A lot of people have referred to Rafa Benitez’s first match in charge of Liverpool as the first league game of the 2004-5 season, although his official debut was actually a few days earlier. It was really the qualification round of the Champions League which pitted him against the Austrians Sturm Graz. Apart from being a significant moment in the coach’s career, that game also has another particularly memorable significance. Whilst Steven Gerrard was giving the opposition a hard time with 2 sensational goals, Michael Owen was watching the match from the subs bench.
People who enjoy superficially analysing the short-term transfer market will always point out the departure of one of the best strikers in the world as a mistake by Rafa in his transfer policy. Taken out of context no doubt this is true. Ian Rush’s successor went to Madrid for £8.5 million plus an almost unknown player called Antonio Nunez who hardly made an impact in his year at Melwood. Not good business. However, if we take in to account that we are talking about a player who is finishing his contract and had publicly announced his desire to leave, this changes things. And in the offices of Anfield they know this only too well. McManaman, the guy who wore the number 7 Liverpool shirt in the nineties and was under no pressure at all, had left the club through the back door and for no transfer fee to fill the coffers.
It was the last night for ‘wonder boy’ at Anfield. But above all, it was the first night for a coach who would re-establish the football order of the eighties, defending the kopites interests as if he were one of them. And it wasn’t easy. Firstly because the easy thing to do for a newcomer would have been to put up with the whims of an exploding star for a year and not take the decision to sell him which would be misunderstood by those outside. Secondly because it usually takes time to get used to the culture of a club’s fans but in this case it took only a few days. This is how it all began. With a 0-2 away result in a qualifying match and Michael Owen packing his bags.