Tuesday, 2 August 2011

The Sweet Silver Song of the Lark

This time last year, Liverpool fans were relishing the start of the 2010-2011 season. Rafa Benitez, after a miserable 2009-2010 season, had been removed and the club had a new idol to worship in the shape of Joe Cole who would bamboozle opposition defences alongside Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres. Under the steadying influence of the hugely experienced Roy Hodgson, one of Europe's most respected coaches (who has managed such clubs as FC Malmo, Neuchatel Xamax and Grasshopper Zurich), Liverpool would surely reclaim their rightful place at the top table of English league football?

Sadly, things didn't quite go according to plan. The high point of last season for LFC was the eventual change in ownership following a bitter court battle. Its new owners, Fenway Sports Group, subsequently spent the remainder of the season positioning the club for a more serious challenge to the top-4 this season. The most important of these was the permanent appointment of Kenny Dalglish as manager, together with the recruitment of respected coach Steve Clarke.

FSG have followed up the January signings of Andy Carroll and the superb Luis Suarez with the highly promising Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing. But will this be enough to close the gap on Manchester United, Chelsea, Man City and Arsenal? FSG's strategy of recruiting young talent with a high re-sale value is admirable, but most observers would agree that there remains a clear need for at least 2 or 3 more 'marquee' signings of technically gifted players in or nearing their prime. Indeed, there is an unmistakable feeling of frustration among many Liverpool fans, expressed through Twitter and message boards, that the club have seemingly missed out on quality players such as Juan Mata, Fabio Coentrau, Gervinho and Sergio Aguero. But were these players ever realistic? The truth is probably not. Some argued was that although Liverpool will not be involved in Europe, the lure of 'King Kenny' would be enough to attract the cream of Europe. This would obviously be the case for hardcore fans of LFC but almost certainly not for a young, ambitious footballer from the streets of Buenos Aires, Anyama or Provincia.

Downing is a solid signing who will certainly improve the delivery from wide areas. Henderson should also prove a shrewd investment given time, although he is likely to play only a limited role this coming season. Charlie Adam is harder to assess. On his day he is an accomplished passer and had an impressive first half of last season as Blackpool swaggered their way to the top half of the table. But his second half of the season tailed off badly as he ultimately captained the Seasiders to relegation. Adam scored 12 premier league goals last season - a fairly impressive haul. However, 8 of those were from the penalty spot and just 2 from open play. With these expensive signings on board, it will interesting to see how Dalglish sets up his first XI. I would guess that, with squad as it is, the back four will line up as Kelly-Carragher-Skrtel-Johnson. Midfield is tricky but is likely to consist of Kuyt-Gerrard-Lucas-Downing with Carroll and Suarez up front.

The unfortunate thing for Liverpool is that their likely main rivals (with the exception so far of Arsenal) have also invested heavily. It will not be easy to reclaim a top-4 finish. And should they fail, where does this leave Kenny Dalglish? Is he untouchable? The suspicion is that FSG were keen to appoint new Chelsea boss Andre Villas Boas, but the Kop's call for King Kenny made that impossible. Whilst I am cautiously optimistic of a good season, I am also far too familiar with that mid-October feeling of dejection to make any bolder claim than that.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Hodgson Injects Feel Good Factor

Following the most demoralising season in my lifetime as a Liverpool supporter, there is a strong sense of optimism currently surrounding Anfield ahead of the new season. Roy Hodgson may not have been every Liverpool fans first choice as manager, but he has started his tenureship in impressive style. The impression is that Hodgson is a 'hands on' manager and one whom players enjoy working with. And unlike Rafael Benitez he is open, honest, and on good terms with the media. He conducts himself with dignity and maturity, preferring not to answer questions in riddles or 'double speak'.

There is of course much work to be done to restore the club's pride after an embarrassing 2009-2010 season. Hodgson has moved quickly to shift much of the dead wood at the club including Degen, Aurelio, Itandje and Insua. One would hope the likes of Reira, Ngog, El Zhar, Plessis and Kyrgiakos will follow suit. Encouragingly, Hodgson has made it clear that he intends to inject a more British feel to the squad, remembering the new Premier League rules on home grown players. The recent signings of Jonjo Shelvy, Milan Jovanovic, Joe Cole and Danny Wilson together with Steven Gerrard's commitment to the club represents shrewd business and have given the fans reasons to look forward to the new season.

This was always going to be a crucial summer for Liverpool in terms of appointing the right manager, making the right changes to the playing staff and successfully selling the club to a suitable owner. The ownership issue in particular is an absolute priority and it is clear that the club can only really move forward once Hicks and Gillett have departed Merseyside. I have long since learned to avoid the wild optimism that used to dominate Liverpool's pre-season, but I can genuinely say that that I am already looking forward to our first game against Arsenal on 15th August.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Railway Investment Must Be Maintained

An efficient, reliable and quality transport infrastructure is one of the cornerstones of a civilised society and essential for economic growth. The recent pledge by Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis, to radically improve the most neglected major railway stations is a welcome sign of a commitment to investing in Britain's rail infrastructure. Adonis recently conducted a tour of the 10 major stations most in need of upgrading as identified in a report for the DfT. Importantly, it was stressed that this will involve not only more reliable timetables and newer trains, but more modern and comfortable stations. If the UK is to meet its ambitious carbon reduction targets, persuading people to switch from their car to the train will be crucial. Other European countries are already well ahead of the UK. In Spain, for example, the report notes that "high speed lines offer consistent world class travel from modern stations to modern trains and regenerated cities". Railway stations are vital transport interchanges, providing access to key retail centres and enabling urban regeneration.

The input of local communities, particularly where there is currently a lack of provision, should be actively encouraged by politicians and planners alike. The key point is that railway stations should not be planned in isolation, but should form part of an integrated strategy incorporating the street networks around the station. They should be pleasant spaces in which to wait, with adequate access to all forms of public convenience. This should form the basis of emerging local development plans, with the overall aim of allowing smaller stations to become safer centres of activity which people will be more inclined to use. Railway stations serve a much greater purpose than merely allowing commuters on and off trains. Amidst all the public sector spending cuts, this Goverment and the next must not forget the important role of the railway infrastructure in promoting sustainable economic growth.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Craig Murray reflects on the absurdity of the threat by RBS bankers to resign, unless they are given permission by the Government to award huge bonuses to their fee earning staff. It is scarely believable that they have the nerve to make such a request, at a time when 1,700 workers at the Corus steelmaking plant in Redcar are set to lose their jobs. The word 'talent' seems to be the buzzword throughout the banking industry. It is important, we are assured, that the banks retain their top talent so that they do not move on to other companies. What logic! Damn, why did I not think of that in my previous job? It's obvious isn't it? Bully your employer into raising your salary or you will bugger off to a competitor! Sheesh. What 'talent' is this exactly? Are these the same talented whizzkids who mismanaged our money and got us into this mess in the first place? Come to think of it, what do they actually produce? What is their product? And how is their talent any more valuable to society than that of a steelmaker. A steelmaker manufactures and produces something we can see, feel and touch.

As Murray points out, it would have taken an injection of 0.0003% of the amount injected into the financial sector to save the Corus plant. Sadly it is apparently not deemed valuable enough to society. So as the bankers, who will undoubtedly receive their bonus in the end, contemplate whether to upgrade to a Bugati Veyron or Ferrari 355, the Corus workers will be contemplating how to make future mortgage payments.

Rafa Clarifies Aquilani Position

Rafael Benitez has defended his curious non selection of Italian midfielder Alberto Aquilani. Koppites have been left baffled by Benitez's reluctance to field his £20 million summer signing, despite confirmations that he is "fit and ready to play". Following yesterdays drab 0-0 draw with Blackburn, the Spaniard responded to confused journalists by claiming that he is protecting Aquilani for his testimonial, which is scheduled for June 2019. Benitez claimed "Alberto is talented but fragile. In 2019 he will have been with us for 10 years and deserves his testimonial. It is important that we keep him fit for this very important game. We have other good players who can do a job in the meantime. I won't risk him."

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Beginning of the end for Benitez

Liverpool's miserable season got even worse last night as they were eliminated from the Champions League, despite a 1-0 win over Hungarian champions Debrecen. Any faint hope they had of keeping their campaign alive was erased as Fiorentina survived a late fight back by Lyon to claim victory by the same scoreline. The Merseysiders have the consolation of entering the Europa League, but most fans will not have much of an appetite for that competition. In truth, Liverpool did not deserve to qualify for the knockout stages. Yes, they have endured a certain degree of misfortune, such as the last minute equaliser away to Lyon, but the fact remains they have underperformed badly. Even last nights game highlighted the problem. Lyon and Fiorentina comfortably despatched of Debrecen away from home with 4-0 and 4-3 wins respectively, whereas Benitez's side laboured their way through the game after taking the lead, seemingly content with a 1-0 win from as early as the 10 minute mark.

Amidst all the gloom, it is the omission of the clubs major summer signing Alberto Aquilani that is most baffling. In recent weeks, Benitez has repeatedly assured fans and journalists that the Italian is (and i quote) "fit and ready to play". The player himself seems champing at the bit to get out there and start his Liverpool career. From the early stages of last nights game it was obvious that the Hungarians were there for the taking. With Liverpool lacking flair and a creative influence, the game seemed ideal for the introduction of Aquilani, probably in place of one of their two holding midfield players. But Benitez, for whatever reason, resisted the temptation. Even the opportunity to help him build up some match sharpness in the last half hour was again squandered. We can only assume therefore that Aquilani does not figure in Benitez's first team plans. He may not be a saviour, but should at least be given the chance to show what he can do. As it happened, Debrecen predictably worked their way back into the game and almost snatched a draw in injury time, in much the same way Lyon did 3 weeks earlier.

Liverpool fans have been patient, more patient than almost any set of fans in world football I would suggest. We understand that long term success is not built overnight. In the last 3 months of last season there were signs that we had finally cracked it. We attacked teams from the first whistle, battering them with flair, imagination, pace and creativity. The defeats of Real Madrid, Manchester United and Aston Villa spring to mind. It was as if the shackles were off. And therein lies the problem. It seems that under Benitez, Liverpool can only play to their full potential when the pressure is off, that is when they are out of every major competition. When there is still something at stake, such as the league title, the Spaniard's natural instinct is overwhelmingly caution. He is a manager who seems to have absolute, total faith in statistics, graphs, charts and percentages. If his sheet of pro zone stats indicate that the game is not suitable for the introduction of Aquilani, then Benitez will abide by that. In other words, he lacks the fundamental managerial instinct to assess a game with his own eyes and make human, footballing decisions.

The phone-ins and message boards will be calling for Benitez to go, but now would not be the right time. If the club are to sack Benitez, they would need a suitable replacement. Jose Mourinho will inevitably be linked, but is currently in charge of Inter Milan, and more significantly, on a huge salary. Guus Hiddink will also be suggested, especially following Russia's failure to qualify for the World Cup. The Dutchman though has indicated that he is keen to remain in Moscow for the next European campaign, and also retains an association with Chelsea. Current Galatasaray boss Frank Rijkaard would also feature in the betting, although doubts remain as to his experience and tactical nous. No doubt names such as O'Neill, Hitzfeld, Dalglish, Klinsmann and Lippi will be mentioned. Should England win the World Cup next summer, Fabio Capello may even be touted. Whatever happens, I believe that any decision should be left until the end of the season.

Patience with Rafael Benitez is almost at and end with most Liverpool supporters. Defeat against Everton on Sunday is almost unthinkable, but with this Liverpool side it is sadly a very real prospect. The priority now MUST be on finishing in the top 4 of the Premier League. Personally, I do not give two hoots about the Europa League, and would be content for a reserve side to be fielded as in the Carling Cup. The FA Cup may provide a crumb of comfort, but if they can keep Torres fit, and finally introduce Aquilani, call me mad but I believe that there is a chance of catching an inconsistent Arsenal side and finishing 3rd. If you were to offer Liverpool fans the FA Cup and a 3rd place finish right now I'm sure most would snatch your hand off.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Glasgow North East By-Election

Residents of the Glasgow North East constituency will finally get the chance to elect their new Member of Parliament tomorrow following the departure of ex-speaker Michael Martin to the House of Lords. The seat will almost certainly go to Labour candidate William Bain, although the SNP are likely to make some gain. Socialist firebrand Tommy Sheridan, who is definitely not a swinger, has used the election campaign to spread his rhetoric but is unlikely to make any significant dent at the polling stations.

Threethousandversts has already noted the decidedly poor quality of candidates, including "straight talking" Big Brother runner up Mikey Hughes who has vowed to "clean up the House" (literally i presume?) and Glasgow Airport baggage handler John Smeaton. Smeaton, who has squeezed every last morsel of publicity out of his status as Glasgow Airport's terrorist attack 'hero', appears ever so slightly out of his depth in the political arena, something which STV Political Editor Bernard Ponsonby seems well aware of. Glasgow North East is one of the UK's most deprived constituencies with high unemployment and a depressingly low life expectancy. It may be mildly amusing to witness Smeaton's embarrassing performance, but this constituency deserves a higher quality of candidates.