On the 25th of May 2005 I was sat in the Ataturk Stadium, Istanbul. The players were walking out of the tunnel and my Dad turned and said to me “You’re not going to enjoy this”. He was right.
Through 90 minutes of football, 30 minutes of extra-time and an agonising penalty shootout I went through more emotions than I’d been through in my entire life from excitement to despair, disappointment to utter euphoria and the lowest of the low to top of the world all over the course of one football match.
I remember after one particularly gloomy night of football at Anfield I asked my Dad if I’d ever see Liverpool in a Champions League final like Manchester United in 1999 – he told me he wouldn’t put money on it.
Remembering that moment whilst sat in the ground in Istanbul made me not care about the result, win, lose or draw I’d seen Liverpool get to a European Cup final in what was a roller-coaster ride of a tournament which saw the Reds see off the likes of Juventus, Leverkusen and Chelsea.
When I saw Steven Gerrard lifting the trophy that night it made me dream of past glories I wasn’t lucky enough to be around for, it made me believe Liverpool FC could go on to conquer the world.
That belief was created by Rafael Benitez.
Despite what the pundits may say, he didn’t disappoint in his six years in charge at Anfield. Aside from the fantastic Newcastle games under Evans and the FA and UEFA Cup wins under Houlier Rafael Benitez and his side provided me with my best memories of being a Liverpool supporter.
In the past six years I’ve seen Liverpool see off some of the best in Europe. Spanish giants Barcelona and Madrid have fell at the hands of the Rafalution, as have AC, Inter and Juventus. On the domestic front I’ve seen us thrash United, defy Romans Russian millions at Chelsea and, oh, yeah, beat Everton more times than I can remember.
I’ve been astonished by brilliant performances from players like Fernando Torres, Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso, whilst I’ve been utterly wowed by Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher who have both become world-class players thanks to Benitez.
For three years I thought Liverpool FC could do about anything. In 2005 we secured the European Cup and Super Cup. In 2006 we brought home the FA Cup and Charity Shield and in 2007 we reached the Champions League final again.
But just months before our close defeat at the hands of AC Milan a lethal dose of poison was inject into the veins of the club I love, that poison was Tom Hicks and George Gillett.
Now, three years later, I have grown to hate our happy-go-lucky American owners and what they’ve done to Liverpool Football Club and the manager I felt could take us to new heights.
Where Benitez wanted Villa the board offered Voronin, when Silva was sought after all that could be afforded was Riera and there was certainly no sign of Snoggy Doggy.
Despite the sometimes questionable tactics, often strange policies and a notably stubborn attitude I truly believe I’d be talking about Liverpool FC –English Champions if Benitez had signed who he wanted to over the past six years. Alves, Simao, Silva and Villa are just a few names the boss missed out on and that cost the club dearly.
The boardroom battles that he fought to try and get as much as he could to take the club forward eventually broke him and a disappointing season was the result, but for five years before that Rafael Benitez turned Liverpool FC from falling stars to European powerhouses and for that I commend him.
But I’ll remember the good times, the mad nights and day’s home, away and abroad. But most importantly I’ll remember that Rafael Benitez made me dream again.
Thanks Rafa – You’ll Never Walk Alone.
(Photo provided by Nigel Wilson)