Johnny Phillips Saturday Afternoon Fever

An Audience with Rafa

On the opening night of the Champions League group stages, in September 2012, as Manchester City were beaten by Real Madrid in the final moments at the Bernabau, thanks to Ronaldo’s late goal, and Real manager Jose Mourinho leapt from the dugout and slid across the turf in one of his trademark scene stealing poses – I met up with a manager who consistently put one over the Special One in this tournament.

Rafa Benitez was responsible for the most memorable night in Champions League Final history when his unfancied Liverpool toppled AC Milan in a penalty shoot-out at the Ataturk Stadium in Istanbul. This, after going 3-0 down in the opening 45 minutes. The half-time team talk that followed has gone into folklore, along with the comeback that resulted in Liverpool capturing their fifth European Cup.

Benitez was at London’s Institute of Education in Russell Square giving a talk about that and other memorable European nights during his tenure at Anfield. The esteem in which he is held by Liverpool fans is considerably high. The auditorium was a sell-out and as the clock ticked down to his appearance the more vocal members of the audience went through their repertoire of songs in homage to the Spaniard, before breaking into raptures when he was introduced by The Times sports editor and avid red Tony Evans.

The timing of the event was poignant on a number of different levels. It was the weekend before Liverpool faced Manchester United for the first time under Brendan Rodgers and it brought back memories of the epic battles Benitez and Sir Alex Ferguson had between 2004 and 2010. The pair had always got along well until Liverpool started to seriously challenge for the title. At this point their relationship deteriorated. Benitez reflected on the 2008/09 season with a sense of frustration when reminded that a haul of 86 points and just two defeats was not enough to stop the title going to Old Trafford.

“Yeah we had a very good season that year. People were talking about the draws or whatever but out of the last 11 games we won 10. I think it was difficult to do better. We lost just two games all season, I think it was almost perfect. United did well at the end and we couldn’t win it.”

Those who disparage Benitez’s achievements will always point to his failure to bring the league title to Anfield, but in Europe he took on all-comers and won. It wasn’t just the incredible victory over Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan that will live long in the memory. Most of the top European sides were defeated during Benitez’s years. Golf club swinging Craig Bellamy helped see off Barcelona in the Nou Camp, Real Madrid had four thumped past them at Anfield and Luis Garcia’s finest moment helped despatch Juventus. Benitez had a knack in Europe and it frustrated his great rivals. None more so than Mourinho.

All the while, the Spaniard was establishing a bond with supporters that lives to this day. It first appeared on the eve of the 2005 Champions League quarter final against Bayer Leverkusen. Benitez and his first team coach Alex Miller were hoping to watch Chelsea’s tie against Barcelona on television but their hotel in Cologne wasn’t showing it. Where do Brits abroad head to watch their football? Some would say it was foolhardy to even consider the prospect but with the winners of that Chelsea game set to play the winners of Liverpool’s tie Benitez was undeterred and headed straight to the local Irish pub.

Jameson’s Bar is like many others of its ilk. Style and comfort are not the priority when accommodating customers in such places. Getting served is. The bar was packed full of Liverpool fans. Other custodians of Europe’s great football clubs may have taken one glance through the window of the bar that night and swiftly carried on down the street. Maybe stubbornness took over. If Rafa had set out to watch the match, then Rafa was going to watch the match.

Chris Brannan, a supporter from Tuebrook who had followed Liverpool since way back in the days when they were a second division side, before Shankly’s revolution, was one of those present and described Benitez’s reaction. “He looked absolutely amazed at what he was seeing,” Brannan told the club’s website. “He wasn’t drinking like the rest of us but then he didn’t need to. Imagine for a minute you’re Rafael Benitez. You’re a Spanish manager who doesn’t know exactly what the Liverpool fans are about and there you are, walking into a pub in Germany on the back of two big defeats and suddenly you’ve got 500 proper lads singing your name. It was like something from Palestine. He means that much to us. Everyone, and I mean everyone, got out a mobile phone and tried to take his picture as he stood there with us.”

Such is the prominence of social media these days that it doesn’t take long to build up a better picture of what that night was like. A quick internet search guides you to supporters’ websites filled with photos taken by excited fans that evening. At first glance the blurred images could be mistaken for CCTV stills taken during a pub brawl or similar commotion. Freeze frames from a dastardly act. The sort of pictures posted on the noticeboards outside police stations up and down the country. Have you seen this man? The prime suspect in every photo is Benitez but we know this is no crime because of the look on his face. In each and every photo he is wearing a broad grin.

“It was amazing because we were in the middle of everyone and they were pushing and kissing and taking photos,” Benitez explained. “It was interesting because they had the pictures and they were putting them on twitter and everything, but it was a little bit of a stress at this time because I was with big, big Scousers all around me shaking my hands and it was quite dangerous!”

Maybe that was the night the love affair began. But it is important not to forget the role the city itself played in all of this. His wife Montse quickly settled along with their two children. So much so that the Montse Foundation was soon set up to help out local charities as the family laid down tangible roots in his adopted home.

The Benitez family also became quickly aware of another defining time in the club’s history. Hillsborough. The night of our chat in London came just a week after the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report was released, exonerating all Liverpool fans from blame in the 1989 disaster and laying bare the shocking cover up by the police, ambulance services and other governing authorities at the time. Like every other Liverpool fan, Benitez knew immediately the significance of the panel’s findings.

“We were supporting the families during all the years, every year attending the memorials, it was quite emotional. We were really pleased, we were waiting for this time. The truth has come through and I think that is massive for everyone involved because now they can fight for justice in another way. I think that’s a very important thing.”

Those memorials are a cauldron of emotion every year. Benitez was often reduced to tears at their power. After being dismissed by the Hicks and Gillett regime in June 2010 the departing manager returned to the city before taking up his new role in charge of Inter Milan. He went to meet the Hillsborough Family Support Group and gave them £96,000 to help fund their lengthy fight for accountability from those they knew were responsible for the events that killed their loved ones. Benitez was aware of exactly what they were fighting for. He got it.

“Our relationship with the city was good. Talking with fans and the people of the city you could see. I once received a letter at home from someone who was there and that was quite emotional. You could understand then why they were doing all these things and how they were feeling. I can guarantee you that if you read the letter you’d have to be touched. One hundred percent. You see these people, the relatives, it’s hard. I want to give credit to Everton too. Their support was really amazing. It’s the city that’s unique in this case. I think for the future it will be good for the fight for justice because now they have another way.”

If this was the most powerful way Benitez connected with supporters, there were other examples of the time he took to make sure fans knew they were appreciated. One father of three Liverpool fans who went out to Istanbul compiled a photo album on a DVD and sent it to Benitez to thank him for the happiness he’d brought to his children’s lives during that trip. Now let’s be clear, managers receive copious amounts of mail. Managers of clubs like Liverpool receive a lot more.

The proud Dad wasn’t expecting a reply, but he got one. It was a long and appreciative letter from Benitez’s wife thanking him for the time he’d taken to write and saying how much it meant to the pair of them that his efforts were so appreciated. Taken out of context the letter was nothing remarkable, but it is one story of many that showed the strength of the Benitez family’s relationship with Liverpool. It is hard to think of another foreign manager who has put down similar roots in this country.

The night in London ended with a standing ovation for Benitez and a queue that snaked around the building with everyone eager to shake his hand, take photos and get books signed. If it wasn’t quite as raucous as that night in Jameson’s Bar you knew what it meant to the fans all the same.

When the Spaniard turned up as Chelsea’s latest manager just two months later it might have gone some way to extinguishing the flame which still burnt for their former manager. Bizarrely, the Chelsea fans’ reaction to Benitez’s appointment did the opposite. His stock may have been low with the locals from the moment he walked in to replace departing hero Roberto Di Matteo, but on Merseyside they lapped it up.

There was even a nod to the infamous Rafa Rant from his time at Liverpool, when he railed against the Chelsea board and fans following an FA Cup match in Middlesbrough, bemoaning his title of ‘interim’ manager and telling the fans to support the team as he wouldn’t be hanging around past the summer and couldn’t care less what they thought of him. It was a measured put down from a man who hadn’t had a chance from the start.

Benitez was appointed manager and welcomed at Liverpool on the back of his Valencia side tormenting the Reds in Europe. He did the same to Chelsea whilst in charge at Anfield but this time it was used as a stick with which to beat him. His stubbornness sometimes infuriated Liverpool fans and he wasn’t just an innocent bystander in the Chelsea debacle. I only got to see his team at first hand on one occasion, right at the end of the season. A 2-2 draw at home to Spurs had all the frustrating hallmarks of his later years at Liverpool. Twice his side threw away leads and when Yossi Benayoun was introduced, as they went in search of a winner, with both Frank Lampard and Demba Ba left sat on the bench, the catcalls became painfully audible. But Benitez had the final say, delivering Champions League qualification and a Europa League triumph before heading off for another challenge, his reputation intact.

Johnny Phillips Saturday ftaernoon Fever