As this Sunday approaches, it’s time to ponder the return of a bona fide Liverpool legend. The man who gave a Liverpool a 5th European Cup (to keep) is back.
Rafa Benitez returns to Anfield for the first time – at least in a football sense -since his poignant departure from the managers’ office in the summer of 2010. The most obvious casualty of a civil war, precipitated and perpetuated by the ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett, has been absent nearly three years, yet it feels like we’ve never stopped talking about him since.
Rafa’s recent reappearance as an interim manager, succeeding the jettisoned Champions League winner, Roberto Di Matteo at Chelsea, surprised many but after an ill-advised and unsuccessful Milanese venture at Internazionale and the sabbatical that followed, it was inevitable that he would pop up again somewhere – even if Stamford Bridge was the most unlikely of destinations. Benitez’s ageing CV needed a boost, so he was evidently prepared to suffer the wrath of factions within the London club’s support to put his name back in the upper echelons of the managerial frame.
However, it is hard to imagine Rafa had any understanding or could have foreseen the level of hostility which would be directed his way from the vast majority of the Chelsea faithful. If Benitez had underestimated the low opinion of him that was ubiquitous in West London, he knew all about it the moment he took his seat in the home dug-out ahead of his debut fixture against Manchester City. The boos, banners and cat-calls were testimony to a managerial repute pummelled by the worst ravages of an insane media witch-hunt while at Liverpool, but counter intuitively, the product of his mastery of the Chelsea icon, Jose Mourinho, in his favoured arena of European football.
Despite some successes; a notable victory over Manchester United in the FA Cup, progress to the semi-finals of the Europa League and, at last, some goals from his former charge, Fernando Torres, the initial disconnect between Benitez and the Chelsea fans has, if anything, widened. Inconsistent league form threatens a place in the top four starting from a favourable league position when he took up the reins. The septic Stamford Bridge atmosphere hasn’t helped, and after a cup win at Middlesbrough in March, Benitez waged war on his detractors, attributing a measure of blame to those whose quarrel with the manager takes precedence over support for the home team.
So what sort of reception can Rafa expect from the Kop on Sunday? How will he be received by a crowd that was polarised towards him by the end of his Anfield tenure?
In all likelihood, he will receive warm applause and perhaps a familiar song from the terraces – recognition for Istanbul at the very least. You can almost see it now, as he emerges from the tunnel, having touched the This is Anfield sign, acknowledging supporters close by in the Paddock and Main Stand, and those more distant in the Kop and Centenary Stand with a humble, almost apologetic wave; then a nod, a wink and that recognizable, shy smile.
But the dynamic in Sunday’s crowd, which will forge the strongest atmosphere of the season, is far more complex than a generic feeling of affection among the fan base for a former manager. There will be some Liverpool supporters inside Anfield who almost loathe Benitez, and at the other end of the scale there will be many wishing he could swap the away dug-out for the home benches while Brendan Rodgers’ back is turned. Whatever the merits of Rafael Benitez’s six seasons at Anfield, he divided opinion throughout his time on Merseyside. For every disciple there was a naysayer; for every cherished European triumph you would hear the lament that “this fella will never win us the league”.
In the wake of his latest media-depicted “rant” at the caustic Chelsea hordes, Rafa’s name rang out loud not from the Chelsea “Shed” but from the Liverpool away end at Wigan the following weekend. Perhaps this isn’t so surprising, given that the many of the younger element that forms the core of Liverpool’s vocal support on the road, viewed Rafa Benitez as a Shanklyesque figure. A banner draped over the front of Kop Block 109, proclaims against the backdrop of 5 European Cups that the Istanbul triumph was “One for our Generation”, so it is only natural that the Reds’ younger fans cherish their memory of the man who orchestrated that victory.
Conversely, many of Liverpool’s traditional, established match-going supporters never quite came to terms with Benitez’s rotational selection policies, which flew in the face of the “pick your best team” mentality that served the club so well throughout the distant days of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. And, if the older Kopites and Main Standers had been present on many a joyous European night, not many had heard of “zonal marking” until they were hypnotised by an army of pundits into believing that Rafa’s crackpot foreign ideas were responsible for every defensive lapse.
Of course it’s not as simple as battle lines being drawn plainly by age; some of the younger brigade turned on Rafa quicker than Fernando Torres used to spin Nemanja Vidic, and plenty of the more experienced fans recognised difficulties Benitez faced working under the financial constraints and petty disputes of the discordant Hicks and Gillett regime. Either way, when the wheels inevitably fell off at the height of internal strife in 2010, Benitez sympathisers were hard pressed to have a quiet pint in Liverpool without being accosted by some loon advocating his sacking. Sadly, similar sentiments were being shared in an Anfield board room dominated by a phalanx of financiers hugely short of football acumen.
So, three years on the Benitez era, which saw Anfield stage Champions League Football in each of six seasons, is firmly in the past, even if it feels just like yesterday. Equally, it is hard to believe that we’ve also suffered the contrasting misfortunes of Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish in between.
Sunday’s Liverpool v Chelsea clash should be feisty. The Reds need a win, with a Derby match on the horizon that could still trigger a league finish above an Everton side that is taking plaudits for being the best Goodison outfit for a generation. Sixth place would be a measure of some kind of progress for Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers. Kopites should be united in badly wanting to defeat Chelsea, though I suspect there will be contrasting motives in the stands.
Undoubtedly, swathes of the Anfield crowd went sour on Benitez’s Anfield “Rafalution”, if only through the heightened expectations brought by that heartbreaking Premier League near miss of 2009. For many, the blame lay squarely with the manager; a perceived negativity the rationale for the draws that cost us an elusive 19th title. These same supporters will be eager to see a Liverpool win and Benitez sent packing, to ward off any clamour for his return. Vindication of one’s opinion is as much part of the modern fan’s thinking as a lifelong devotion to the cause, and a strong Liverpool performance might even have some out of their seats to proffer a song.
For those who still pine for Benitez, and there is much sense in nostalgia for days when Champions League finals beckoned, surely we want to remind Rafa of Anfield at its spine-tingling best. There is a precedent for similar emotions; when a revitalised Kenny Dalglish first brought his emergent Blackburn Rovers team to L4 in November 1992, a Liverpool side languishing in 10th place was sufficiently enthused by the urgings of a baying crowd to storm to a 2-1 victory inspired by goals from Mark Walters.
Brendan Rodgers has yet to fully appreciate what a bouncing Kop can do for his players, so an occasion like Sunday is an opportunity to inspire the new incumbent. Rafa’s return is not only a chance to salute the most charismatic and successful manager of our recent history, but it offers as well, the prospect of looking forward rather than back.
Brendan Rodgers has endured a difficult first season in charge and his inexperience – haphazard selection and hastiness in his judgement of certain players – has occasionally been all too evident. Conversely, the football has generally been good, some individuals have mode notable progress, and the “group” seem to be behind him and his playing ethos. He deserves our backing; he’s the Liverpool manager after all.
On the field, Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger, Glen Johnson, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard might feel a special kind of motivation – perhaps like the supporters, drawing from contrasting emotions – from locking horns with their old boss. An increasingly leggy Liverpool team should find some common ground with an overworked Chelsea outfit that looked pedestrian at Wembley last week, after a trip to Russia in the Europa League. Tactically, an interesting contrast of styles offers Brendan Rodgers the chance to outwit the master of the one-off occasion; a win here would do wonders for the way his fledgling management is perceived among the wider Liverpool fan base.
Perhaps the greatest tribute that can be paid to the returning Rafa Benitez is that we create an occasion that stirs Liverpool in the way his team were inspired by the raucous backing of the Kop on those special nights in 2005 and 2007. He might be in opposition this time, and the significance of the match pale in comparison with those epic Champions League encounters, but the least Benitez, and Brendan Rodgers, deserve when they meet this weekend is an intensity inside the stadium sadly lacking from Anfield since Rafa was last here. And best of all, if Liverpool win, “Agent” Benitez probably won’t be arsed.
Great piece – brilliant summary of the variety of views on Benitez. Chelsea visiting Anfield normally guarantees one if the best atmospheres of the season anyway and I can only see this being amplified by the Rafa factor. Here’s hoping for another crazy win, no?
Personally I believed that Rafa had his time at the club and felt it was time for him to go PROVIDED we could replace him with a manager of similar ability. The bulk of our failure lays at the following appointment rather than Rafa’s dismissal in my opinion.
But I hope he gets the reception he deserves for his achievements at the club and then for 90 minutes he becomes the enemy like all opposing managers should be.
I think Rafa as a topic is so divisive because of the debate that raged among the supporters in his last season in charge of us. The longer and harder the debate went on, the more entrenched the opinions came. The man was either the greatest manager that walks the earth – the voice of the every day supporter inside the club. The person who “got” us.
Or he was the anti-christ who cynically played to elements of the support while being a major factor in creating the instability we still feel the effects of. I rarely join the debate because its gotten to the point where nuance is not tolerated… you feel that you are forced to either love everything about him or hate everything about him. And to be honest this is the reason I don’t want him back. There is a valid debate to be had about his methods and abilities and his record after he left us but before any of that there is a support base still irreconcilably split by the man and that’s the last thing we need.
Rafa is an excellent manager…. but more importantly a Liverpool legend who gave me, in fact gave all of us some of the greatest nights of our lives. Furthermore he is a genuinely good person who loves the cub, the city and our culture. I just hope we hammer them on Sunday!
Very well put. Personally, I’m a big fan of Rafa’s methods. I recognised his failings in his final season and believed that if he was replaced by a manager of comparable standard he (and Rafa fans like me) could not really have any complaints. Although my opinion was a little different to yours in that I felt he should not have been replaced as there were no candidates who offered a chance of success that Rafa himself did not offer if kept on. It was a risk assessment scenario whereby (I believed) even if we had a proper non-Hodge manager (Pellegrini, Hiddink, etc.) the chances were that Rafa could do just as well if not better going forward.
However, the situation you speak of about the fans is extremely sad. Because of factions amongst us a fantastic manager was apparently precluded from consideration for the role last summer.
He’s a former manager who took us to the top of Europe. We respect and show love for our our former heroes. I’ll be singing his name on Sunday (before, not during, the game), and if during the process that upsets a few of the fans that you speak of then so be it.
We should sing his name loud and proud, if only to up the the Chavs, even those who stopped believing in him wrongly in my opinion. Choose to remember where he put us (No 1on eUFA’s ranking coefficient) and the nights he gave us and not the last 2 seasons where H&G and others within were systematically undermining him. He gave everything (missing his own father’s funeral) to LFC of that there can be no doubt and for that we should celebrate his return and then as always sing for our current manager and the team.
Great article showing the divide Rafa had when he left. For me personally, he brought a high level of success in Europe and just failed domestically.
As a Kopite since the 1960’s I have seen the great times and the barren years. I have kept my season ticket in the hope we would turn things round and the League title would return to its home.
I think we are as far away from that as we have ever been in my lifetime, but thats for another day.
Rafa gave us back what we love best on the Kop, European nights of glory against the best sides in Europe. Real Madrid trounced 4-0, Barcelona, Juventus and Inter Milan all knocked out as well as Arsenal and then there was Mourinho and Chelsea.
To reach anywhere near the equivalent of St Etienne of 1977 or Inter Milan of 1966 is an achievement. Rafa gave us that with Chelsea twice.
I would rather remember Rafa for those times, how we would love them right now.
Rafa frustrated us at times with his selections and his zonal marking but he outwitted the best managers in Europe on our behalf, let us thank him for that on Sunday and show Chelsea fans how to support the manager.
I do believe that under the right ownership Rafa would have won the league for us eventually, it was Hicks and Gillett who nearly killed our club and Rafa had his hands tied behind his back.
Thank you Rafa.
Rafa made us the most feared team in European football. For that deserves a proper Anfield welcome and a blast of his song. Then I hope Brendan gets one hell of a backing. Its a big day for him.
“There will be some Liverpool supporters inside Anfield who almost loathe Benitez…” Loathe!? Who? Wools, squares and people who put too much stock into the opinions of Andy Gray on squad rotation, zonal marking and Gerrard playing strictly CM, that’s who! Probably!
Joking aside, when Benitez came in as Chelsea boss I looked for when this fixture was and wondered what an awkward atmosphere and bizarre spectacle it could be. Then I watched that City game at Stamford Bridge and realised managers who aren’t ‘Interim’, win leagues and aren’t detested by the fans don’t last there so it will never come to pass. But now… I think it’ll be fine. I’m really, really hoping Brendan can beat 63 points this season so we can begin to look forward, which would signal closure and a true ‘Year Zero’ for supporters.
I think the last 3 years have put the 09/10 season into the perspective for me personally. First and foremost it has become an almost sadly significant season with regards to LFC on the pitch in the seasons since. It’s the first act of the Shakespearean tragedy that is Fernando Torres’ career from best CF in the world to joke. Even now when he plays relatively well and scores he’s wearing an incongruous face mask or blazing over a pen when he’s on a hat trick. The people I went with for Rafa’s last home game (vs Chelsea funnily enough) got off and I still regret not staying behind.
Coutinho’s my new favourite player and no one in world football matches the frightening talent of Suarez with his frenzied work rate, but Liverpool of a few years ago grind down this lily-livered bunch based solely on “The Subpar Sami” Soto’s willingness to actually head the thing in either box alone, and that’s without even mentioning Dirk, Benayoun, Mascherano or Aurelio (actually, come to think of it, Kyriakos is the walking personification of how I felt about Rafa’s last season then and feel now).
Everyone always seems to have this perception (baselessly imo) of us having delusions of grandeur and thinking “this is our year” at the start of every season but I think that was the only one where fans collectively went in with unrealistic expectations, speaking in hindsight of course. The disappointment was gutting and not kind to how shitty that season felt. Have to be careful to not rewrite history because the likes of Stoke away could be described as practically Hodge-like, although not as passive, but the important thing is we’d leave with a point unlike in seasons playing some lovely-looking footy under Kenny and Brendan currently, or the meek surrender of Hodgson.
Some of the football was willfully dreary, but there was a fighting spirit and defiant “we’re Liverpool, we’re better than this” mental strength residual from 08/09 on some underrated Anfield nights vs Tottenham and Benfica and the Utd game at home that only someone like Suarez vs Zenit seems to embody currently. Now we may have been ground down to a point of too much cynicism/realism that recycles itself from the pitch to the stands and back again. We don’t dare to dream like we did from 2004-2009. Some would say with good reason considering recent league points totals and seasons out the CL.
Rafa: one for our generation, indeed.
This fixture does nothing to help Liverpool Football Club going forward unless we get the win and that’s all that matters. If the fans want the good times back then they have to start supporting the current manager & his team fully and stop glory dreaming about the past. Rafa will be fine, he’ll look after himself, don’t worry about that. Meanwhile we have our future to think about.
“For every disciple there was a naysayer;”
I don’t think that is remotely correct. He had his detractors and some numpty fans drunk on European and – yes – league success (even if they didn’t perceive it as such at the time) convinced themselves we were an English Barcelona stifled by an overly-cautious manager, but they were a clear minority in my experience. Any manager at any ‘top’ club for 6 years who isn’t bagging every trophy in sight or at least challenging for them all with attract criticism from some quarters, and I count myself as one who bemoaned our ‘safety first’ approach to games and I clearly remember screaming at the TV after some of the more bizarre substitutions, but I categorise this disquiet as frustration at what we might call an ‘un-Liverpool’ type of play; I never confused it with ‘this guys is crap/doesn’t know what he’s doing/we need to get him out’.
More accurate I think is the contention that for every disciple there was a fan who gave respect grudgingly rather than adoringly, but the rump demanding Rafa’s departure was small indeed.
Rafa inherited a squad populated with the likes of Igor Biscan and Traore, with its best player seemingly hellbent on leaving. In 6 years at a net spend of just £11m per year he brought us uninterrupted Champions League football, the no1 ranking in European football, a European Cup and our best league finish in 20 years accumulating a points tally that would have won the title in many a previous season.
Some of us realised it then, but even those who didn’t must now look back on Rafa’s era and concede that he had us massively over-achieving.
The trouble with too many LFC fans is that they don’t know when they are onto a good thing.
Spot on mate!!!
I would add that he’s also responsible for the changes at the academy and youth levels that have already and will continue to bear fruit in coming seasons.
a great piece about a great man written by a great man.
I would have Rafa back in a heartbeat, It would be interesting to see how he would do without the constraints put in front of him by the two carpetbaggers,.
I also believe he would get more bang for his buck than BR has managed.
No Bob he would be in the media every day for all the wrong reasons – Period. It’s all just stupid talk anyway and is never going to happen. At this stage this kind of nonsense is just holding back the club, further dividing the fanbase and generally doing nobody any good. The really sad thing is that I think nobody would be more aware of this than the man himself.
I will be showing my gratitude to a managerial great. I suppose the bloke who currently manages the club will get some appreciation.
Thanks for the comments, everyone.
All valid points and very well argued. I suppose the extent to which you felt our supporters were complicit in Rafa’s sacking depends on who you spoke to between 2008 and 2010 – yes, it went on that long for me.
In my case, I didn’t know many who had his full support by the very end. Testimony to that was that when we knew he was going after the Chelsea game in May 2010, barely anyone would sing his name.
And Sachin N – you’re too kind, mate. Ha ha.
After that great piece, and some really excellent comments, leave it to me to say what we’re all thinking in our hearts about Rafa.
He should shave that fucking beard off, it’ll take 5 years off him.
Good Luck Rafa lad.
You only have to look at the people who have made their spiritual home here.Bill Shankly,Bob Paisley.Hansen,Dalglish,it’s a long list and it includes Benitez.
Benitez could have lived anywhere in the world.But he lives here.He identifies with us.
I believe anyway!
Personally? I’d rather have a divided fanbase with Rafa than a united one with Hodgson.
The fanbase is already divided about Rodgers but punch-drunk on meh.
Yes, Rodgers clearly needs time to learn, but would i swap him with Rafa so he could learn somewhere else? In a heartbeat. He seems inconsistent in the practice of his doctrine and that makes me nervous because, push come to shove, winners win. And Brendan, lovely though he seems, hasn’t ever won anything…
What I liked best about Rafa was his ability to get under Ferguson’s skin, and his tactical mastery over Mourinho. Neither accolade will EVER be applied to Brendan Rodgers.
And that’s actually a good thing Kevin. Ferguscum is on his last legs, no need to start fights that don’t matter or that you can’t win. Just like Tatcher he’ll be remembered for what he was. As for all this talk about rafa and “tactics”, it’s just a word that fools throw out there because they heard another fool say it first. Rafa played counter attack long ball football & was very effective at spoiling better teams, but he also possessed some very good players in his time here. People need to get over the past & get on with the future.
Rafa guaranteed us Champions League football, nay, at the very least, quarter final champions league football! What would we give for that now?
Kid yourselves as much as you want that it’s all about the premier league – it’s not and never will be again. As far as these the premier league club owners are concerned football is purely about profit and champions league footy is where that cash is at. Rodger wont ever deliver that, Stevie Wonder can see that. But that doesn’t mean I want Rafa back, I don’t. I don’t want him to go the same way as Kenny and ruin
This time last year TAW done a pod cast called, “We have to talk about Kenny”, lets have the same debate about Rodgers.
Rafa Benitez is a good man and a fine manager who has a deep affinity with the city and the club. He was slaughtered by the media (who are never held accountable for the damage they cause) while at LFC, and seemingly undermined by the likes of Carragher towards the end of his tenure.
No doubt he will get a good reception on Sunday and negative emotions can be focused on Torres, who seems to have become the lightning rod for anger and frustration engendered by the disappointments of recent years and the fallout from H&G, even though there are far more legitimate targets out there.
The top 4 finishes, the number 1 ranked club in Europe, a feared team, CL finals and semi being taken for granted are now halcyon days.
BR might make a good manager one day but is nowhere near the level of Rafa and might never be. If the option to change is available in the summer, we should.