The last time we were at the Empire Theatre it was to watch One Night In Istanbul, which is to say that it was a pretty awful experience. A night with Rafa Benitez, although superficially similar, promised rather more – though it remained to be seen whether neutrals would find enough to enjoy.
Hosted by Radio City’s Steve Hothersall, a man with the delivery of a Sky Sport News presenter, the evening soon settled into a cosy, linear discussion of Rafa’s professional career, from his playing days to management on the continent and then to Merseyside.
With a few images and video clips illustrating various anecdotes, the first half was a case of ‘so far, so familiar’; it took us up to half time in the famous Champions League final in Istanbul and brought up the interval in quick 45 minutes.
The second half proved a lot longer ad threatened to drag. While the rigours and intricacies of football management were frequently fascinating – Benitez’s explanation of his tactical switches during the final were genuinely interesting – a section that begins with the words “now, I know you want to talk about zonal marking’ is rarely going to get pulses racing.
He seemed particularly keen to talk about Harry Kewell too, rather glossed over the Robbie Keane affair and didn’t seem especially keen to dish any bootroom dirt.
Still, Rafa is an engaging characters, even if tonight’s audience was perhaps the easiest he’ll ever face. In an event where simply mentioning Dirk Kuyt’s name gets a rapturous round of applause, the audience was never going to be less than rapt and fulsome in their praise and admiration.
Rafa certainly worked the audience. He dropped Spirit of Shankly into the discussion, spoke on Hillsborough and his hope that the relevant papers are releases and spoke very fondly of his time at the club.
He reacts quickly and somewhat defensively to inferred criticisms of his management; his reaction to questions that touched on his squad and spending were almost spiky. By and large, however, the whole thing is rather cosy – something of a fireside chat.
In some ways the night was rather like a Nicky Allt play. It had goodies – Kuyt, Dalglish, Reina and Robbie Fowler were all applauded – and baddies in the shape of Gillet and Hicks, Christian Purslow and Manchester United. A few cameos from the likes of Mourinho and Ferguson cropped up too and enough laughs punctuated the more serious stuff (more than One Night In Istanbul, anyway).
There’s not a happy ending as such, of course, but the door was left open for a sequel. Towards the end Benitez was unequivocal: he would like to return to manage Liverpool Football Club.
We wondered how Dalglish must feel about Rafa’s continued presence in Liverpool and his desire to get his old job back, like Banquo’s ghost at the feast.
But we expect that King Kenny himself rather likes Rafa. Every Red in Liverpool seems to love him. And, even as a neutral, it’s hard not to be impressed by the man’s clear love for Liverpool and his continued generosity towards the city and its charities – tonight’s proceeds went to his wife’s charity. The gaffer indeed.