23 March ~ The point that most parents dread in the development of a teenager is not the day they come home clutching extra-strength cigarettes, vials of crack cocaine, or a moping, mute and jobless boyfriend five years their senior. It's the day they come home with sarcasm. That first intensive phase when they discover that it's an all-purpose response to queries of every nature can be far more trying than an addiction to shoplifting, truancy and Vodka Shotz. If you're not a parent and are finding it hard to relate, just take a look at future ex-manager of Liverpool Rafa Benítez, who seems to have been struck by a chronically delayed adolescence.
His post-game press conference blaming Alex Ferguson's Legendary Mind Games (soon to be manufactured in a Premier League-Mattel joint venture) for forcing Howard Webb to give Manchester United easy penalties seems to have been a petulant affair, dotted with sardonic digs at Ferguson's apparent attempts every Friday to influence match officials, and offering the view that the bloodied head of Maxi Rodriguez was caused not by the studs of Gary Neville, but rather "a bird from the sky". It's not reported whether he stuck out his chin and mock-stroked his goatee in the manner of a 1975 schoolboy appropriating the television personality of James Hill.
Teenagers at least have the excuse of rampant hormonal change to explain all their bad decisions and pouting moodiness, and by diving into a world of sullen sarcasm they can try to cover up their insecurities at the terrifying prospect of looming adulthood. But Rafa is almost 50 years old. Does he not realise that few expect such sourness in a man of his age? Perhaps this explains why Liverpool managed to knock Lille out of the Europa League Cup thingie last week. The pre-match talk from their manager consisted of the speech: "This competition's really, really important, boys. Much better than the Champions League. I really want to win this one, really badly." He then stalked out of the changing room, slammed the door, and the lads took him at his word and went out and did the business.
Well, whatever works in a time of crisis. But it makes you review some past Benítez quotes and wonder just how sincere he was. For example, after the Lille game he said: "It was a difficult game because they are a good team, but the atmosphere was fantastic and everybody is happy now." Yeah, right. It was just like beating Milan (on penalties) all over again. With a happy dressing room at Anfield thrown in too. And what about this one when he signed Alberto Aquilani last summer? "Alberto is a very good player and I'm delighted we've reached agreement with Roma for his transfer. Alberto has a winning mentality and great experience in both Serie A and the Champions League." Sure thing, Rafa. Bet your suit feels soaked from its post-title dunking in the team bath already, eh?
My favourite quote from another Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly, goes: "If you've got no sense of humour, you might as well be dead." Being sarky's fine if you can pull it off with a measure of wit and a have a knack for self-deprecation. Benítez sounds instead like a bitter man firing acerbic asides at random targets in a bid to distract attention from his dying reign and its defective squad. Personally, I couldn't care less whether he stays or goes. But if it's the latter, he could try exiting with a shard of dignity before we completely forget his finest hour, that win (on penalties) against Milan, where his half-time tactical changes were the springboard to one of the greatest comebacks in European Cup history. And this time, there's no sarcasm intended. Ian Plenderleith