Posted by Bamba on November 2, 2010, 11:30:50 AM
I post this overview on Rafa with great reluctance. He gave me the greatest night of my night as a Liverpool fan - and I was there against St.Etienne, against Bruges twice, in the Parc des Princes… each and every legendary game from 1975 onwards I was there, so obviously Istanbul, and Chelsea and Juventus 2005 were momentous to earn such a unique and special place in my heart. But I feel that, like Houllier before him, the job devoured Rafa and turned a decent, principled man into a paranoid, political beast. And I think we’re seeing the evidence of that right now. Out of 30-odd pages of devotional (maybe delusional) love for Benitez, only a handful have picked up on the basic fact that if Rafa loved this club so much he wouldn’t be trying to undermine us so publicly, so often.
When Rafa arrived in 2004 I loved him on first sight - and sound. Mourinho (who had petitioned for the Liverpool job) came in at Chelsea and immediately set about pulling Ranieri to bits. In his first press conference Mourinho stated that Ranieri deserved to be sacked. He told the world he was The Special One. He celebrated an equaliser against us by sprinting the length of the touchline, signalling Liverpool’s supporters to be quiet. He was an embarrassing tit. Meanwhile, Rafa got on with the job. Michael Owen left the club days before the transfer window was due to close. We suffered horrific bad luck with injuries - Carragher and Cisse both went down with fractures in the same game. Steven Gerrard was out of action for much of the first part of the season. Xabi Alonso had his ankle broken by Frank Lampard on New Year’s Day. At no stage could Benitez field his strongest team. At no stage did he complain about bad luck, nor did he complain about having no money to spend. He got us to Istanbul with a raggle-taggle army of kids, reserves and no-hopers. We rightly celebrate Gerrard, Alonso and Garcia for their inspirational roles in bringing the European Cup to Anfield for good, but let’s not forget that we won crucial games through the efforts of Scott Carson, David Raven, Neil Mellor, Djimi Traore, Igor Biscan and Antonio Nunez. Istanbul is without any shadow of doubt the greatest night, the greatest event and the greatest achievement I’ve witnessed with this team of ours - and for that I revere Rafael Benitez. Not for any supreme tactical nous (everyone goes on about Didi Hamann’s introduction changing the game. Maybe. But for me, it was Harry Kewell’s injury. Milan had ancient, lethargic full backs and we didn’t run at them once until Vladi Smicer came on. For me, it was his willingness to run at them and take them on that planted the first seeds of doubt in Milan’s geriatric defence). More than anything I revere Benitez for winning that cup with humility and dignity. For winning it through guts and passion. For winning it against all odds. For winning it the Shankly way; the Liverpool way.
Two years on, and the day after a European Cup final we should have won in Athens, Rafa was warning the new owners that we had to be fast out of the starting blocks to sign the new players he’d earmarked. Tom Hicks didn’t take kindly to being told how to operate by a mere employee. His response was to start sounding out Jurgen Klinsmann. He told Rafa to concentrate on coaching the team. And he hoped that, in a season where we were already out of the title race by October and had to win our last three CL group games to qualify for the knock-outs that Rafa would drop points against Porto or Marseille and give him good reason to sack him.
In the run up to the Porto game I sent out an email to every Liverpool fan I knew, asking them to send it on to every Liverpool fan they knew. The title of the email was S.O.S - Save Our Soul and it urged everyone to meet outside The Sandon and march to the ground in support of Benitez. People in the Main Stand lounges said you could hear the march getting louder and louder as we got nearer to the ground. One friend who was a shareholder back then said Foster Gillett went white when someone told him the fans were scaling the walls; she also said that he spent half time on the phone, grinning and joking - presumably because, at 1-1, we were heading out of the competition.
Looking back, I wonder if that march was Rafa’s “God” moment? Houllier’s came after his heart surgery when he appeared on the touchline during that crucial group game against Rome; this frail little man in a red scarf who had been close to death and who wasn’t supposed to put himself under any stress or strain was suddenly there, gesticulating wildly at a point where Roma were starting to get back into the game. The response of the crowd - a spontaneous, deafening, exultant roar - drove the team over the finishing line. Gerard thought he was immortal. We fans convinced him he was The Second Coming. To my mind, Houllier became ever more gnomic and bizarre in his actions and pronouncements from that point on and has only just regained his marbles in recent years. The Liverpool job does that to you.
I think the job drove Rafa potty, too. Next up, after we’d made him flameproof in the aftermath of Klinnsman and the Porto game, came Inter Milan. We beat them 2-0 at home. Xabi Alonso approached Benitez in the lead-up to the return leg and asked if he could be excused from travelling. His wife was due to give birth to their first child. (In recounting this and other episodes, you can take it or leave it as suits your point of view. All I’d say is take it with an open mind. I have a good set of contacts in and out of the club, but ultimately I make my own mind up. Given the variety of people who have told me the Alonso story, I think there has to be something in it). Benitez took this as evidence of an individual putting his own selfish needs ahead of the needs of the team. He decided that Alonso was weak and uncommitted, and set about the process of trying to sell him to Juventus and replace him with Gareth Barry. I’m not so sure that the Rafa of 2004-2006 would have treated such a key player (or any player) with such ruthlessness. I think Rafa began to think of himself as a Messiah - and we encouraged that mentality in him - to the extent he developed a siege mentality that clouded his judgement.
Rafa tried and failed to sell Alonso and sign Barry in the summer of 2008. He also tried to distance himself from the signing of Robbie Keane by alleging that he didn’t want Keane if he didn’t have Barry, too - both players were integral to his master plan. There are two things to say about this. One is that I have seen copies of the faxes and letters surrounding the Keane deal and there is nothing to suggest there were any conditions laid down by Rafa in terms of our completing the signing of Keane; and certainly nothing about signing Barry first before moving onto Keane. Secondly, if signing Barry was so key to Rafa’s plan, why did he splash £7 million on an overweight and critically limited left-back in Andrea Dossena as his first signing of the summer? Why, when we were chiselling Aston Villa over a million or two for Barry, did we lay out £8 million on Albert Riera? And, for the record, would any of you take Barry over Alonso today? It’s my opinion - and it is only an opinion - that Rafa had already lost his grip as a result of the immortal status we accorded him, and with it went our chances of winning Number 19.
Let’s talk about that season - 2008-09 - the season we nearly we nearly won it. Instead of Rafa repeatedly reminding us that we won a record number of points that season, let’s concentrate on the fact that we failed to overhaul an uninspired Man United team who had to spend December on the other side of the world and play catch-up when they got back. They gave us a head start and we bottled it. Time and again Rafa sent out teams to “control the game” against the type of opponents that Man.U tend to smash to pieces by virtue of their attacking football. Time and time again we had to watch ugly, containing football - no verve, no tempo…it was boring, predictable and went against the traditions of bold attacking play that is supposed to be embodied in The Liverpool Way. We should have been out of sight by the time United played Chelsea on January 11th 2009, but we continued playing two holding midfielders at home to West Ham and Fulham (two 0-0s), and only started attacking Stoke in the last ten minutes (another 0-0). We took the lead against Everton and Wigan, dropped back twenty yards and invited them on to us and inevitably handed back the initiative and the points. And somehow we managed to go to Middlesbrough, a team who had beaten nobody all season, and lose. From being out on our own with our destiny ours to shape, we had blown it by the end of February - and the manager has to take a lot of the blame for that. The final irony is that the final nails were hammered into our hopes by Andrei Arshavin - a player we could have had for £10 million and who even Rafa’s most fervent loyalists would surely have preferred to Rieira?
Summer 09 and he was still intent on driving Alonso out. Allowing for the fact that a parting was inevitable and probably, by then, best for all concerned, Rafa was placed in a fantastic bargaining position when Real Madrid announced that there was only one Xabi Alonso and they simply had to have him. How did Rafa respond? Did he say - great; we’ll have Robben, Sneijder, Van der Vaart and Higuain then, thanks? Did he say - that’ll be £40 million. Cash? No. He took £30 million for an irreplaceable talent, and he replaced him with Alberto Aquilani. I’m very well aware that the popular wisdom among our support is that Rafa was not given the £30 million to re-invest, but fuckinell…why sell Alonso, in that case? And if he really did have to go, why bring in a crock? Even Scott Parker would have had more impact than Aquilani.
I’m sorry, but by autumn 09 Rafa had completely lost it, for me. Anyone who was there at home against Lyon could see that Kelly was starting to suffer. It looked like cramp. It turned out to be worse. But we were 1-0 up and, after a brilliant first half, Kelly was getting skinned repeatedly in the first 15 minutes of the second period. Everyone was shouting for Kelly to be taken off, but Rafa knew better. He waited until Lyon equalised - as a result of their man getting behind Kelly yet again and pulling back a peach of a ball for a tap-in - before he pulled the injured kid off. Lyon away we all know about. 4 points that would have seen us qualify, but who cares when you have God as your manager.
Like I say, I loved Benitez as powerfully as many of you still love him now. I’ve gone easy on him in this attempt at a rational overview. But my view - and it doesn’t come easy, knocking anyone who has played a part in our history - is that he is the opposite of what many of you take him to be. Rafa used to say of Mourinho “Jose likes to talk.” If Rafa was half the legend you think he is, he’d keep his mouth shut.
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