“We don’t need to give away stupid plastic flags to our fans to wave, our supporters are always there with their hearts and that is all we need. Its the passion of the fans that helps us to win matches, not flags. Chelsea fans lack passion.”
I’m sure at the time these words raised his legend status amongst his own fans, with Liverpool supporters despising the moden day Chelsea, as the two clubs repeatedly came to blows in the Champions League.
Liverpool sang of their 18 league titles, 5 European Cups and claim that Chelsea had no history. But Liverpool hadn’t won the league since 1990, whilst Chelsea have won it three times in the past ten years, and arrived at Anfield with banners proclaiming they were “making history”, rather than just living in the past like Liverpool.
Since then, Chelsea have a European Cup of their own to brag about, after winning in Munich despite being the 6th best team in England, 25 points behind City and United. This isn’t something Liverpool fans can take issue with though, considering they were 5th and 37 points behind the league winners in 2005 when they last won the Champions League.
However, being crowned the Champions of Europe wasn’t enough to save Roberto Di Matteo from the customary sacking when a few months later Chelsea fell 4 points behind in the title race. Di Matteo was out and Benitez was in with his words about Chelsea, which are still proudly displayed on the walls of Melwood, coming back to haunt him.
The fans have made it clear since day one, despite the protests from sections of the media (Tony Evans, The Times: He’s fresh, full of ideas and wants to win. CFC fans won’t be sorry if they get Rafa. The rest of us will.), that they don’t want Benitez and he’s not good enough for the club. Some people have dismissed Benitez’s previous comments, saying he shouldn’t be judged for something he said whilst managing another club, but I think it’s important to consider the fact that managers very rarely, if ever, criticise rival fans. When you think of the rivalry and hatred United have had between Liverpool, City, Chelsea and Arsenal over the years, no manager of theirs has ever slagged off our fans, and we’ve sung about Wenger being a paedo and about hanging Dalglish from a tree. Managers don’t have a pop at the fans so the fact that Benitez did is a reflection of the bad feeling between them.
However, it wasn’t just these words that left Chelsea fans wanting nothing to do with Benitez, but his track record too. He bottled it in the 2009 title race and was sacked the following season, paid off with £4m from the club, after finishing 7th. Benitez spent an incredible amount of money at Liverpool but by the time he left, their finishing spot in the table was three places lower than Gerard Houllier managed the season before Benitez took over in 2004.
He then went to Inter Milan and inherited Jose Mourinho’s Treble winning team. By December, the club had fallen to 6th in the league. Six months after being appointed he was sacked and received a £5m pay out.
Benitez is hailed by the scouse loving media as some kind of genius because he won the European Cup in 2005 with Houllier’s team after sacrificing their league campaign to get there. The years that followed saw him spend a lot of money and mount just one title challenge, before he pressed the self-destruct button during the Stoke City press conference and allowed United to claim that 18th title. When the Benitez apologists are reminded of this, they point to his period in charge of Valencia when he won two La Liga titles. I don’t think anyone should underestimate what an achievement this was, but it was a decade ago, and he’s done very little to justify any status of “genius” since then.
Football management appears to be the only profession where the quality of your work at your prior job means little to future employers though. Despite failing at both Liverpool and Inter Milan, Benitez was rewarded with the Chelsea job and has managed to guide them from 4 points off the top to 19 points behind. They lost in the final of the Club World Cup to Corinthians, the 6th best side in Brazil. Then they were beaten by Swansea in the League Cup semi-final, their best chance of silverware this season with a final against 4th Division side Bradford waiting for them.
And all of this is why we were pleased that Benitez got the job. Chelsea were our title rivals when Abramovich appointed him, with us just 3 points ahead of them and a goal difference superior by 1. You have to go back almost ten years to find the last really great thing Benitez did, despite being in charge of big clubs with good squads since then, so, like many other fans, I was delighted when he got the job. The fact he’s got a screw lose only added to the appeal. Even better was the fact that it was emphasised he was just an “interim” manager, meaning the players had little motivation to impress him.
The fans would like to blame all of this on Benitez, and whilst his insistence on playing Fernando Torres, as well as making bizarre substitutions, and messing with the excellent Mata-Oscar-Hazard combination with his usual “resting” of players when they are desperately required to play, have done him no favours, the players have to take some responsibility. They have been poor, just as they usually are when they decide they’ve had enough of the latest manager. Benitez is their 8th manager in less than six years and reports this week suggested that in Monday’s training session the Spaniard blamed the players for getting managers sacked in the past.
The imminent dismissal of Benitez is likely to be blamed on the fans by the media though, not the players, after they were unwilling to give him a go. United fans faced criticism too when the anti-Glazer protests gained real momentum during the 2009-2010 season, although the severity of being heavily in debt is clearly worse than having an unpopular manager in charge, but we were told to shut up and put too.
“There’s maybe too much made of it by the supporters,” said Ben Foster, our former goalie, at the end of that season. “They are obviously passionate about Manchester United, but sometimes they need to focus on supporting the club a bit more than getting carried away with the technicalities of who’s in charge. However, it’s a bit of a distraction when the fans are chanting at every game.”
Imagine the scenario: Manchester United win the European Cup with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer/Eric Cantona/Ruud van Nistelrooy etc. as our manager. A few months later they are sacked and replaced with a manager we despise, through association with a former club and because they have claimed that our fans lack passion. Let’s not pretend that from day dot we wouldn’t be protesting about that (although our fans would have a bit more about them when it came to chants, and wouldn’t change the words to an established song to ensure it no longer rhymed, as they have done with “we don’t care about Rafa, and Rafa don’t care about us, all we care about, is Chelsea FC”).
The difference is, of course, that the fault here lies with Roman Abramovich for employing a man he knew the fans hated. We would quite happily protest against the Glazers for appointing someone we didn’t want because they have done nothing for us, whereas Chelsea fans owe most of their best football memories and experiences to Abramovich.
So obsessed was he with finding a way to make that £50m donkey play well, he brought in a manager who he hoped would be able to make Fernando Torres look half decent again. That was more important to him than the feelings of the fans. However, Chelsea are now the only club in London to have won the European Cup and have won the Premier League, two things that never would have happened without Abramovich. “We want our Chelsea back” the fans have chanted, but that’s not strictly true. Pre-Abramovich Chelsea was on the road to bankruptcy and hadn’t won the league for 50 years. Do they want to hand in the league titles and European Cup too, in exchange for their Chelsea? Of course not. They want the Chelsea that won trophies, paid for by Abramovich, with a manager they don’t hate. They want to have their cake and eat it too, although there are now some sections of the crowd that have begun to turn against Abramovich. If the Russian continues to sack a manager or two every season, ensures that Chelsea are a permanent fixture in the Europa League and silverware isn’t forthcoming, maybe that minority will grow, and maybe Abramovich will fuck off. But let’s not get too carried away…
After months of banners and chanting, it appears as though Benitez has finally cracked, something United fans are all too familiar with. After his rant in 2009, with Liverpool top of the league, they went on to claim 10 points from the next available 21 and we went on to win that record equalling 18th title. His press conference and interviews last night were a shambles, with Benitez hitting out at the fans and the board. He was angry that the club had insisted on giving him the title “interim” and said the fans were wasting their time singing about him.
Is it a waste of time to protest against something you disagree with? Should fans have a say in the running of their football club? Reds have had these debates amongst themselves regularly, particularly during 09-10, with some saying the fans inside the ground should only support the team, whilst others insisted that matchdays were the best times for their voice to be heard. Did chanting “we want Glazer out” have a negative impact on our performances? Are Chelsea playing badly because their fans are singing about Benitez being a fat, Spanish waiter? It’s hard to believe, but it’s also hard to prove one way or another, without being a footballer in their shoes.
Chelsea chief executive Ron Gourlay, who rarely attends the training ground, was at Cobham this morning, presumably to talk to Benitez. The club have insisted it is “business as usual” but you can only wonder how long Benitez will last now.
We are due to play Chelsea in the Cup in ten days time and it would hardly be a surprise if it was their first game with a new manager. But who is left? They’ve been through more than their fair share of top managers and as Pep Guardiola showed by agreeing a contract with Bayern Munich, the draw to be Chelsea manager isn’t what it used to be. Of course there’s the good salary and the promise of money to spend in the transfer market, but how many highly rated managers are prepared to risk their reputation for that when there are other clubs that would offer them the same things without the likelihood of being sacked. Carlo Ancelotti lost his job just a year after winning the league and FA Cup double, whilst Di Matteo’s European and FA Cup double just bought him a couple of months in charge.
If Chelsea are to have a different manager for our Cup game, it won’t be the first time we’ve been able to provide a “welcome” for their new boss. Back in 2007, we were their opponents for Avram Grant’s first game in charge and their fans arrived with Jose Mourinho banners and songs. They never accepted him either, maybe not quite on the same level as their feelings for Benitez, but they managed to take the title race down to the last day and the European Cup to a sudden death penalty shoot-out. Their current position is miles away from anything on that level.
Back then, we had no idea what the future of Abramovich would bring, and how many managers would come and go. I remember talking to my dad at the end of the 2005 season and contemplating the road ahead for United. The Glazers had just come, we lost to Arsenal in that awful FA Cup final, and we finished 3rd, 18 points behind Chelsea. They were a machine back then and with the money spent I couldn’t see how they wouldn’t dominate football for the next decade or more. Benitez is just the latest chapter in the book that helps explain United’s success, with Abramovich repeatedly making the wrong decisions to ensure our job is easier.
It appears as though Benitez will keep his job for now but you can only imagine what kind of reception he will receive at Stamford Bridge on Saturday. They can see that he’s cracking up again and will likely put on more pressure than ever. Before his rant yesterday, it was revealed that fans will be allowed to bring their banners to the game and you would assume plenty of them will take up that offer.
Sooner or later, Benitez will be gone, and the Chelsea supporters will be able to pat themselves on the back for contributing to his demise. That’s what makes this situation so entertaining. The same fans who Benitez claimed lacked passion are the same ones now passionately dedicated to getting rid of him. I just hope we get to see him one last time on March 10th before he’s given the boot.
All together now… he’s crackin up, he’s crackin up, he’s crackin, Rafa’s crackin up!
Made in Manchester is available for just £5. It includes 30 articles from the country's best football writers about graduates from the Manchester United academy. All profit goes to Trafford Macmillan so please support this fantastic cause.