There has been considerable spotlight on Rafael Benitez Maudes since the memorial service at Anfield to mark the 22nd anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster.
Margaret Aspinall, chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group specially thanked Rafa. The camera panned to the former Reds boss, who overcome with visible emotion, welled up and succumbed to an unstoppable torrent of tears. It was one of the most moving moments of the afternoon.
Benitez stood up and greeted the Kop with a two handed salute. Acknowledging their own, the Kop roared into frenzied action, twice lifting the Anfield roof off for their ex boss.
During his illustrious career, Rafa has enjoyed a distinguished learning curve. Noted down for a starring role, Rafa’s coaching commenced at the tender age of 26. It wasn’t a lower division or semi pro team languishing in the lower echelons.
It was with the Royal family of world football – Real Madrid. In 1986–87 the fledgling Rafa was given coaching responsibilities for Castilla B - Madrid’s nursery side, securing titles in 1987 and 1989.
A third title followed a year later with Madrid Youth B, and the season after that Rafa was handed the reigns of the under 19’s from Jose Antonio Camacho, twice beating Barca in the 1991 and 1993 under 19’s cup finals.
After spells with Valladolid, Ossasuna. Extremadura, Tenerife and a hugely successful stint with Valencia, Rafa succeeded Gerard Houllier and in 2005 led Liverpool to that unforgettable night in Istanbul. He was in charge as Liverpool and Gerrard overcame a plucky West Ham side to lift the F.A Cup a year later at the Millennium Stadium.
Benítez took Liverpool back to the Champions league final in Athens, and achieved second place in the Premier League in 2009 with a team that was punching well above its divisional weight. After getting seventh last term, Rafa’s days were numbered. “Is Roy Hodgson the answer?” I asked anyone who cared to listen.
Rafa’s term at Liverpool had its ups and downs. People said he was arrogant, whilst some accused the Spaniard of lacking people skills with Xabi Alonso a prime case in example. Alonso’s departure was firmly laid down to his unsteady relationship with his boss and his obsession to replace the Spanish maestro with Gareth Barry.
Another example was the sudden departure of Pako Ayestarán, Rafa’s Assistant Manager and fitness Guru, and a supreme coach that he’d known for ten years. There were reports that Ayestarán had walked after a heated disagreement with his boss.
With apt support from Borrell and Segura, Rafa overhauled and oversaw the radical transformation of a poorly performing youth academy set up. Looking to the future, he also signed Raheem Sterling from QPR. Frank McParland’s value was highlighted, as the former Liverpool Chief Scout was asked to return and supervise the progress of the Reds new crop of starlets.
As a fan I felt that Rafa’s stubborn streak was endearing rather than off putting, and his intelligence coupled with his invaluable knowledge of the game was and still is second to none.
Rafa has loved Liverpool since the day he breezed into Anfield on the crest of a wave of success at the Estadio Mestalla. I still believe the way he left Anfield after one poor season was scandalous. Then there’s Gillette & Hicks.
I am a huge Rafa fan and always will be. Despite rumours linking the 51 year old with a return to Spain with Valencia CF or Real, I have a feeling Anfield has not seen the last of him.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are that of the writer and may not replicate those of the Professional Footballers' Association.