The big interview: Rafael Benitez – "I have no regrets because the things I said were what the fans were saying"
Having been invited by Rafael Benitez to join him at his local, a most welcoming hostelry in Irby called The Anchor, FFT thinks it’s only right to get the first round in. With a cellar “stuffed with wines from around the globe” and a tasty selection of cask ales, the choices are endless. Benitez, though, is a teetotaller – and a cheap date.
The water may be still but the former Liverpool manager is in sparkling form as he ploughs his way through your questions. From his childhood in Madrid to his Union Jack Mini, nothing is off-limits for Spain’s most successful managerial export to the UK. Relaxed and recharged after a six-month break, Benitez speaks of the past, the present and the future, reliving the glory of Istanbul, lifting the lid on life at Anfield under Hicks and Gillett, and even revealing the secret behind the goatee beard that is now his trademark.
There is also a display of his tactical nous, using chunky chips as players, that has the pub’s regulars enraptured. But he saves his best for the readers of FFT, raising a glass out of respect for your testing questions.
Is it true your mum was a Real Madrid fan and your dad supported Atletico? How did you choose? Simon Wellings, Madrid
It is true. My father was a supporter of Atletico and my mum followed Real Madrid, but it was an easy choice for me because my father sent me to Real for a trial and they picked me.
How would you describe yourself as a player Any modern-day comparisons? Daniel Baylis, via email
When I was in the academy at Real Madrid I played first as a winger, then a midfielder, then a sweeper. I think my best position was sweeper but usually I played as a holding midfielder. It’s hard to compare myself with today’s players because the game is different, but my qualities were that I could pass the ball with both feet, I was good in the air and I was fit. But I wasn’t the quickest, and in my case that was the difference between being a normal player and a top-class player.
I heard that when you were at Parla, you would help team-mates chat up English girls while on holiday in Majorca... Richard Lee, Stockton-on-Tees
How can someone know this? That is really funny! The only thing is it was in Tenerife, not Majorca. When I was 20, we went there with AD Parla for four days and I was the only one who could speak any English – not the best, but some English – so I was in the middle of all the conversations.
Was management something you always wanted to do, or only once your playing career was cut short by injury? Martin Davis, via email
I didn’t know at the time, but later on when I looked back I realised this was my passion. I used to go on holiday with my mates in the mountains outside Madrid; we had a team for players aged 16 to 18, and by the time I was 18 I was coaching as well as playing. I was in Real Madrid’s youth team by then so my level was quite good. It was the same when I went to university: I was playing and coaching, and because I was a sweeper I could organise the team from the back.
You spent nine years coaching various Real Madrid outfits, right up to the B team. How important was this apprenticeship? Mark Jansen, Copenhagen
The main thing for my development was the winning mentality Real Madrid has. This meant I could learn from different coaches. Every year was an experience – and doing it this way means that when you go into a professional career, you have more knowledge and you are able to use things that you may not even realise you’ve learned. But every manager and coach has to find their own way.
Dietmar Hamann, Champions League winner with Benitez in 2005: “You’ve now experienced what most would call the three best leagues in the world: Serie A, La Liga and the Premier League. Which do you think is the best, the toughest, the most exciting? How do they differ, or are they quite similar?”
Rafa says: "The Italian league is more tactical. The Spanish league is more technical and also tactical. The English league is more physical, and because the ball is close to the box more than it is in the other countries, maybe it is the most exciting of the three."
Having broken into first-team management with Real Valladolid, how did it feel to be sacked in your first season, then by Osasuna after nine games? Did you think, “Sod this, I’ve had enough”? Adam Wynns, Richmond, NZ
The opposite – it gave me even more determination to be a success. It was an extraordinary time at Valladolid: we were promoted to the first division on August 15 because of a financial situation at Sevilla and Celta. The league started on September 1, so we didn’t have much time to prepare. In the end the chairman told me I didn’t have the experience but I was disappointed because, although we were bottom, we were playing good football and improving. It was similar at Osasuna. They wanted to be promoted within one year instead of two – that was the project. The directors were nice people but new to football, and in the end they signed four coaches in one season.
Is it true you drive around in a Union Jack Mini? Surely you can afford something a bit flashier? James Gee, via email
We bought the Mini when we were in Italy and brought it back with us. We’re very fond of it because it’s a nice car!
Two La Liga titles and a UEFA Cup in three seasons at Valencia. Is it still possible for a coach to do this with a team like that in Spanish football, or are Real Madrid and Barcelona just too far ahead? Dan Yeo, Cheltenham
They are too far ahead right now. If you look at La Liga now, they are 20 points ahead of the rest. At that time there were more than just two good teams – and we were a very good team, full of ambition.
“I was hoping for a sofa and they bought me a lamp.” Genius – how long did it take you to think of that one? Alan Batty, Liverpool
I was trying to explain the situation to the Valencia fans, because Nestor Canobbio was a very good player but I was looking for a winger and he was a second striker. So I didn’t want to disrespect him, but he wasn’t the player we needed. It was spontaneous.