Balague: Fans’ singing helped Rafa stay

Spanish journalist Guillem Balague has written about how Rafael Benítez was convinced to stay on at Anfield thanks to two factors – finally being able to tell the new owners just how far Liverpool were away from winning a league title, and the unreserved support shown to him by the singing fans at the Anfield Champions League quarter final against PSV Eindhoven.

Liverpool fans were singing the Rafa Benítez song, sung to the tune of La Bamba. And they kept on and on singing it, making sure the boss knew how highly-thought of he was by the majority of fans. Balague timed it at 13 minutes in all, and although he says Rafa didn’t realise how long it was sung for he knew it was being sung: “He was aware that the fans were trying to establish a rapport by continuously repeating their revised version of La Bamba,” writes Balague, in the Times newspaper.

This singing came in the wake of another rumour linking Real Madrid with a move for Rafa, their former youth coach and a lifelong fan. Real later denied ever making an official approach, but with Rafa’s contacts and friends in the Spanish game there’s no need for an official approach.

Balague writes: “They are sending a message, he must have thought. That could be the only explanation because the lack of intensity in the match did not deserve such a homage. Rumours about Real Madrid’s interest in the Liverpool manager had forced the Kop to establish a new declaration of love and faith towards Benítez, which was rewarded soon after by the Spaniard.”

Balague also writes about how when Benítez finally met knew owners  George Gillett Jr and Tom Hicks after the Arsenal game, and again a few days later, the talks “stopped a mini-crisis”.

Balague is a friend of Rafa’s, as well as being a Liverpool fan, and he
says that Rafa had “grown impatient with the speed of developments
after the announcement of the takeover, but he was finally able to
explain to his new bosses the dangers that Liverpool are facing on and
off the pitch.” Despite Liverpool now being in the Champions League
final there’s no doubting they’ve underachieved in the league, mainly
in a poor run in the first half of the season. Balague says Rafa told
the Americans how Liverpool were “exceptional” in knockout competitions
like the Champions League but did not have enough quality to win the
league. In fact long term the club needed to restructured, “from the
academy to the nonexistent marketing department, and the scouting
system had to be revamped, mainly at youth level”.

Steve Heighway is leaving his post as director of the Academy at the
end of the season, and it’s no secret that Rafa finds it frustrating
that he is not allowed to interfere in the running of the Academy. Now
it seems that Rafa will be allowed more of a say in how the players of
the future are coached and also which players will be kept or released.
In fact, according to Balague, Rafa will have a massive say at what
happens at all levels – from a sporting point of view: “Benítez was
told by Gillett and Hicks that they will rely on his capability in
sporting matters. They understood what he had to say about the
organisation of the club — agreeing that big changes were necessary —
and promised rapid action and money. A figure for future signings has
not been given to the Spaniard, but he will be able to bid for almost
whoever he wants,” writes Balague.

The information on Rafa not being handed a transfer budget as such is
not a new piece of information. Hicks and Gillett have been keen to say
from the beginning that Rafa will get what he needs to move the club
on. They trust Rafa to spend wisely, but they are allowing him to spend
properly. If he feels a need to buy a player for £12m he’ll get £12m
rather than be forced to try and haggle the price down to £9m before
missing out on the player. Rafa will be able to go back and try again
for past targets, and to go out and get other targets he’s had in mind.

And of course it’s not just a case of spending an eight-figure sum on
established players, there’s also the benefits of putting together a
good package to attract some of the up-and-coming players.

Those talks with the bosses and the singing from the Kop ensured Rafa
stayed. His announcement to the press made it clear he wouldn’t be
leaving, but those close to the boss say that he seriously was
considering his future. Perhaps Liverpool had a narrow escape – we’ll
never truly know how seriously Rafa was considering those overtures
from Spain. The words from Balague certainly match what was reported at the time by the Liverpool Echo's Chris Bascombe.

Tomorrow night the battle with Chelsea is back on again. The two clubs
have been thorns in each other’s sides since they both got their new
bosses in the summer of 2004. Chelsea had been on top until the
Champions League semi-final in 2005, having won in the league and the
League Cup final. Liverpool’s win in the second leg was their first
defeat of Chelsea under the new reigns of the new bosses, but
afterwards Mourinho claimed Liverpool still hadn’t beaten Chelsea. He
was referring to the Luis Garcia goal he still hasn’t managed to get
over, saying it should not have counted, conveniently forgetting the
fact his side would have lost their keeper and would have faced a
penalty before having to get through the remaining game with ten men.

Mourinho had a little attempt at winding Rafa up after the draw was
made, saying Liverpool had it easy because they weren’t in as many
competitions as Liverpool. Rafa responded by pointing out that Mourinho
only has a go at managers who’ve beaten him, which seems to have
quietened the Portuguese manager down somewhat, with him preferring to
have a go at Manchester United instead.

Perhaps Mourinho has been quiet because of what Rafa said happened
prior to the semis of two years. According to Balague, Rafa used the
confidence of Chelsea at the time to spur his own players on. Rafa said
later: “When we heard that a few of the Chelsea players already
considered themselves to be in the final, we took advantage of it by
emphasising the fact to our own players. We were playing on Chelsea’s
overconfidence by saying repeatedly to the press, ‘we are not the
favourites, they are the favourites’.” Balague says that newspaper
clippings hung from the walls of the Melwood dressing room. He also
says that at the FA Cup semi final a year ago there was no need for
newspaper clippings, the players had enough motivation from rivalries
that had built up on the pitch.

Balague also hints at Rafa considering this is “a last chance given to
Liverpool to show that the club can really match the manager’s
ambition.” With Rafa deciding to stay at Anfield some thought that
might be the prompt for Mourinho to leave Chelsea, but he was
overlooked in favour of Bernd Schuster and, according to Balague,
Chelsea couldn’t find a better alternative to Mourinho anyway. Balague
writes of Mourinho: “…the lack of convincing alternatives to the
Portuguese — despite a number of meetings involving Chelsea
representatives and those of well-known European managers — have helped
both club and manager to conclude that it is best to rely on the devil
you know.”

Balague writes also about how Rafa was planning who would be sold even
whilst riding the open-top bus in 2005 parading the fifth European Cup.
Balague says Rafa was thinking much the same thoughts after winning the
FA Cup last season too. And if Rafa does manage to bring home number
six, he is far from happy with the quality of his squad overall,
meaning more changes are afoot for next season. Balague points out that
Rafa, already well-known for spending pretty much every minute of the
day thinking football, will have even more work to do next season as
his involvement in more areas of the club kicks in. Before the season
ends and into the early stages of the summer Rafa will be ensuring key
players like Xabi Alonso and Pepe Reina are offered new contracts
before the club falls foul of new rules allowing players with short
time left on contracts to leave at a knockdown price. Balague also
talks of the club “building a small stadium at the academy to allow
fans to watch the youth team in a cosier atmosphere.”

Rick Parry has frustrated many fans, not to mention players and of
course Rafa Benítez, with what comes across as a very laid-back
approach to running the club. The new stadium plans were effectively
ripped-up by the new owners as soon as they arrived because of the low
capacity it would offer. Steven Gerrard almost left because he was
waiting for Parry to get in touch over his new deal in 2005. There are
anecdotes of the club missing out on deals due to the attitude of there
being no need to hurry, and according to Balague this has to stop, to
“avoid a repeat of mistakes such as the slowness to sign Nemanja Vidic,
which ended with the player going to Manchester United.” Parry has
reportedly got a contract which allows him to stay on as Chief
Executive for two years after any takeover, but with Foster Gillett
expected to become based in the UK in time for the new season, and Rafa
being given the job of negotiating contracts, it seems Parry’s role
will be much-reduced for those two years.

Balague sums up: “The intentions of Gillett and Hicks are clear — to
maintain the tradition that sustains the club, allow Liverpool to be
self-sufficient and stable and also to give Benítez and his staff the
chance to find the jump in quality necessary to rival Chelsea and
Manchester United. No one expects that leap to happen immediately, but
in less than two seasons we should be speaking of Liverpool as
realistic challengers for all the trophies. If that is not the case,
people will talk about this period in the history of this legendary
club as a missed opportunity.”

The time allowed of “less than two seasons” may be too long for some,
but Liverpool really do need to be looking like serious contenders for
the chance to pick up their long-awaited nineteenth league title.
Liverpool are currently 15 points away from the top of the league,
having played a game more, and that gap is still too big. Even if the
club don’t win the league next season, fans want to be part of a
challenge that hasn’t already died by Christmas.

Read Guillem’s article in full on the Times website