Rafael Benitez - Liverpool Legend
Head into one of the pubs that surround Anfield on a match day, sit down and listen in. Alongside rapturous choruses of ‘Never Walking Alone’, ‘The Bill Shankly Boys’, and the bellowing of current players’ songs, you’ll find that there is one name that never gets left out of a Kop-led sing song. Alongside the immortal ghosts of Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley, that name is Rafa Benitez.
From the outside looking in, this might be a curious fact. At a club where legendary status can not be bandied around light-heartedly, a Spanish manager who won only two major trophies in over six years at Anfield may not be the first person who could be expected to be held in such high regard some years later. Spend a few minutes with any passionate Kop-ite, and you’ll soon be enlightened.
First, the football. It’s true, in six years at the club, Rafa Benitez’ reign yielded only two major trophies, in hindsight, a prolific rate or success based on pastures since, but for a club of Liverpool‘s size, it simply cannot be compared to their previous levels of domination on a national and European scale. But the manner of the FA Cup win, dubbed ‘Gerrard’s Final’, in 2006, the style of play and class of the runners-up of 2009, and of course that spine-tingling incubus of an evening in Istanbul, are the lasting memories of the Rafa reign. Benitez was the first manager in two decades to give a generation of Liverpool fans match-days to daydream about years afterwards.
His transfer dealings, at least in the early days, brought a sense of identity back to Anfield. Even now, fans can be heard to refer to a player as a ‘Benitez signing’; a player with class on the ball, but one who works incredibly hard without it. One who is proud to wear the Liverpool shirt, and makes no apologies in saying so. Xabi Alonso, Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger, Javier Mascherano, Dirk Kuyt, Lucas Leiva. These are players who will be remembered as heroes long after their days at Liverpool, as many of them are now.
Let’s not forget that Benitez’ reign was culled by a Hicks-Gillett partnership that tried to tear the very fabric out of Liverpool Football Club. Their acid regime, threaded by a hatred for Rafa’s outspoken nature and popularity with the fans, is a hangover the club is still suffering from years later, and one that forced Benitez out, following a period of propaganda and public speculation about his future. Whilst the fact is that results were faltering, in truth, the man who gave us Istanbul deserved better. Much better.
What sets Benitez apart is his class away from the football.
Liverpool Football Club, their fans and indeed the city have been synonymous with the Hillsborough football disaster since that tragic day on the 15th April 1989. Denounced by many as ‘whinging Scousers’, who are ‘always the victims’, the atrocities of that day, now uncovered beyond all doubt to have been caused by extreme incompetence by senior police chiefs, are emblazoned on the hearts of anyone effected by them.
A few short months ago, the people of Liverpool rejoiced in celebrating long-awaited justice, and one man who’s role in this has been shockingly overlooked is Rafael Benitez. He had fallen in love with the football club and it’s people, and threw his weight behind the Justice campaign in a manner completely unrivalled by any football man since Kenny Dalglish. A donation of £96,000 to Hillsborough charities was only a part of the focus and drive he put behind the movement, and the incredible show of emotion by Benitez and supporters alike at the 22nd Hillsborough Memorial Service showed the uniquely touching relationship between the supporters, the club’s history and the manager himself.
Of course, Rafael Benitez has now been named as interim manager at Chelsea, which is like watching your first love make off with your fiercest enemy, and a painful and bitter pill to swallow. The transfer of Fernando Torres to the Blues still rings heavily in the ears of many Liverpool fans, who consider a move to the ‘plastic’ club in London to be utter sacrilege, and rightly so. But this is different. This is Rafa. Our Rafa.
Keep the flag. Sing the songs. It’s now the turn of the Liverpool fans to show their class, and to finally give Benitez the respect that was not afforded to him during his last months at the club. We owe him that much.
Rafael Benitez – You’ll Never Walk Alone.