Rafael Benitez has had a mixed first season as manager of Liverpool. On the negative side he was criticised by many for fielding a weakened team in the FA Cup against Burnley, and has also seen his team lost ten league games away from home this season. On the positive side he got his side to a domestic final and they are also in the semi-finals of the Champions league.
Another plus for him this season has been the reception he’s received from the supporters. This has moved him and he says will inspire him onto better things with the Reds next season. He told the official Liverpool website: "I’ve only been in Liverpool for a short time but already I have a special feeling for the people. "’You’ll Never Walk Alone’ gets to me and it makes me emotional when I walk out and see all the supporters on the Kop with their scarves and banners in the air and everybody singing. It stirs something. I have learnt the words because it’s important that I understand the message it’s sending."
Rafa’s command of English has improved a great deal since his first Anfield press conference, and just as well with the contact he’s now getting from Reds fans. He recalls a memorable incident recently: "I was driving along with my wife Montse when two boys with Liverpool scarves recognised me and started running towards the car. I pulled up and they were dancing about singing ‘Ra-Fa Benitez, Ra-Fa Benitez!’ They were waving their scarves and it was incredible. I gave them my autograph and as I was driving away they were still in the middle of the street shouting ‘Ra-Fa’ with all the cars driving past them! I remember another time. It was seven o’clock in the evening and I was the last one here at Melwood. As I left there was a guy waiting for me in the cold. He was shivering. He wanted my autograph and said ‘thank you’. The gate man told me later that the guy had been waiting for me since 9am!"
Although many managers thank their fans, with Benitez you get a true sense that he really has been overcome by the warmth of the fans. He said, "Liverpool fans are very special. The atmosphere from the Kop is fantastic. If you run and work hard, whatever happens at the end of the game they say OK. Igor Biscan is maybe the best example of that and they appreciate his effort. For a player that must be fantastic. When you have such supporters cheering you on players can reach another level for sure. If we continue to play with passion we can reward those fans."
Things weren’t quite the same for Rafa at Valencia. Spanish clubs never seem to hang on to managers for long, and after moving up from a small club in the Canaries to the heights of La Liga it looked like he’d not be holding onto his job for long, despite good results. He recalls, "They thought badly of me when I first came from Tenerife in the Second Division because they were Valencia. I remember we went 13 games without losing, the best run in Valencia’s history, but they still complained. We lost the 14th game and they said ‘Terrible, sack the manager’. At the end of the season we won the league and they said, ‘Wow, fantastic, you’re the best manager’."
The Valencia fans took to him eventually – you’d like to think so with the success he’d brought them – and it soon changed his life. "It took a while for me to be accepted at Valencia but by the end fans chanted my name and wanted to speak to me. If I went to a pub or a restaurant with my wife and children it was impossible to eat in peace." He found a way round it though: "Luckily, there was one bar near my house where I always had a reservation and the owner would close the doors for me. I even had to go out with disguises, sometimes in dark glasses! Already in Liverpool it can be like that!"
Now Benitez has some good news for Liverpool fans for next season. He considers that this season was a learning season. Next season there’ll be an improvement: "I have a lot of confidence for next season. Why? Because I know the Premiership, I know the English mentality better and I know the language better. I know a lot of things that this year were new to me. I’ve made mistakes but you always make mistakes. The time to judge yourself is at the end of the season."