Sunday 1 February ~
Never passing up an opportunity for bombast, Sky have decided that this afternoon's two Premier League fixtures constitute another of their “Grand Slam Sundays” even though one match involves two teams that could be relegated. What they have in common is that both the home teams, Liverpool and Newcastle, are beset by internal rifts which are being magnified by their respective managers' insistence on whining in public.
With their teams struggling for form, Rafa Benitez and Joe Kinnear may feel that they are taking pressure off their players by pointing out the ways in which they feel their job is being made more difficult. Instead they give the impression of being distracted by personal disputes when they should be focusing on their team. Earlier this week, the Liverpool manager said that he won't sign a new contract unless he gets full control of player recruitment, an area in which he feels the club chief executive Rick Parry has too much control. Benitez even implied that he hadn't wanted to sign Robbie Keane, whose £20 million move from Spurs (money that the manager now says was spent by "the club" rather than himself) has been little short of a disaster.
It seems inconceivable, however, that Benitez would have accepted having a player he didn't want thrust upon him by a club official. Instead, the erratic Keane has borne the brunt of Benitez's unhappiness over the club's failure to land the manager's top summer target, Villa's Gareth Barry. Parry was held responsible for that deal not going through and so is being required to carry the can for Keane's failure, which may end with the player returning to Spurs. In one of his daily whinges this week, Benitez complained about Keane being tapped up by his former club but he had difficulty in keeping a straight face while doing so.
Even with a manager and chief executive at loggerheads and owners intent on selling up, Liverpool are still in contention for three major trophies. For Newcastle, simply staying up will be cause for celebration. The club's owner Mike Ashley attended his first match in several months at Man City in midweek. He is expected to show up again for today's derby with Sunderland with a getaway vehicle, possibly a helicopter gunship, on hand should a speedy departure prove necessary.
If Sunderland win at St James' Park they would complete a double over their rivals for the first time since 1966-67; it could also prove to be their most significant victory there since a Division Two play-off semi-final win in 1990 given that Newcastle are only above third-bottom Blackburn by a one-goal margin. Joe Kinnear has been under pressure ever since he took the manager's job on a caretaker basis. Yet at a time when he ought to be making a public show of confidence in himself and his team, he seems intent on spreading anxiety - notably in commenting earlier this week that Mike Ashley lost "two billion quid" in the credit crunch and is "just about paying the wages".
Kinnear's previous top-level management experience was at Wimbledon where his predecessors Dave Bassett and Bobby Gould has established a club policy of public belligerence – the world was against them but they would prevail. But now there is an undertone of helplessness in Kinnear's regular diatribes, against referees and occasionally his own team. Even without the injured Michael Owen, Newcastle have enough playing talent in their squad to lift them away from the bottom three – provided they resolve not take too much notice of a grey-haired man railing at the world from the sidelines.