Every year, Liverpool FC holds a memorial service at the club’s ground, Anfield, to remember the 96 people who lost their lives at the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. Obliged to attend during his time as manager between 2004 and 2010, Rafael Benitez returned of his own accord to pay his respects in 2011.
When those in attendance began to chant the 51-year-old’s name, in recognition of his achievements – including a UEFA Champions League triumph in his maiden season – during his six years on Merseyside, Benitez had tears in his eyes. The moment was a perfect example of the relationship the Spaniard enjoyed, and still enjoys, with the club’s loyal supporters.
In the second part of an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Benitez discusses his time in charge of the Reds, the plans he was putting in place for future success, his thoughts on the return of Kenny Dalglish, and his viewpoint on the travails of his former protégé Fernando Torres.
FIFA.com: You have often been misunderstood in England. Do you think you were treated unfairly at Liverpool?
Rafael Benitez: I think the good thing about me is that when you leave you can see a lot of players later on say ‘Listen, I was learning something’. Imagine [Jamie] Carragher, he was playing as a left full-back when we came, then he became one of the best centre-backs. Why? Because we were trying to coach him in a different way. [Steven] Gerrard was scoring about ten goals then we played him right-wing or as a second striker and he was scoring more than 20 goals every year. We were trying to adapt our tactics also to the Premier League, to the English style. People were saying "He was great in the Champions League but not in the Premier League" – 82 points and 86 points was twice the record in the history of the club. So we were doing well with the resources that we had. The problem was that you had to sell some players to buy players if you wanted to progress because we didn’t have a big budget. We were trying to teach our players in a way that they would be learning forever, not just that they would follow the game-plan and that’s it. No, we tried to teach them forever and then you could see that the team was growing and progressing.
Do you think managers are going to get time anymore to mould a team? You had six years at Liverpool but as soon as you had one poor season you were out.
To be fair, at Liverpool we were unlucky with the owners. It was a difficult time. You can ask [Roy] Hodgson because for six months he was with them, we were with them for three years. It was a very difficult time because they didn’t understand football, it was just a business. It’s true that you have more people investing money in football and they want results right now and that means that they put more pressure on the manager.
Does that frustrate you, when you know what your plan is and everybody is thinking in the short-term?
No, at the same time we have experience. I went to Extremadura and we were promoted in the first year. Tenerife, we were promoted in the first year. At Valencia we won the league title after 31 years, and Liverpool won the Champions League after 21 years. And then we went to Inter and won two trophies in six months. So we don’t have any problem managing short-term projects. But, ideally, we believe that long-term projects are much better for the stability of the club and at the same time we have the expertise to do it because we have been at different clubs at different levels. Also my staff are good so I think that we have enough experience and knowledge to manage and try to find this club.
You obviously cared a lot about Liverpool as a club. How much did it hurt you when you left?
It was really difficult but I could see that it was impossible to continue with the people in charge. I could see that they didn’t want to follow my ideas, they were just thinking about business. We were there for six years and we were improving the team and the squad and a lot of things, but one bad season and we had a lot of criticism. I could see that we would not be progressing, because we didn’t have the support or the money to change things. The most difficult thing is the last step. We were improving everything; we were in the Champions League every year, which is where you receive the big money. But for the last step, to challenge every year, you have to spend money on the squad and we were not spending the money. If you see the figures, we were spending less money every year.
Could you sense it was slipping away, that your time was coming to an end?
Yes. I had a conversation with the people in charge and I could see that they didn’t understand. We had an offer from Inter Milan, a great offer, after we had a problem because they promised me things that they didn’t do. Football is a very complicated business.
Do you regret that you left Liverpool just before the new owners arrived? Do you think you could have pushed on with their investment?
Yes, obviously with the money they have spent and the squad that we had, we could have been even better. Because we knew exactly what we needed and we had localised players like [Mikel] San Jose and [Emiliano] Insua, who are now playing in Europe. They were localised because they were here for three years. We had these players and we didn’t need to spend too much because these players were coming from the system to be in the squad, so we just had to find the right players. Everything changed when we left the club, Hodgson was in charge and they decided to sign a different kind of player then six months or a year later they had to sign new players again because something was wrong.
How pleased are you for Kenny Dalglish that he is back in charge, particularly as it was you who originally brought him back to the club?
At that time we wanted to bring in someone who could understand the history of the club and what the club means to the fans, because we didn’t have it from the owners. Bringing Kenny back was a good option for us to be stronger as a club and a unit. I had to go, but I think it was fine because when they had some problems, Kenny could improve the things that they were doing.
Do you think that he can achieve the kind of things that you did?
It depends if he has the support of the owners. They have spent a lot of money but can they continue spending big money? I don’t know. But if you want to challenge against United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham, you have to have a very good plan and keep spending some money wisely.
What is it like to watch Fernando Torres as an outsider now, considering that you signed him and helped to make him such a great striker?
Fernando is a great lad. It was a pity he had to go because the club was going in the wrong direction when he left. Now he has to score goals but he has the potential. You don’t score 50 goals quicker than anyone in the Premier League and then say he’s not good enough. He’s a great player and he needs his confidence back. Scoring goals is key for a striker so I think that he will be fine. It’s a question of time, if they [Chelsea] can find a way that he will be consistent and scoring goals every week.
After Inter Milan, you came back to live in Liverpool and you clearly have a strong affinity with the city?
Ever since we arrived here my wife has always been learning and talking with people about the culture and history of the city. We have a connection, with the family group, and we were trying from the beginning to be involved and understand everything. We have created a foundation and we are helping the local charities. We try to be involved and to help people where we live because then you can see it when you give some money.