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Rafa Benitez's greatest legacy was giving FSG major Liverpool boost

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Rafa Benitez's place in the pantheon of Liverpool greatness was cemented at the end of his very first season in charge at Anfield.

The Spaniard somehow managed to engineer a team which bore pale comparison to many of its celebrated predecessors to a miraculous Champions League triumph in Istanbul which will be revered for as long as football is played.



He followed it up with a dramatic FA Cup victory the following season and over the next half-decade led the Reds to another Champions League final as well as further semi-final and quarter-final spots in Europe's premier cup competition, along with a title tilt in 2009 which saw Liverpool post a tally of 86 points that would have been enough to be crowned champions in many other Premier League campaigns.



Yet a year later, he was sacked as Liverpool manager at the end of a harrowing season which saw the Reds fail to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in seven years and the club descend further into a bitter civil war which put its very existence in doubt.



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Many of the tributes to Benitez following his departure centred on the extraordinary triumph in Istanbul and its legacy in honouring and reinvigorating Liverpool's decorated European history.

But there is an argument to say the Spaniard's greatest Anfield legacy - even more than that mind-bending success in the Turkish capital - was being the first person to truly shine a light on the damage the ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillett was doing to the club.

And it came at the expense of Benitez's ability to manage the club in the way he wanted to and ultimately his job.

A banner on the Kop gates reads Ta Rafa La after Rafa Benitez leaves Anfield

If a year is a long time in politics, ten years in football can seem like several lifetimes.

The Liverpool FC of 2020 is held up by many as a model of how a top club should be run, with the Reds currently reigning European and world champions and on the cusp on ending the 30-year wait for the holy grail of a domestic league title, while record revenues pour into a commercial operation now punching its weight given the heft of the Reds' reputation and fanbase.

In June 2010 though, the club was an absolute basket-case with all the on-field momentum generated by Istanbul now completely evaporated and eye-watering interest payments from the debt Hicks and Gillett had loaded onto the club to pay for their takeover ushering in the haunting spectre of bankruptcy.

How different things had looked just three summers earlier.

Following the Americans' arrival in February 2007, Liverpool broke their club transfer record the following July by paying Atletico Madrid £20.2m for their star striker Fernando Torres and had further bolstered a squad which had reached that year's Champions League final again by spending around another £25m on Ryan Babel, Yossi Benayoun, Lucas Leiva and Andriy Voronin.

Hopes were high that in what was now Benitez's fourth season in charge, the progress which had seen Liverpool reach major cup finals in each of the first three (two of which were won) would now translate to a sustained title bid with the wait for a league championship threatening to extend into a third decade.

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There was a genuine sense of positivity with Benitez's methods and mentality now firmly embedded within the culture of the club, and Torres hitting the ground running, scoring a memorable first goal for the club on his Anfield debut against Chelsea and quickly striking up a rapport with club legends Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher who still had potentially their peak years ahead of them.

Yet, with hindsight, the warning signs were already there in the aftermath of the Athens Champions League final the previous May when after narrow defeat to AC Milan Benitez spent much of the night pacing the streets of the Greek capital concerned already that the promises made to him about investment in the squad would not be kept.

The next day he let rip into his new bosses, who had been feted by Reds fans in the streets of Liverpool before the semi-final against Chelsea and around the pitch before the match in Athens, saying: “I feel tired and disappointed – we are in the same situation as two years ago.

“We must quickly sign our number one targets and spend big and spend now.

"We can’t be looking for players in August because then you end up with the second or third choice on your list.”

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As mentioned, close to £50m was splashed that summer to improve the squad with another £23m being spent on the arrivals of Martin Skrtel and Javier Mascherano early the following year.

But it was not Hicks and Gillett's money to spend, with their ownership of Liverpool being built on leveraged debt, and before 2007 was even out, the first signs of serious conflict between the manager and the ownership was beginning to reveal itself.

In late November with Liverpool, with the manager seeking reassurance he would be able to bring in the January signings he wanted - Mascherano and Skrtel - he was told by Tom Hicks to just concentrate on coaching the players he already had, leading to the surreal press conference before Liverpool's trip to Newcastle United when he repeated the phrase "I am focused on training and coaching my team" 15 times.

When it emerged in the coming days the owners had made contact with German legend Jurgen Klinsmann - who was then coaching in the United States - to potentially replace Benitez, with whispers already emerging that Hicks and Gillet may not have the financial muscle to carry through their promise to have a 'spade in the ground' on the club's proposed new stadium on Stanley Park within 60 days (a deadline which had long since passed), battle lines were drawn.

Liverpool fans show their support in numbers for their manager Rafael Benitez prior to the UEFA Champions League match against Porto at Anfield on November 28, 2007

Before Liverpool's crunch Champions League clash with Porto the following week, supporters took the streets around Anfield to show their support for the manager and their growing mistrust and concerns about the owners.

The schisms within the club and the fanbase gradually grew, partially obscured initially by continued relative success on the pitch, with Liverpool finishing third that season and narrowly failing to reach a third Champions League final in four seasons after extra-time defeat to Chelsea and then falling just short of winning the title the following season despite posting 86 points and losing only two league games.

The financial mire the club was gradually descending into because of the crippling interest payments on Hicks and Gillett's debt was becoming evident in the strength of the squad, that 2009 title bid arguably being stymied by only being able to rely on replacements of limited quality such as Nabil El Zhar and David Ngog to come off the bench.

That summer saw Christian Purslow replace Rick Parry as managing director with a supposed remit to renegotiate the £350m loan the club had outstanding with Royal Bank of Scotland which added another layer of internal politicking for Benitez to deal with and when Alberto Aquilani was brought in to replace Xabi Alonso who had been sold to Real Madrid, Liverpool were sliding down a glass mountain which almost sent them hurtling into oblivion.

Liverpool's Champions League win in Istanbul

Benitez was not without his flaws. Even though there were suggestions the sale of Alonso had been necessary to service the debt, the Spanish midfielder had seemingly been unsettled by the manager's pursuit of Gareth Barry the previous summer and Aquilani's injury record in Italy suggested it could be a risky purchase.

There were some who argued Benitez had a habit of picking boardroom battles, pointing out his famous quote when he wanted to buy Samuel Eto'o while Valencia manager: "I was hoping for a sofa and they've brought me a lamp" and, in more recent times, his battles with the hierarchy at Newcastle United.

But history has gone on to prove that the foundations of Hicks and Gillett's ownership at Liverpool were indeed built on sand and they were eventually removed five months after Benitez's departure with the club on the brink of administration in October 2010 following a series of court cases in London and Texas which saw Fenway Sports Group (then known as New England Sports Ventures) buy the club for around £300m.

It has been fairly widely acknowledged, not least by FSG themselves, that the concerted opposition and campaigning against Hicks and Gillett by Liverpool supporters played a key role in highlighting the chaos within the club and building support and momentum against them.

And it was Rafa Benitez who saw through the new owners before virtually anybody else, being prepared to call them out while they were still in their honeymoon period and while many were still being hoodwinked by Champions League finals and record signing blonde-haired superstar strikers.

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It may well be that being so involved in club politics did prove a distraction at times to Benitez's ability to do the job he was being paid for, namely coaching and managing the football team.

But when you consider how close the club claim to the abyss ten years ago, and how different the entire landscape surrounding the club now is, Liverpool supporters owe a debt of gratitude to the man who took on a battle he was always destined to lose.

The club itself ended up winning up the war and while Rafa will be forever associated with Istanbul and one of the greatest fightbacks in sporting history, his greatest legacy was arguably in stoking the fires of the existential fight Liverpool just could not afford to lose.


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