THERE is a lad in the Newcastle end who is going through absolute agony in the five minutes before the break. He catches my eye just after Newcastle put a good cross into the box but nothing comes of it. He dramatically half collapses, hangs around the neck of his mate standing next to him and from then on I find him absolutely compelling viewing. I watch him as much as I watch the pitch. I see the game through watching his response. He wears a white polo shirt, looks a nice chap from twenty yards. I name him Frankie.
Frankie’s kicking every ball, he’s seen enough football to know how important this flurry of Newcastle’s is. He knows they have to make it pay, have to convert one of potential chances. He knows Liverpool won’t allow that many to come for Newcastle second half. Even as the actual half time whistle goes he is still remonstrating with his friends, his teammates, and quite possibly our Lord. Why can’t we just. How can we just. He knows how it works and I love watching him because of it.
It’s something, when the game is huge, it is something you never realise, what you look like, what you sound like, during a football match. You never really get a third person perspective on the game. Frankie is the difference between wanting it and needing it. It occurs to me as the half time whistle goes that I want Liverpool to get a result. I really, really want Liverpool to get a result today. Frankie needs Newcastle to get a result. He needs Newcastle to pull something together. Frankie believes and he yearns and he has been up nights. Up nights. Me? I had a lovely afternoon prior to getting there. I slept like a baby.
Frankie doesn’t entirely understand why they are more placid than he is about these missed semi-opportunities. Look, he is saying to them, look, this is it. We have to make it count. This is our chance. Time is running out. The half time whistle goes and he doesn’t stop. He’s still gesturing. He puts his head in his hands, his face into his mate’s chest. I’ve been there. We’ve all been there, when we tell the people around us, our friends who need it more than want it and want it for all time, when we tell them this is a big ten and this is a big five and this needs to be better and this needs to happen.
I see this from the outside and I miss that this isn’t quite me today – uphill battles for a fourth place I don’t really care about – but am simultaneously pleased this isn’t me today. You can only go through so many of those mills in a season. Sometimes you need to just get a regulation two nil and head home with your hair, nails and garments intact.
Watching Frankie I realise this is something the vast majority of us here have never experienced, a relegation dogfight. Worse, a relegation dogfight against your closest rivals. We’ve seen just about everything you can in football in the thirty five years I’ve been alive. We’ve gone through more mills than you can conceive of. But we’ve never gone through that one.
Jurgen Klopp’s men excel in the first period. They show real quality, real ability in core moments. Daniel Sturridge’s turn and finish is of the highest order. They unpick Newcastle at will and find themselves two goals ahead but there are issues and frustrations. Newcastle’s shape is good and it will get better after the break. They are stopping Liverpool playing through midfield – Allen especially cannot influence the game the way he did against Stoke and Bournemouth, he’s completely nullified when Liverpool are in possession. But Liverpool have the goals on the scoreboard – quality in key moments defeating shape and guts across a half. It should be all over bar Frankie’s shouting.
But of course it isn’t. It isn’t anywhere near all over because regulation two nils are still beyond this Liverpool team – being fair they are beyond much of this league these days. Newcastle come out with ten percent more and Liverpool come out for the first five minutes of the second half with ten percent less. This might not matter but for the fact that Mignolet comes for something which isn’t there and suddenly we have a football match on our hands.
Liverpool should, one way or another, make it three one. There is a perfectly good penalty shout, there is a marginal offside goal, there is pressure but Newcastle believe there is something in this for them today. Frankie and his mates believe there is something in this for them. As I always say, football achievement starts with delusion. Delusion becomes hope. Hope becomes belief. Belief becomes achievement.
One way or another Newcastle achieve. They are both very fortunate and completely deserving of their equaliser. When the final whistle goes Vurnon Anita collapses at right back in front of me. He is exhausted. He has given everything. This Newcastle side have given everything for each other, their supporters and their manager. Their manager.
Their manager deludes you. Their manager elicits hope in you. Their manager makes players believe. Their manager makes sides achieve.
Rafa Benitez has given Frankie hope, hope for this season and hope conceivably for next. He’s put a spring in his step. This what Benitez does – it’s remarkable, i.e. should always be remarked upon, that a manager who so many players, intelligent players, so many gentlemen of the press, intelligent gentlemen, consider to be cold and distant is so able to elicit an intense emotional response in supporters. Benitez inspires love and hate like no contemporary manager I can think of. The response he gets is akin to Brian Clough while his demeanour is seemingly much more that of Peter Taylor.
Mike Nevin wrote something magnificent on Benitez, something that I considered the final word to all intents and purposes on him at Liverpool. I’ve long felt that Benitez sacrificed too much of himself and his career at Liverpool. We asked too much of him, we asked him to go to every barricade for us. Those of us who loved him followed him into the very jaws of hell and urged him on and he obliged us time and time and time again. He gave everything. He gave too much.
When, with five to go, Frankie and his three thousand mates are belting out the Benitez song, I consider this piece of Nevin’s and Benitez himself and how I feel about him and have felt about him. Newcastle, like their near neighbours they are locked in mortal combat with, are a proper football club, proper football supporters. They have a sense of their city and have a pride in that city. They aren’t messing about.
They love Rafa Benitez. They love him for being who he is, for having won what he has won and achieved what he has and they love him for being their manager. I hope, whatever happens between now and the end of the season, Rafa Benitez stays there. He should be their man. He’ll excite and frustrate them. He’ll give them great days and sleepless nights. He’ll get them on the highwire act which is his needly style of management and he will walk them along that highwire, heart pounding.
Rafa Benitez claps his new supporters, there’s a spring to his step. He likes them, you just know that he does. He does two shy spins clapping the Anfield crowd and you feel that strange surpressed simmering emotion with Benitez, that emotion he cannot allow to escape because he will never get it back in its box. Rafa Benitez, the supposedly cold Rafa Benitez who has cried in public on more than one occasion. You feel that strange physical charisma of his; he was a man born to manage mad football teams but had that not happened he could have played Mr Darcy.
He claps his new supporters again. They are in thrall of him. Frankie screaming his name, screaming Newcastle, raw defiance, ninety minutes of highs and lows behind him. You can have him, Frankie. Look after him, remember this Frankie, remember what he does, how he makes you feel. He’s a true genius with all the pros and cons of the fine lines that surround genius. While you love him so dearly, so quickly you deserve him. He deserves that. He deserves you. You can have him.
I loved him. But he is yours now, Frankie.
All the best, mate.