SEVEN years ago this past weekend, Rafael Benitez left Liverpool ‘by mutual consent’.
Like many such announcements, this was hardly news to anyone who took an interest in the developments at Anfield. The writing had been on the wall for weeks and Christian Purslow’s prepared statement was merely a rubber stamp at the end of a tired, drawn-out process rather than a seismic shock in the football world. For his part, Rafa told the fans that it was an honour to manage the club and thanked them for their support in his endeavours before heading off to Italy. Liverpool turned to Roy Hodgson.
Even now, through seven seasons and four new managers, the subject of Benitez’s tenure still leads to raised voices, to argument and counter-argument and turns Red against Red. Some will say that, come the end, his football was turgid mush with a reliance on pragmatic control rather than the beauty his 2008-9 squad created. Others want to know just how we could force out a man who had given us arguably the greatest night in the club’s history and certainly the best of the last quarter of a century.
Of course, in 2010, there were far bigger forces at play than a disappointing season where The Reds had finished seventh – 23 points behind champions Chelsea. He wasn’t just struggling with his arch rivals but with the very people responsible for paying his wages. His war with Tom Hicks and George Gillett was a matter of public record and the gloves were long off. This led to numerous games being prefaced by a rumour that ‘he’s definitely walked this time’.
The cracks between Rafa and the then new owners began as early as Athens 2007, when he complained on the pitch that his transfer targets were more monitored than signed – an action, or inaction, which would be deleterious to his 2007-8 plans. There was talk of reduced transfer spend and reneging on deals and promises. In any case, in the space of eight months the owners went from “If Rafa said he wanted to buy Snoogy Doogy we’d back him” (Gillett), to “It is really time for Rafa to quit talking about new players and to coach the players we have” (Hicks). The aforementioned Mr Doogy was not available for comment.
If the Champions League and FA Cup wins in 2005 and 2006 respectively are his highlights then the 2008-9 campaign sits third on the list. From Fernando Torres’s wonder goal on the opening day in Sunderland to the final and ultimately pyrrhic victory at home to Spurs in the sun the following May, the whole season was a rollercoaster with its crushing victories and frustrating home draws. Ask the most ardent Benitez naysayer how they enjoyed the aftermath on the terraces of Craven Cottage in April 2009 and even they would become wistful and smile at the memory. That’s how close we were. That close.
There was the sense that that was the season Rafa would have to win the league. Things had become so fractured in L4 and the Spaniard so vociferous that bodies were falling all over the place. Hicks and Gillett didn’t do themselves any favours by talking to Jurgen Klinsmann as ‘an insurance policy’ should the Spaniard finally answer the inevitable summons to Madrid. By then the club hierarchy was crumbling into factions and counter-factions. Liverpool Football Club was a mess and the site of a war of attrition which could only be ended by resignations and court appearances.
In the summer of 2009 the club sold £44.75 million worth of players – which mostly consisted of Xabi Alonso’s move to Real Madrid – and spent a little over £37m. No club with legitimate title and European expectations should end a transfer year in profit, particularly one that had just finished second in the league and had the best striker in Europe. Yet despite the club crying out to make the next step up, money was spent on architects and loan repayments.
Incidentally, half a million pound of that money was spent on the 16-year-old Raheem Sterling, who was then at QPR – Rafa at his best in the market – and over £17m on Alberto Aquilani – Rafa at his worst.
It’s treatment of Alonso which rankles with many Reds and to this day there are people who will wrinkle their noses and mutter ‘should never have sold Xabi’ when his name comes up. Maybe it’s the public courtship of Gareth Barry which still sticks in the craw. Akin to replacing a Rolls Royce with a Datsun Cherry.
There was also criticism of his treatment of the players. Rafa saw the game as a results-first business and held little affection for stars and egos. Didi Hamann tells a story about the names he used when addressing his players. When announcing his team he would use the standard dressing room nicknames – ‘Pepe’, ‘Carra’, ‘Nando’ etc – but when it came to the captain he always chose ‘Gerrard’. Never Stevie. Just ‘Gerrard’. He knew that he would have to keep those particular Huyton feet grounded.
He also brought his extensive research and knowledge to the club particularly when scouting players, keeping detailed dossiers on both domestic and worldwide clubs. This next story gives a glimpse into his obsessive attitude.
A journalist friend had been invited to a restaurant only to find Rafa surrounded by scattered folders and reams of paper. He asked him what he was doing and what the files contained.
Rafa barely looked up: “Goalkeepers in the Belgian second division.”
My mate frowned hoping it would be a joke, but was met with a serious expression.
He prodded the folder he was reading with an accusing finger and barked: “There is an anomaly!”
There then followed a lecture about saves, minutes and distribution stats from players who were unlikely to even face Liverpool.
This tale paints him in a rather negative, dull light but he’s actually anything but. Myself along with hundreds of others, saw him interviewed by Tony Evans on stage at a special event in London. This was a long time after his departure so Rafa was on good form and full of bonhomie and humour (‘People may say that Carlo Ancelotti was more tactically adept in Athens. Okay. It’s an idea.’). As they talked, the screen behind them showed the Istanbul highlights and as he was about to answer the next question he noticed that Gerrard was about to lift the trophy behind him. He raised a hand to Tony and said: “Hold on. I want to watch this bit.”
He did too. A beaming smile spread across his face as he watched his former captain raise the most prestigious cup in the world high into the Turkish sky.
“I enjoyed that.”
Somewhat at odds with the cold-hearted logician he showed to interviewers and at press conferences.
And it did mean something to him. Liverpool still matters to him to this day. The city did seep into his marrow during his five years here and there was something about that time which lives with him now.
Speaking of Tony Evans, he visited Rafa shortly after the 4-1 win over Manchester United in 2008-9 and told him that he recognised United’s tactic of using Patrice Evra as the ‘out ball’ and Rafa’s ploy of squeezing up on Nemanja Vidic. Rafa became very excited that he’d seen this and, finding a ball, proceeded to demonstrate just how it worked, even telling Tony “You be Vidic, I’ll be Torres”. Tony wasn’t best pleased at the casting.
Soon they were booting a ball around his front room, re-enacting the game. Grown men.
Any manager who finds a ball to show how he did something is alright with me.
And he’ll be back at Anfield with Newcastle next season. He couldn’t keep them up when given only a handful of games two seasons ago, but it was no surprise when they were promoted immediately. He’s already been back before with Newcastle and, of course, with Chelsea — though the gloss was taken off his return once Luis Suarez had a nibble on Branislav Ivanovic’s arm.
He’s already bought some experience for the Geordies in the shape of Christian Atsu and, at the time of writing, Newcastle are in talks with Pepe Reina.
It’s good that he’s back. He deserves to be and, as we know more than anyone, his defensive mindset will cause plenty of problems for opposing sides. Newcastle, along with Fulham conceded the fewest goals in the Championship last season. Of course they did.
He’s loved there too whereas he wasn’t at all at Chelsea. That means a lot to him.
As for us, I can’t help but feel that we’re still reeling from the Rafa/Hicks/Gillett era. With the club on the brink of extinction it’s hardly surprising that there is still some simmering anger and resentment at the way things went in 2010, but we’re a much healthier club these days and hopefully on the trail to more European glory.
On June 3, 2010, a dysfunctional club went a little bit more insane. Seven years is a long time, of course, but it serves as a warning at what can happen to even the biggest clubs if things are allowed to slide.
It shouldn’t have ended that way for a man who gave us so much, but this is a club where unusual things happen — for good or ill.