The great intellectual, Bill Shankly once said “A lot of football success is in the mind. You must believe you are the best and then make sure that you are.”
A mantra arguably observed by Rafael Benitez during his reign as Liverpool manager and one he needed to adopt if he didn’t already do so.
This is a man who took a team of mediocre footballers, albeit with one or two rough diamonds back to the pinnacle of European football after spending years in the wilderness and in the shadows of Europe’s elite.
Take one look at the starting line-ups from the 2005 Champions League final compared to that of the last European Cup triumph of 1984 against Roma. The contrast is startling; the 1984 squad boasted probably some of the best players to ever don the red shirt.
The exuberant strike-force of Ian Rush and Kenny Daglish, supported on the wings by Sammy Lee and Ronnie Whelan, dominating in midfield you had Graeme Souness and the versatile Craig Johnson, all that built on the foundation of Bruce Gobbelaar in goal and a back four of Phil Neal, Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson and Alan Kennedy.
Compare that to the 2005 squad that faced more Italian opposition in AC Milan. In goal you had the unpredictable Jerzy Dudek, a back four of Steve Finnan, Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypia and Djimi Traore, in midfield, the cultured Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard, Luis Garcia and John Arne Riise on the flanks and Harry Kewell and Milan Baros partnering up-front.
Of course as we all know, those games ended in Liverpool bring Old Big Ears home on the plane to an adoring public, be it in incredibly different circumstances.
Now looking at the 2005 team sheet they are all should be considered LFC legends because of their participation is such a classic final and a glorious chapter in the club’s history.
But the truth is the majority of the team had no place in a team of European Champions, it was Benitez that made them believe they did.
Benitez has often been lambasted for his lack of encouragement to his players and the distance he keeps from his squad members, using them more like pawns in a chess game than football players.
As many players have professed in the past, Benitez is the man behind the success, despite what some critics say about Steven Gerrard’s heroics during his tenure.
Sure, Gerrard has played his part but Benitez was the man to turn him into the determined player he is today, something that may have not happened under Gerard Houllier’s management. The detached style, shrewd tactics and strict roles he enforced on a team with limited ability brought out the best in them when it mattered most.
Much has been documented about Benitez’s failings as Liverpool manager from persistently stubborn attitude to player and tactics, signings, boardroom disputes, public ramblings and player and staff relationships.
I too have been a critic at times as has been documented on this very website but the fact remains, to label Benitez’s career as Liverpool manger as a failure is a travesty of justice.
He took Liverpool from the doldrums to the within reach of climbing back on to that mile-high perch that Shankly set all those years ago.
Boardroom troubles and mismanagement from our ‘prestigious’ owners and chairmen marred Benitez’s chances of joining the ranks of Shankly and Paisley and walking out of Anfield as a true hero and a man of the people like his predecessors.
He made mistakes – every manger does – but he leaves Liverpool, in my eyes at least as a legend. A man of his own, a fighter ‘til the end, unwilling to accept defeat and with the distinct ability to grab victory from the jaws of certain defeat and humiliation.
Rafael Benítez Maudes I for one salute you, if you should grace the hallowed turf of Anfield once again, be it as a visitor, I invite 45,000 more to do the same.