If you were a Liverpool fan right now, what would you want from the end of this season? To win the Europa League? To finish 6th? For Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard to sign some kind of life long blood contract or have exploding ankle tags fitted, preventing them from ever leaving the Anfield area except for special dispensation away days? Or to make absolutely sure that Manchester United don’t win the Premier League again and pull one ahead in the great perch wars?
This is the conundrum that faces the red half of Merseyside as they gear up to face Chelsea on the 2nd of May. After a season of massive disappointment, a win against a fierce rival in their last home game of 09/10 would be a triumphant high to go out on. Except that such a win may, just may, hand United the title and with it that precious number 19. With little to play for other than positioning now that Portsmouth’s appeal has been rejected and 7th place will be good enough for Europa sooper doper football, offer most fans the option, and I’ll bet they’d rather be whipped senseless by Ancelotti’s blue shirts than do their Mancunian rivals any kind of favor.
Now I’m not saying they will, or should. In fact when presented with an identical situation at the end of the 94/95 season, Liverpool beat Blackburn, and could have easily handed United the title had Fergie’s Cantona-less side not failed to beat West Ham.
In the same situation again though, most fans would not begrudge fielding a weakened team. Especially if they make it through to a European Final and have a genuinely believable excuse for resting stars. And this is the point of this hypothetical situation. How morally wrong is it to field a weakened team?
Wolves boss Mick McCarthy was fined £25k (suspended) earlier this year for dropping 10 of his regular starters for the trip to Old Trafford. His reasoning seemed perfectly sensible objectively; he didn’t think they had a realistic chance of victory anyway, and would rather rest his team for a game that actually mattered. Not very sporting admittedly, but as it transpired he was completely vindicated by a 2-0 win in the following 6 pointer vs Burnley.
West Ham complained to the Premier League earlier this month after Fulham fielded a less than stellar side against the ‘ammers relegation rivals Hull due to the Cottagers midweek European clash with Wolfsburg.
In 2007 Fulham had been the beneficiary of a weakened Liverpool side concentrating on their upcoming European Cup final rematch with AC Milan. That day Fulham ran out 1-0 winners after Liverpool’s reserves had dominated, but with Fulham then involved in a relegation scrap, those around them were up in arms.
Whilst the protests and annoyances of the clubs and fans adversely affected can certainly be understood, the fact of the matter remains that the job of every coach is to do what is best for their team. How it affects anyone else is completely and utterly irrelevant. The standards of fair play are all well and good, but much like playing on when a rival player goes down injured, there is nothing that should be expected, nor enforced when teams are only protecting their own interests. It’s tough, but so is life.
Much like the protracted West Ham-Sheffield United-Carlos Tevez dust up in 2007, the aggrieved club can bleat and moan all they like about fairness, but in truth when they have gotten themselves into a situation where they are reliant on the fortunes of others, they can’t feel aggrieved by the circumstances. In short, it’s their fault in the end anyway.
If Liverpool were to lie to down against Chelsea, there would be uproar in Manchester, but in objective truth, it would be their failure to get anything when Chelsea came to Old Trafford that took the title out of their hands and cost them the League. Similarly, if they were to win it, it wouldn’t be because of the efforts of McCarthy, but their own efforts throughout the season. If West Ham go down it won’t be because Fulham acted unfairly, but because they capitulated to Wolves at home, or indeed any number of other clubs throughout the term.
McCarthy shouldn’t have have been fined in my opinion, because all he did was look after the interests of his club. He’s the manager, he can pick himself if he feels it’s the best way forward. Football isn’t fair sometimes. Some teams face crucial matches at crucial times with a critical injury list. They’re hampered by harsh sendings off, offsides and penalty decisions and if the referee’s or offending players culpable aren’t fined £25k for such obstructions to parity then why should managers with their own agenda’s be?
No team ever goes out to lose, and there’s no chance that Rafa Benitez will let whatever side he fields lie down, just as Roy Evans didn’t, nor did George Graham when his Spurs side went to Old Trafford with the chance of handing Arsenal the titile in 1999. No manager does, and neither did McCarthy or Hodgson. But sometimes you have to look after number 1. When you’re reliant on others to do you favors, you aren’t overtly deserving of the spoils in the first place. It’s tough. So is life, deal with it.