Fan Loyalty: In Rafa We Trust!

“Seeing these smiling faces is the greatest pleasure. They have been magnificent all season. They have been our 12th man. I have always said our fans are the best in England. Now I know they are the best in Europe too.” (Rafa Benitez)

Yes indeed, Rafa Benitez may be many things but naiive he most definitely is not! The moment he walked through the hallowed gates of Anfield on the 16th of June 2004 he was met by that enormous weight of expectation and it has rested heavily on his shoulders ever since.

But Rafa knew what he was getting into, he relished the challenge…..and quick smart produced a five year plan. The man arrived with credentials and the belief that he was the one who could achieve what Souness, Evans and Houllier failed to do in the previous 14 years…..bring the title back to Anfield.

Five years into that five year plan and Rafa has yet to deliver the one prize the Kop so desperately covet and the relationship between fans and manager has become a simple equation.

However, before examining where Benitez stands in the hearts and minds of Liverpool fans we should first look at the history….what sets the tone amongst Liverpool fans and how they treat their managers, in the context of their huge desire to return to the glory days of the 70’s and 80’s.

As one who has been around since the Shankly days, that’s not a big ask. I can’t think of another club where the fans are so completely supportive of their managers, where they stand cheek to jowl in their defence and where they show outstanding patience, an acceptance that everyone deserves a chance…. time to prove themselves, despite their hunger for success. If anything you could argue that Liverpool fans give their managers too much rope and in recent history they have all ultimately hung themselves. Arguably, Souness, Evans and Houllier had all passed their sell-by date before the axe finally fell.

But in the final analysis there’s no scope whatsoever for a failed manager at Anfield offering a case of fan impatience as the cause of his demise. Maybe that’s because of the halcyon days…that unique dynasty created by the wonderfully charismatic legend that was Shankly. The ‘Boot Room’ delivered Paisley and Fagan in the great man’s wake and between them they made Liverpool a world force. They set the standards and for two generations Liverpool fans knew nothing but success. Those days are not long past and have set the agenda for all that has followed.

The baton has now long since been passed to Rafa by one in a lengthening line of plodders, whilst the gold medal sprinters of former days remain but a fond memory. Shankly to Paisley to Fagan to Dalglish was undoubtedly the ‘dream team’…..leaving all others in their wake as they won gold medal after gold medal. To be followed by Souness to Evans to Houllier to Benitez, so far, has been the equivalent of replacing Usain Bolt with…..well let’s say….someone else.

rafael-benitez-2So how does Rafa stack-up in that ‘lesser’ team? Not badly at all actually. Souness won the FA Cup in 1992, Evans the League Cup in 1995 and Houllier 2 League Cups, 1 FA Cup and 1 UEFA Cup (3 of the 4 all coming in the same season). Benitez has 1 FA Cup and the (potentially) job saving prize of the CL in his first season…and that trumps all of the others!

The question remains though, where would Benitez be now if it wasn’t for that miraculous comeback in Istanbul? But the fact is that he won it and his stock rose hugely as a result, understandably so. Benitez won his two trophies in his first two seasons at Liverpool, both cups; both in penalty shoot-outs; and both because of the inspirational Stephen Gerrard. It is often said that Gerrard single handedly won those trophies…and I can’t find fault with that argument.

Is it a valid point to suggest that if Rafa had lost those two penalty shoot-outs, or if he had lost Stevie G to Chelsea some seasons back, that he would now be a distant memory on the Kop….or is that too harsh?

But let’s examine Rafa’s current position at Liverpool and what the future might hold….five years into his tenure.

Let me begin where I began, with that quote from Rafa. There’s no question that he has understood from day one the importance of keeping the fans onside. I would argue that he plays them like a fiddle ….and he’s clearly a man with an ear for music! Let me go through some examples. Yes, I accept that Liverpool fans may not agree with these observations but as a distant observer maybe I can bring a different perspective.

rafael-benitez-3When the US owners arrived in 2007 all looked rosy…for about 5 minutes. Rafa had money to spend and the arrival of Torres and Babel, amongst others, had Anfield buzzing and off to a good start to the season. But trouble arrived in October, points were dropped and Benitez came under fire for his rotation policy (probably unfairly), primarily concerning Gerrard and Torres. It was at this point that Rafa went public with a high profile attack on the owners….apparently because further transfer funds would not be forthcoming in January.

No need to rake over old ground…. suffice to ask why he went public on an ‘internal’ matter and why the timing (just 3 months after spending close to 50 million and declaring himself well satisfied with his summers work)? The answer may lie in what happened when Liverpool’s title challenge collapsed by January. The bitter disappointment brought a wave of emotion from the fans and the owners took the brunt of their anger as they rallied in support of their manager. Rafa had played his card to perfection and with impeccable timing! It was premeditated damage limitation at its best!

Fast forward to last season and we found Benitez leading a full-on title charge. With his team leading the way into the New Year, Rafa’s stock was flying high. In that early part of the season he steered clear of controversy….basking in the warmth of expectation and belief.

51711325But come January and storm clouds started to gather. As their bitter rivals put together 11 straight wins, Liverpool’s challenge hit a rock in the shape of too many ‘soft’ draws and when they lost 2-0 at Boro on the 28th of February, leaving United 7 points clear, the title race was declared over by most observers. The fans had become increasingly restless over those two months. It was a bitter pill to swallow but once again Rafa had his hand on the pulse. He was dealing cards faster than a Las Vegas croupier as he desperately tried to deflect attention elsewhere and hang onto the fans loyalty.

Firstly, we had the now infamous ‘Rafa Rant’, quickly followed by an attack on David Gill over his role with the FA. Then it was back to internal matters and his own contract. He went public (yet again on an ‘internal’ issue) with a cryptic reference to his control (or lack of) over transfers. Barely a week after dropping this tidbit to the fans he then declared that it was inappropriate to talk about his contract publicly as it was a distraction from the real business at hand. Hmmm….

Next came the barb directed at Parry as the internal wrangling heated up. Apparently it was Parry’s fault that Daniel Agger was threatening to leave because Parry had been way too slow in coming-up with a new contract. Once again you may ask, why wash the dirty linen in public? Agger’s agent weighed in, stating that is was nothing to do with the timing of a new contract that had his client restless but the fact that he was unhappy at not playing…..clearly a player/manager issue….and one that Benitez should have been aware of and should have been handling (and maybe he was aware of it but that didn’t suit his needs?).

In all the above instances the fans supported Rafa 100%. My point has nothing to do with the specifics of these episodes…all of which were debated to death at the time. No, I am interested in the timing; the correlation with what was happening on the pitch and Benitez’ penchant for deflection when the heat is on. In particular, I wonder at his tactic of making private club matters public for personal gain, invariably involving his determination to influence the fans and get them onside.

But the most interesting aspect of all of the above, in the context of the subject of the article, is that Rafa came-up short this time. When Liverpool lost to Boro the majority of fans felt the title was going back to Old Trafford. It was yet another gut wrenching disappointment and emotions ran high. For a number of days the fans poured their hearts out and the verdict was not good for Benitez. His team selection for the Boro game was crucified and old issues regarding rotation, tactics and ability in the transfer market came under the spotlight.

There is no question in my mind that in those brief few days Rafa lost the majority support of the fans. Some journalists suggested that a bad result against Real Madrid in the CL would see his departure.

Now there’s an old adage about lucky managers but I can’t quite recall how it goes. What happened next for Rafa was maybe down to luck or maybe his guardian angel was on hand. Like a fading gambler desperately seeking one last ‘big hand’ Benitez was dealt a royal flush….by his team. Timing has been everything for Rafa recently and as he hung by a thread after that Boro game his team suddenly found a purple patch, unprecedented in his tenure…and one that, I believe, saved his skin.

Real Madrid were embarrassed at Anfield, Villa dispatched 5-0….but the jewel in the crown was a 4-1 away win over United. As Liverpool soared United wobbled….and the title race was back on! Liverpool’s run came to an ignominious end in the CL QF against Chelsea but a strong finish in the league and pushing United to the 2nd last game restored Rafa’s credibility.

rafael-benitez-6Ultimately, Liverpool fans felt they were unlucky and when Ronaldo’s departure from OT was announced in June they were positively dancing in the streets! The title was there for the taking this season! But as a rather bizarre transfer window closed, many had revised their expectations. Their shopping list of a quality full-back, wide player and striker (which would provide the necessary depth to finally reach the ultimate objective) never materialized. The quality full-back arrived as another ‘decent’ one departed but the big hit was the departure of, arguably, their most influential player last season…Alonso.

Maybe not in the same league as Gerrard and Torres, Alonso was the fulcrum of the system that proved so successful last year (and a system for which Rafa must take full credit!) and in Aquilani they have bought a good player but one who is injury prone and cannot perform the same role as Alonso. Many point the finger at Rafa for his departure after the ‘Barry affair’ last year and his revelation that Alonso would be sold.

But in some ways Rafa has gotten lucky again! The expectations have been revised downwards as a result but make no mistake, the desire and ambition will burn forever and Rafa is now living on borrowed time. History alone shows that six years without the title at Anfield puts you at risk. It quickly becomes a set of extremely polarised possibilities!

For the man who delivered the CL in his first season (dreamtime for most managers) these are the potential scenarios:

Win the title this season and you probably have a job for life.

Come up short and fall out of the race too early, especially if Utd are well ahead of you, and your number is likely to be called.

My feeling at this point is that the Liverpool fans can’t take another slap in the face in the Rafa era and no amount of attempted deflection will save him from here on in. If he doesn’t deliver the ultimate prize he may go this season but that will very much depend on how things unfold. Failure to deliver this season and next (assuming another CL isn’t won) and I believe that the fans will call time. And, as always, Liverpool’s results and league position in relation to their bitter rivals will also play a part.

rafael-benitez-5As I said, the relationship is a simple equation and the Liverpool fans have delivered everything and more that could be expected from their side. It will be their call. Benitez has managed the ‘politics’ to such an extent that he has been nearly untouchable, despite major fall-outs with the owners and senior management at the club….and make no mistake…that’s because he has always understood that, at Anfield, it is the fans who decide on managerial moves.

He couldn’t have asked for more from them. He knew the expectations. He had a plan. It’s now time to deliver!

The fans continue to hang in there but if the cool optimism of early season turns into major disappointment as the season unfolds, emotions will once again run high and as we’ve seen time and time again, when the tide turns for managers it usually happens in the blink of an eye.

After the last two seasons I doubt that the Anfield faithful can take many more hits. There’s a limit to every managerial tenure, no matter how much loyalty the fans show. Rafa has played the ‘owners’ card and the ‘hierarchy’ card (in both cases to perfection) but the next time the fans are left gutted I expect they will look at just one man.

Benitez’ resume as a manger stands up to scrutiny against the best. He’s certainly not a bad manager and is a decent individual. Credit has to go to anybody who can operate effectively under such pressure for a sustained period.

Maybe he will take his team to the Promised Land this season and become Liverpool Royalty for life.

If not, the clock will continue to tick….and when it comes…the end will be swift.

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