By Brian Reade in the Mirror
Right to the end the professional pundits failed to understand why so many Liverpudlians stayed loyal to Rafa Benitez.
As 500 fans marched on Anfield after his departure, chanting the Spaniard’s name, heads shook at a footballing sub-species bracketed *somewhere between romantic die-hards and mawkish morons.
To the “expert” eye, these deluded fools had been conned by Benitez’s cunning and blinded to his failings by the glory of Istanbul and the *criminal incompetence of the American owners.
Liverpool fans they said, once among the most knowledgeable in the world, had clearly lost touch with the modern reality, and were now a sad throwback to the days when sideburned men kicked orange balls.
Well, I’d argue one of the saddest aspects of modern *football is too many pundits, including ex-players, have not paid to watch a game since those orange ball days. And they’ve lost touch with the fan.
I’m not saying Benitez had to stay. The results and the football last year were shocking, he’s been a major player in Anfield’s destructive civil war, and the number of fans disillusioned with his style and methods was growing.
But to paint his six-year reign as an unmitigated disaster, sustained only by the over-sentimentalising of Istanbul, is analysis at its most skewed and cringeful. By 2004 Liverpool had been relegated to the status of European also-rans. Benitez made the club a genuine world force again.
It wasn’t just that 2005 *Champions League win (which is shamelessly downplayed as a fluke despite beating Fabio Capello’s Juventus, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea and Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan). Or reaching the 2007 Champions League final and the 2008 semi-final. It wasn’t even UEFA elevating Liverpool to Europe’s top-seeded club due to results under Benitez.
It was beating Real Madrid and Inter Milan at the Bernabeu and San Siro (which the Reds had never before done) and Barcelona at the Nou Camp. Magical victories at the very top of world football, which restored long-overdue respect to Liverpudlian hearts.
Ah say the experts, but he didn’t win the league. True. But he got closer than any Liverpool boss in the past 20 years. A season ago he was a whisker away, taking the highest number of points by a runner-up in a 38-game season and the club’s best points haul since 1988.
And he did so despite having the 5th highest wage bill *in the league, the 5th *costliest squad, the 5th biggest stadium capacity and a net annual transfer spend of £15million. Which should have made experts ask why Liverpool were ever considered a nailed-on top four side under Benitez, especially when the boardroom was mired in anarchy.
Ah, they say, but he’d long lost the players and the board. So why have Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Daniel Agger, Dirk Kuyt and Pepe Reina signed new long-term contracts within the past year? Why last August did managing director Christian Purslow do interviews purring over Benitez and how he was integral to the club’s future?
Ah, the experts say, but that was before he let Xabi Alonso go, which everyone could see was a calamity. These would be the same experts who, for the previous couple of seasons, claimed Liverpool were a two-man team. With Alonso (on whom Benitez turned a £20million profit) never being mentioned as one of those two.
Ah, they say, but Torres apart, he only signed sub-standard dross and ended up with a shockingly-weak squad. Really?
Liverpool are sending 12 players (13 if you count Milan Jovanovic whose Bosman signing is going through) to the World Cup. Or an entire team: Reina, Carragher, Agger, Skrtel, Johnson, Babel, Gerrard, Mascherano, Rodriguez, Kuyt, Torres. Subs: Kyrgiakos, Jovanovic.
Eleven Chelsea players flew out to South Africa, the same number as Arsenal, and Manchester United sent eight. Does that look like he’s left Anfield bare of talent?
The truth is Benitez leaves a squad worth many times more than the one he inherited, despite spending less in the past three transfer windows than he’s brought in.
I don’t seek to rewrite history or airbrush Benitez’s *failings. I saw last year’s football and it stank. I felt the growing anger among players and fans at his single-mindedness and knew something had to give.
Which is why it may be best for all concerned that he walks on. But now he has, let’s do him the honour of getting his legacy right.
Rafa Benitez was many things at Liverpool but unlike every manager since Kenny Dalglish, he was not a failure. Indeed a majority of *Liverpudlians will remember him as a legend.
Because like Bill Shankly, on more days and nights than those expert pundits ever care to recall, he made the people happy
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Quote of the moment
Defying belief however, is a market Benitez has cornered quite well. The moment you think Benitez is clueless, he defies it by pulling off a result of majesty, like the one achieved in Madrid. The moment he is hailed a genius, he masterminds toothless surrender to a team going nowhere. In the ongoing Anfield power struggle, just when he was cornered by the firing squad, the Spaniard's demise at Liverpool looking practically assured with the ominous suspension of betting by the bookmakers, he squeezes out through a narrow trapdoor and eliminates Rick Parry. Rafa Benitez is Keyzer Soze.- Just Football blog: The Curious Beast that is Football 28 Feb 2009