Rafa a true Red
Johnny Phillips talks to former Reds boss Rafa Benitez about Liverpool, that 2005 final and Hillsborough.
Last Updated: 19/09/12 3:37pm
On the first night of this season's Champions League tournament one of the managers who was part of the competition's most memorable final was far away from the demands of elite football in Europe.
Rafa Benitez was entertaining an audience of Liverpool supporters at London's Institute of Education in Russell Square with tales of the 2005 final and others during his six years in charge at Anfield.
The Spaniard is rightly held in incredibly high regard by Reds fans and the audience lapped up his tales from the famous night in Istanbul and that now legendary half-time team talk. Fifteen minutes that changed everything. But if these were stories that have been told many times since, there were others that are perhaps more relevant at this moment.
The arrival of the first batch of American owners, Hicks and Gillett, the gradual decline after the 2008/09 season when they lost just two league games all season and finished second with 86 points, and the ultimate decision from the owners to end his tenure.
If the Champions League is Benitez's crowning moment from his successful stay on Merseyside, coming within a whisker of the title four years later is the one that got away.
"We had a very good season," recalls the Spaniard. "People were talking about the draws but of the last 11 games we won 10. It was almost perfect that season but in the end United did well and we couldn't get past them."
The club hasn't come as close since. Maybe partly because of that Benitez's era is looked upon so favourably by supporters, but there was a bonding during his stay at Liverpool that went deeper than just football. His family love the city and his wife set up the Montse Benitez Foundation which does some important work on Merseyside. This also helps explain why he has such a central place in the hearts of fans.
"The connection with the fans and the relationship with the city is quite important," he says. "We have our foundation and we try to help the local charities. We have a good connection with the city. Fans know that. But if you talk about the football team and talk about the games then Istanbul is the main one, but there were others against Real Madrid, Barcelona, Juventus and Chelsea that gave such good memories."
That was the thinking behind Champions League Dreams, Benitez's new book which focuses on the six Champions League campaigns. It wasn't only on the pitch that the manager produced some amazing nights. Before beating Bayer Leverkusen in the 2005 quarter-final he took his coaching staff out to an Irish pub in Cologne to watch Chelsea's tie against Barcelona on the television, resulting in one of the most memorable evening's drinking for the fans already in the bar.
During our interview Benitez spoke not only about those happy nights but also the current Liverpool team and the patience fans must have with the new regime, all of which you can see on Soccer Saturday this weekend.
But before we finished I asked him about the most important matter of all - Hillsborough. Although it was a tragedy that happened 15 years before he arrived on Liverpool, the fight for justice was one he became heavily involved in. On leaving the club one of his last acts was to donate £96,000 to the Hillsborough Families Support Group. Their vindication in that fight was something Benitez and his family always hoped for.
"Talking with people in the city you could understand what was happening straight away," he says. "We were supporting the families each year, attending the memorial. It was always emotional. We were waiting for this time and we are so pleased.
"When the truth came through I thought that was massive for everyone involved. The most important thing is that they can now fight for justice in another way."