After being cast aside by Inter Milan and returning to his beloved Liverpool, Rafa Benitez took an evening at the city's Empire Theatre to set the record straight on his career at Anfield...
Still enjoying what might euphemistically be described as an extended sabbatical since his dismissal by Internazionale last Christmas, it seems Rafael Benitez’ scheme to return himself to full employment has taken a novel and creative twist.
Perhaps the punters in attendance for ‘An Audience with Rafa Benitez’, hosted at the Liverpool Empire last week, had shelled out their hard earned in the hope of witnessing an LWT-style love-in. Would Rafa bedazzle as he nimbly fielded questions from an audience of adoring A-listers before rounding off his soiree with a consummately professional rendition of a Tony Bennett number?
Those booking online might have been lured by web trailers featuring an extreme close-up on the Spanish maestro’s eyes – eyes alive to tactical possibilities beyond the ken of mortal football fans. Was Rafa poised to re-invent himself in show-stopping fashion, suggesting his audience ‘look into his eyes, the eyes, the eyes, not around the eyes’ before unveiling himself as a mentalist available for self-improvement seminars?
Or did he have in mind a one-man show as encore to his legendary acting debut in the play One Night in Istanbul, staged at the very same venue to critical acclaim?
Sadly, all such hopes were cruelly dashed as Benitez gave instead an extended and entertaining interview covering six tumultuous years in charge at Anfield. No shortage of talking points to talk about, then, and no surprise to discover that you can take Benitez out of Liverpool, but just try taking Liverpool out of him. It seems the leaving of his beloved adopted home is becoming somewhat protracted. In a recent interview given to The Independent he had hinted that the one-off fundraiser would act as a bookend to his career at Liverpool, allowing him to focus anew on future opportunities. But if he was waving goodbye, he was doing so with one clear proviso – I’ll be back.
If the feeling of unfinished business lingers, it clearly isn’t festering. Benitez remains jovial and generous in spirit, though it’s hard to shake the sense a man robbed of a destiny. Ultimately he may have to settle for being the right man in the right place at the wrong time. It can’t have helped his esteem to be replaced by the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time, but as a fan even he will have been relieved that the club ultimately found the right man for the right place, even if the appointment did come six months too late.
If the feeling of unfinished business lingers, it clearly isn’t festering. Benitez remains jovial and generous in spirit, though it’s hard to shake the sense a man robbed of a destiny.
UEFA’s manager of the year when he left the Mestalla for Anfield, he retained that accolade as he steered his new squad to their fabled appointment with an improbable destiny in Istanbul. Take a quick glance at the team that lifted ‘old big ears’ that night and be reminded that Benitez won the ultimate club prize with a side featuring Milan Baros, Djibril Cisse, Harry Kewell, and Djimi Traore. Hardly immortals.
Managing Liverpool means managing expectations even at the best of times, but managing expectations after delivering the European Cup on your first roll of the dice was always going to be a tough call. And so it proved, as, despite constant palpable progress, each of the following five seasons saw Liverpool struggle to escape the shadow thrown by their own astounding triumph in 2005. Becoming UEFA’s top-ranked side over that five-year period was all fine and dandy; humbling Real Madrid and champions-elect United at Old Trafford in the space of a few days was fun, too – but in the end the Premiership trophy-shaped hole at Anfield swallowed everything else before it.
Had he ended that particular quest, now running into its third decade, his failings would doubtless be happily accommodated. He didn’t, however, and so the faults remain exaggerated. Some of those faults were, in fairness, simply mythical. The arguments concerning spending will never die – lies, damned lies, and statistics still from all sides. Believe what you will. The other great lie, of course, was that he was cold – no arm around the shoulder for a player in need of a lift, etc. Well, players were treated as professionals. Counselling was presumably best left, in his mind, to wives or girlfriends.
Some of those faults were, in fairness, simply mythical. The arguments concerning spending will never die – lies, damned lies, and statistics still from all sides. Believe what you will.
Did he care? Well, Mrs. Montse Benitez was woken more than once by the sound of her husband barking instructions to Liverpool players in his sleep, so we can guess that his level of professional dedication was pretty high. His subsequent donation of ￡96,000 to the Hillsborough Family Support Group, and a clearly emotional appearance at this year’s memorial service were signs that his dedication to the cause went deeper than many were prepared to give him credit for.
As for his relationship with the fans, many were lost to him by the time his mutually agreed departure was announced. Many more, however, might fondly remember the night ‘the famous Rafa Benitez went the pub to see the lads’, as the song went. In 2005 he turned up in Jameson's Irish Bar, Cologne, on the night before a Champions League tie, looking for ‘somewhere quiet’ to watch the second half of Chelsea's match against Barcelona with his coaching staff. Jameson’s was packed with Reds, and as soon as one had a positive id on Benitez the cat was out of the bag – and what a good time the cat had…
For now, at least, he seems fated to potter about contentedly on the Wirral peninsula - but not for Rafa the pleasures of the golf course. Away from theatrical engagements, he now blogs merrily on tactics for his own website - when not walking the dog, assisting in his wife’s charity endeavours, reading up on local history, or adding to his vast collection of photography books. Visiting correspondents from the BBC are warmly welcomed before being roundly thrashed at chess, and any remaining free time is no doubt dedicated to marathon sessions of Risk, the strategic board game at which the teenage Benitez was famously never vanquished.
Idyllic, no doubt, but how much longer can the domestic life, however blissful, satisfy the appetite of a man who, in the last decade, has won La Liga, the UEFA Cup, the Champions League, the FA Cup, the UEFA Super Cup, the Supercoppa Italiana and the FIFA World Club Cup? If he doesn’t find a technical area of suitable import to prowl soon, he may be destined instead to haunt forever more the touchlines of the Wirral’s schools and Sunday league sides.
He will return, of course, and most likely to the Premiership. As for the club where he left his heart, fantasies of a comeback will likely remain just that. But who’s to say? Comeback dreams have a way of coming true. Sometimes. Well, hardly ever, actually. But try telling that to Kenny Dalglish…
Click here for more stories in Football and Sport
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook