Rafael Benitez was called a magician this week by the chairman David Moores. Liverpool’s performance in the first half of the Champions League final left Liverpool trailing 3-0 at the break. Internet sites were offering odds of 350-1 in some cases on Liverpool turning things round and lifting the trophy. The did it though, and Benitez was the man that inspired his players and made the tactical changes that brought the success.
He will be a hero at Anfield for some time now – and if he brings more success he’ll be one day getting some gates named after him like Shankly and Paisley.
When Gerard Houllier brought Liverpool the treble in 2001, most fans thought we’d got ourselve a new manager that would take us back to the glory days of old. In the end it proved to be a false dawn – Houllier was never able to take us any further. One of the biggest criticisms of him is that he would never admit he’d made a mistake. He’d persevere with players that were cleary not up to the task because they were his signings.
Rafa Benitez knew at half time that he’d made a mistake, that his tactics hadn’t worked they way he’d planned. So he changed it. He admitted to the world that his tactics were wrong. He said yesterday: "As a manager you are important sometimes and you make mistakes, but the most important people are your staff and your players. Never call me the special one!
Rafa Benitez is special though – unlike the manager who styles himself as the "special one". Rafa is special because he cares about the supporters, the staff and the players. He comes across as amazingly honest. If he doesn’t want to answer a question about tactics or player contracts in a press conference, he’ll say so. Other managers might tell lies. Rafa tells the press he’ll answer them after the next game, or during the summer.
Benitez isn’t going to get carried away by a victory that will be talked about for generations to come by Liverpool fans. He said: "I am one step closer to what the other managers achieved, that’s all. I have to do a lot more before I am considered on the same level."
Shankly started the change in fortunes for Liverpool, taking them from being basically a team that just made up the number whenever it got into the top flight to being a team of winners. When he gave up his job of managing the club the Reds fans of the time were nervous – how could he leave and who’d replace him? Up stepped Bob Paisley, who then took Liverpool on a step further by adding European success to all the domestic success his predecessor had brought. Paisley handed the baton on to Joe Fagan. Fagan added a fourth European Cup to the three won by Paisley, and himself handed over to Kenny Dalglish. Dalglish was never able to compete in Europe as a Liverpool manager, but his success domestically was a continuation of the good work started by Shankly. His efforts with the families of those who suffered in the Hillsborough disaster make him a man worthy of a sainthood never mind a knighthood, and King Kenny still goes to watch the Reds in action at Anfield.
When Kenny was replaced by Graham Souness Reds fans thought the success would continue. It didn’t, and the damage done to Liverpool by Souness is still being repaired now. Roy Evans and Gerrard Houllier followed Souness in the manager’s job at Anfield, and both men had very similar records to each other, both of which were OK, but not good enough for Liverpool.
Benitez wants to follow in the footsteps of the great men. He doesn’t want to be doing "OK". Whatever he thought he knew about Liverpool as a club before he joined, he now seems to have fallen in love with a club that wants success on the field, not the stock market. A club that’s run by Liverpool supporters, not rich playboys. A club that has passionate supporters, not corporate guests. He won’t be resting on his Laurels: "Now it’s important to build on this success. When you see the supporters and how the club works it is like a religion to them. We will try to do our best to bring more trophies back for them."
Benitez reiterated that he still intends to have summer clear-out of certain players. The players he had in mind before Liverpool won in Turkey are the same ones he has in his mind now: "It is my responsibility to make these decisions and I have a very clear idea of the future. I will talk to the players about my plans. What has happened in the final doesn’t change things. I knew the players before the final and after the final I still know them." What we feel is sure is that the Liverpool players who will be leaving will be leaving after a nice chat to Rafa Benitez. He may have to be ruthless in order to give Liverpool more success, but he won’t be nasty as he does it.
He did list the names of some of the players that he wants to build next season’s squad around: "Steven Gerrard is a key player for us, along with Xabi Alonso, Luis Garcia, Fernando Morientes, Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia."
Liverpool’s players performed well in just about every European game this season, but not in the league – Benitez has never blamed the poor results in the league on injuries, but feels that he has to strengthen and improve the depth and quality of the squad: "We have a lot of good players but now we need to find players in the positions where we need to improve the team. We cannot change everything but there will be changes."
For Benitez to bring the kind of player he wants to Anfield he needs money – and the Champions League success has brought more than expected – but he also needs to be able to persuade players that moving to Liverpool is a good move. Again being European Champions could help in this way too: "The interesting thing now we have won the European Cup is that other players will see we have a good team and they will want to come to us. We need a new mentality in the Premier League, especially away from home. When we have that things will be much better. We will have a better team next season.
By the time the Reds kick off the new season, Rafa wants improvements: "We were 60 per cent of what I wanted. Now we are 70 per cent. We still have to improve a lot. I am always trying to analyse why things happen. Why are we fifth? We know we must improve. If we want to win more trophies we must improve."
As the celebrations continue on Merseyside and players begin a relatively short summer break, the figure of a certain Spaniard is likely to spend that time looking at videos of games and finding where the cracks were in the team that became Champions of Europe.
We’ll never call him "the special one" – he’s much better than him.