Phillip Buckley

In 2004, Liverpool paraded Rafael Benitez in front of the cameras at Anfield. It was smiles all round. And why not? As Rick Parry, the then chief executive addressed the press, he did so with a manager who had just picked up his second La Liga title – handily augmented with a UEFA Cup – a matter of weeks before. Parry and Liverpool had quite a coup, even if most of the English media hadn’t been paying attention to a league better than their own and didn’t quite grasp that the Reds had snatched one of Europe’s brightest young coaches. Had Liverpool plumped for Alan Curbishley – as Steven Gerrard had recommended – then it would have jolly well made more sense muttered the press pack.

While Liverpool wondered whether the Spaniard could repeat his league winning heroics with them, another manager was settling into his own hot-seat. Roy Hodgson had been out of work since January of that same year, when his Arab overlords at the aptly titled United Arab Emirates Football Association decided the well travelled coach was not the man to usher in the revolution they’d hoped for and wielded the axe. By May Hodgson had returned to his safe harbour, the part of the world where his reputation was assured – Scandinavia. As Benitez considered summer moves for Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia, both of whom would prove indispensable in the Champions League win that season, Hodgson was thrust into the thick of relegation battle in the Norwegian league with Viking FK. They survived, but Hodgson didn’t hit the heights hoped for the following season, and soon decided to swap club management in Norway for a return to international football with Finland.

Move forward six years and the scene looks very different. Just a month ago Rafael Benitez made his next managerial move, being unveiled as the coach of the newly crowned European Champions Internazionale, in succession to Jose Mourinho. It was a reshuffling of chairs at the coaching top table. Meanwhile, Liverpool chose Roy Hodgson to slip into Rafael Benitez’s seat. It should be a baffling managerial pick. It should leave supporters of the Anfield giants scratching their heads. That it doesn’t and that it seems eminently sensible to so many, is itself indicative of the current state of affairs on Merseyside. Liverpool can’t play a game of managerial musical chairs with Spanish and Italian giants. Not for now at least.

Anfield seems a pit of chaos at the moment. Boardroom members fiddle and jockey for position, seemingly oblivious that, either the ship will sink, laden as it is with debt, or a takeover will be completed. Either scenario would presumably see co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, managing director Christian Purslow and chairman Martin Broughton handed lifeboats and told to paddle for home. In the case of the Americans, a light inflatable dingy might be all they can afford after miscalculating how much debt the Premier League club could carry with a credit crunch on the horizon. Moving to make Benitez’ position untenable by offering a pay-off for early contract termination seemed a strange move at best from those running the show given Inter’s well known preference for the Spaniard. Compensation, which could have run into millions, was instantly lost.

The process by which Hodgson was appointed also raises cause for concern. Generally a board will know what they want and the choice is typically between an experienced head or a young and hungry coach. In 1998, Liverpool opted for the experience of Frenchman Gerard Houllier. When 2004 came around young coaches infused with new ideas were all the rage. Chelsea appointed Jose Mourinho, and Liverpool chose Benitez. The Portuguese boss was 41 years old and the Spaniard 46. Yet on this occasion Liverpool seem to have not known exactly what type of manager they wanted. Hodgson was interviewed first, then the Reds spoke to Manuel Pellegrini, at 56 experienced, but never having coached in England before. On moved the search to Frank Rijkaard the 47-year-old Galatasaray coach – Liverpool were refused permission to speak to him twice – with less than 10 years experience in the dugout, before a final approach – also rebuffed – was made to Didier Deschamps the Marseille manager who, at 41, is more Mourinho than Hodgson. An appeal by club ambassador Kenny Dalglish to be considered was rejected too in a seemingly contradictory overlooking of experience, and Liverpool experience at that.

That the club did not seem to know which direction they wished to travel should worry Hodgson. More than likely however, it won’t. The 62-year-old, who left a cushy position at Fulham for the challenge of moving to a club with little to spend, star players questioning their futures, with open warfare between the fans and their American owners, and which is up for sale being heavily in debt, speaks volumes about Hodgson’s appraisal of his own situation rather than that of Liverpool. Having only enjoyed what must amount to a caretaker stint at Inter, this is the Croydon man’s last tilt at the big time.

Hodgson is by no means a poor appointment however and manages to squeeze performances out of players he simply seems to have no right to. Finland were devastated when he left. Inter continue to hold him in high regard. And the Englishman could walk into any job in Scandinavia – he even rebuffed offers to coach both Sweden and Norway when in charge at Craven Cottage. Hodgson also appears to have the weight of ex-Liverpool related opinion behind him. Former Reds striker John Aldridge labelled him "clued up on all manners of football" and someone who "ticks all the boxes", while Anfield legend Ian Rush called Hodgson "a good appointment" and Gerard Houllier said "He’s a good choice for Liverpool, for the people and for the fans". For Hodgson this support is important. Having received backing from across Merseyside and the national media, he can expect a honeymoon of sorts, with those who sang his praises reluctant to call for his removal as soon as things turn sour.

For Liverpool though the move represents a downgrading of expectations, perhaps rewinding back to the point before Benitez arrived. In the Spaniard bashing that became all too popular amongst the English media and then spread to sections of the Kop, it was often forgotten that in Liverpool’s Houllier days Champions League qualification was a struggle and often missed. Benitez ensured the invention of the term the "big four" and Liverpool’s participation in, and often excellence throughout, the Champions League was taken for granted. Where success for Benitez was a title challenge for Hodgson it will be fourth. Where success for Benitez was lifting a trophy for Hodgson it will be keeping the side competitive. The 62-year-old may well have weighed up that a side which, in the 2008/09 campaign, finished second, losing only twice and missing the title by a mere four points, and whose only loss of note is Xabi Alonso, can hit those targets with little difficulty. It is certainly easy to imagine Hodgson becoming a popular figure in the dressing room and turning that goodwill into good displays.

Hodgson may well turn out to be a shrewd move for a Liverpool board which would appear incapable of such shrewdness. Not for outdoing Benitez. That doesn’t seem possible for Hodgson. But keeping Liverpool competitive, keeping them relevant and ticking over in the top six, while the white knight rides to their rescue, or a David Ngog dive opens up a fissure from which oil pours into Anfield, might be an achievement enough. It is unlikely that, at 62, the former Finland manager can learn any new tricks, or out-think Barcelona at the Camp Nou, blitz Real Madrid, or mastermind a 4-1 win at Old Trafford. He will though, organise his team, cherish the moment, and perhaps exceed low expectations. For Hodgson it’s an unexpected opportunity. For the current Liverpool board it’s hard to believe his appointment isn’t yet another sign of how far their club has fallen.