John Gibbons: Truth be told, Liverpool fans were spoilt under Rafa Benitez

The Anfield Wrap looks back fondly on the Spaniard’s time in charge at Anfield…

Sunday’s game against Newcastle won’t be the first time Liverpool have come up against ex-manager Rafa Benitez, of course. There was the time, in 2013 when he came in with Chelsea.

But that didn’t really feel like it counted because he was only, famously, “interim” manager of the club, none of their fans liked him and everyone forgot about it when Suarez bit Ivanovic anyway. Luis Suarez did have a habit of stealing all the limelight, one way or another.

It’s not even the first time he has played us as Newcastle manager. He came to Anfield in April 2016. However, that doesn’t really feel like it counts either. Again, he was only temporary manager, albeit now with fans who didn’t hate his guts.

No one thought he’d be daft enough to stay when they inevitably went down and, besides, Liverpool had all their eggs in the Europa League basket by then. In fact, I’ve only just realised by googling the game that we let a two-goal lead slip and didn’t actually win.

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No, this feels different. From Rafa’s point of view he seems to have finally moved on. You always sensed his working life were things to keep him busy until Liverpool gave him a job again, he even kept his house on The Wirral.

Moving back in when jobs didn’t work out just to put a bit more pressure on Brendan Rodgers and co who, in his mind it seemed, were just keeping the office warm for him.

Rafa has got himself a new bird now. A Magpie, to be exact.

And he seems very happy too, even with an owner that looks like he’s only interested in you if he can sell you at 70% off in one of his shops.

It’s often been said Geordies and Scousers are very similar in outlook, humour, slightly daft accents and even dafter obsessions with football and Rafa seems to have certainly found himself at home with the support there.

Is Newcastle’s gain Liverpool’s loss? I’m not sure about that. Jurgen Klopp is a fine manager too, and could certainly argue to have a greater recent track record, as well as better years ahead of him too.

There are plenty in Liverpool who are still angry that he was shoved out the door though, and plenty more who miss him. Especially on Champions League weeks where Liverpool now struggle.

We were spoilt in Europe under Benitez, truth be told. We were ranked the number one side in the continent due to consistency against the good sides and excellence against the very best.

Semi-finals were a minimum expectation and barely celebrated by the end. Whilst some managers would dine out for years over wins at The Nou Camp, Bernabéu or The San Siro, Rafa won at all three.

Anfield was an absolute fortress too. Just ask Chelsea, Juventus and the rest.

Rafa’s European success was built on shape, control, bursts of energy when they would take the crowd with them and the opposition by surprise, and then taking what you had. Nothing stupid.

You score when you are on top and you defend with tenacity and numbers when you’re not. It was simple, but very effective. We were like a scorpion in those games.

Fully protected, with a sting in the tail when you least expected it. It was a joy to watch them.

Those of us who grew up watching Benitez in Europe, and Houllier before him to be fair, were schooled in a manner of European Football a world away from the current approach. It should be said that neither won the Premier League in their time at Anfield, and you wouldn’t put it past Klopp to manage it in his time here.

But in Europe? Well you worry it isn’t going to end well. Turning games of football into a tennis match is one thing. But if you can’t win by going toe to toe with Spartak Moscow, what hope Real Madrid?

You would imagine the elite of Europe aren’t quite quaking in their boots at the thought of Liverpool yet, as they were between 2005 and 2009. In fact, they will be rubbing their hands together if Jurgen Klopp persists with Loris Karius in goal.

The last thing our defence needed was more uncertainty, but we managed to have found it. Simon Mignolet might make mistakes, but at least he doesn’t concede goals because he’s too busy planning his next outfit for Instagram.

I did find myself pining for Rafa somewhat on Tuesday night and his no nonsense style of getting the job done in Europe. We might look back at the period with slightly rose tinted glasses, strange decisions and numerous bore draws against mid-table Premier League opposition conveniently forgotten. But that’s what happens when you like someone, and Liverpool fans still love Rafa.

Why? Because of the man as much as the manager. It’s the same reason Newcastle fans adore him too.

He seems to have humility and integrity in a sport where it is lacking.

At both clubs he’s fought for what is right for the club and for the supporters, even in battles he can’t win. He fought so hard at Anfield he was left exhausted, no longer able to do his job. At both clubs he had the opportunity to leave for a quieter, easier life and both times he didn’t.

Because he understands a football club is a family you don’t just turn your back on. He cried at the press conference when he left Valencia, despite the broken promises and lack of appreciation from above that forced him out the door.

Fans love a man like that, because who will fight for us now? When was the last time players spoke out against something that effects fans? When was the last time club executives did something for supporters unless they really had to? How often are you made to feel like a commodity, a filled seat, a £50 note for a ticket, instead of something that was truly valued.

The latest slap in the face for supporters is the carefully planted rumours/getting people used to the idea than Liverpool might have to travel to Arsenal on Christmas Eve, because a TV company have decided people don’t want to watch Home Alone any more, they want to watch some football instead.

Arsenal season ticket holders who might live in London but like to travel to see relatives for Christmas will have to stick it.

Liverpool fans who like to attend matches in person to cheer on their team in one of the biggest games in the season will have to upset family or friends.

TV rules, and don’t you forget it.

Players who are used to be being at that time will get on with it. Most managers will be more concerned with rest time than supporters being put out and owners know they have taken their pieces of Premier League silver and have to get on with it.

Besides, what difference does it make when you are half way round the world in America or Qatar anyway? And fans? Oh, just stick us on marketing campaigns for the next Far East TV deal and whack the prices up again. No one will stick up for us, anyway.

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