The imposing iron gates standing between the West Derby streets and the Melwood training complex might have shifted some 500 yards or so off Melwood Avenue ??? and onto ?????? since the last time Liverpool contemplated a trip to a European Cup Final but outside the scenes are exactly the same.
Five or six kids who don’t look old enough to remember a time before foreign managers at Anfield stand on tiptoes on the wall of the house opposite the entrance to the most famous training ground in English football. They’ve been here all day claims the steward manning the gates. Never mind the fact that their parents probably think they’re in school, they’re here, mobile phones poised at the ready, to snap Djibril Cisse leaving in his Hummer. Twenty yards away, leaning against another wall, are two men hoping to collect autographs from players who, with the exception of possibly Maurico Pellegrino, are probably younger than their sons.
Inside the foyer, Luis Garcia, decked out in long black shorts and a black Reebok sweatshirt, looks up from inspecting the contents of a large cardboard box sitting on the floor and smiles. He says hello, turns to the new receptionist, asks a question in perfect English and then scans the names in the signing-in book to see if he recognises any. It doesn’t seem that long ago that Spaniard had to call in an interpreter to help him answer questions in an interview for this website.
Elsewhere, coaching staff, players and members of the medical team go about their business. The Premiership season ended yesterday and while departure lounges all over the country are probably packed with footballers waiting to jet off to Dubai, Florida and anywhere in Europe with a lush green golf course and fully stocked 19th hole, the only flight the players here will be boarding in the immediate future is a non-stop chartered one to Istanbul.
Liverpool might have finished one place and two points worse off than last season but you’d never guess it from the mood inside and outside of Melwood. The small matter of the club’s first European Cup Final to contest in 20 years has probably got something to do with it but even before Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus and Chelsea were dispensed with en route to the Ataturk Stadium, the mood was bristling with positivity and a feeling that, in what could only be described as Liverpool most bizarre season ever, anything could happen.
Almost 12 months ago to the day, the writing was, quite literally, on the Melwood wall for Gerard Houllier. The team might have secured fourth place and, with it, Champions League qualification three days earlier when Newcastle failed to beat Southampton, but no one was celebrating. Attendances were down, belief and optimism had long since deserted the Kop and substitutions, never mind defeats, were sparking groans from all four corners of the ground.
Six years after Gerard Houllier had first walked into Melwood, the Liverpool training ground was not a happy place to be.
Up the stairs, past the office once occupied by Houllier, through the doors past the players’ canteen and down the corridor past the coaches meeting room now staffed by Pako Ayesteran, Paco Herrera, Alex Miller and Jose Ochotorena, and next door to chief scouts’ office vibrating to the sound of an unanswered telephone, we sit and wait for Rafael Benitez. We wait some more. The video camera and lighting rig, set up to film the manager’s weekly interview for the club’s overseas TV channel and official website, was turned off over an hour ago to preserve it’s batteries. Rafa is running late.
When he does finally bounce through the door, he throws his hands up to apologise and laughs, ‘So much to do, so little time’. He actually talking about media commitments in the run up to Liverpool’s most important game in two decades but he’s probably been thinking the same thing ever since he was appointed Liverpool boss on June 16 2004, just weeks after breaking down in tears during his farewell press conference at the Estadio Ciudad de Valencia. Find somewhere to live in a foreign country, learn a new language from virtually scratch, check out schools for his eldest daughter Claudia, convince the club’s captain to reject Chelsea’s advances, scour the transfer market for emergency reinforcements, plan for a season with England’s most prolific striker, rip up plans for a season with England’s most prolific striker on the eve of the opening day of the season and, somehow, try to work out some way of getting the best out of a squad of players built up over six players by the previous manager; so much to do, so little time.
The fact that many of the same players who only last season were knocked out of the FA Cup by Portsmouth, dumped out of the Carling Cup at home to Bolton and sent crashing out of the UEFA Cup by Marseille are now heading to Turkey to face AC Milan in the biggest game in club football speaks volumes for Benitez’s time-management skills never mind his motivational and tactical abilities.
Benitez, who Jamie Carragher recently claimed is so obsessed with football that he’s never spoken to him about anything else, prefers to deflect some of the praise onto his most loyal confident, his wife Montse.
“She has helped me so much since we moved to England,” he says once the cameras are finally rolling. “She is delighted now with this situation for us. When she goes to Anfield she is always happy, joining in with the supporters, singing the songs she has learnt and when I have some problems, when I lose or when we lose some games, I go home and she says, ‘Come on, you can do it’. It’s so important to me to have my wife behind me all the time. In return,” he smiles, “for her support, I buy her a watch when I win a cup.”
While Benitez has been staying late at Melwood discussing tactics with his staff, studying videos of future opponents, analysing past defeats and scrutinising reports from his network of scouts in Europe and further a field, Montse has been stocking up on books for her crash course in Liverpool FC’s illustrious history both here and abroad. Everything she learns about the Kop, Shanks, Bob and the rest in passed on in detail to her husband.
Benitez ingests every last drop of Liverpool folklore because he needs to. He’s the first Liverpool manager since Bill Shankly to have neither supported the club as a boy or worked his way up through the ranks of playing or backroom staff to land the top job. Even Gerard Houllier, the first foreign manager in 106 years at Anfield, once stood on the Kop to watch the Reds thrash Dundalk 10-0 in the European Fairs Cup in 1969 whilst working at a school on Merseyside.
Benitez is far too honest to ever try to claim he was once a Liverpool supporter. In fact, he’s far too honest to even claim he ever had a soft spot from afar for the club he now manages. He’s a Real Madrid man, always has been. The Kop, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, the Shankly statue, Hillsborough, European nights at Anfield; it’s all new to him.
But maybe that’s why it’s been such fun for us Liverpool supporters having him in our dugout this season. As hard as he tries to win us over with his team’s football on the pitch and his attitude off it (‘He never used injuries as an excuse when no one would have blamed him if he did,’ claimed Ian St John recently), we try even harder to impress him from the stands. We want him to feel special and we want him to feel we’re special.
On both counts, the first season has been a resounding success if the traditional end of season lap of honour was anything to go by after the victory over Aston Villa confirmed the Reds missed out on fourth place by just three points.
“I was so proud walking around the pitch with my daughters the third girl with Benitez was the daughter of a friend,” he says wide-eyed with a massive grin. “My youngest daughter was afraid of all the noise but, for me, it was unbelievable. It is very difficult to see scenes like this in Spain. It is so important to have the supporters behind you if you want to be successful and here, we have the best supporters in England.”
Visibly warming to the subject, he continues: “My wife stopped me as I walked off the pitch and said to me, ‘You must, you really must win the European Cup for these people because you know how they feel about the club.'”
If Benitez can upset the odds and inspire his team to win the trophy no Anfield manager has won since 1984, it will be the AC Milan team of the late ’80s rather than the Liverpool team of the early ’80s which will have provided the tactical blueprint.
Benitez might have grown up with the Los meringues, but it was Arrigo Saachi’s all-conquering Milan side which fired his football imagination.
“It’s true,” he says, rising up in his seat. “This Milan was a fantastic team with a balance between the attack and the defence. It was difficult to score or to create opportunities against them but they always scored goals and for me they were one of the best teams in the world.”
Is that the perfect embodiment of the team he’d like to fashion here at Liverpool?
“Yes, this is the idea. To create this balance but when you see the statistics for Liverpool this season you know we need to improve in both areas but OK, we have an idea and the players I think understand better now and next season it will be better.”
While we won’t know for a few years yet just how close Liverpool can come to that Milan side of yesteryear, on Wednesday night we’ll get a good look at the current model. And just like before the games against Leverkusen, Juventus and Chelsea, Liverpool will be the underdogs. While some managers might take offence at seeing their side constantly written off by those who claim to know the most about football, the label is quite clearly growing on a man who celebrated his 45th birthday just over a month ago. “They have a lot of good players, a great manager, trophies and the experience of the Champions League final. I think they are favourites. It is good for us because we have nothing to lose. We have a lot of things to win.”
If Liverpool are to triumph in Istanbul, will they have to beat the best team in Europe?
“Until this week maybe they are the best team in Europe? After this week, we will see. But I have confidence in our team. I wouldn’t swap this chance in the final for fourth place. We are here for winning title, medals, trophies, and for winning money because, at the end, you need money to buy new players. It was always important for me to finish in the top four but if you can win the final, you will be in the history of the club and, in the end, it’ll be more important.”
Important, yes. Expensive, maybe. There’ll no doubt be a trip to the shops to buy another watch for Mrs Benitez.
Rafa laughs. “No, no she will go for me. She is waiting! But the most important thing is to win.”
Win the European Cup on Wednesday night and the fans camped outside Melwood will probably buy it for them.