Yesterday afternoon, as I was driving on the Garden State Parkway on my way to a Mets-Phillies game, I got stuck in horrible traffic. Like the kind of traffic that makes you want to get out of the car and go for a walk—which I would’ve done, except for the heat. I later found out that the 95-degree heat caused cars to set on fire spontaneously while on the road, causing this specific delay. As I was incredibly bored, I decided to pull out my phone and check Twitter for news headlines and updates, as well as checking up on my favorite sports teams. Rumors flashed across my timeline that Liverpool keeper Pepe Reina is about to go on loan to Napoli, who currently employ former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez and goalkeeper coach Xavi Valero.
As with all stories regarding LFC, fans on my timeline decided to use this headline as a stick with which to beat Fenway Sports Group (FSG) and Brendan Rodgers, or on the other hand, praise Rodgers without question. Keep in mind that many fans said throughout last season that Reina was past his best and should be sold this summer. When rumors in May surfaced that Barcelona were interested, these same fans were happy to offload him, where he was the starting keeper as a teenager and where the long-tenured reign of Victor Valdes is expected to end when his contract expires next year. But now, fans want to keep him because he’s not going to Barcelona—there’s seemingly no excuse for sending out a three-time gold glove winning keeper on loan to another club in Europe, let alone one with two men in charge who were successful at Liverpool. Napoli isn’t Barcelona, which makes the sale inexcusable—a rather condescending thought. At the core of the divide are two sides to the LFC fan base, both of which will interpret any story to fall in line with either their pro-FSG/pro-Rodgers or anti-FSG/anti-Rodgers view.
In my mind, the loan move makes perfect sense for all parties involved. Pepe’s save percentage the last few years has dwindled, he’s currently being paid £110K a week, and we just signed Simon Mignolet from Sunderland, who’s younger and at a similar, if not higher level than Pepe Reina. If you want a reason why Sunderland didn’t go down last season, it’s not Paolo Di Canio—it’s Simon Mignolet. Sunderland were 3rd lowest in the Premier League in goals scored last season with 41—just over a solitary goal per match. They conceded 54 goals in the Premier League last season, and Mignolet had 11 clean sheets. He was the main reason that Sunderland stayed up, because his saves allowed them to stay competitive in matches and salvage points. In the first nine games of last season, Sunderland’s only goal-scorer was Steven Fletcher. They scored six goals in the first nine games, five by Fletcher with one Demba Ba own goal, but they only conceded nine goals in that same span, coming away with six draws and a win. That’s what Sunderland had to put up with throughout the season, and Simon Mignolet enabled them to stay in the top flight.
Compare that with Reina, who had a better team around him last season than Mignolet. His form has declined since Xavi Valero left LFC in 2010. Yes, he kept us in games from time to time last season and made some rather important saves, but he did have his moments that cost us last season. Remember that goal he conceded against Arsenal that resulted from a point-blank shot right at him that he was unable to hold on to? What about the goal he conceded against Norwich away, which came from a rebound off of a soft shot that he really should’ve held on to? His howler against Hearts in the Europa League Play-off qualifier, a shot right at him that he was, once again, unable to hold on to? And, to top it off, what about that ridiculous goal he conceded against City that he conceded by being so badly out of position? He must’ve had more blunders last season than he had in the previous three, and these individual errors cost LFC greatly.
Reina deserves a load of credit for sticking with Liverpool through such a difficult period and for openly criticizing Hicks and Gillett during the summer of turmoil that was the 2010 offseason. But quite frankly, Reina isn’t the keeper he used to be. If Rodgers prefers Mignolet over Reina, then I trust his decision as Liverpool’s manager. That being said, if this proves to be true, I’d rather not have a keeper making £110K a week sitting on the bench, and believe that it would be in the best interest of both Reina (with the World Cup in 2014, he’s going to need plenty of matches to make the Spanish squad) and the club if he played somewhere else in this upcoming season. Since Liverpool consider Mignolet to be the starting keeper at the moment, a loan move makes the most sense.
The move also makes sense for Napoli, as Rafa and Valero have worked with Reina before, and got the best out of him at Liverpool, with his quality having declined significantly since they left. With Reina in goal, Napoli will have a reliable keeper in net with a wealth of experience who can act as a leader both on and off of the pitch. It also gives time for their new 23 year-old Brazilian keeper Rafael, recently purchased for €5m by Napoli after 114 appearances for Santos, to settle in to life in Italy before becoming the new Napoli #1 in 2014-2015.
Despite the clear line of logic leading to a Reina departure, Liverpool fans are still angry. They see Reina as the player he once was rather than the player that he is now. They see the move as one that simply saves wages rather than one that enables Reina to play elsewhere and allows us to move on and upgrade at the position. They see it as another version of us replacing Javier Mascherano with Christian Poulsen rather than it potentially being a modern day parallel of a young Bruce Grobbelaar replacing an aging Ray Clemence. It’s not that club isn’t grateful for what he’s done and doesn’t respect him as a servant. It’s that the club wants to try and upgrade from a player that was once great, but isn’t what he used to be despite the fans still loving him. Arsene Wenger has been doing that for a decade now, and last time I checked, they were a Champions League side.
The problem with football is that no matter how much the fans love a player because of what he’s done for them in the past, the job of the manager is to get the best out of the players at his disposal and do whatever it takes to win. At times, one needs to be ruthless and throw romanticism to the side in order to accomplish that. The sacking of Kenny, while incredibly unfortunate, is a great example of that, and also epitomizes what I call “The Liverpool Dilemma.”
Liverpool Football Club has a great history that it’s very proud of. The club also has extremely passionate fans who want to return to their days of glory. When people talk about LFC, they bring up the names of great players and managers who did fantastic things and built the club into one of the biggest in the world. Names like Dalglish, Keegan, Thompson, Clemence, Shankly, Paisley, Fagan, Benitez, Rush, Fowler, Gerrard, Heighway, Hughes, Fairclough, and Hunt—that list of famous names synonymous with the club is almost endless. They bring up all of those famous European Nights, fantastic away days, successful trips to Wembley, and the trophies they’ve won. The fans are proud of their history and they embrace it, which they have every right to do.
The club’s extremely successful history, however, makes it tough for the current squad and coaching staff to work under realistic expectations. LFC fans want to see the club back in the Champions League, back in the title race, and back in every Cup final. The fans today think of being patient with a new manager as three months without scrutiny. They think that we shouldn’t have to lower our expectations because of the simple fact that this is Liverpool Football Club, and to expect anything less than the best is to be accepting of mediocrity, rather than being realistic and willing to adjust standards to fit unfortunate circumstances. LFC fans, much like the fans of every other club, embrace players that are successful for them and perform very well for them. That also makes it very tough for them to let go of players when they are past their prime. They view selling a fan favorite past his prime as the club not having respect for players who were successful rather than the club trying to upgrade. Liverpool fans view their icons in a light that makes them demi-gods rather than human beings with flaws.
Kenny Dalglish being sacked caused an incredible uproar from fans, and an even bigger uproar occurred when he was replaced with Brendan Rodgers, a manager who had only been the Premier League for one season. You also can compound that with the fact that Rafa Benitez was out of work, wanted the job, and was passed over. They view these acts as a disrespect for their history and icons. Dalglish’s tenure featured two Cup finals, three trips to Wembley and a trophy, but also a horrifying league form and the PR disaster that was the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra racism row. Yet overall, the fans were happy because Dalglish was in charge and the club was making cup runs like they had in the old days. At the same time, they were unable to say that LFC was progressing because they simply weren’t. A 7th place league finish doesn’t lie. All LFC fans had a decision to make: choosing between having their favorite personality ever in charge again or the club making a clean break with the past for the sake of progression. It’s like having a man be told by his wife to choose between her and his dog: regardless of which option you choose, you’re not gonna be completely satisfied with the decision you make.
With The Liverpool Dilemma, it’s tough for fans to view moves like Reina’s loan in a logical manner. But their passion isn’t a bad thing, and neither are their opinions or high standards. Sometimes, however, fans should try to be more reasonable about the current status of the club and be more supportive. The majority of fans won’t be reasonable any time soon, but that doesn’t mean those of us in the minority should stop crusading for logic. It’s not a hopeless fight. It just seems like it.
Follow Greg Visone on Twitter @njny