Thursday, 23 April 2009

“Never let the truth get in the way of a good story”

Publishing tycoon and media magnet William Randolph Hearst, once famously said “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”. This quote has not had greater relevance then in the past week for Liverpool football Club and in particular its manager Rafael Benitez. Benitez has come in for some serious criticisms in his time. Whether it’s rotation, where to play Gerrard, not taking the Premier League seriously, selling Robbie Keane, zonal marking, not taking the FA Cup seriously, his substitution policy or taking the Champions League ‘too’ seriously, the media has always found ways to condemn him. But recently the criticisms took a more laughable turn when Sky Sports commentator Andy Gray declared that Rafa never celebrated any goals. This became another stick to beat Benitez with, as Andy Gray took particular relish in trying to embarrass Rafa. They picked over footage of Rafa looking more annoyed then celebratory after Liverpool scored a whole host of goals against Real Madrid, Manchester United and Aston Villa. My personal favourite reaction appeared to show Rafa winding his watch after the fourth goal went in against Villa. Sky began to focus on Rafa’s responses more and more with each game. During Liverpool’s 4 nil trouncing of a wholly inadequate Blackburn Rovers on April 11th, Benitez appeared to enjoy the second goal by Fernando Torres. Sky Sports thinking this was a huge talking point, showed the incident a number of times. The clip showed Rafa furiously shouting towards the players on the pitch, then looking slightly embarrassed, shrugging his shoulders, smiling, and then crossing one hand above the other. They repeated the clip and within the context of the goal, it became clear that Benitez was trying to catch the attention of Alonso who was about to take the free kick. Alonso, does not hear his managers cries, takes the free kick, Torres heads the goal home and Rafa responds with his now famous reaction. Liverpool convincingly went on to win, with Rovers offering little resistance.

Six days later Alex Ferguson intent on disrupting any momentum Liverpool may have gained in the title race launched a blistering attack on Benitez proclaiming he was “arrogant” lacked “humility” showed “contempt” and that he was “beyond the pale”. Allardyce, clearly in on the whole act, dished in with “The gestures he made were dismissive to myself and to Blackburn Rovers," and "they were disrespectful and quite humiliating." Sky Sports News seized upon the outbursts with delight, repeating the ‘disrespectful hand gesture’ over and over. Even in its edited form it was difficult to see how this innocuous gesture had caused so much controversy. But controversy it caused, and by the bucket load. The papers followed suite the next morning with headlines like “Ferguson slams ‘arrogant’ Rafa”. The Mirror reported that the Liverpool manager had brought the outburst upon himself declaring “the tirade should enliven the Premier League title” and “Ferguson will feel justified in making the attack”, because Benitez had delivered the "facts" about United. The paper amazingly added that “Ferguson has tried to resist the temptation to respond, but this time he felt he needed to make a stand against the Liverpool manager”. Football Focus showed the clip with Manish Bhasin asking if Rafa was being ‘disrespectful’. Many journalists admitted to being surprised that Benitez’s hand motions had created such a reaction from Ferguson, but presumably in a bid to stoke the stories flames higher, offered little to explain the gesture stating it was “open to interpretation”. Amidst the media feeding frenzy, few attempted to tell the whole story. However Daniel Taylor and Andy Hunter reporting for the Guardian on Saturday the 18th offered to explain the whole storm in a tea cup, stating that Benítez was instructing “Alonso and Emiliano Insúa to take a short free-kick and attack the Blackburn full-back, Keith Andrews, two versus one. Instead, Alonso whipped in a long ball that Fernando Torres headed beyond Paul Robinson and the Liverpool manager responded with a gesture to his players that apparently loosely translated as: "You were right. What do I know?" adding that ‘the claims were ridiculed at Anfield where there is a strong suspicion that Ferguson and Allardyce, both of whom dislike Benítez, collaborated before their respective press conferences. “Rafa has laughed off what is clearly a co-ordinated attack on him," said a source close to the Liverpool manager.’

Despite this explanation, the row spilled over into the following week with Sky Sports News continuously referring to the story with its usual exploitational zeal. However they opted not to show all the footage which would have cemented Benitez’s explanation of the incident as true. This was of course in stark contrast to when the event occurred on Sky Sports live broadcast of the game, when they repeatedly played the whole incident in full. So what happened to the clip? Did they loose it? Or did they ‘choose’ not to show it incase it finally put the story to bed and made Fergie look more foolish? It was quite obvious the broadcaster was going to milk this saga for as long as it could.

The nation’s media gathered for Rafa’s pre match press conference before the Arsenal game, only to be greeted by assistant Sammy Lee, who again explained that "Any gestures made pitchside are made to our players, not to anyone else. If anyone sees anything in any gestures they are mistaken." Adding "One thing I'll say is that Rafa is certainly not arrogant, no way, I think it's quite sad, really. At the end of the day, we try to get on with the job we've got to do and not worry about what other people are thinking about us”. This of course prompted headlines like: “Sammy Lee hits out at Sam Allardyce and Sir Alex Ferguson's 'sad' attack on Rafael Benitez”.

The pre match build-up to the Arsenal game was dominated with the incident. Steven Gerrard who was in the Sky Sports studio for the match said "I was sitting right behind Rafa and I can guarantee that it was in no way trying to disrespect their bench," Gerrard said. "We had the set-pieces up on the board before the game and he'd told Xabi Alonso to do a certain free-kick. Xabi did the opposite but we managed to score from it, so he was basically saying 'don't listen to me, do your own thing'."

Once again this would have been the ideal opportunity for Sky to play the clip in full, illustrating clearly what Gerrard was explaining. The clip of course failed to materialize. Sky, usually at the forefront of trying to validate an incident via replays, graphics and even more replays in super slow-mo have still not shown the clip. Amazingly rather then explaining the incident and trying to put it to bed Gerrard’s comments were reported in the media as “continuing the backlash.”

The accusations from Ferguson and Allardyce had no basis in truth or fact and were a coordinated smear campaign from both, intended to derail Liverpool’s season and undermine Rafael Benitez, with the media standing by to observe. It’s obvious Ferguson was worried about Liverpool’s charge in the league and was resorting to a dirty tricks campaign enlisting the help of Allardyce, despite ‘big’ Sam’s innocent protestations of a synchronized attack. The media lapped it up, admitting that Ferguson was “great copy” and whatever he says demands the top story. Its clear Ferguson understands the power he holds with the media and exploited it to the full, making sure his message was sung from the rafters. In fact the one thing clearly apparent in this whole insidious affair is Allardyce and Ferguson’s disrespectful behavior and contempt towards Benitez!



  1. Thanks a lot for this detailed report about the episode itself and disappointing reaction we got from the media.

    I agree with you.

  2. Good lad.
    Tell it how it was.