He Made Us Dream

“Liverpool is like an island, it is different to the rest of England.” The creator of last month’s Sea Odyssey wasn’t far wrong; in Liverpool we have a different mentality, a different way of doing things. It’s rare that an outsider enters the city and relates to the people on their level, indeed immerses himself in the culture and becomes one of the people. In 2004 an overweight Spaniard arrived on Merseyside to manage Liverpool football club and now, two years after having his contract ‘mutually terminated’, remains in the area, desperate for an opportunity to finish the job that he was unable to finish due to club politics. Unfortunately, these politics still look set to block the fans’ choice from returning as manager to finish the project that he was only just beginning to implement.

In his six year tenure as manager, Rafa Benitez made us dream. The ‘miracle’ of Istanbul needs no description, but the real miracle was the consistency with which his team played in the rounds preceding the final at the Ataturk. Liverpool’s squad was bad, in the last 40 years better only than the one that Roy Hodgson left in January 2011. Yet Benitez instilled a sense of belief and, perhaps more significantly, had the brains and tactical awareness to defeat teams far superior to his. The 2004-05 season remains as a surreal memory etched on the minds of Liverpool fans, it can only be described as a dream and it was Rafa Benitez that allowed our imaginations to run away with us, he allowed us to dream of being the greatest team in Europe, and he made those dreams come true.

Whilst the European Cup will forever be the pinnacle for Liverpool Football Club, it also desperately craves that elusive 19th league title. For the moment at least, that is the real dream. Benitez came closer to realizing that dream than any manager since the outgoing Kenny Dalglish last won the trophy in 1990. If it wasn’t for arguably the best of all Ferguson’s Manchester United teams coinciding with Liverpool’s 2008-09 season then Benitez could have had the Liverpool job for life. He was three points from immortality. He was a weaker year from joining the ranks of Shankly, Paisley, Fagan and Dalglish. Liverpool’s points total would have won the league in almost any other year.

In May 2009 it was impossible to imagine any other man managing our football club. But at that time the depths of ineptitude, crookery and deceit of our American owners was hidden under the surface, when it’s depth emerged it would be Rafa Benitez that would fall as the biggest victim. Internal bickering led to out and out war. As Hicks and Gillett conspired to destroy Liverpool Football Club, the working conditions for the manager became impossible and results inevitably suffered. Rather than capitalizing on the club’s position after finishing a close second, the owners attempted to bleed the club of all that it was worth and it spiraled downwards towards mediocrity and almost non-existence.

Sadly, many fans failed to recognize the club’s situation. Blinded by below-parr performances and results on the pitch they campaigned for the genius of Rafa Benitez to be replaced. Eventually he was, by the delusional, incapable and infuriating Roy Hodgson. What followed requires no explanation, and now Liverpool Football Club is at a cross-roads; the next managerial appointment will shape the club for a considerable number of years. It is no time for giving promising young managers a chance, it is no time for rewarding a manager for saving Wigan from relegation, it is time for a proven manager with experience to continue the stabilization process and guide Liverpool through the vital years ahead. Liverpool is the pinnacle, not a learning curve for Martinez or Rodgers.

If only there was a European Cup winning manager living in the Merseyside area. If only there was a manager that loved Liverpool Football Club as well as having proved himself to be wholly capable of doing the job. Now is the perfect opportunity to allow Rafa Benitez to finish the job that he started. His legacy is obvious, the academy that he overhauled is producing the sort of talents that can break into the first team and his mentality resonates through the players that he left behind.

Let’s talk about facts. After his dismissal Rafa Benitez donated £96,000 to the Hillsborough Justice Campaign; he cares. He won the European Cup and finished runner up in the Premier League; he is capable. He galvanized a beaten team on the brink of failure; he believes. His tactics repeatedly allowed his team to win when his was an inferior team; he thinks. But does his attitude and reputation worry Fenway Sports Group and the business men behind the scenes at Anfield? If so, it’s irrelevant to the fans who want to see a winning football team. However, American owners want to make money and other candidates will provide greater commercial opportunity.

 There is a mutual affinity and respect between Benitez and the Liverpool fans. “Before, I said that they were maybe the best supporters in England. Now maybe they are the best supporters in Europe,” he said in 2005. He understands the relationship between the fans and the players and is able to transmit what it means to wear a red shirt: “To work hard and have our supporters behind us and believing until the end, you run a little bit more.” The adulation thrown at Benitez from the fans, many of whom will surely regret that they wished him out of the club in 2010, speaks for itself. Scousers recognize someone who is one of there own, and albeit like an adopted son, Rafa was one such person. 

At this point in time, we need a manager with the fans backing. We need a manager that is experienced and capable at the very top level. We need a manager that knows how the club works and what is expected of him and the team. Benitez fits the footballing criteria but sadly doesn’t fit FSG’s commercial mould and will certainly not be appointed as the next manager of Liverpool Football Club. Whoever replaces Kenny Dalglish can rely on the full backing of Liverpool fans, at least the supporters that matter, and will hopefully be granted ample time to be successful. 

We can only imagine what it will be like to be managed by Roberto Martinez, but every night we can dream about Rafa Benitez as Liverpool manager.

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Kenny Dalglish is sacked by Fenway Sports Group

Fenway Sports Group have a habit of interrupting Kenny Dalglish’s holiday plans. 18 months ago they summoned him from a cruise with his wife Marina with a desperate plea to take over the reigns at LFC and address the mess left by current England boss Roy Hodgson. Now, despite three trips to Wembley and the club’s first silverware for six years, they have disrupted his latest plans for a family holiday.

Nobody could argue that Kenny Dalglish bleeds Liverpool red; he has repeatedly stated that he would do anything the club asked of him if he could be of assistance. “I said when first approached about coming back as Manager that I would always be of help if I can at any time and that offer remains the same,” he said after being dismissed. Clearly, however, Liverpool’s American owners have decided that his assistance is no longer required.

Eighth place is not good enough for Liverpool Football Club, but in a season where numerous positives have been blighted by misfortune, scandals as well as negative and wholeheartedly biased media portrayals, the club’s league position reflects only the tip of the iceberg of the 2011-12 tale. Liverpool are not the eighth best team in England. We won the League Cup defeating Chelsea en route and dispensing of a full-strength Manchester City side over two legs in the semi-final. At the same time we embarked on an FA Cup run containing thrashings of Brighton and Oldham as well as thrilling victories over the club’s two biggest rivals – Manchester United and Everton.

Cup team? So what. The league is not the be all and end all, regardless of the mentality that football fans are repeatedly encouraged to adopt these days. I’ve lost count of the amount of time I’ve heard the phrase ‘a season of transition’; although this is an annoying cliche it pretty much hits the nail on the head with regards to LFC in 2011-12 and success in the domestic cups fitted perfectly with where the club was situated this season. It was clear from the outset that fourth place was beyond the squad’s capability, so what’s the difference between finishing 5th and 8th? We are in the Europa League either way as a result of the League Cup triumph. Liverpool are a better team now than when Kenny Dalglish took over, that is indisputable.

Sacking a manager that has won a trophy is both dangerous and unacceptable. A season of transition is effectively wasted by sacking the manager, a new man will now come in and will require another ‘season of transition’ as he sets about imprinting his ideas and embarking on ‘his project’. It’s a backwards step. The progress that has been made over the last 18 months has been for nothing, whoever the next manager is will certainly have a different philosophy to Dalglish and will make changes to Dalglish’s changes. Change after change. At a time when Liverpool Football Club has no managing director, no director of football and no head of communications the last thing it needs is more change. Stability and consistency is essential for the club to progress. That is what it had under Dalglish and FSG have thrown it in the trash can.

People will try to tell you that we haven’t made progress, make no mistake in the fact that we have. Aside from the obvious cup runs, there are positives that could have been built on if FSG had allowed. Jordan Henderson and Jonjo Shelvey have shown themselves to be both talented and determined in the face of insensitive and crass criticism. The partnership between the world class Luis Suarez and the leaner, improved and menacing Andy Carroll has shown itself to have some legs. Those who watch the reserves and under-19 sides will confirm that there the academy is finally producing talents worthy of breaking into the first team.

There is nobody better placed to capitalize on this progress and push towards the next level than Kenny Dalglish. Shortly after the announcement of his dismissal, youth player Ryan McLoughlin tweeted: “What a great man Kenny was, always giving us advice and taking time out to watch us train and play matches.” Kenny Dalglish cared. Everything he did was for the good of the football club and I can say with complete confidence that no other manager in the world will care as much as he did.

The club’s previous owners refused to listen to the fans, they appointed a delusional man who was out of his depth but would happily abide by their policies and demands and it all ended in tears. FSG brought joy to Liverpool fans everywhere by dispensing of Roy Hodgson and replacing him with the man who should have been given the job in the first place. The man who the fans revere, adore, venerate. Liverpool’s greatest ever player and an ambassador that the club can be proud of. LFC was in a mess and without hesitation Kenny Dalglish dropped everything to help us out. The only thing he has ever done wrong was to believe that he “owed” the club something, the reality is that Fenway Sports Group don’t yet realise what they owe King Kenny. Hopefully that reality won’t kick in as a result of a second rate appointment in the ilk of Roy Hodgson.

The biggest fear for Liverpool fans is that FSG could reveal themselves to be cowboys in the mould of Hicks and Gillett. Such assumptions are premature but there are suggestions that this could be a very real prospect. Many years have passed since George Gillett’s promise for “the spade to be in the ground” for a new stadium and FSG seem to have no desire to move forward on the project. Although they have invested in the playing staff, they have disregarded and disrespected the management staff.

To sack any manager without a clear plan and what to do next is bad management of a company from people who should certainly know better. When that man is the company’s greatest man and biggest idol, it is sacrilege. In his statement announcing the dismissal of Kenny Dalglish, John W Henry said: “Our job now is to identify and recruit the right person to take this club forward.” That man is sitting on a plane ready to go on holiday with Marina.

Creating a Life Balance

“I’m the type of guy that would have no life, Just so I could shine like disco lights, And that sounds sad but I’m happy.” Do you know which philosopher said that? Rapper Wretch 32. I think it describes the attitude of a lot of runners, certainly me when I was younger. Athletics is all-consuming and in order to shine you are forced to make sacrifices to the extent that means laymen will think that you have no life. It doesn’t bother you at the time, all you care about is being a successful runner and if running makes you happy then you have no real desire for the other things in life.

Eventually though, you have an epiphany. For me this has happened in the last year; I realised that despite everything that athletics had given me, I’d missed out on an awful lot too. I wanted to go on nights out, watch Liverpool all over the country, eat what I wanted and train only when I felt like it. Something else that was important to me was starting to play football again. I started a 6-a-side team called ‘The Gunderdogs’ (thanks Botty) and we played every Sunday from September to December. I loved it, I think we all did, and if I wasn’t working on Saturdays I’d have probably started playing 11-a-side. In essence, I went from one extreme to another. Luckily, I now feel that I have stumbled upon a suitable life balance.

In my first blog I described how I fell out of love with running. It was a difficult time for me and I papered over this by keeping myself busy with other things. I’m one of them people that can’t sit still; I’m easily bored and especially when I’m going through a tough time I need to be active simply to stop myself thinking about things. My mates probably got sick of me pestering them to do things, but I managed to fill most of my time going to concerts, going on nights out, watching Liverpool and going to the pub or for meals out with ‘the lads’.

After having to go through a lot of transitions in 2011, it was important to me that I ended the year happy and settled. Being in Liverpool allowed me to do that, I have a real affinity with my home city and I adore the people and the place. It’s also the place that is best for my running, with an enthusiastic and generous coach and a superb group of lads who have coaxed me into a position where I can be happy with my life balance.

Finding that balance happened by accident. I rediscovered my love for running and found myself wanting to me dedicated and committed to my training again. However, I still want to do some of the things that I have enjoyed over recent months. This isn’t really a problem, there are enough hours in the day and days in the week to cover everything. I believe that, regardless of what is planned on any given day, there is always time for a run. You can simply get up an hour earlier or go to bed an hour later.

I did a race on Sunday that exemplifies the fun aspect of running. It was a race on the Wirral called Tuffnutz; an 11mile multi-terrain race with several physical and mental challenges along the route. You run as a team of 3 and have to carry a heavy 6 foot fence pole between you the whole way round. Our team, ‘Free Our Souls’ (get it?), consisting of myself, Adam Peers and Alec Duffield, won by about 10 minutes in a time of 1 hour and 42 minutes.

It was a fantastically organised event and the most fun I’ve ever had in a race. Look out for pictures on the internet, they will show three lads in red Asics t-shirts that get gradually blacker as we crawled through mud, cow shit, streams and the River Dee. It was a race that I’d never have considered doing in previous years: when will I get my long run in? What if I get injured doing it? Will it tire me out for Tuesday’s session? I didn’t need asking twice when Peersy mentioned it this year though and this in itself is indicative of my attitude shift. The three of us worked really well together and had a right laugh, winning £40 at the end was nothing more than a nice bonus.

This week I will probably run about 55 miles, my biggest milage week since last July. However, I will also probably go to the pub, go to Nando’s and maybe even have a night out. I will enjoy both of what athletics and life have to offer, it’s not impossible.

Thank you for reading.

Setting Goals

In my last blog I said that I’ve learned to reassess my goals and be happy to aim for whatever is sensible at the time. A few years ago I’d have insisted that I wanted to run at a major championships for Great Britain. Offer me a Northern 12 Stage gold medal now and I’ll bite your hand off.

Heading into the National Cross last weekend was one such occasion where I’ve had to downgrade my goals; I tentatively told myself that it would be nice finish in the top 100. Whilst 105th is a position that I couldn’t have envisaged being at all a good performance until recently, there’s nothing to be ashamed of about finishing so low down – finishing 500th can be a phenomenal achievement depending on the person and the situation.

I loved every minute of my race at the weekend. I started really slowly, pretty much coming to a complete standstill as I turned at the top of the first hill, and then started to manouvre my way through the masses. My position probably peaked at the start of the first second lap, from then on I struggled and fluctuated 5 places forwards on the good ground and 5 places back on the mud. I also had 15mm spikes in, my feet were in agony on the furthest part of the course, which was as firm as concrete for a couple of kilomtres, and certainly didn’t help me. I had a couple of great battles, particularly with Luke Allen and Joe Gratton who both finished a couple of places ahead of me.

“When you get out there you’re on your own” is one of sport’s favourite cliches. It’s also often it’s biggest fallacy. Even in athletics, essentially viewed as an individual pursuit, you can rely on the support of those around you. There have been countless times that I’ve been encouraged by people I’ve never even met, I’ve even been passed in races by people who have given me a gentle ‘keep it going mate’ and I’ve had support from members of rival teams. The help that such gestures can offer should not be underestimated. That’s the beauty of amateur sport; we’re all in it together.

Obviously though, the best and most effective support comes from your own team mates. I am blessed to be part of what I believe is one of the best clubs in the country and I know that I can rely on my team mates to help me with all matters athletics related and, significantly, those beyond running. We’re like brothers. And it’s because of this that when I now come to set myself goals it’s team events that are in the forefront of my thoughts.

The most treasured moment of my running career will never change. It was a misty day in a field near Sunderland, tents were blowing over and Coach Evans was making a scene. Our team had slogged our way around 10 kilometres of mud in the junior race of the National Cross: I think Jay Russell was in the early 30s, Dave Catt was about 20th, I was 17th and Jonny Mellor narrowly missed out on a medal and finished 4th. It can take a long time to establish the team standings at these sort of events, I didn’t think we had won but I was sat there with that gratified feeling of knowing we had all done ourselves proud. It was then that Dave, 100m away at a conservative estimate, shouted to us at the top of his voice, “LADS! We’ve done it!”

Winning a National title as a team meant more to me than almost any individual medal could. To share a moment like that with some of your best mates is special and massively underrated. It was the first time that Russell had showed what he was capable of and because of arguably his best ever performance, he deserved it. Catty hasn’t really ran since but for the years he put into his running, he deserved it. I could tell that Jonny was gutted about missing out on an individual medal so it was brilliant that he got something to show for his efforts, he really deserved it.

We all joke around and say ‘Mellor is King’ or ‘Mellor is my hero’ but I am happy to say, at the risk of bedevilling myself with a boat load of grief, for me at least it’s true. We all aspire to run like Jonny but the way he carries himself is what separates him from other sub 13:40 guys. A Jonny Mellor interview is synonymous with the phrase “I’m made up”. He’s a man who works extremely hard to be successful but maintains an unusual grace and will offer his time to help anybody.

If I never ran another race I can be satisfied with what I’ve achieved in athletics. I can say that I was a National Champion (regardless of the standard of the field), I can say that I have represented my country (regardless of the event or it’s location) and I can say that I enjoyed myself and met some of the most important people in my life. It’s largely because of this that I can be content to turn up to Northern League meetings at Bebington Oval rather than the Olympic Trials in Birmingham. I can prioritise the Liverpool and District League over the Inter-Counties. I can run well if and when it happens rather than destroy my body to be fit for an arbitrary date in the calendar – who cares about coming 21st in the European Trials when you can help Liverpool Harriers to a 6 Stage medal?

I’ve got no intention of giving up though, I’ll run whenever my body allows me to and I’m actually quietly optimistic about the future. I tend to get fairly fit quite quickly but take a long time to get back to my very best. I did a session last night that demonstrates this; although it was a long way from what I’m capable of, it reminded me that it doesn’t take much for me to get into decent shape. Our group was doing between 6 and 12 three minute reps with 75 seconds recovery and I deceided that I was ready to try eight. I really surprised myself by hitting almost a kilometre exactly on ever single rep. I jumped in when most of the lads had already done four, I felt quite good and I always like to help out my training partners so for most of my reps I led the group chasing Jonny. After John McCole shouted ‘bold move from Gundo’ when I hit the front on my second rep, I was pleased I mainainted my pace and didn’t fall apart.

There are a lot of people that are impossible to satisfy, certain people will tell you ‘that was awful’ after every single race, whatever their result. What’s the point in running if that’s your attitude? Set yourself realistic goals that challenge yourself rather anybody else and enjoy your running, otherwise you will be perpetually unfulfilled.

Thank you for reading.

A Bit of Background

A fifth place finish in the Liverpool and District Championships sounds like a fairly modest achievement, but for me it meant a lot. It represented a return to the sport that I had came very close to giving up on. The last time I raced was on the first weekend of August last year, I was in good shape then and optimistic about going forward. A few days later I could hardly walk and I have struggled ever since. It’s a story that resembles the whole of the last 2 and a half years of my running life: getting fairly fit over a few weeks’ training and then breaking down and returning to square one.

If it happens enough times it forces you to question why you bother with such an unrewarding sport. To be successful, athletics requires total dedication and at the end of it what do you get? Perhaps a nice medal, and, of you are lucky, a few people singing your praises on Internet forums. I’m not particularly bothered about receiving praise from people I don’t know. The only people that I have ever had in my mind when I’ve been competing are myself and my team mates. There is no better feeling than having that indescribable intrinsic satisfaction at what you have achieved, and knowing that you have given everything to help your team mates.

Until my last year at university (aged 20) I had hardly suffered an injury worth mentioning, but an Achilles problem followed by a first stress fracture sparked a cycle that has been impossible to halt. This hit me hard, I wasn’t used it and found it difficult to deal with, if I wasn’t living with my best mates who were able to take my mind off it I don’t know what I’d have done. However, I was fortunate to run a personal best and win the U23 Champs (albeit against an arguably weaker field than some years) a few months later and was optimistic about embarking on a scholarship in the USA. I thought that would bring me to the next level, but instead it brought me to my knees.

I suffered another stress fracture, this time a very serious one in my sacrum, after just one race in a Butler vest. Hearing, when you are thousands of miles from friends and family, that you won’t be able to do what you love for the next few months is heartbreaking. I think that at this point, in the September, that my time in America was already doomed before it had really even started. Butler University is a great place with lovely people and a brilliant set up, I would recommend it to any young athlete, but it wasn’t for me. The rest of my time there was fairly miserable as I raced against time struggling to get fit on the backdrop of severe homesickness and relationship problems. It was then that, for the first time ever, that I stopped enjoying running.

As I made the heart-wrenching decision to leave Butler after a year I decided that I was finished with running competitively. I was embarrassed and annoyed at myself for quitting Butler and letting down my team mates and coaches but as both an athlete and a person I felt that I had no choice. And I needed to spend some time not worrying about running.

Ironically, I didn’t need an excuse to stop running; I was injured again. The weeks I had off with this injury provided me with enough of a desire to start doing a bit of running again. I didn’t want the pressure or commitment that comes with competing on the track, I just wanted to try and enjoy running again and then, if I wanted to, I would do a low key race or two further down the line. I really enjoyed getting out of the house to run only when I wanted and for as long as I wanted, and in the company of my Liverpool Harriers team mates whom I have been close friends with for so long.

People were encouraging me to do some sessions but I wasn’t going to until I felt physically, more importantly mentally, ready. Eventually I was and I started jumping in with Dave Evans’ group again, chasing Jonny Mellor around the woods. Without really realising it, I was running around 70 miles a week and it was only natural that I should start racing again. I surprised myself with a sub 25 minute 5 mile race around Sefton Park (not the easiest course in the world) at the end of July, I think I ran 24:49. Brimming with positivity I planned to run a half marathon with my mate, Adrian Holliday. So to prepare for it I ran the Sale 10 and again had a decent run, clocking 51:09. For the first time in a long time, I was both running well and enjoying it. That all ended when my right foot fractured for the second time a few days later.

To cut a long story short, I have since had spells of doing a small amount of running and spells of doing none, influenced by injuries, motivation and my mood week to week. It got to the point where I couldn’t imagine myself lining up on a start line again, at times I was running purely to prevent myself getting fat(ter). When you don’t race for over half a year, your self esteem and confidence both plummet.

As I warmed up on Sunday, more unsure of myself than I have ever been, I was uncharacteristically nervous. I’ve ran abroad, in National Championships, for my country, and yet here I was wincing at the thought of running around a field 5 minutes from my house. I’m not sure if some of the lads detected this, but Ian Lawton did a great job of calming me down. A lot of sportspeople will tell you that once the gun/whistle/kickoff starts their nerves disappear and they can finally relax, this was pretty much the case for me.

I had no idea where I should be, who I should be running with, how fast I should be running. I have hardly trained and I’ve had no indicators to my fitness whatsoever, so I ran to feel; if I felt tired I slowed down, if I felt good I sped up. As it happened, I ran the early stages with Rich Burney in about 7th, then as he flew through the field I edged ahead of Ben Russell and consolidated 5th which is where I stayed to the end. The result was unimportant to me, I wanted to enjoy it and stay in one piece. I did both of those things and, as a bonus, the result wasn’t too bad.

After plenty of disappointments, I’ve learned not to worry too much about not being the very best. I’ll never go to the Olympics. Once upon a time I’d be devastated if someone who I should be beating had a good performance, or if I didn’t run as well as I should, if one of my mates beat me, but now I know how to readjust my goals. As a result, I am able to be happy with being 5th in a low key race like the L & D. In fact, I think I’ll write my next blog about ‘setting goals’.

Thank you for reading.