1. Rafa creates a schism
Rafa Benitez is not going through anything right now that his peers haven’t already endured. An historical look through the message boards and football websites will show many calls for the heads of Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger during their teams leaner days. Manchester United went three seasons without a title from 2004 to 2006 – something many fans of any top four club would struggle with (just ask present-day Arsenal fans).
Calls for popular managers to leave often creates a schism in the fan base and that in itself can be destabilising on match days if things are not going too well. Although I didn’t hear them myself, I can only imagine there was a typical smugness on radio phone-ins in the wake of Liverpool’s 2-0 win over Manchester United on Sunday evening as fans loyal to Rafa Benitez informed those more cynical ones that they had told them so.
Meanwhile a life long Liverpool supporting friend of mine was renewing his conviction that Rafa should go even in light of the win. Of course fans on “both sides” are right in the sense that one win (or defeat) should not in isolation change their position.
We all know fans can be wrong anyway. Martin O’Neill was initially not a popular manager at Leicester when they were in Division Two. The same goes for Mick McCarthy at Wolves at the start of last season and Tony Pulis at Stoke. Those who doubted each of those men were wrong. It’ll be fun discovering whether its the loyalists or the cynics who are right this time around – if Rafa is given the time to settle the argument.
2. Jamie sees red but not, um, red
Jamie Carragher probably should have been sent off for his foul on Michael Owen in last Sunday’s game. When suggested to him that it might have been a red card in a post-match interview, the defiant Jamie shook his head, addressed the reporter and asked “Why? Did you think it was?” Rather than stand toe-to-toe with Mr Carragher the reporter timidly responded that it was for others to debate.
The producer probably ensures that reporters don’t get too confrontational with players and managers in post-match interviews. But it is confrontation which is exactly what these toothless conversations need. How much fun would it be to see Nick “Touchline” Collins fix JC a stern look and tell him that it was – to most observer’s eyes – a red card. How entertaining would it be to see flames fire out of my television as Fergie’s tiresome rant against the referee following last weekend’s defeat is met by a stony silence and a “yeah, but your team were brutal today.”
And if feeling especially brave he could say “oh and way to go on the Carrick and Berbatov bargains”, hand the microphone to Fergie and do a slow hand clap. It would stop me flicking over to Futurama at the final whistle anyway.
3. St James Park renaming
George Caulkin is a bit angry. Writing in The Times he reiterates his call for Mike Ashley to leave Saint James’ Park (fair enough) and writes some colourful prose about passion and community and all that.
“This is about the most iconic structure in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a building which looms above the city and, even after the Chinese water torture of the last few years, a club which burrows its way beneath a people’s skin. It is about a region and history and tradition and heritage, things that cannot be wiped out with the flourish of a cheque-book.”
Yeah. You know, I’m not all that moved by tradition and heritage but I know that some people get very sensitive about these things. And I’m not even slightly qualified to go in to a philosophical debate about a human condition that could fill a library. But I don’t think it matters all that much. Ashley renames it for ten years and the fans continue to refer to it as Saint James’ Park.
The only question is: is it worth it? Arsenal pocketed £100m for a 15 year deal with Emirates. Newcastle might struggle to net £5m per season for a similar deal. Is that worth the obvious unrest it would cause with those faithful Geordies?
Mind you the whole thing could be a smokescreen to bury the news that he’s appointed perennial coach Chris Hughton as manager; a move I don’t think is going to get them anywhere.
4. Mowbray’s goodwill running out
Will Celtic panic? I hope not. We’ve seen the Old Firm get jumpy before (John Barnes, Paul Le Guen) and Tony Mowbray is feeling the pressure after only nine league games in Scotland. In spite of being top of the league, results have been less than stellar – and, criminally, Celtic have just two wins from nine home in all competitions.
We know football fans are impatient but fans of formerly-successful clubs are more so. A small group of reactionaries chanted “sack the board” this week and the crowd will quickly turn on him (rather than the players perhaps) if he does not start winning games at home. Getting knocked out of the UEFA Cup in the group stages (which could be confirmed next week) will pile more pressure on.
Mowbray has a solid management record with Hibernian and West Brom but arguably this is the most challenging job of them all. While public criticism of players has made a bit of a rock for his back, he should be at least given the time to succeed or fail: no one achieves anything either way in nine league games.
5. Arsenal are rubbish
Robbie Keane reckons that Spurs are better than Arsenal.
“If you look at the last four or five years, for some reason Arsenal just always got ahead of us slightly,” Keane said. “But if you look now, I think it’s certainly even and if you look at the squad maybe, the bench that we have, I think that our bench is probably a little bit stronger than their bench.”
That “some reason” is that Arsenal have a quality manager, coaching team and scouting network that, while producing no trophies, has produced an exciting team and transfer surplus. Spurs simply don’t have the formula right, involving themselves in self-destructive transfer brinkmanship and then resorting to panic buys like that of Russian striker Roman Pavlyuchenko. And bringing in ‘Arry of course.
If Keane’s argument is that Spurs have stronger individuals in, say, five or six positions, that might be the case. And, indeed, the bench is perhaps individually stronger, especially in light of Arsenal’s long term injury problems. But in reality the numbers don’t work that way and I’m sure the league table will once again clearly show that Arsenal are still significantly ahead of their North London rivals next May.