Adios, boot room, the Spaniards are taking over

Guillem Balague
Sunday May 22, 2005
The Observer

Until the 1980s , when shipping-trade links between the countries dwindled and died, there was an Anglo-Spanish society in Liverpool. Nowadays the nearest cross- cultural organisation in the North-West is the Cervantes Institute in Manchester. Maybe, though, there will be an Anglo-Spanish revival on Merseyside, such is the level of appreciation for all things Spanish at Anfield.

The Kop have songs of praise for Rafael Benítez, Luis García, Xabi Alonso, Antonio Núñez and Josemi. And even Fernando Morientes, the forgotten man of the Champions League because he is ineligible, has his own song. The lyricists still have a way to go, though, if they are to cover all the Spaniards on Liverpool's books.

At the end of Liverpool's semi-final victory over Chelsea, the usually discreet Paco Herrera, who travels around scouting for players and hardly ever crosses paths with the squad, was suddenly visible. Herrera, who has taken on board the job of rebuilding the inadequate database of potential transfer targets, could not stop himself rushing on to the pitch to share with the players the overpowering joy of qualifying for the Champions League final. As they walked off, he greeted every one with almost embarrassing enthusiasm.

It is unclear exactly where Herrera fits in the hierarchy. Is he chief scout or an assistant coach? 'He is my adviser,' says Benítez.

Herrera, a former player with Sporting Gijon and Levante, has coached teams in the Spanish first and second divisions (Merida, Badajoz, Extremadura) and his knowledge of European football, his reading of games and his coaching talent, have proved an essential helping hand to Benítez. 

José Ochotorena is goalkeeping coach for Liverpool and the Spain team. He, too, has a good relationship with the players and sometimes takes on the role of agony aunt. Pako Ayesterán, who has worked with Benítez for the past eight years, takes charge of training, looks after the physical shape of the squad and also has a say in tactics. 'He is the best coach I have ever had,' says one senior squad member.

Now that Thompson is back on the satellite rolling results programme Soccer Saturday , Lee is free to concentrate on his work for England and Corrigan is a peripatetic goalkeeping coach, the British influence comes from Alex Miller, the former Aberdeen manager, who helps Benítez and the team to understand the demands of a domestic competition that has taken time to master, as well as playing a fatherly role with the English-speaking contingent. Miller is a survivor from the old regime, promoted to first-team coach from director of scouting. Benitez has shaken up the whole club, restructuring every aspect behind the scenes. He has been helped by the adulation of the fans, the success, at least in Europe, of his first season in charge and, most important, the total power offered to him by chief executive Rick Parry. But while he has taken the headlines, he could not have achieved the first stage of the transformation without the help of those he relies on in the background. Even when the staff increases next season because of the excessive demands on Herrera and Ayesterán, the former Valencia coach will try to find someone with similar characteristics, despite the interest of old Liverpool players in being part of probably the biggest revolution in the recent history of the club.

'I am proud of our technical staff and thankful to them too,' Benítez says. 'Paco Herrera is doing a very important job in the shadows. He not only talks to agents and finds out about players, he chats to me about tactics and analysis of games. Plus, off the pitch he has given players, especially the ones coming from Spain, the confidence, the tranquillity they sometimes lack. He is like a father to some.

'Ochotorena trains the goalkeepers, but he has a great personality and also helps with the analysis of situations. Alex Miller gives us the British point of view and a local vision of what we are doing. There is a good harmony among us and I would include there the physios, doctors, kit men, et cetera. It was going to be very difficult to be as comfortable and happy as we were in Valencia, but I can certainly say I have found another place that is treating us as well and that we are enjoying as much.'

The long professional relationship with Ayesterán is one of the key reasons for Benitez's success at Tenerife, Valencia and now Liverpool. They have accumulated a wealth of information about training systems and tactics. 'We are still open to anybody that can teach us new ways to do things,' Benítez adds. 'Pako is very dedicated, very knowledgeable and always learning. Without any doubt he is the best physical trainer there is, and now he works here as an assistant manager, I place on him many of the jobs I used to do at Valencia. I need to delegate as I am now the general manager. Ochotorena, Herrera and the others get all sorts of information and Pako Ayestarán is the one who gathers it all together and gives it shape.'

The directors at Valencia used to complain that Benítez never stopped asking for the latest computer, the newest software. Although he used statistical analyses in rotating his Valencia team, it is not the machines that hold the secret of his success but the humans next to him.

Copyright - Guillem Balague

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