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Better The Devil You Know?

As Rafael Benitez returns to Anfield as an opposition manager for the first time today, Pako Ayesteran, his former lieutenant, has been speaking about their torrid split after 12 years of partnership.

Rafa's death-ray stare needed some work
Rafa's death-ray stare needed some work
Paul Thomas

When I was a younger man, I was profoundly influenced by the writing of William Blake. In a tragically hackneyed and Morrisonesque fashion, I convinced myself that, within the lines of his verse, were exhortations to lead a hedonistic lifestyle, so I duly set about an existence that was as wanton and immoderate as I could manage on a student budget. Pathetically, all that amounted to was skipping Chaucer lectures and drinking cans of strong lager that even the tramps living in the environs of my basement hovel would baulk at imbibing. Not exactly the wild abandon of Dionysus, then.

One thing old William was dead right about however, was his theory on the necessity of conflict and opposition in order for advancement to occur. "Without contraries," he said, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, "is no progression. Attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate are all necessary to human existence." There's no denying this logic. If everyone got along and had homogeneous, co-operative thoughts, the world would be a bland and uncreative place.

Of course, there's a fine line between conflict and chaos. The tension that is necessary for development and creativity can quickly morph into disdain and jealousy, thereby destroying the delicate equilibrium and resulting in ruin. Once formidable alliances can be rent asunder quickly. When Pako Ayesteran and Rafael Benitez went their separate ways in August 2007, it was the end of just such a precarious but productive balance. The careers of both men have not been the same since.

The two Spaniards' 12 year association began at Osasuna, resulted in promotion for Extramadura, took in a spell at Tenerife and then a hugely successful period at Valencia in which a UEFA cup was won and two La Liga titles were wrested from the clammy clutches of the twin giants of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Of course, it is the three seasons the men spent at Liverpool that have cemented them in the affections of the Merseysiders' fans.

With Benitez about to step back inside Anfield as an opposition manager, for the first time, his former colleague has given an extraordinarily frank interview to The Daily Mail, in which he laments the ending of their association but lays the blame squarely at the feet of the interim Chelsea boss. It's fascinating stuff.

Ayesteran, like Benitez, is still resident on Merseyside. He lives in Hoylake, only a brief drive from the Benitez's home in Caldy and yet the two men have not spoken in the six years since Ayesteran walked out on the day of the team photo-shoot in August 2007. Their long and "close relationship" was, he says, longer than many a marriage and he remains "proud to be part of the success" attained at Liverpool.

"Sometimes," said the highly respected fitness coach, "you don't take care of the values and principles that made you so successful. Maybe we didn't have as much detail in training. I wasn't able to convince [Benitez] that we should go back to our principles and stick to them.

"There was a difference between the beliefs that were so rooted in myself, beliefs that we applied for many years and got us success. We were running away from them. We stopped being critical with ourselves and sometimes we went through the motions. That's why I wasn't happy."

This is startling in the extreme for those of us who associate Rafael Benitez with the concepts of dogged attention to detail and rigorous preparation. In Ayesteran's version of events, the standards had slipped and he was asking his friend for a return to a level of preparation that was even more exhaustive. The mind boggles.

In the time they spent together at Liverpool, the two men won a Champions League title in their first year, the FA Cup in their second and reached the final of Europe's premier competition again in the last of the three. Clearly, Benitez went on to further 'success' at Liverpool and the title push in 2009 and deep runs in the Champions League proved that he was in no way dependent on his former friend's assistance. Would he, however, have been better with that assistance?

Ayesteran himself has been active at several clubs since leaving Liverpool. He's spent a season as assistant manager and fitness coach at both Benfica and Valencia, as well as spells at Al Ahly and Real Sociedad. Viewers of Sky's Spanish football coverage will be very familiar with the trim 50 year old's shaven-headed insightfulness as a pundit but many have lamented his departure from Liverpool Football Club, including the likes of Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso.

"When people ask me about my greatest achievement," says Ayesteran, "I never talk about the Champions League, FA Cup and La Liga. My best achievement was being able to convince this level of players like Gerrard, Carragher, Alonso, Ayala and Canizares that you have to get results through being committed in training. I still keep in touch with Stevie and Carra, so many players. I can talk proudly of my relationship with them."

When the full horror of the reign of Hicks and Gillett began to manifest itself in 2009, how much better would Rafael Benitez have coped had he been able to call on his old comrade, a veteran of so many previous political battles at Valencia? Ayesteran flatly denies the accusations of betrayal made by Benitez in the wake of his departure. The goateed boss felt that his assistant had flirted with Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao behind his back but his ex-colleague disagrees, claiming that Benitez "was always the first one to know. He was aware of everything."

Whatever the truth about the dissolution of their relationship, there can be little doubt that Rafael Benitez, Pako Ayesteran and Liverpool Football Club all lost out as a result. Both men are tremendously amiable and were thoroughly professional in their contributions to Liverpool. Ayesteran harbours ambitions of management and few would wish him anything but great success. That same goodwill is certainly there for Rafael Benitez, but maybe not until a little later tonight.

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