If you are looking for the most miserable man in English football right now
there can only be one candidate.
Just six months ago, Robbie Keane landed his dream job. A Liverpool fan from
childhood in Ireland,
he was thrilled when the club paid Spurs £20 million for him and handed him the
number seven shirt. As he posed in the very number that had been graced by Kevin
Keegan, Kenny Dalglish and Peter Beardsley, he looked like the cat who had
discovered a secret route to the cream store.
The fans too were thrilled: in the era of the mercenary, when the likes of
Pascal 'It's all about the money' Chimbonda change clubs with the frequency of
a serial philanderer, here was someone who shared their love of the
institution, someone who knew the value of the shirt. He was immediately
installed as a legend in the making. But instead of the chants ringing down
from the Kop, a mere 20-odd weeks later he finds himself so far off the
Liverpool map he doesn't even have a post code. Spurned by Rafael Benitez,
uncertain even of a place on the bench, he is in footballing purdah. It is
enough to make the strongest man weep.
Being Liverpool, a club so mired in
boardroom politics Machiavelli would have difficulty navigating his way through
Anfield, the conspiracy theories are already spinning. Benitez's decision not
to pick Keane even as a substitute for Sunday's FA Cup tie against Everton is
being reported in several quarters as being part of a wider battle between
manager and board. Benitez, anxious to have complete control of transfer
strategy is demonstrating his power by demoting the club's costliest recent
Personally, I don't buy that. How would such a manoeuvre strengthen his
position? Why would it make the board think, 'OK, so we spent £20m on a player,
the manager doesn't want him so the best thing to do is to give him total
control of spending another £20m on another forward he might not like the look
of'? In fact it is likely to provoke the opposite reaction, with the American
owners insisting that a watch is kept over the cheque book to prevent a further
£20m being squandered in this way.
It is rather more logical to see this as it is: entirely a footballing
issue. Keane is not doing the business as envisaged by Benitez. His performance
in the Premier League Merseyside derby was woeful, the product of a man low on
confidence and form. In all objective analysis he deserved to be dropped. Some
have said that the best thing to do with Keane would be to love him, to give
him an extended run in the team and let him play his way back to his best.
But Benitez is no schmoozer. He is a systems analyst, not a psychiatrist.
His approach to management is tactical, not inspirational. He believes in a
style of play and assumes that footballers, being adults and being paid large
sums of money, are capable of motivating themselves sufficiently to fit into
the system. Keane isn't doing so, so is dropped. End of story.
This is by no means the first time this has happened. Since Benitez has been
at Liverpool, only four players - Reina,
Carragher, Gerrard and Torres - have been untouchable. Everyone else rotates
around them. And he expects players to slot quickly into their place in the
machine; issues of confidence and morale do not overly concern him.
It means there has been a ferociously high through-put of forwards, who tend
as a breed to be more prone to dips in confidence: Crouch, Bellamy, Fowler,
Morientes, Voronin, Torres, Kuyt, Babel
and Keane have been signed by Benitez in his time. Only one of that list has
been an unequivocal success (though in addition to Torres, Kuyt has provided
good service in a modified position). Keane is but the latest to find that
patience is not Benitez's greatest virtue.
That does not necessarily mean the player is on his way. When asked, Harry
Redknapp may well have said he would be interested in taking him back to Spurs.
But then Harry says he's interested in anything with a pulse.
Keane will be desperate to stay at Liverpool,
to prove himself worthy of the shirt. But what he will have learned over the
course of the last week is that Benitez will not bend the system to accommodate
him. He must work out how to play himself back into the team, how to find a way
to dovetail with Torres and Gerrard. It won't be easy. But the incentive is
there to find a solution.