“Benitez was striving for trophies while taking me on. That was unwise.”
During his years as Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson shared some legendary rivalries with his opposite numbers, including Liverpool’s Rafael Benitez.
There was Kevin Keegan at Newcastle United, Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, Jose Mourinho at Chelsea and Roberto Mancini at Manchester City.
Ferguson also enjoyed respectful rivalries with some of the continent’s foremost tactical minds, like Juventus boss Marcello Lippi or Bayern Munich supremo Ottmar Hitzfeld.
For a long time, Fergie did not have a worthy counterpart at Liverpool. As United dominated the Premier League in the 90s and early 2000s, Liverpool were often making up the numbers in the top seven.
That all changed in 2009. At that stage, United were gunning for a third title in a row. They had won the Champions League in 2008 and had an enviable squad of players.
Benitez and Liverpool emerge as title rivals
With Arsenal falling away and Chelsea enduring a disappointing campaign under Luiz Felipe Scolari, who lost his job in February, Liverpool emerged as United’s main title rivals during the 2008/09 season.
Rafael Benitez was into his fifth season as Liverpool manager, and while he had led the Reds to the Champions League in 2005 and the FA Cup a year later, it took him until the 08/09 campaign to mount a title challenge.
Several managers earned Ferguson’s respect for going toe-to-toe with him during title battles. Kenny Dalglish, Wenger and Mourinho had all bested him by that stage.
Ferguson, however, did not appreciate how Benitez attempted to get into his head during a pressure-packed, ding-dong tussle for supremacy.
In January 2009, with Liverpool top of the table, the Spaniard launched an extraordinary attack on Ferguson and United, claiming the Scot was attempting to shape a narrative of ‘everybody’s against United’.
Benitez made the crucial error of uttering the following line: “I am not playing mind games, just facts.”
Ferguson, as you would expect, took exception to Benitez’s remarks.
In his autobiography, Ferguson noted that while the early stages of his relationship with Benitez was cordial, it soon ‘frayed’.
“The mistake he made was to turn our rivalry personal,” wrote Ferguson.
“Once you made it personal, you had no chance, because I could wait. I had success on my side.
“Benitez was striving for trophies while taking me on. That was unwise.
“On the day he produced his famous list of ‘facts’ detailing my influence over referees, we received a tip-off that Liverpool would stage-manage a question that would enable Benitez to go on the attack.”
Ferguson commented that Benitez’s rant made him look like a ‘silly man’ and that the Liverpool manager’s subsequent press conferences and interviews ‘bore the same personal edge’.
The Scot also believed that Benitez made a fatal error in closing himself off from other managers.
‘Benitez made no attempt to befriend other managers’
“He displayed no interest in forming friendships with other managers: a dangerous policy because there would have been plenty from lesser clubs who would have loved to share a drink and learn from him,” added Ferguson.
Ferguson ultimately came out on top, of course. While Benitez and Liverpool ran riot at Old Trafford in a 4-1 win in March, United were unflappable after losing to Fulham the following week, dropping just two points from their last nine games to finish four points ahead of the Merseysiders.
Ferguson noted that Benitez shared a glass of wine with him after Liverpool and United met at Anfield the following season.
However, he appeared uncomfortable and left abruptly. Ferguson joked to Sammy Lee, Benitez’s assistant, that it was a ‘start’. They didn’t have much time to build on it, though, as Benitez left Liverpool in June 2010 after finishing seventh in the league.