WHETHER you love or hate Rafa Benitez, put yourself in the Spaniard’s shoes for a moment.
After a lifetime living and working in Spain, after guiding Valencia to the most successful period in their history with a first title in 31 years followed up by a La Liga and UEFA Cup double, you choose to leave your home country behind to come to England and manage Liverpool.
You make that decision despite other, more lucrative offers lying on the table back in June 2004 – from Spurs, Inter Milan and Besiktas.
But you plump for Liverpool, drawn by its standing and heritage, inheriting an underachieving, average squad which looked certain to lose two of its best players in Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard.
For five years you live and work in a foreign country, putting your heart and soul into the manager’s job at a football club where resources don’t match the expectations.
You master a new language, work up to 22-hour days, change players’ diets and training methods and even enjoy an infamous drink in Germany with Liverpool fans.
You left one job where directors refused to sign players you wanted and interfered with transfer dealings (sparking your infamous “I asked the club for a sofa and they bought me a lampshade” quote) and walked into another one with similar problems.
You were told by co-owner George Gillett you could sign “Snoogy Doogy” if that’s who you wanted – but then you were told you couldn’t sign Simao, Gareth Barry, Michael Dawson, David Villa, David Silva, Kenwyne Jones, Ryan Shawcross and countless others.
You had a club co-owner open talks with Jurgen Klinsmann about succeeding you as manager – and found out about it through the newspapers.
You signed Xabi Alonso, Fernando Torres, Pepe Reina, Javier Mascherano, Luis Garcia, Yossi Benayoun, Dirk Kuyt, Glen Johnson, Emiliano Inusa, Momo Sissoko, Alvaro Arbeloa, Daniel Agger and Peter Crouch – then people kept saying you have a terrible record in the transfer market.
In your first season, despite a poor squad, you won the Champions League in one of the most thrilling matches in football history. Key to the run to the final was your ability to squeeze out quality performances from limited players, most notably Igor Biscan.
You also reached the League Cup final in that first season, losing to Chelsea 3-2 after extra time, and finished fifth in the league.
The following season you won the FA Cup, beating Manchester United and Chelsea on the way to the final, when West Ham were edged out on penalties. In the league you guided Liverpool to third, missing out on the runners-up spot by just one point.
That FA Cup success in Cardiff made you the only manager in the history of Liverpool Football Club to win major trophies in both of the first two seasons at the club.
A year later you guided Liverpool to another Champions League final, again knocking out Chelsea on the way. This time it wasn’t to be, but you could be forgiven for thinking people may recognise that it is no mean feat to get that far – and no disgrace to lose to AC Milan.
In the league, you took us to third place again.
But 2007-8 was a poor year for you. You only reached the semi-finals of the Champions League and finished fourth in the league. Your job was offered to Klinsmann though, so maybe you could be forgiven for taking your eye off the ball.
And so to last season. Quarter-finals of the Champions League, runners-up in the league with 86 points. The only team in English top-flight history to lose so few games and not be crowned champions.
The best points total since 1988, but also the highest of any side in a 20-team league not to win the championship.
Fair to say, you were unlucky. You took us so close to the much-coveted number 19.
And let’s not forget, you’ve won 57 per cent of your games in charge of Liverpool, the same as Bob Paisley.
So with all that in mind, you deserve some respect, right? You’ve done a great job in trying circumstances. You’ve proved you are what they said you were when you arrived from Valencia – a world-class manager.
But it’s not enough. You’ve lost four games out of nine this season. You’ve sold a player, Xabi Alonso, who wanted to leave the club, for a huge profit to the biggest club in his home country.
You might think your excellent record buys you some time in the job at Anfield and some patience from the fans, just like it does for Arsene Wenger, trophyless with Arsenal since 2005.
Well not for some people. They’ve had enough. They want Jose Mourinho. A man in a job at Inter Milan, with a huge salary. A man who would cost a lot of money in compensation and in wages. Oh and we’d have to pay you off too, Rafa. But hang on, there’s no money…
What’s that Rafa? You’re resigning? You don’t feel appreciated? You’ve had enough of fickle fans on phone-ins and internet forums sniping and moaning? Had enough of media men calling you “cold”, slagging off your tactics, harping on about zonal marking and questioning the timing of your substitutions?
Hypothetical, of course. But it could happen. And it would be a huge problem for Liverpool if it did.
Mourinho, Guus Hiddink, Fabio Capello…all top managers that trigger-happy fans have been mentioning as they debate Rafa’s replacement.
But why would any of them come to Anfield? No money to spend, owners that hate each other, sky-high expectations and a demand for immediate results…
Hardly the dream job is it?
When Benitez was trying to renegotiate his contract at Valencia in 2004 he said: “My ideal scenario was continue the work I had started at Valencia.
“But the managing director said to me, ‘If I give you two more years on your contract and then you lose three matches it is going to be my problem!” If that was how much respect my three years of work had earned, then it seemed obvious to me that they had little interest in me staying.”
He later said: “It appears that I’m valued more outside the club than I am at Valencia itself.”
It’s clear he likes to be loved. And for his record at Liverpool, he deserves to be. But if people turn against him so quickly, whose to say he won’t pack it in? It’s not like he would struggle to get another job.
In the first post-Benitez year at Valencia, the club finished seventh, 26 points behind La Liga champions Barcelona.
If Benitez resigns, or, as unlikely as it is given the financial situation, is sacked, Liverpool could go backwards too.
I wonder what Alan Curbishley is doing these days…
More on why Rafa’s the man for Liverpool here – Rafa, the facts
Read more from Gareth at his Well Red LFC blog
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