested that “the urgent changes required at Liverpool might start with the message over the tunnel steps: this is not Anfield”. Tony Barrett of the Times suggested the club are “a fast fading institution that is in serious danger of crumbling”. The Express’s Paul Joyce was equally damning: “Liverpool’s future is as clear as the Chinese writing on the players’ jerseys.”

Most of the criticism directed at Benítez has focused on his record in the transfer market. The Liverpool manager has spent £230 million in his six years at Anfield and although he has found the odd gem, most of his signings have failed to sparkle. As Henry Winter put it in the Telegraph: “They give him money for a table, he comes back with a lampshade.”

A particularly uncharitable column by Martin Samuel in the Mail suggested that “just about any bloke with a tracksuit and a grade one coaching badge could have replicated Liverpool’s form this season”. Even former players have put the boot in. When told that Benítez has signed 77 players since joining the club, Ian St John wondered if the Liverpool manager was “trying to set up his own league”. Alan Hansen, another Liverpool old boy, at least mustered a modicum hope for the future: “The only solace is that Liverpool are still Liverpool.”

If Benítez leaves his replacement will have a tough job, says the Mail’s Joe Bernstein: “Even the stirring oratory of Sir Winston Churchill might fall on deaf ears at Anfield now.”

Liverpool’s drop from the old Big Four gave Manchester City and Spurs the opportunity to compete for a place in the Champions League. Earlier in the season, the Premier League mooted the idea of a play-off for the fourth Champions League spot. As it turned out, the two teams met at Eastlands in a league match that effectively acted as a cup final for the European top-tier. Spurs deservedly won the game and, as James Corrigan noted in the Independent, secured the “honour of being knocked out by Unirea Urziceni in the Champions League’s qualifying round in August”.

Unsurprisingly, much of the fanfare surrounding Spurs’ success focused on Harry Redknapp, who took over the club when they were bottom of the league only 18 months ago. The Spurs manager said the achievement was the greatest of his career. The papers agreed, and even suggested that Redknapp should no longer be considered football’s “loveable scamp”. “The notion of the Spurs manager as a happy-go-lucky type who picks his team in a spare moment between leafing through the pages of the Racing Post is way off the mark,” wrote Sam Wallace in the Independent.

Redknapp may no longer be the Del Boy of Premier League football, but he is evidently held in high regard by his players. The Spurs team – clad in the type of skimpy briefs Ashley Cole wears in picture messages – poured a celebratory barrel of water over their manager during his post-match interview. Drying himself off, Redknapp said: “I’m soaked, but I’m delighted.”

So were the headline writers. Harry Wetknapp: players think boss is a sodden genius, claimed the Mirror. The Sun went for Now Harry’s in the Damp-ions League. Even the Guardian, the smart man’s tabloid, couldn’t resist some aquatic blubbering, proclaiming that Harry was “drenched with success”. Redknapp was pictured with the suit in the following day’s Sun under the headline We’ll clean up. Despite their love of puns, the paper didn’t speculate on whether Harry had done the laundering. Derek McGovern did however propose Redknapp for prime minister as “he has taken Spurs into the Champions League... and he’s hardly going to raise taxes”.

As Redknapp was being doused in water at Eastlands, the home support were treated to the Smiths’ Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now as they filtered out of the ground. Having spent £230m on players and replaced Mark Hughes with Roberto Mancini, Sheikh Mansour has so far failed to turn a mid-table team into a Champions League side.

As Daniel Taylor noted in the Guardian, City’s defeat could seriously hinder their ability to attract quality players in the summer: “Can we seriously imagine that category A targets such as Fernando Torres will be expected to hold them up as a club of competitive strength and genuine achievement now they find themselves among the Thursday-night, Channel Five brigade?”

The Guardian was also concerned by the quality of celebrity fan that will want to watch City play Europa League football. The paper pointed out that Brad Pitt and Barack Obama could have been tempted by the lustre of the Champions League, but instead City will have to settle for Eddie Large and Noel Gallagher’s big brother Paul.

At least Mancini can take solace from the witty jibes of his friend Robbie Savage, who is now a football pundit at the Mirror: “I’ll only give him one piece of advice. Mate, enjoy your summer back home in Italy – but you’re going to look daft on the beach with that scarf.” If Mancini is looking to get rid of the scarf for good, there might be a red one available for him at Anfield.

From WSC 280 June 2010

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