29 November 2007

Kop offers strongest statement of support for Rafael BenÍtez

Oliver Kay: Commentary (The Times)

Of the principal players in the unedifying drama that is unfolding at Anfield, it is Rafael BenÍtez’s misfortune to be the one assigned to centre stage. Rather than keep his head down, the Liverpool manager has been required over the past week to appear above the parapet on an almost daily basis, each time offering the club’s American owners another opportunity to look for the signs of petulance that would result in him being dismissed.
Last night, as he reflected on an uplifting victory and the fervent backing of his adoring public, BenÍtez could have chosen to milk it. In one sense he did, joining his players on the pitch after the final whistle and lingering longer than any as he returned the applause of the Liverpool supporters, but afterwards, encouragingly, he expressed regret at the terrible mess that has arisen. It was an olive branch, of sorts.
“I don’t have any personal problems with the owners,” BenÍtez said. “We were talking about the future of the club and other issues, but I wasn’t angry with them. I was just surprised.”
Surprised by what? “By the situation, because I was only trying to improve my club. It was a strange situation, but I just want to do my best for the club. I read somewhere that it was my ego. It’s not my ego. It’s my responsibility. I need to take care of my team, my squad. It would be easy for me to say nothing and just take my wages each month. I prefer to be involved, but I don’t have any problems with anyone.”
This is as close as we will get to an apology for BenÍtez’s clashes with the board. In a sensible world it should be enough, but, given that the word has been that there is “no way back”, he can only hope and pray that, as winter sets in, the tension thaws.
If not, Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr will face mutiny. Before last night’s match there was a protest march to the stadium, with 2,500 supporters expressing solidarity with BenÍtez. The back catalogue of songs chanted in his honour was extensive, but more striking was the number of banners on display, many written in Spanish. The most touching simply said “En Rafa confiamos” – In Rafa we trust.
Supporters’ feelings are not meant to count for much in the cutthroat world of modern football, but at Anfield there is cause to think that they should. BenÍtez is cold-hearted by nature, but he agreed that he was “touched” by his reception. He did not expand on those emotions, perhaps for fear of being seen as gloating, but he will doubtless have shared them with his No 1 supporter, a woman who may yet emerge as a player in the Anfield power struggle. In the WAG era, it is almost compulsory for footballers’ wives to be seen to support their husbands on the pitch, but Montse BenÍtez takes it to a new level. An elegant woman she may be, but if her husband is evicted by the absentee landlords, Anfield’s first lady will have to be dragged kicking and screaming from their Merseyside home.
Upon hearing that her husband was attracting interest from Real Madrid in 2005, she told him that “you can go, but I’m staying here”. In the directors’ box last night she and her Spanish companions seemed to expend as much energy, celebrating each Liverpool goal so wildly that they appeared in danger of being thrown out for rowdy behaviour. And at the final whistle she could be seen lip-synching to You’ll Never Walk Alone, an anthem whose words must ring truer than ever for her husband after an evening such as this.

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