x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

FA Cup: Ice yet to thaw between Sir Alex Ferguson and Rafa Benitez

With the public enemies facing each other today, Jonathan Wilson looks at the anatomy of an antipathy that has lasted over half a decade.

The relationship between Rafa Benitez, left, and Sir Alex Ferguson soured in 2008/09. Mike Egerton / EMPICS Sport
The relationship between Rafa Benitez, left, and Sir Alex Ferguson soured in 2008/09. Mike Egerton / EMPICS Sport

With Sir Alex Ferguson and Rafa Benitez, two very public enemies, facing each other in the FA Cup today, Jonathan Wilson looks at the anatomy of an antipathy that has lasted over half a decade.


Early warmth

Rafa Benitez and Alex Ferguson first met in 1999, when the Spaniard and his then assistant, Pako Ayesteran, having just left Extramadura, spent a week at Manchester United's training ground at Carrington absorbing the methods being employed then.

Even in the early months after Benitez had been appointed as Liverpool manager in 2004, their relationship remained healthy and they once sat next to each other on a flight to Geneva, sharing a genial conversation about football.

Liverpool won the Uefa Champions League that season, to which Ferguson responded by sending Benitez a letter that outlined in detail the tactical reasons for the second-half turnaround.

"He can teach me more than I can teach him," Benitez said.

First cracks

The first signs of disharmony came in 2007 when Benitez tried to sign the Argentine defender Gabriel Heinze from United – something that would have made him the first player to transfer directly between United and Liverpool since Phil Chisnall in 1964.

Ferguson became irritated and accused Liverpool of making an illegal approach. Later that year, though, when it emerged that the Liverpool owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett, had held talks with Jurgen Klinsmann about replacing Benitez, Ferguson was staunch in his defence of the Spaniard calling the owners' action "a bad piece of business".

Open conflict

When Ferguson feels threatened, he lashes out. Since taking over at United, he has feuded with Kenny Dalglish, Kevin Keegan and Arsene Wenger, as well as Benitez.

If a team begins to challenge his team, he targets the manager – something only Jose Mourinho has really managed to avoid. And in 2008/09, Liverpool did pose a serious threat to United.

Ferguson riled Benitez by saying, "there's no doubt in the second half of the season they will get nervous". He also questioned Liverpool's spending, noting snidely that was "Benitez's way".

The 'facts rant'

Interpretations vary on what happened on January 9, 2009, but what is sure is that it marked a point from which the Benitez-Ferguson rivalry could never recover.

Benitez listed, point by painful point, all the ways in which he believed Ferguson and United enjoyed preferential treatment from the football authorities, punctuating his assertions with repeated insistences that these were "facts".

Whether it marked a meltdown, as many claimed, is less certain. Rather, like Benitez's attack on Chelsea's fans and directors last week, it was measured and preplanned; he clearly felt he was in a position of strength and that it was time to fight back.

Certainly it was nothing like Keegan's "I would love it" tirade at Newcastle United in 1996, which really did expose a manager losing it under pressure.

Benitez's end at Liverpool

"I would need to read more of Freud before I could understand all that went on in his head," Ferguson said.

Liverpool failed to back up their manager, taking just 13 points from the next eight games. They did win 4-1 at Old Trafford but it did not matter: United went on to win the league by four points as Ferguson accused Benitez of "arrogance" and "contempt" in his attitude to the then Blackburn Rovers manager Sam Allardyce and Everton's David Moyes.

When Benitez left the club in the summer of 2009, Ferguson, barely hiding his satisfaction, noted that everybody had expected it to happen. It should be said, though, that in May 2009, when Ferguson's grandson was injured in a car crash, Benitez wrote to him offering support; it may be that much of the sparring is public posturing.

Benitez at Chelsea

Since Benitez returned to English football, he and Ferguson have largely avoided each other. Ferguson described Benitez as "lucky" to have the chance to win a second Club World Cup to go with the one he collected at Inter Milan – on both occasions having been appointed after the Champions League win that secured qualification.

And, in January, Benitez said it was "obvious" that Ferguson still influences officials. There has been a basic civility in the build-up to this game, although Ferguson was splendidly dismissive in dealing with a question about Benitez in his pre-match press conference.

"I'm not going to kick anyone when they're lying down," he said. "It's not my style."


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