“Liverpool fans do have an emotional reaction to Rafa Benitez – and that’s because he’s a very good man, not just a very good football manager.”
Given how rapidly Benitez has been embraced by Newcastle United supporters, it comes as no surprise to any Magpie fan that the 57-year-old is still held in such high esteem on Merseyside.
It is more than seven years since the Spaniard departed Anfield, yet he maintains a bond with the city and its population which is almost unique for a foreign manager – as Neil Atkinson, presenter of the respected ‘The Anfield Wrap’ podcast, explains in that quote.
Usually, such emotional attachments are reserved for players or managers born and bred in a specific area. But, just like Benitez is well on his way to becoming an adopted Geordie, he is a fully-ensconced Liverpudlian already.
Ahead of Benitez returning to Anfield, Chris Waugh investigates why the Spaniard has such an enduring relationship with Liverpool…
The obvious reason – the glory days returned to Anfield
As James Pearce, The Echo’s Liverpool FC reporter, states: “The fact Rafa gave Liverpool supporters one of the greatest nights of their lives in Istanbul is the obvious place to start.”
One supporter who wrote to Benitez about that night in Istanbul alone “made it worthwhile being a lifelong Liverpool fan”.
Benitez brought the Reds the Champions League during his debut season with a far-from star-studded side.
“Remember, that team consisted of the likes of Milan Baros and Djimi Traore,” Pearce adds, “that shows the calibre of his managerial skills.”
Benitez also came within a whisker of lifting the Premier League title with Liverpool, and won the FA Cup, the UEFA Super Cup and Community Shield.
“It’s not just Istanbul,” Atkinson explains. “There was a real feeling of explosion during Benitez’s tenure because we got sustained success.”
Being the man to break the Reds’ 21-year wait for a European Cup is something Benitez thrived upon.
It is also what he seeks at Newcastle, deduces Rory Smith, Chief soccer correspondent for The New York Times and the journalist who helped the Spaniard write ‘Champions League Dreams: Rafa Benitez’.
“If he wins a cup at Newcastle, then he goes down in history – just like he has at Liverpool,” Smith theorises.
“If you can turn Newcastle into what it should be, you will become a legend.
“Rafa is driven by the idea that if he turns Newcastle into what it should be, he has a place in history.”
Embracing the community – and becoming a Scouser
But being a born winner is just one part of Benitez’s multi-layered appeal.
Benitez did far more than deliver trophies at Liverpool; he immersed himself in the local culture and became an adopted Scouser.
“The Benitez family realised they were at somewhere very special,” Guillem Balague, Sky Sports’ Spanish football expert and the journalist who wrote ‘A season on the brink: A portrait of Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool’.
As soon as they moved to Liverpool, the Benitez family came to see Merseyside as their home. Montse, his wife, still lives on The Wirral with his two daughters, Claudia and Agata, who were born in Madrid and Valencia respectively.
“The entire family has an incredibly tight bond with Liverpool as a city. Montse believes it is the family home,” Smith says.
“Rafa has even described both his daughters as Scousers.”
Claudia is gifted at equestrian and there were even suggestions at one stage that, if she could ever reach international standard, then she would represent Team GB, not Spain.
“Merseyside is their home and as a family unit they’ve never wanted to leave, which in modern football is quite unusual,” Smith adds.
“Liverpool is like Newcastle. It’s a city with a strong sense of its own identity and there’s something about Rafa – but even more so Montse – which felt really at home there.
“He’s never really left Liverpool spiritually. The city is a part of him now, even seven years on.”
The bond between Benitez and Liverpool supporters has not diminished, however. Far from it. During the Reds’ Champions League clash against Sevilla earlier this month, a huge banner of the Spaniard was on display in The Kop.
As Atkinson explains: “Rafa both came to and also always did embody what Liverpool FC and also the city thinks about itself.
“Liverpool loves nothing more than someone coming in from another part of the world and loving it.”
Benitez managed in Milan, London, Naples and Madrid after he left Liverpool, while his family remained on Merseyside.
It was the desire to return closer to home, and to once again manage in the Premier League, which drew him to Newcastle.
“Rafa has always wanted to work in England because his family is based in England, and so the shorter his commute the better,” Smith said.
Chastening stints at Chelsea – where he faced civil war from the fans, and, as Pearce recalls, “had the bizarre experience of receiving a better reception from Reds than Blues supporters at Anfield” – and then boyhood club Real Madrid only strengthened his longing.
“It would have been more difficult to convince him to go to Newcastle if he hadn’t had the Chelsea experience,” Balague surmises.
“He didn’t find the respect of fans there – he was actually horribly bullied – but he knew he could rediscover what he had at Liverpool with Newcastle supporters.”
He goes above and beyond – from Hillsborough to Food Banks
Montse’s Foundation still helps fund community projects on Merseyside for children.
Yet even more pertinent is Benitez’s enduring support for the Hillsborough Families. He cried at the 22nd-anniversary memorial, attends the annual Run for the 96 5K every year and, on the day he left Anfield, donated £96,000 to the Hillsborough Family Support Group (HFSG).
“He and his family have done so much for the Hillsborough families,” Margaret Aspinall, chair of the HFSG, who lost her son James, 18, in the disaster, says.
“He doesn’t do anything for recognition. I know that for a fact. When he made the donation to the HFSG, he didn’t want any publicity. He said: ‘Margaret, I don’t want any recognition.’ It was my decision to put it out there, I thought he should be recognised for it.
“That says everything you need to know about the man. No thanks will ever make up for the support we still get from Rafa.
“He is unique. He doesn’t come from Liverpool, but he supports the city so well. It shows you the humility of the guy.”
As manager of Liverpool or Newcastle, there is a certain amount expected of you. But Benitez has always gone above and beyond.
“He really likes the idea of a club as a community and social institution, even if he might not say that in his own words,” Smith adds.
“Rafa does things from the heart, not as a PR opportunity. He does more than he has to, like when he met the guys from the NUFC Food Bank a couple of hours before kick-off.
“When he took the Newcastle job, he saw Newcastle as a club that could be like Liverpool; it’s almost a civic role being manager of either.
“What convinced him to stay at Newcastle? The fans, and the idea that being manager of Newcastle is about more than just sending XI players out on a weekend is important to him.
“He needs the fans to understand, participate and really celebrate what he is trying to do. He didn’t find it at Inter or at Chelsea, but he certainly found it at Valencia, Liverpool and now Newcastle.”
The huge misnomer – far from being cold, he is “warm”
To those outside of Merseyside and Tyneside who do not know Benitez, there is often a portrayal of him as a cold, motionless robot.
It is the great misconception of Benitez. It is one borne out of Benitez’s ability to separate the professional from the personal, believes Smith.
“When Rafa is at work, he’s at work,” Smith stresses. “There’s the stories about Steven Gerrard talking about him as a distant father figure he was desperate to impress and he never got anything back. Rafa went to the Intercontinental Cup final after the death of his own father and was supposedly upset at Xabi Alonso for missing a Champions League match to be at the birth of his child.
“All of which build to this impression of Rafa as a robotic, emotionless drone. But that’s not what he’s like as a bloke.
“I just think people confuse what he’s like at work and what he’s like as a man.
“Rafa doesn’t think emotionally when he’s at work. But in his private life he is very warm.”
Margaret Aspinall has certainly seen the human side of Benitez.
“He is a genuine gentleman,” she says affectionately.
“He still stays in touch now – and for me that shows the measure of the man.”
Balague, however, theorises that the London-based media also ignorantly typecast the Spaniard in a certain way. Once that perception was out there, it stuck.
The Echo always had positive dealings with the Spaniard. There was almost daily interaction with the then-LFC reporter, while Pearce stresses that Benitez “valued his relationship with the local Press and realised how important we could be in order to establish and maintain his communication with the fans”.
This same openness has continued into his time at Newcastle. Benitez has taken part in Q&As with The Chronicle, for example, to ensure there is never an information vacuum.
Interestingly, just months after leaving Liverpool, Benitez even appeared on The Anfield Wrap. It was then that Atkinson discovered the Benitez first hand.
“He was very ‘Rafa Benitez’ when he was on the show, as in when you see him when he’s on TV.
“As soon as we stopped recording, it changes. He’s a very physical communicator, so he’s trying not to be that when broadcasting. But most of his communication is from his body language.
“As soon as the switch clicks, he’s suddenly all arms and gestures – and he’s also genuinely very warm. He went from being ‘football manager Rafa Benitez’, to ‘great fella Rafa Benitez’ as soon as we pressed stop.”
His yearning to rediscover that connection brought him to Tyneside
The two-and-a-half years Benitez spent out of the game following his Inter sacking only strengthened his bond with Merseyside. He even coached at grassroots level around the city.
“His relationship grew to a point where, if it was down to him, he’d have never left Liverpool,” Balague suggests.
“At Newcastle he has found the same sort of relationship with fans. He absolutely needs that.”
Benitez longed for another club as embedded in the fabric of its city as Liverpool.
Seemingly, he had his eyes trained on Newcastle for a sustained period.
“He started talking about potential jobs that might come up in the summer,” Smith explains, recalling a conversation with Benitez over a coffee just days after he was sacked by Real in January 2016.
“The job I said to him that would be the most intelligent was Southampton.
“But even then he was absolutely fixated on Newcastle. He’d obviously identified it, and this at a time when Newcastle were chaotic and in the bottom three, while Southampton were sixth.
“But he kept saying: ‘Newcastle is a bigger club. Newcastle is a bigger club.’ This was way before he was linked to them.
“He was fixated on it and, this is supposition, but there must have been a time when he played at St James’ Park with Liverpool and thought: ‘This is my kind of place.’”
Benitez once wrote: “Liverpool fans still write to me to thank me, they say, for giving the club – and the fans – their pride back.”
One day, Newcastle fans could well do the same.