In the moments and days leading up to Rafa Benitez being appointed Chelsea manager, the thoughts and feelings rushing through me seemed eerily familiar. I had been here before.
Questions were swirling through my mind, unable to grasp the concept of Benitez going to a team like Chelsea. Why would he want to go there? Their fans hate him. Why would he want to put up with Abramovich? A tyrannical owner that puts even Hicks and Gillett to shame. How could he go to a team that is such a rival of Liverpool’s? (I realize many fans disagree that they are our rivals, but like it or not, a rivalry was created and means a lot to many fans). Why would he risk his career going to a club that would sack him for just about anything they wanted to? How did he become so desperate that he was willing to put aside his own visions and ambitions to join a club that clearly has eyes for a younger, more beautiful Spaniard?
Benitez’s claims of wanting a project, to build a club dynasty from the academy to the first team, to have an owner that truly believed in his singular vision and supported him completely, all seemed like lies. He was joining the enemy. A club that epitomizes all that is wrong with football. And did I mention the fans abhor him?
When the news broke, I was crushed. I had convinced myself that through all these questions and belief in Benitez’s own words and character, that he could never join a club like Chelsea. Many argued with me, stating he “needed a job, he couldn’t wait forever, Liverpool didn’t want him so he had to move on, he can win just about everything there with those resources, he will make enormous amounts of money no matter what happens, he’s putting himself back into people’s minds, etc.” All valid and understandable arguments. But I still never thought Benitez would sell himself so short as to be desperate enough to take the Chelsea job. A club with no heart, no soul, and only a bottom-less checkbook to make up for that. This was not the Benitez I knew and loved.
Where had I seen this all before? A little less than two years earlier, another Liverpool man left Anfield for Stamford Bridge. Fernando Torres professed his love for the club and the fans, promising he would never leave. Shortly after, he left. The pain was palpable. I personally had never felt so hurt by a player leaving. I was devastated when I saw the ease with which he disappeared from Merseyside and sauntered down to London. Whatever the reasons, whatever the stories we still don’t know and that no one, including Torres, seems interested in telling us, it hurt. He was going to the enemy. And he was giving the finger to all the loyal Liverpool fans, that stood by him through injury after injury, and sulk after sulk, in the process.
It’s hard to even explain the feelings I had when Benitez became Chelsea manager. I was surprised, dismayed, disappointed, and painfully angry. Much the same feelings I had when Torres took his leave to the same place.
After a few days, I was able to reflect on all those aching feelings of despondency and I suddenly became happy for Benitez. Despite my hurt feelings, I only ever wanted the best for him, and I know I am not alone as a Liverpool fan in feeling this way. It’s like seeing your first love go off with someone else, that you know is not good enough for them and will only hurt them in the end. But if you love and care for someone, you have to let them go.
It was difficult to stomach him going to Chelsea, and that nauseating feeling will never leave. But I want him to do well. He deserves it. Sadly, I don’t feel the same about Torres and never will. While the feelings around them both going to Chelsea were similar, the ways in which they left Liverpool were very different.
Despite Benitez’s poor last season at Liverpool, he is still incredibly revered by most of the fans. He gave the club some of its most wonderful memories and moments. Reading his book Champions League Dreams reminds me of all those wonderful times we enjoyed as Liverpool fans under him, and how that euphoria and pride has seemingly vanished since he’s left. In some ways, I’ve found it difficult to read back in detail all the great moments he gave us without feeling incredibly depressed. It feels like a lifetime ago, when really, it was only three years.
Most Liverpool fans would agree, especially in hindsight, that Benitez should never have gone. He fought tooth and nail for the club and was subsequently dismissed by a club hierarchy that had driven Liverpool into near oblivion. What has followed since then has been nothing short of pure chaos. And all the while, a short ill-fated stint at Inter Milan aside, Benitez sat on the Wirral, awaiting the call that never came from his beloved club.
It is with that in mind that I don’t completely blame him for going to Chelsea, even though it is a club and a fan-base to be completely despised. The fact that I, and many other Liverpool supporters, are willing to put our ire for Chelsea aside simply because we want Benitez to do well tells you how much he still means to the club and its fans.
So you might still be wondering why we would want him to do well at a club we hate, with fans that have summarily dismissed him before he even arrived and have booed his every presence in front of them. Because of what he gave Liverpool. Because he gave us Istanbul, Cardiff, 2nd place in the league, and he made us the team to fear across Europe again. He gave himself to Liverpool, made the club and city his home, and the fans his friends. Most telling of all, when he left the club, he gave £96,000 to the Hillsborough Family Support Group. A cause that was not his own, but that he felt incredibly moved by and attached to. This, amongst so many other things, shows the character of the man.
Yet despite all of that, and despite an excellent win percentage, a European cup, an FA Cup, two Champions League finals, and the highest Liverpool points tally in years, the press, and even some fans, never took to him and wanted him gone. Journalists and commentators found it difficult to hide their hatred for the man, their reasons for which I still don’t know or understand. He was bullied, mocked, and turned into a joke by the English press. He received no respect from them throughout his time at Liverpool, and even less since he has left.
That, amongst so many other reasons, is why Liverpool fans want him to do well. He deserves better than the treatment he’s received and if going to Chelsea and helping them win will force the press and fans into respecting him the way he should be, then I am all for it. At the end of his Liverpool reign, he was tossed aside like garbage. Looking back, it was so disgraceful and foolish, especially when you factor in who he was replaced by, it is hard to believe that’s what actually happened.
The way he was treated by so many makes me sad, and I will never support Chelsea, but I will always support Benitez. A wonderful man, a compassionate human being, and a brilliant manager. Whatever happens, he will never walk alone for all that he gave to Liverpool Football Club.