The Ballad of Steven Gerrard and Rafa Benitez

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Aaron Cutler takes a closer look at Steven Gerrard’s relationship with former manager Rafa Benitez.

LIEGE, BELGIUM - Tuesday, August 12, 2008: Liverpool's manager Rafael Benitez and captain Steven Gerrard MBE during a training session ahead of the UEFA Champions League 3rd Qualifying Round match against Royal Standard de Lie?ge at the Stade Maurice Dufrasne. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

International breaks, ironically, serve only to worsen the club v country divide. They creep up on supporters like a looming family party. Both events are unavoidable, your typical routine disrupted for ceremonial get-togethers with people to whom you are loosely associated but share no common interest or affinity.

Your distant uncle bears a striking resemblance to Roy Hodgson; your second cousin is balding and belligerent, the family Rooney. You curse these occasions and their tendency to ruin your weekend.

If you’re anything like me you will shun all international football and instead search for other distractions. Some shop, some garden, I read.

Increasingly I will soften the blow of Hodgson’s England by diving into any good autobiography I can get my hands on. So, naturally, while England were pulverising the mighty Estonia last month I was beginning Steven Gerrard: My Story.

The fourth such release from the former Liverpool captain I was curious as to how he would re-hash stories told and heard countless times. Moreover I wondered why this latest instalment was released so hastily, given ongoing connections with the club.

Would Steven really stick the knife into Brendan Rodgers while the latter was still in situ? His real opinion, I thought, would surface in his sixteenth autobiography, due 2023.

I’ve spent much of my adult life swooning over Steven George Gerrard, defending his every move and generally worshipping the ground upon which he walks. This undying love was born out of loyalty, clearly, but also an appreciation for the endless highs he – oft single-handedly – facilitated.

Part of Gerrard’s eternal appeal however is the fact he is flawed. There were times when our King’s crown slipped, demonstrating a human side to which us mere mortals could relate.

The Chelsea saga, the Southport incident and the stamp are proof that true heroes, like the rest of us, have chinks in their armour.

And, sadly, Gerrard displays failings aplenty in this account.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - Sunday, November 8, 2015: Liverpool's former captain Steven Gerrard during the Premier League match against Crystal Palace at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Five years ago I would have nodded in agreement with every chapter of this career retrospective but with age and distance comes objectivity.

Stevie is wrong to question the fee received for Xabi Alonso, he is wrong to explain away Roy Hodgson’s failings and he is certainly wrong to lambast Rafa Benitez.

That final rick is one regurgitated throughout this otherwise inoffensive and safe account.

For those who missed or consciously avoided serialisations, Gerrard goes to town on Benitez for being a cold character, one averse to offering an arm around the shoulder. He also finds time to pour scorn on the Rafa Rant and accuse him of favouring his South American contingent.

A clear distrust, if not outright loathing, is detectable but tactical acumen and indeed trophies seldom stem from an old pal’s act.

Inescapable is that fact that when ranking the ten greatest moments of Gerrard’s career Benitez hovers in the background, the mastermind of most.

Olympiakos, The Gerrard Final, our destruction of Madrid, 4-1 at Old Trafford, Chelsea 05 and 07, Istanbul.. the Benitez footprint is indelible. A coincidence? I think not.

CARDIFF, WALES - SATURDAY, MAY 13th, 2006: Liverpool's Steven Gerrard and manager Rafael Benitez lift up the FA Cup after victory over West Ham United after the FA Cup Final at the Millennium Stadium. (Pic by Jason Roberts/Propaganda)

Yes player assisted manager in many respects, Gerrard’s brilliance the sprinkling of stardust atop a regimented outfit.

However the man himself has gone on record to state how much he could have won elsewhere, lamenting the fact domestic and European chips were stacked firmly against his beloved club.

Some respect then is surely due for a man who battled and outsmarted the oligarchs for a sustained period, gifting Gerrard relative success and reason to stay and fight.

Much of the needle, you sense, stems from Rafa’s reluctance to pander to Gerrard – or any player for that matter.

For while pundits and colleagues championed Stevie G the all-action, box-to-box central midfielder, Benitez took umbrage with that concept, and with justification.

He detected over exuberance and a tendency to fire-fight, traits that come at the expense of positional discipline. For those reasons, combined with great foresight, the Spaniard converted his skipper to first an attacking right midfielder, then an explosive number 10.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY - Tuesday, November 24, 2009: Liverpool's captain Steven Gerrard MBE is substituted by manager Rafael Benitez during the UEFA Champions League Group E match against Debreceni VSC at the Ferenc Puskas Stadium. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Lo and behold our totemic leader’s game was taken to another level with goals and honours – personal and collective – following hot on the heels.

Steven was not the only player to benefit from these meticulous methods – Fernando Torres, Jamie Carragher, Dirk Kuyt and Pepe Reina amongst those to scale heights previously uncharted and subsequently unattainable.

Gerrard’s peak years came under the watchful eye of a man he claims disliked him. To suggest he could have achieved more under an affable personality though is trite. Take the Spaniard’s successors – all of whom Gerrard can apparently ring on a social basis.

Roy Hodgson was the English coach the media – and presumably Gerrard – craved. He was also a footballing dinosaur who may as well have paraded a Tory rosette upon his unveiling.

His six month reign was an unmitigated disaster that left many ruing their anti-Rafa agendas. Suddenly unlikely title challenges under a militant headmaster must have appealed.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - WEDNESDAY, MAY 25th, 2005: Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez and Steven Gerrard celebrate winning the European Cup after beating AC Milan on penalties during the UEFA Champions League Final at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium, Istanbul. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Kenny Dalglish worked wonders to arrest the slide and revitalise Liverpool but that initial impact quickly dissipated, with Gerrard’s powers – in central midfield – waning.

Brendan Rodgers meanwhile was acutely aware of the need to keep the club talisman on-side. Himself inexperienced, the Northen Irishman used his captain as a soundboard and was at pains to both re-invent and prolong his career. Make no mistake; Rodgers did everything in his power to keep Gerrard involved, perhaps to the detriment of his own ‘philosophy’.

This paid initial dividends but come 2014/15 blind loyalty was doing neither party any favours.

Gerrard talks in glowing terms about each of Rafa’s successors, seemingly oblivious to contradictions within his own book.

A rare criticism of Rodgers for example comes when describing his tactical set-up away to Basel in the Champions League. Benitez – that aloof pragmatist– would never have approached a European away game in such cavalier fashion.

He is also hyper critical of Rafa’s detachment yet claims to have enjoyed working under Fabio Capello – the ultimate disciplinarian. The difference between the two of course is only one brought Gerrard tangible rewards.

Indeed rewards of any kind have been conspicuous by their absence since Rafa’s leaving in 2010 ..

Another facet of this book that leaves a bad taste is the fact it reads like a distant love letter to Jose Mourinho.

Gerrard (rightly) sees fit to condemn El Hadji Diouf’s despicable behaviour but turns a blind eye to the great Mourinho crime sheet – caring not for his tendency to antagonise opposition fans, to bully math officials, to physically attack opposing coaches and regularly bring the game into disrepute.

Is such behaviour in-keeping with the Liverpool Way, an ethos to which Gerrard claims to be totally attuned? Hardly.

Benitez embodied this ideology far more than Mourinho – an enemy of football – ever could.

GRENCHEN, SWITZERLAND - Wednesday, July 16, 2008: Liverpool's captain Steven Gerrard MBE and manager Rafael Benitez during a pre-season friendly at Stadion Bruhl. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

It was also the Special One no less who messed with Steven’s head and planted seeds of doubt as to whether he wanted or needed LFC at all. Good of him that.

As for the belief Jose would have won us the title, it is a theory undermined by one key variable – financial might.

The latter has aided and abeted Mourinho wherever he’s been. Indeed he is yet to manage in a country where his side is not one of the two richest. Could he truly have eclipsed Benitez if handed the same resources? Doubtful.

Finally the memorable Rafa Rant is labelled embarrassing and a key ingredient in Liverpool’s failure to win the title. Again, nonsense.

Benitez took aim at Alex Ferguson in a bid to expose unchecked influence over both the FA and its match officials. The timing could have been better but perhaps this too was calculated.

Forget not that Gerrard was arrested a week prior to that infamous press conference and maybe, just maybe his manager was attempting to deflect headlines?

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND. TUESDAY, MAY 3rd, 2005: Liverpool's manager Rafael Benitez and Chelsea's manager Jose Mourinho during the UEFA Champions League Semi Final 2nd Leg at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Admittedly, Benitez was himself far from perfect. After that near title miss his reign unravelled and regressive tactics geared towards self-preservation backfired.

As stagnation beset Anfield however it is important to recall a precarious backdrop; Benitez fighting the cancerous ownership of Hicks and Gillett. He did so for the better of Liverpool, a red until the end.

As too was Steven Gerrard, whose book will conjure memories to make you laugh, smile and cry. It will also underline his footballing majesty, a Liverpool legend to whom only Dalglish comes close in a playing sense.

But even legends get things wrong and Gerrard’s take on Benitez must surely rank alongside his Joe Cole/Lionel Messi comparison for foolhardiness.

Between them this pair did more than anyone to keep Liverpool relevant and competitive in the modern era. It matters not that they aren’t friends but that they at least acknowledge the impact both had on the others career.

When the time comes to release yet another biography, one hopes Gerrard adopts Rafa’s dignified stance and aims those cheap shots elsewhere.

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