A Season on the Brink

Sitting on a bench at the side of a Dublin canal I became engrossed in six minutes that changed the world of European soccer. It was in January of last year and the sky was cloudless. That made the day all the chillier although the absence of clouds seemed to have some symbolic value.

When the Liverpool team emerged into the Istanbul stadium in May 2005 the half time clouds that were smothering their bid for European Glory had lifted, allowing the team to reach for the sky which they took with great aplomb.

A book detailing that memorable night and the season that was in it, I discovered by chance browsing through the used book section of a shop run by the Simon Community in Dundalk. For the grand sum of a solitary euro I became the contented owner of a possession not really coveted up until that point due to my being unaware of its existence. That I called into the shop made for a nice coincidence. I was on my way back from having just purchased two Liverpool match tickets as a birthday present for my sister and decided to have a nosy. Although the book was much less expensive than the tickets, there was no temptation to switch presents!

Guillem Balague, the author, is a Spanish football journalist and was no stranger to the coaching technique of Rafael Benitez who achieved major soccer success with his previous club Valencia. Of course, when I was charging through Balague’s A Season On The Brink sitting on a canal bench, the book’s main focus, Rafael Benitez, was still the man in charge at Anfield. Liverpool were having a decent season and there was no indication of the howler to follow and the eventual departure of the Spaniard from the Kop scene. A Season on The Brink purported to offer an assessment of the Benitez impact of on the team in the wake of the departure of the club’s previous coach, Gerard Houllier.

Balague proved too eager to dismiss Monsieur Houllier and lionise Senor Benitez. Houllier departed from the club on better terms than Benitez, leaving behind him more silverware in the Liverpool boardroom than his Spanish successor. In the end neither of the two were able to deliver the successes of the Shankley/Paisley era, leaving a Liverpudlian generation with no memory of league title success.

There cannot be too many managers who have a book written about their exploits in one season alone. A more revealing account should deal with the full Benitez term there. One from the man himself would not go amiss. Rafa was done for by a string of bad results and little silverware. His considered take on the descent of Liverpool would add ballast to what at the moment is speculation. Regardless, if there is no quarrelling with success, failure then can’t make much of a case.

Balague argues that on the Istanbul night Rafa ‘did what all great leaders are able to do: he showed others how to get themselves out of trouble.’ This verdict has to be called into question by the experience of Rafa’s later years at the club which brought little success. The power of Stephen Gerrard on the Istanbul pitch was arguably more crucial than anything Benitez did off it. Gerrard nevertheless emerges as a character in need of constant reassurance. Benitez, we read, would, unlike Houllier, never go to the Gerrard door cap in hand, knees on the mat, to tell him how essential he was to the club’s future. That Gerrard did not switch ships as they passed in the night and meet Chelsea on the way to their zenith, instead accompanying Liverpool to their nadir, must play on his mind when he looks at his relatively sparse personal trophy cabinet. Balague seems to have overlooked the current Liverpool captain in his comment, ‘the lads quickly realised that you get nothing for yesterday.’

For Liverpool fans the book is an uncomplicated foray through the first year of Rafa’s reign and would hold their interest. Fans of other clubs will be attracted to it only for the tittle tattle they presume to be there. Balague also throws light on the behind the scenes arguments that afflict every club. They might draw the supporters of other teams quicker than the lauding of Liverpool’s footballing prowess.

There is a wide mosaic of voices in this book including some from the AC Milan Camp, the vanquished of Istanbul. Gattuso conveys the sense of despair setting into the Milan team as it realised, despite having gone three in front, that everything was coming apart in front of their eyes. There is a touch of the action replay to it as each goal in the final is analysed from different perspectives but this takes nothing away from it.

Overall, Ballague’s book may not be as good as others about Liverpool FC, but for the fans it is one to display on the shelf.

A Season on The Brink by Guillem Balague. Weidenfeld & Nicolson: London 2005


  1. Mackers, what's your opinion of the Tom Henry takeover at Anfield? I think it will bring success back to the club as I lived in Boston and witnessed the end of the decline in the Red Sox and the revolutionary transformation effected by Henry and co. Their business model operates on and off the pitch and they appoint highly talented people to both management and administration. With the Red Sox they have spent wisely and shown a willingness to reinvest in the team and have been fully accepted by a very traditional and discerning fanbase - the club had been owned by the Yawkey family and foundation since the 30s. I would expect that the same will happen with Liverpool's fans although it will take time given their last experience with American owners. Obviously success will speed the process and if recent history of the Red Sox is anything to go by it will certainly happen.

  2. this is NOT a sexually suggestive comment...but i've a feeling "you're goin DOWN!!"

  3. Great Super I couldnt be more happy , clicking on the Pensive Quill link to discover that there is a book about Liverpool brilliant , that's really made my day, i am now off to wash myself in cold water to dampen the excitment

  4. Gav,

    I don't see how it could be any worse than what has gone before. A very interesting history you have charted for us. Just hope you are right.


    you hope!!


    there are a quite a few books about Liverpool! You may get an ice box to dampen the excitement now!

  5. Yes AM Gav has some good points regarding john Henry, but keep in mind that the Boston Red Sox will always be priority number one for him in terms of spending money and Liverpool will probably be a neglected mistress. He bought them probably just to brag to his American friends that he owns an elite EPL team. Sorry AM but you are probably in for another decade of soccer misery. Not sure what's in a worse state-that of your beloved Liverpool or Irish republicanism.

  6. Anthony,

    Apparently Liverpool have offered Chilean president, Sebastian Pinera, free season tickets for the rescued miners. Thirty one of them have already declared a preference to go back down the hole!

  7. hahahahah Robert, thats sooo bad/good!!! better brace myself now for sunday.

  8. Never mind "A season on the brink" Anthony that club would drive a "person to the drink"

  9. Marty,

    Michael Henry has died whilst training to be a sky diver. Sources at the PTQ School Of Sky Diving say they have no idea why his flippers and snorkel did not open?

  10. All these insults are in vain as michaelhenry is currently on the 'Blue sky thinking' Leargas blog, telling the great leader how wonderful he is.

  11. Marty,

    It hasn't driven me to drink - no money to buy any courtesy of our great recession!!!

  12. Fionnuala
    In vain indeed as we have given him “cause- celeb" I am patiently waiting on Brain Mor to put Mickey the (peacetime) militant in cartoon form.
    Though on the upside it is enjoyable as he tries to wind people up in here he would have more joy trying to wind up a digital clock.

  13. Ryan,

    as it currenty sits Liverpool are as far from the top spot as this country is from being united. Not a lot to engender cheer with either