Rafa Benitez and The Dignity of the Conference

Rafa Benitez is a man who has gone up in my estimation by dint of his quiet dignity. His genuine support of the Justice for Hillsborough campaign can be summed up in two gestures since he left the hot seat at Anfield which sum up his sincerity.

Firstly, he was very publicly moved to tears by the twenty-first anniversary commemoration of the unspeakable tragedy last year. Secondly, his support for bereaved families was not waved around in public, many not being aware of it until after he lost the Liverpool job and attempted to quietly donate £96,000 of his severance deal to the families’ quest for justice. This marks him out, in a time of arrogance and ignorance in football, as a genuine class act.

When I recently heard that, as he bided his time on the Wirral before the right job comes his way, he has launched a blog, I therefore had a look with great interest.

In truth, it’s a quite dry affair, and guest writers take much of the burden. However, one sentence caught my eye in his musings, in the midst of an earnest post on the development of sporting skills in children:

“Playing without supervision frequently ends in arguments.”

It was made about eight year olds, but my immediate reaction was one of scepticism. Hell’s bells, you only have to watch football on TV on to see that frequent arguments are also likely if a group of twenty-eight year olds are gathered with supervision!

But it’s more complicated than that. Am I imagining it, or are you more likely to see pathetic petulance if you watch the top level game on TV? Because I’ve realised that the sense of annoyance I get when I see players whinge, when and hurl themselves on the floor tends to disappear when I watch Wrexham games.

To my eyes, that level of dissent and downright childish behaviour just isn’t there at Conference level. Sure, there’s some moaning at the referee, but rarely anything out of hand, as far as I can see.

Okay, I know you’re going to throw back at me the argument that I’m biased and therefore can’t see the wood for the tress. Fair enough, I’m willing to accept that what I might see as appalling behaviour in an opponent becomes an admirable attempt to fight his corner when a Wrexham player’s the culprit. But it’s more complicated than that: to be honest, I don’t watch our opponents and feel they’re trying it on. I just think Conference players behave themselves better.

Trying to be logical, there are two possibilities: either I’m right, or there’s a reason why my perception of the situation is inaccurate. I guess the absence of TV cameras could be a factor.  After all, when I watch Sky I get to see John Terry and Wayne Rooney snarl at officials (often in thrilling super slowmo and wonderful 3d!) but that’s an opportunity denied me when I’m at the game itself. But if that’s the case, why don’t I feel enraged when I watch us on S4C, or Premier Sport’s coverage of Conference games? (Yes, I’m the guy who subscribes to it!)

And I guess that explains why, although I’m desperate to see us get out of the Conference, I’ve also grown attached to non league football. It’s more earthy, despite the steady drip of disfinctional sides down from League Two, and frankly feels more authentic. The players are more approachable, and it’s all a million miles away from the hermetically sealed environment the Premiership now exists in. As the superstars become increasingly distance, five divisions down it’s all just more human. It has a more believable sense of scale. It’s surely something Rafa Benitez would endorse.

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