Benitez begins next chapter in obsessive search for acceptance

Victory in Graz tonight and Liverpool fans will welcome Spanish manager with open arms.
Click to follow

"Obsessive optimistic" was one of the phrases Roger McGough, the Merseyside poet, used to describe Liverpool in a work commissioned to celebrate the city.

"Obsessive optimistic" was one of the phrases Roger McGough, the Merseyside poet, used to describe Liverpool in a work commissioned to celebrate the city.

Liverpool in August is an obsessed and optimistic place. Tonight, in the Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadium, a name that symbolises heroic optimism, Rafael Benitez is expected to deliver on that buoyancy in what appears a straightforward Champions' League qualifier against Grazer AK. However, as Newcastle discovered to the cost of £15m when losing on penalties to Partizan Belgrade last season, nothing at this stage of the season is entirely straightforward.

No victory Benitez achieves in his first year at Liverpool will be as significant as persuading Steven Gerrard to spurn Chelsea. Gérard Houllier was not sacked because he had lost the Kop; their affection was probably recoverable. He went because he had lost the dressing-room and nobody was more disaffected than Liverpool's captain, a man, whom ironically, Houllier had nurtured paternalistically.

The journey Benitez made to Lisbon to talk to Gerrard face-to-face during the European Championship was not as significant as the conversations Gerrard had with his family. However, it gave the impression that the new man could deliver.

Benitez is the very model of a modern Premiership manager. Like Jose Mourinho, Arsène Wenger and Houllier, he never played football to any significant level, but he has an almost obsessive, scientific interest in the game. Like Mourinho, as a boy Benitez was fascinated by the minutiae of the sport. He used to write the line-ups and qualifications of all the players in La Liga in a notebook his father gave him and was a fully-qualified coach three years before he gave up playing at the age of 32.

The turning point in his career was a sabbatical he took after his club, Extremadura, were relegated in 1999, some of which he spent at Arsenal's training ground, London Colney, observing Wenger's coaching techniques. These days the notebooks have been replaced by computer software.

The most often-quoted statistic about the man is that he has won a title with his previous three clubs in each of his first seasons with them. It is not quite the whole story. The titles he won with Extremadura and Real Mallorca were promotions to La Liga, and the first was followed by a relegation. At Valencia he inherited a squad that had reached two successive European Cup finals but which, disastrously for Hector Cuper, had failed to requalify for the Champions' League.

In the summer of 2001, Benitez could have been counted lucky to be offered a job, which Real Madrid and Barcelona apart, is the most high-profile in Spanish football. His status then was similar to that of Micky Adams in England now - a good man to get you promotion but not much more. He was also Valencia's fourth choice. This may explain why his relationship with the board that appointed him was always abrasive, despite the damburst of silverware Benitez delivered to the Mestalla.

He claimed the board was reluctant both to renew his contract and throughout to back him with serious money. It was the lack of funds for a sustained challenge for the European Cup that, he claimed, triggered his resignation in June. The tears he shed while reading his farewell statement were for the fans and the players, not the men in suits. Even after winning La Liga for the first time in 2002, his plans to buy Dani from Barcelona and take Samuel Eto'o from Mallorca were vetoed. Less than a month after the fireworks exploded around the Mestalla to celebrate the championship and the Uefa Cup, Benitez was gone.

He comes to Anfield without a whiff of the Mersey in his bones. Benitez is the first Liverpool manager since the sainted Bill Shankly with absolutely no previous connection to the club. Until Houllier replaced Roy Evans in November 1998, all Shankly's successors had previously played and worked for the club. Even Houllier could claim to have lived in Liverpool and stood on the Kop to watch Shankly's teams.

In the words of Stephen Kelly, the foremost historian of Liverpool football, Benitez's appointment is "the final break with the boot-room. Houllier was a Liverpool fan; he knew about the traditions of the boot-room and tried to recreate it. That has finally gone. But I have talked to the Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry at length and he says Benitez is astonished at the quality he has been left."

A lot of that quality is tied up in the academy at Kirkby which eats away £3m of Liverpool's budget and has produced no player of note since Gerrard made his debut six years ago. Kelly argues that the talent is there, but a fall-out between Houllier and the academy director, Steve Heighway, meant it was never properly utilised. "Heighway kept telling Houllier to pick the young players but he never did, which was amazing given his record with the French academy at Clairefontaine," Kelly said. "There was a lad called John Otsemobor, who came in, did very well and was never heard of again."

Having studied Wenger's coaching at first hand, Parry would want Benitez to be like the Arsenal manager in the international transfer market. This is a very tall order. Houllier knows the French game as intimately as Benitez had studied the Spanish market. In his six years at Anfield Houllier signed 18 players who were either French or from French clubs at a cost of more than £52m and not one could be counted an unqualified success. Benitez's first transfer deal, the defender, Josemi, was predictably from Spain, although not much store should be set by first arrivals. Houllier's first signing was Frode Kippe, Shankly's was Sammy Reid from Motherwell.

None of that will matter if Benitez delivers a first championship since the Thatcher era to Anfield. When Valencia took La Liga for the second time, Benitez gathered his players at the shrine of the Virgin of the Helpless, the city's patron saint. Liverpool are not helpless or even hopeless but should Benitez succeed, Anfield, a ground which traditionally was a beacon to the Catholic heart of Merseyside, will become a shrine once more.

Comments