Rarely has a former manager loomed so large over the place where his name was once sung.
The vast face of Rafael Benitez is currently smiling out beatifically from an advertising hoarding which will be unmissable today for all those who swing past on their way up towards the Scottie Road and to the Goodison Park derby which lies beyond. The poster promotes this month's An Audience with Rafa Benitez at the Liverpool Empire, the same theatre where the Spaniard's wonderfully impromptu appearance in a performance of the play One Night in Istanbul brought the house down last year. "We have to think about the future but we cannot forget about the past because it really was fantastic," Benitez says of his reasons for accepting another curtain call. "I'll answer all the questions I can."
Given the way that he has re-immersed himself on Merseyside since picking up the strands of a life here, following his departure from Internazionale in December, Benitez should be fairly well equipped. The provenance of Beatles lyrics, art galleries and Margaret Thatcher's economic effects on Merseyside are a few of the topics which have absorbed him since he returned to the house he and wife Montse had retained at Caldy, on the Wirral peninsula, as well as an understanding of the Blitz which claimed the lives of 4,000 residents. "Many of the children were evacuated," he explains, after lunch at the city's boutique Indigo Hotel, a short walk from the Pier Head.
Of course, there was always a different type of blitz on derby days like this, which were more excoriating for Benitez after he selected two little words to describe Everton, following the goalless Anfield encounter with them in February 2007. "Small club," Benitez said, sending the city into a fever. He is unrepentant about that, four years on, and still a little surprised that he walked out of a convivial post-match boot-room chat with David Moyes and into a storm. "If you remember, the game was 0-0 and we were attacking, attacking, attacking and they were defending, so after this game I wanted to say that they were a small club," he says. "I wanted to say they were a small team in the way that they were playing – deep, defensively and doing nothing in attack. That was my idea. When you play against a top side you know they will have more possession and they will be in more control and you have to find one or two counterattacks. I didn't want to be disrespectful to the club. When we had the meeting with the manager in the boot room and we were having a drink I explained to him. I was talking about the way they were playing, not the club."
Some will always say it was all a diversionary tactic to obscure Liverpool's failure to break Everton down that winter's day, though the cerebral mind of Benitez has always made him unflinching when it comes to plain speaking. The day he calmly took a handwritten list of complaints about Sir Alex Ferguson from his inside jacket pocket and read them out is another instance – history has mistakenly characterised it as a "rant" – and the decision to substitute Steven Gerrard 20 minutes from the end of October 2007's Goodison derby perhaps took the most sangfroid of all. Gerrard, who trudged from the field to gleeful blue derision that day, later said he was "hurt".
"I had Lucas [Leiva] on the bench and I could explain to him what I wanted," Benitez recalls, detailing the way Liverpool had entered the last 20 minutes at 1-1 against Moyes' 10 men. "I couldn't explain to the players on the pitch with the temperature at 180 [degrees.] I wanted less passion and more calm. Someone that could analyse the game and say 'we are not in a hurry. If you play 15 minutes with calm and you have possession you will have four or five chances'." When one fell to Lucas and an ensuing penalty took Liverpool to victory, the manager was vindicated.
The condiment pots have not been cleared from the table before us and as Benitez marshals them to demonstrate his point, it is clear that, after 10 months out of the game, the "small details" of past battles will not sustain him for terribly much longer. The salt and pepper pots soon become Micah Richards and Franck Ribéry in an exposition of why Bayern Munich beat Manchester City on Tuesday night. This is the Benitez realm, for now. At Caldy, the 51-year-old pores over videos of his past matches, observes games around the world and has staff to help keep him ahead of the curve on technical and sport science issues as he prepares himself for a club's call when it comes. A fascination with the idea of writing about the game – as he did in the year 2000, between managing Extremadura and Tenerife, when the website he contributed to coolly asked him for 200,000 hits a day – has been rekindled with a blog on his new rafabenitez.com site (his forensic analysis of why Ribéry destroyed City is not to be missed, incidentally).
"Rafael Benitez Maudes, Football Manager" states his business card and it is self-evident that he considers this period to be a temporary one. The same goes for his current presence on Merseyside. When we later emerge into the brilliant sunshine to meet a photographer, 10 car horns sound in the space of five minutes as he is spotted. Benitez grins and flashes thumbs. His continued interest in the Hillsborough Family Support Group – to whom he donated nearly £100,000 last year – has not gone unnoticed. He and his wife also hosted a lunch on Thursday to launch the charitable Montse Benitez Foundation, to help the couple's well-established financial efforts for the local Lily Centre breast cancer support group, Wirral Autistic Society and others.
But the fund-raising Audience with Rafa Benitez, on Sunday 16 October, can be for one night only. "We are organising something like this, having all the fans there, to give them something back; to give them all these thoughts that I have and at the same time raise money," he says. "But after this [event] I must say: 'Listen, I cannot do more for the city and the fans now. I must move forward now.' Whenever people say things about me, it always comes back to Liverpool – but I cannot just become 'the former manager'. I will not forget Liverpool and a part of [it] will always be in my heart but if another club comes I will try to do my best for that club, as I always have done. I am a professional football manager. I want to talk more about the future than the past."
The Premier League would appeal most – and though he will not publicly discuss the manner of his departure from Liverpool, it is hard to avoid the sense that he has something to demonstrate to a club he managed for six years and yet was more than content to see him go. It is a club which, under his tutelage, thrashed Real Madrid 4-0 at Anfield to stroll into the last eight of the Champions League just two and a half years ago. It already seems a lifetime ago.
From the outside, Benitez can discuss the quality players at Everton's disposal far more freely than he would have done as Liverpool manager in a week like this, and Phil Jagielka is the first name on his lips. "[Mikel] Arteta before he left[for Arsenal] and [Tim] Cahill were also very good players," he says. "The team's mentality was always very good, working hard altogether. If you don't have massive money you have to work hard for the team. When you have more money than anyone and you can buy the players that you want, OK you can buy the quality and maybe you no longer mind about the other things."
Yet the fascination for toppling Manchester United always absorbed Benitez more. "For the fans, for the city, we know what it means to beat Everton," he reflects. "When we were on the table we knew that United could be a six-points game. Everton was an important game for the feeling in the city. It is another thing when you are playing against the top teams. For me there are three teams now: United, Chelsea and City. You can see from the table that they are ahead of the others. Tottenham, Liverpool and Arsenal – they all have a very good team [too.] The others have better squads. One or two of the top six will make mistakes and it depends on the others if they will be there."
It is his fervent desire that he will soon be there, too, and no longer just a face in the audience.
"If you remember, the game was 0-0 and we were attacking, attacking, attacking and they were defending, so after this game I wanted to say they were a small club. I wanted to say they were a small team in the way that they were playing"
Taking Gerrard off
"I had Lucas on the bench and I could explain to him what I wanted. I couldn't explain to the players on the pitch with the temperature at 180 degrees. I wanted less passion and more calm. Someone that could analyse the game"
His fundraising night
"We are organising something like this [An Audience with Rafa Benitez], having all the Liverpool fans there, to give them something back; to give them all these thoughts that I have and at the same time raise money"
Rivalry with United
"When we were at the top of the table, we knew that United could be a six-points game. Everton was an important game for the feeling in the city. It is another thing when you are playing against the top teams"
My Other Life
Discovering more about the place we live is a major part of life. There are only two or three places in Britain with Catholic and Protestant cathedrals and Liverpool is one. My wife Montse and I like to go to both of them. We love to be in the Wirral, which is a beautiful place. Montse has got me interested in historical aspects of the city and I'm still discovering more about The Beatles, whose songs I used to learn English as a boy. I didn't know the significance of the lyrics of Michelle, Help and Yellow Submarine at the time. I didn't even realise that the accent was different! I've got years of English TV to catch up on, remember. I like Only Fools and Horses and Father Ted. Jimmy McGovern is a writer I want to learn more about and I've been told about Alan Bleasdale's Boys from the Blackstuff with Sammy Lee in the cast!