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Rafa’s Riverside Meltdown

In nearly 50 years of regularly watching Chelsea, without a doubt the manager who attracted the most opprobrium from supporters was, without a doubt, Rafa Benitez. He was actively disliked by a lot of supporters years before he was even touted to be Roberto Di Matteo’s replacement and his late November 2012 appointment was greeted with a mixture of fury and utter disbelief. Bizarrely, the only other name seemingly in the frame for what was always likely to be a temporary role was Harry Redknapp.

According to the Daily Telegraph there was ‘genuine shock among club staff at the way Chelsea’s supporters greeted Benitez with boos and jeers when he was first unveiled as the manager.’ Which just goes to show the club were disconnected from supporter opinion and did not think things through. Benitez had made historic comments about Chelsea, references to ‘stupid plastic flags’ and the rest, which did not go down at all well and he had been booed when Chelsea played Liverpool. Seemingly not realising that the flames of that antipathy and dislike might be fanned further when he was appointed was utterly naïve of the club. Even then, a humble apology on Day One might have helped calm things down. It never happened.

There is definitely a book to be written (but not by me) about the Rafa era. Viewed from a distance of over a decade, the naked hostility of a substantial chunk of our support he received at, for example, West Ham, and at Brentford in the FA Cup, is truly remarkable. The abuse he got walking across the Griffin Park pitch at half-time was something to behold. An enterprising friend of mine, Walter Otten, sold 300 ‘Rafa Out’ badges at just two matches.

Benitez’s contract was only until June 2013, he clearly disliked his title of ‘Interim Manager’, and it was generally accepted that it was very unlikely he would be at the club the next season. It was roundly hoped in the stands that his departure would be more immediate. The ’We don’t care about Rafa, he don’t care about us, all we care about is Chelsea FC’ chant was regularly aired and spoke volumes.

Winning the fourth round FA Cup replay at Stamford Bridge against Brentford meant a midweek fifth round trip to the Riverside Stadium to play Second Division Middlesbrough at the end of February. The hostility to Benitez had maybe levelled off a little but it was definitely still there, week in and week out. Chelsea warmed up for the trip to the North East by losing 2-0 at Manchester City in the league, meaning they were in fourth place, but miles behind both leaders Manchester United and second-place Manchester City.

Press coverage in the build-up to the cup-tie was dominated by leaked reports of a heated training ground row between Benitez and captain John Terry, recently returned from injury but no longer certain of a regular starting place. Frank Lampard reportedly also joined in the debate. Benitez insisted there was no rift with the squad, and that the players ‘100 per cent’ bought into ‘our ideas’ but there was a sense that all was not well, that the utter disdain shown by supporters was mirrored, if to a less overt degree, in the changing room.

I went up to The Riverside on a club coach, part of a contingent of 1,895 Blues travelling up on a Wednesday night. Benitez made eight changes, brought back Terry and gave promising youngster Nathan Ake his first start as Chelsea lined up:- Cech, Ferreira, Ivanovic, Terry, Bertrand; Benayoun, Ramires, Ake; Moses, Oscar, Torres. Lampard and Ashley Cole were left on the bench.

The hosts were fired up from the start and looked the more likely to open the scoring in the first half. Chelsea got stronger, though, and the opening goal duly came after 51 minutes when Ramires was set up by Yossi Benayoun and his shot flicked off Fernando Torres to give Chelsea the lead. The stadium announcer gave the goal to Torres, but it was officially given to Ramires.

Ramires shot deflects off Torres to put Chelsea ahead

The players duly celebrate

Torres missed a chance to double the lead, but the setback of the goal had spurred Boro into action again and they came more into the game. That changed, though, when Eden Hazard was brought on for Benayoun. The Belgian came close to extending Chelsea's lead, shooting just wide after being set up by Ramirez, before his superb one-two with Oscar into the penalty area set up Victor Moses to tap home after 73 minutes. Boro missed a couple of late chances but Chelsea, without ever being at their best, held on to win 2-0 and clinch a visit to Old Trafford in the quarter-final.

Brief match highlights can be found here . The BBC Sport website match report can be found here

During the game there were anti-Benitez chants from the away end, for sure, but to me it did certainly not seem as vitriolic as at Griffin Park or West Ham. Getting on the coach home, the driver put BBC Radio 5 Live on and they were talking about the game. Host Mark Pougatch went over for an Alastair Yeomans interview with Benitez, and what followed was a remarkable and utterly compelling couple of minutes of radio. (This transcription is taken from

AY: “What was a difficult first half for you in the end turned out OK?.” RB: “Yes, it was difficult, normally in the FA Cup it’s always difficult but I thought our team was doing well, it was a professional performance, a lot of players doing well. I was really pleased with Nathan Ake [who made his full debut] and really pleased with Paulo Ferreira because they showed they are good players and fantastic professionals. So for me, a great performance of the team and I am really pleased with the result.”

AY: “What was your thinking about making eight changes for this game, because we saw the other week when Arsenal maybe didn’t play their full team against Blackburn they lost. What was your thinking about that?”. RB: “I had a lot of confidence in the players because I can see them training every day and they were doing really well, so I was really pleased, I could see in the training sessions and was really pleased, so to play them, no problem.”

AY: “And first half, the tempo, was that quick enough for you, was that good enough for you?”. RB: “I think that they were pushing so they were working hard so it was not easy but they were doing their job.”

AY: “How important is this FA Cup to you now? You go to Manchester United next so there are no givens. RB: “I think for us every game, every trophy is really important. I have been manager for 26 years, I have won the FIFA Club World Cup, the Champions League, FA Cup, a lot of trophies and I’m really a little bit disappointed with some fans, a group of fans singing and I think they are not making any favour to the team.

They have to support the team instead of wasting time doing banners or singing songs. What they have to do is support the team and create a good atmosphere in Stamford Bridge. If we cannot achieve the target that we are looking for, to be in the Champions League… If they continue singing and talking and talking then I think they are not making any favours. They have to support the players, they have to support the team, I have experience as a manager, I will do my best until the last day.

They gave me the title of interim manager, it’s a massive mistake. I am the manager and I will manage the team until the end, every single minute.

“If they want to carry on wasting time with these things because they have an agenda, they have to take responsibility if something is wrong. It’s not just ‘I will blame this one, I will blame the other one’, what they have to do is to support the team and then everyone has to stick together and we can achieve what we want to achieve – that is the Champions League. Simple.

“If not then next year they can carry on singing but we will be in the Europa League so they have to realise that they are not making any favour – to the rest of the fans and also to the players.”

AY: “When you made the comments that they are talking about, some of them, you were fighting for Liverpool. There was a big rivalry with Liverpool and Chelsea, you’d expect you to say those things, is that what you’re saying?” RB: “I am a professional, I am doing my job and I will do my job. What I want to do is, I want to win every single game for Chelsea Football Club. But, if they don’t understand this, at the end of the season, because I am interim, I will leave. They don’t need to worry about me.

“What they have to do is to support the team, to support the players. And it’s a group of people and they have an agenda. They have to realise that the rest of the fans, they want to see the team the next year in the Champions League. It’s not ‘I am right or I am wrong’, you have to see the team in the Champions League and they have to support the team, that is the main thing.

“At the end of the season, I will leave. They don’t need to be worrying about me.”

That was broadcast just before the radio news. The coach cheered loudly, supporters amazed and delighted that Benitez seemed to have snapped. Straight after the news Pougatch played the interview again, in full, almost unheard of and testament to its dramatic content. The coach cheered loudly again. We stopped at a service station. All three club coaches disgorged their passengers who stood there en masse, together with car-loads of travelling supporters, chanting anti-Rafa songs in the cold midnight air. Getting home about 4am, the interview was the main story on the BBC Sport website and I went to bed convinced he had in effect signed his death warrant with the club by criticising them so openly and publicly, and would be gone within days, if not hours.

At a post-match press conference where Benitez explored similar themes to but in more depth, an interview which can be found here . He reiterates much of the radio interview, but he goes into more detail.

This airing of his obvious frustration, and enthusiasm to get them across to as wide an audience as possible, contained direct criticism of supporters and, more seriously, direct criticism of the club hierarchy for his ‘interim’ title. Given the content of the interviews and Benitez’s clearly stated opinions about the way he had been treated, press speculation about his departure the following morning was understandably intense. Coverage was voluminous and it was the main sports story in most papers.

The Guardian posted this report of the press conference shortly after it took place.

The Daily Telegraph thought it highly likely that Abramovich would sack him and bring in old hand Avram Grant till the end of the season. At that time I was chair of Chelsea Supporters Trust, and I was interviewed by the Daily Telegraph for the Friday edition, along with David Chidgey, on behalf of the Chelsea Fancast. Both of us decried Benitez’s appointment and questioned his view that it was only a minority of supporters who could not accept him.

Henry Winter in the same paper praised Chelsea supporters, claiming they had ‘stuck rigidly and vocally to a point of principle’ by continually making it clear they never wanted, and still did not want, the Spaniard as manager. He felt that it was clear that the views of the away supporters, the most ’loyal,’ ‘passionate’ and ‘faithful’ as he put it, were shared by the majority of Stamford Bridge matchgoers.

The Evening Standard reported that Chelsea had started initial and ‘very formative’ discussions with Jose Mourinho about a return to the club he had left in acrimony in late 2007. They also reported how Benitez had met chief executive Ron Gourlay, the interim manager claiming it was a ‘normal conversation’ and that he had no problem with the board, technical director Michael Emenalo or Roman Abramovich. He refused to discuss whether he had spoken directly to Abramovich.

On the Saturday, John Terry was again left out as West Bromwich Albion were beaten 1-0, Demba Ba scoring. The expected torrent of abuse from the home support aimed at the interim manager never really materialised, though there were banners and some chants. A sort of uneasy near-peace set in for the rest of the season.

In the end of course, Benitez surprised many, including me, and stayed until the end of the season. From a distance of eleven years the antipathy of so many matchgoing supporters towards him is striking. In the end he left the club on a high, qualifying for the Champions League by finishing third in the Premier League and winning the Europa League in Amsterdam that May, but he is still remembered with little fondness by many supporters. He should never have been appointed and the fact he was shows how out-of-touch and arrogant the club hierarchy was. I see that appointment, the sacking of Ancelotti and of course the 2011 CPO fiasco as the three low spots of the Abramovich era.

In the quarter-final Chelsea beat United after a replay before losing 2-1 to Manchester City in the semi-final. Mourinho duly returned to the club the following season. Benitez became Napoli manager.

Thanks to those supporters including Chelsea official historian Rick Glanvill, Dave Sewell, Liz Nurse, Andy King and @essa46054859 who responded to social media requests and sent me interview links and transcripts.

Tim Rolls

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