We live in a world of conspiracy theorists. Even the President of the United States is one.
Donald Trump believes climate change is a Communist plot; that vaccines cause autism; that Barack Obama was born in Kenya; and that the death toll of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was inflated to discredit him. He’s an idiot, obviously.
And, as football mirrors society, conspiracy theories abound there, too. Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez will go soft to steer the title towards Liverpool. Everyone knows this, apparently.
Manchester City fans fear it, Liverpool supporters delight in it. But how exactly would Benitez achieve such a fix? What instructions would he give? What selections would he make? First, we have to buy into the idea that Benitez is a patsy. Not the conqueror of Spain’s giants, with Valencia. Not a Champions League winner, a Europa League winner, the outstanding manager of some of the greatest names in the European game.
We have to reimagine Benitez as a weak man, so desperate to curry favour at a club he has not coached since 2010 that the live opinions of 50,000 Newcastle supporters at St James’ Park, mean nothing to him.
We must commit to the view that he thinks nothing of the integrity of competition, and that he is prepared to irreparably harm his professional reputation and suffer public humiliation by making counter-productive decisions to benefit a rival.
And even if we feverishly conjure he would do all that on the off-chance Manchester City do not win their final two games, the question remains, how?
He would have to set up a team badly, on purpose. He would have to give players pre-match messages that would, in part, reveal this nefarious plan. And he would have to make changes and tactical decisions that were evidently destructive.
Come the final whistle he would have no credibility at all. And for what? Nothing. There is no intrinsic benefit for Benitez in Liverpool winning the league. He may talk like a fan, but so did Luis Suarez, right up until that moment he saw the chink of light between two Liverpool defenders in front of goal on Wednesday.
There are no old pals’ acts on the football field, which is what makes it so deliciously uncertain, and any Liverpool supporters who believe Benitez would be party to collusion can’t think much of him as a manager. Given his revered status, this makes no sense. The good news is, as Benitez has already made plain, nobody at his former club should get their hopes up.
He will do the right thing, as Brendan Rodgers will on Monday, as Sean Dyche did last weekend, as Jan Siewert of Huddersfield tried to without the remotest hope of succeeding. Benitez has played five games against Liverpool as a manager in England and only lost two.
Outgunned as he often is by members of the Premier League elite, he has a cussed, negative, frustrating way of setting up that looks to take a draw, or a win on the counter-attack. Expect to see nothing less tonight.
The irony is, while the airwaves are full of conspiracy theories, all evidence suggests the Premier League is plumb-line straight. Burnley could have chucked it against Manchester City on Sunday; either played without interest, or abandoned their philosophy and had a reckless go. Either would have been dishonest. So, Dyche sent his players out to do the decent thing. Play like Burnley. And they did. And it drove City close to distraction, before their narrow win. It was exactly what the competition demanded.
Neil Warnock has always resented the weakened Liverpool team Benitez put out against Fulham in 2007, the year Sheffield United went down. Fulham’s victory was among the results that condemned Warnock to the drop — yet Benitez was coming off the back of a Champions League semi-final win over Chelsea involving extra time and penalties, and was preparing for the final against AC Milan in 18 days’ time.
Prioritising major fixtures —and for Liverpool there could be none bigger — is not the same as deliberately tanking. All managers do it, even Warnock, who that year rested several Sheffield United players for a midweek match with Manchester United to keep them fresh for a visit to Charlton, which ended in a draw.
So, if Watford play their final game against West Ham with one eye on the FA Cup final the following Saturday, that is understandable. What we could confidently expect, however, is that if Watford had one of the title-chasing pair on the final day, they would not be a walkover. It is very impressive the way foreign coaches, foreign players, even foreign owners, invest very quickly in ensuring the competition remains above reproach.
We hear so much about the intensity of feeling between Liverpool and Manchester United, but what of the end to the 1994-95 season, when Anfield legend Kenny Dalglish and his Blackburn team visited Liverpool on the final day, needing three points to win the league and deny United? That was going to be another carve-up between old friends.
Final score: Liverpool 2 Blackburn 1. Had United not drawn at West Ham, Liverpool would have handed the prize to their greatest enemy at the expense of their favourite son. Even relegated clubs strive for dignity when called upon. The West Ham team of 1991-92 finished bottom of the league and lost 22 times in a 42-game season. Already consigned to the second tier, however, they beat Manchester United 1-0 to leave Leeds in pole position with two games to go.
Howard Wilkinson’s team won the title four days later. “An obscene performance,” Sir Alex Ferguson called it, charitably describing Kenny Brown’s winner as the ‘luckiest goal imaginable’.
Years later, in his autobiography, Managing My Life, he went even further, the result apparently leaving him with a lifelong, irrational aversion to male headwear. “In the last minute of the match, a well-dressed man in a trilby called to me ‘Alex, Alex’,” Ferguson wrote. “I turned to look at him and he shouted, “f*** you!” and put two fingers up. It tells you something about men with hats.”
Dear, dear, Alex, don’t shoot the milliner. Still, it reveals something of the beating heart of a league when even the damned and the doomed cannot be relied upon to capitulate obligingly. This returns us to Benitez and Newcastle.
The home side have little to play for against Liverpool: they were safe long ago, can’t make Europe, can’t even finish top half. The best Newcastle can achieve is a jump from 13th to 11th — and not even that if West Ham win another game. Yet rankings and the odd £4m differential according to places is not the point. This is Newcastle’s last home game of the season. Liverpool are a huge club going for a title. What would it say of Benitez, his players, if they wave them through? It says they are small and inconsequential. Win, and Newcastle are remembered —the way Crystal Palace’s comeback in 2014 is remembered, the way West Ham’s denial of United is remembered. Win, or even draw, and they are part of the historical narrative of arguably the greatest Premier League season.
Equally, Newcastle may yet lose to the better side. No shame there, either. But surrender and they will be recalled in an entirely different way. Benitez has been part of English football long enough to know this, and to know what is expected. Indeed, he wouldn’t want it any other way. Why do you think he’s here?