By Andy Ollerhead
It’s an emotional game this football lark (Or maybe totes emoshe, think it was added to Oxford dictionary today) and Liverpool fans had a typically divisive heart vs head moment last week with the news that Pepe Reina was swapping the sub bench splinters of Anfield for the heated, cushioned, probably built-in-Playstationed comfort of the subs area at Germanic trophy machine Bayern Munich. “He was one of us” has been the call from many, remembering the good old days of the late 2000s when he was the first keeper we’d had in almost two decades who didn’t make a regular habit of haplessly palming the ball into his own net, flailing wildly at simple crosses or invitingly opening his legs the minute a Gabby Logan lookalike in a United kit got anywhere near the six yard box.
During the Benitez years our Pepe looked pretty solid, maybe not the most eye-catchingly agile shot stopper in the league but decent on crosses, commanding in the box and good for an assist or five a season thanks to his swift and intelligent distribution. He was also ‘good around the dressing room’ we were constantly told, a magically intangible quality that makes us warm to a player that bit more by engendering visions of them keeping spirits high, energising their team mates and organising team outings and car boot sales to boost morale. In reality it probably means that they’re the one who fills their teammate’s £700 loafers full of shaving foam ‘for the bantz’ but it’s still the kind of thing you like to hear when you support a club. Either way the sheer joy on his face when he ran the length of the pitch to mount David N’Gog in 2009 seemed to cement his status as a fan favourite who really held a genuine passion for the team.
It was because of all this that it seemed so disingenuous to see him back in a Liverpool shirt (albeit only one of the new Ian Ayre engineered ‘specialist sponsor’ training tops) on the pre-season tour of America, a permanently disgruntled look on his face as he didn’t even get near the bench, never mind the pitch for a single warm up game. Of course, this is a situation that he brought upon himself with last summer’s ill-advised goodbye letter that even at the time already seemed to have one eye on taking Victor Valdes’ Barcelona spot after a brief sojourn to Naples. The fact that he ended up back at Anfield was only testament to the waning of his abilities- our Pepe stopped saving shots quite some time ago while letting regular errors creep into his game. It pains me to say about a player I always liked but by the end of his time at Anfield Pepe’s form had regressed so swiftly that he could have comfortably joined messrs Dudek, Westerveld and James in the liability stakes. His famous prowess when facing penalties also acted as a good barometer for form, the penalty expert reputation which accompanied his transfer from Villarreal saw us successfully through crucial penalty shoot outs in 2006 and 2007 but yielded just three penalty saves in the ensuing six years.
It was this drop in standards that helped many of us swiftly move on last summer. I like Simon Mignolet, and think he’s not been given quite enough credit for a decent first season for us. He was impeccable until the Boxing Day comedy of errors that was his hash of a save from Negredo’s mishit shot and there weren’t as many errors over the course of the rest of the season as the press would have us believe. He needs to be more authoritative and command his box better, but a keeper’s bread and butter is saving shots and there were several athletic Mignolet stops last season that on recent form Pepe wouldn’t have moved for. Hopefully the addition of Lovren to the defence will add some semblance of organisation across the backline which will also benefit the man between the sticks.
It’s a shame to wave good bye to Reina but as Alex Ferguson showed with his ruthless handling of the likes of Kanchelskis, Ince and Stam there can be no room for sentimentality when there is a team to be improved. There is also the comforting thought that unlike other fan favourites who have the potential to come back and haunt the club there is little Pepe can do to hurt us from the comfort of the Allianz Arena subs bench.
Cheers Pepe and thanks for the penalties.