By James Dutton
You’ve probably seen that video on the BBC website where Xabi Alonso, in his dreamy Basque-English accent, wistfully reflects on Liverpool, a club he still feels ‘attached to’ and one which he still claims to support:
“I still feel really attached to Liverpool and I still consider myself a Liverpool fan. After five years, I think I needed a change. It was the right time. Some things happened, not that summer but the summer before when they tried to tell me I wasn’t as important as I thought that I could be. It came to my mind that my position was different and the following summer I decided it was the right time it leave.”
Last Saturday lunchtime during Alonso’s appearance on Football Focus, Match of the Day aficionado Gary Lineker tweeted to 1,412,770 followers:
Huge error from Liverpool letting @XabiAlonso slip away.
This, in turn, was retweeted by 1,415 people and generated a number of comments. Vinny Shepherd opined:
‘@GaryLineker If i remember rightly Benitez pushed him out as he wanted Gareth Barry? Was the start of a mini exodus i think?’
According to SempreInter:
‘@GaryLineker To think that this due to FSW wanting to get rid of Alonso to sign Gareth Barry instead. Instead ended up with none of them
‘@GaryLineker unbelievable that rafa wanted to pie him off for gareth barry ha ha embarrassing really. Leagues apart’
And let’s not forget Carolyn Hughes’ two cents worth:
‘@GaryLineker Absolutely, the team photograph was never quite the same again either #eyecandy’
It’s a convenient summary of the ills that have befallen Liverpool since the departure of the ginger-bearded Spaniard. This February marked the four-year anniversary of the club’s historic 1-0 victory at the Bernabeu, which was conveniently bookmarked with two demoralising 2-0 defeats to West Bromwich Albion and Zenit St. Petersburg.
But Lineker’s 10-second tweet cannot begin to explain the nearly four-year diagnosis which has seen Liverpool’s domestic and continental fortunes plummet into mediocrity.
Lineker’s statement is one that merely confirms the narrative, which with the benefit of hindsight neatly sidesteps the issue of context. In the summer of 2008 there were very evident noises emanating from Anfield considering allowing Alonso to leave.
It was a situation which, just three years before, was barely unthinkable. With Steven Gerrard on the cusp of leaving following the breakdown in his contract extension, there was a genuine school of thought that believed Liverpool would not suffer from the loss of their captain due to the presence of Alonso.
That is a testament to the remarkable impact that Alonso made on the club in that 2004-5 season. He arrived as one-half of the beginning of the Rafalutionalongside Luis Garcia; the first seeds of spring in Rafa Benitez’s Anfield vision. In the early season defeats of West Brom and Norwich at home, and then the unforgettable comeback at Fulham, Alonso was instrumental; his metronomic passing was something the Kop had not witnessed since the days of Jan Molby. His goal during the first-half of that victory over Arsenal, the first signs of what would become the Benitez mantra, was picture-perfect.
His absence from the New Year, due to a broken ankle at the hands, or feet, of Frank Lampard was keenly felt as inconsistency in the league grew. Yet he made his return in that defiant display in Turin in the Champions League quarter-final, one which shaped the end of Liverpool’s season.
The season ended in glory for the Spaniard, his goal which drew the club level in Istanbul etched his name into Anfield immortality. He had impressed enough to grant himself status alongside Gerrard, both in stature and positionally on the pitch.
His second season cemented the promise of the first; a goal from his own half against Luton Town in the FA Cup confirmed the ability he possessed.
But despite the phenomenal success of those first two seasons, the Basque entered a period of sustained decline between 2006 and 2008. It is a decline that many have since neglected, preferring to focus on the form in his final season which earned him his move to the most successful club in world football.
Aside from another, even more impressive, half-way line goal against Newcastle in September 2006 Alonso didn’t do a lot in those two seasons. His 2007-8 season was wracked by injury; he sustained a metatarsal injury early in the campaign, only to aggravate it during his comeback game against Arsenal at the end of October.
The Basque took time to settle back into the side, facing stiff competition from Javier Mascherano and the new arrival Lucas Leiva. Rumours abounded that his relationship with the manager had broken down, no doubt fueled by Alonso’s refusal to travel to a Champions League game against Inter Milan due to the birth of his baby.
Two moments from those two seasons stick in the memory. A reckless foul on Kaka in the 2007 Champions League final which led to Milan’s first goal and inexplicable hesitation on the edge of his own penalty area against Barnsley in the 2008 FA Cup. This was not the Alonso of 2004-2006. Many conveniently neglect the decline and focus instead on the circus that defined the summer of 2008.
The public pursuit of Gareth Barry is now regarded as an embarrassing episode in Liverpool’s recent history, used as a stick with which to beat Benitez for his supposed lack of grip on reality. But it ignores the contrasting trajectories of their respective careers at that time. Barry had made a considerable impact on a stale England set-up and become one of the most consistent performers in the Premier League; Alonso for all his genius had become a frustrating talent, and little more than a bit-player for a glittering Spanish side.
Many forget that Alonso’s stock had fallen so rapidly that he was placed on the bench for the first game of the 08-09 season. A certain Damien Plessis, now of Arles-Avignon, was preferred. It’s easy to blame Benitez (#blamerafa) for Alonso’s estrangement, but who’s to say his career would have taken the stratospheric turn that it has without the experience of that summer?
In that summer of 2008 he was heavily linked with a move to Juventus, a period in which La Vecchia Signora were feared more for their reputation than their ability. There was no hint of the future that awaited him in his homeland, both domestically and internationally, for he played little part in the country’s Euro 2008 success.
Lineker is correct, looking at it from a 2013 angle it was indeed a ‘huge error’, but it made sense in 2008, despite the hurt it caused in 2009. Yet the idea that the club ‘let him go’ is a fallacy in itself; Alonso did, after all, hand in a transfer request. And who would begrudge his desire for a move to the most decorated club in world football, after they had just spent over £130m on the two most recent recipients of the Ballon d’Or?
Many point to Ferguson’s ability to coax another season out of Cristiano Ronaldo, but that ignores the second-coming of the Galáctico era in 2009 which effectively swung Alonso’s head. Without his orchestration of the 5-0 aggregate victory over Real Madrid just months earlier, would they have come calling so relentlessly that summer?
In a perverse way Alonso owes his career to Rafael Benitez, not for bringing him to England in 2004 but for giving him a reality check in 2008.