It was just over a week ago that the Liverpool hierarchy finally confirmed that they had decided to mutually consent to the departure of manager Rafael Benítez. Benítez was officially announced as the new coach of Inter Milan yesterday, with reports coming out of Italy suggesting his transfer fund at his new club will be an astonishing £80m. But Benítez wasn’t presented to the media and fans yesterday, that takes place next week.
Instead he was in Liverpool, saying his goodbyes after returning from holiday. One of those goodbyes was to the Hillsborough Family Support Group (HFSG). Just to take time out of what must now be a hectic period for him was a touching gesture from a man who had no obligation whatsoever to do so. But then he handed over a cheque for £96,000 of his own money; it takes little imagination to work out just how moving that gesture was to the vast majority of supporters.
Most of the cynics – because there are always cynics – have wisely chosen to keep their opinions to themselves. The few that couldn’t are best ignored, along with their future opinions on issues surrounding the club.
The HFSG knew that Rafa wanted to meet them and say farewell, and they knew he wanted to make a donation. But as chairwoman Margaret Aspinall explained, the really were taken by surprise: “When he handed me the cheque and I looked at it and saw the amount, it was quite emotional,” she said. “I didn’t know he would be so generous.”
Benítez has seen and felt the pain that Hillsborough continues to cause. The man some describe as cold and unfeeling seems to be anything but when he’s dealing with people who actually deserve some warmth. And Margaret, mother of James who was just 18 when he was taken from her, certainly deserves some warmth. She was clearly taken aback by the gesture and led the calls to persuade Rafa to rethink his request for no publicity.
“He has always been supportive in the past. He just wanted to feel as though he had given something back,” she said. “What he is really doing is thanking the fans and knowing the truth is in their hearts. It shows where his heart is.”
Few of those who pass judgement on Rafa’s character have actually ever spent a great deal of time with him, but Margaret always speaks from the heart, she isn’t trained in how to say the right thing for PR purposes, she says what she means. And her words call into question so much of what is said about the man: “He is just a nice, genuine man. We have never had this before from any manager. He didn’t have to come and meet the committee personally – it was an absolutely fantastic gesture.”
Speaking about how it will be put to use, she said: “It will keep the memorial service going for a long time to come and will pay expenses that we cannot afford as individuals.”
Asked what she said when he handed the cheque over, she said: “What can you say to that? We said thank you on behalf of the 96.”
But to Margaret the gesture had a much larger meaning, hence the reasons for her to push for it to be made public: “I think the fans need to know about the gesture. I am not talking about the money, but how he feels for the fans. He feels so much compassion for the fans and I think he is going to miss them. It was just nice to know that he wanted to see us before he went.”