Rafa Benitez 'worst ever' signing went from £1.5m controversy to Champions League glory

By Dan Kay

Look up the definition of the word ‘makeweight’ online and one of the first results you will see is “an unimportant person or thing that is only added or included in order to complete something”.

It’s fair to say that is how a sizeable proportion of Liverpool supporters would regard Antonio Nunez, if they can remember him at all that is with his name usually only mentioned in ‘worst Liverpool XIs’.

Despite the Spanish attacking midfielder already having been on then-Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez's radar, it is technically correct to describe him as a makeweight as his transfer to Anfield - valued at £1.5m - was part of the deal which took Michael Owen to Real Madrid in August 2004.

Within less than 12 months, Nunez had returned to his homeland with Celta Vigo and in truth would never again play at such an exalted level but when closer consideration is given to his contribution over his short but memorable stay on Merseyside to describe it as ‘unimportant’ is inaccurate and actually rather unfair.

Liverpool as a club were in (another) serious state of transition back in the summer of 2004.

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Gerard Houllier’s five and a half year reign in sole charge had ended in the sad and rare spectacle of a sacked manager holding a leaving press conference, the glittering promise of the 2001 Treble and Premier League runners-up spot the following year fading drastically after the Frenchman’s life-threatening heart problems with the bare minimum expectation of Champions League qualification only achieved in the final week of his final campaign in charge. It proved an important parting legacy.

Meanwhile a year on from Roman Abramovich’s takeover at Chelsea, the arrival of Jose Mourinho at Stamford Bridge demonstrated the scale of the task the Reds were now facing to get back on their fabled perch as the mid point of a second decade without an Anfield league title approached.

The Portuguese coach, whose stock was rapidly rising after leading FC Porto to UEFA Cup and Champions League triumphs in successive seasons, was reportedly considered by the Liverpool hierarchy as Houllier’s replacement but they ultimately plumped for the other top young coach who had also been making serious waves across Europe in recent seasons.

After an undistinguished playing career and inauspicious start to management with Real Madrid Castilla, Valladolid, Osasuna and Extremadura, Rafael Benitez had taken Tenerife into the top flight before moving to Valencia and temporarily breaking the hegemony of Real Madrid and Barcelona, bringing two La Liga titles to the Estadio Mestalla in 2002 and 2004 as well as the UEFA Cup in 2004.

Tensions with the Valencia board caused him to quit his job despite the offer a new contract barely a week after Houllier left Anfield and just over a fortnight later he had been unveiled as Liverpool’s first ever Spanish coach.

One of the biggest initial tasks in his in-tray was to deal with the ongoing situation regarding star striker Michael Owen's future.

The 24-year-old England forward, who only two years earlier had won the Ballon d’Or, had been the subject of much speculation with his Anfield contract approaching its final year and the threat of him walking away on a free transfer looming although at various points during the previous season Owen had sought to sooth such concerns by reassuring fans the delay was down to his agent being on sabbatical and asserting “Liverpool is in my blood”.

Benitez had flown out to Portugal shortly after taking charge to talk with Owen and his other new charges Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher who were part of England’s Euro 2004 squad but Liverpool’s clear decline over the previous two seasons along with increasing and genuine interest in Owen from Spanish giants Real Madrid meant when the striker was left out of the Reds’ Champions League qualifier against Austrians AK Graz the week before the Premier League season began, the writing was very much on the wall.

The day before Benitez’s domestic bow away to Tottenham, Owen was unveiled in Madrid as their latest ‘Galactico’ for the paltry Bosman-influenced fee of £8m - a fraction of the striker’s true market value at the time - with unheralded midfielder Nunez, reportedly valued at £1.5m, moving in the opposite direction.

It felt like an insult on almost every level to Liverpool and their supporters, especially when it later came to light the Reds had attempted at the time of Owen’s transfer to involve Madrid striker Fernando Morientes in the deal, the experienced 28-year-old whose goals the previous season when on loan at Monaco had helped guide the unfancied French side into the Champions League final.

Madrid refused to allow the Spanish forward to be part of the Owen deal and played him in a handful of games over the next few months including in Europe meaning when they did finally permit him to join Liverpool for £6.3m the following January, he was cup-tied for Champions League campaign which arguably became a significant factor in his time on Merseyside not being particularly fruitful for player or club.

It was a far from ideal start for Benitez who up until this point had only been able to supplement his squad with Spanish full-back Josemi, the £14m arrival of French forward Djibril Cisse having been agreed before he took over as manager.

The further addition of Spaniards Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia would not happen until later in the month but while many Liverpool supporters were far overjoyed at losing their star striker for relative peanuts Benitez expressed his pleasure at Nunez’s arrival however unsatisfactorily it had come about.

"I was very happy with Michael and I wanted him to stay”, Benitez said.

“The problem was he only had a year left on his contract. Real Madrid started talking with his agent and in the end it was an impossible situation to control.

"I'm very happy because we have signed a good player (in Nunez).

"He is a winger and a right midfielder, and for us it is another possibility.

“In Spain you know almost all the players at Real Madrid well. When I was at Valencia I was looking for a man like this. My idea was the same here and we had this opportunity to sign him.

"Michael Owen has gone now and we can't do anything more than sign a good player."

Madrid-born Nunez, who turns 43 this weekend but was then 25 almost exactly a year older than Owen, had made 64 appearances over two seasons with the Real’s B team after signing from Los Rozas in 2001 before being promoted to the senior squad by former Manchester United coach and then-Los Blancos manager Carlos Queiroz.

He marked his La Liga debut by heading home the equaliser from a David Beckham corner to earn a draw at Villarreal in September 2003 and made 15 senior appearances in total for his boyhood club that season alongside the likes of Roberto Carlos, Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Raul and Ronaldo before his shock move to Merseyside.

He told the ECHO in an in-depth interview years later that he was as surprised as anyone to be involved in the deal which took Owen to Madrid because, while he was expecting to leave the Bernabeu that summer, he was very close to sealing a transfer within his home country until the chance of a move to Liverpool suddenly emerged.

“I knew I'd be leaving Real that summer and I was very close to signing for Mallorca,” he revealed.

“Then my agent called me and said: 'Would you like to go to Liverpool?'

“I said: 'Really? How? Of course I would love to go to Liverpool.’

“I couldn't believe it. It all happened so quick. The next day I was here. It was amazing.

“I know Real used Liverpool's interest to make the deal for Owen cheaper.”

With Alonso and Garcia joining the growing Iberian contingent at Anfield before the end of August 2004, everything seemed to be in place for Nunez to make the best of his surprise opportunity.

“It helped having these Spanish team-mates and we made good friendships,” he said.

“Josemi was the first to come to Liverpool, I was the second. He didn't speak any English and was having a hard time.

“When he saw me he said: 'Thank God you're here, I have someone to talk to now!'”

Nunez’s hopes of hitting the ground running however suffered a cruel blow when in only his second Liverpool training session he partially tore a medial knee ligament when going down with no-one near him.

The injury required surgery and meant he could not make his Liverpool debut until the end of November when he came off the bench with 20 minutes remaining in the Reds’ Premier League victory over champions Arsenal at Anfield, memorable for Neil Mellor’s stunning long-range last minute winner.

“I remember those early months as being hard days,” he recalled.

“When you come to a new club, you want to impress, you want to do as much as you can, but it was quite a serious injury.

“For one month I was living in the Hope Street Hotel, I couldn't look for an apartment because my knee was so painful. I had to have surgery to fix it.

“Having those three months out, made it more difficult for me when I came back to get the pace of the game here.

“It's funny, I remember my first touch against Arsenal. I was trying to touch the ball a bit long and then run down the right wing.

“I tried to do it to Patrick Vieira. He just put his arm across me, 'whack!'

“I found him so strong. I thought: 'Okay, English football is going to be hard'.”

Nunez made his full debut three days in the League Cup quarter-final away at Tottenham which an under-strength and youthful Reds side took to penalties after a 1-1 draw before winning the shoot-out, and he kept his place for the following two matches, a 1-1 Premier League draw away to Aston Villa and the iconic final Champions League group stage fixture against Olympiacos at Anfield which Liverpool needed to win either 1-0 or by two clear goals to reach the knock-out stages.

This was the night which ultimately became the ‘Saint Etienne’ for the Istanbul generation and Nunez, who lasted the full 90 minutes, more than played his part.

The Reds were staring down the barrel of elimination and demotion to the UEFA Cup with the score after Florent Sinama-Pongolle had cancelled out Rivaldo’s opener still level at 1-1 with only ten minutes left when Nunez leapt at the far post and powered a header goalwards from Sinama-Pongolle’s cross which goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis could only parry into the path of Neil Mellor who fired home to give Anfield renewed hope.

Four minutes from time, Steven Gerrard’s sublime 25-yard half-volley secured the advantage Liverpool needed to progress to the last 16 and a date with destiny the following May with AC Milan in Turkey and typically it was that which the articulate and modest Nunez focused on when recalling that heady night under the L4 floodlights.

“That was my first ever Champions League game,” he said.

“The way it finished with Steven Gerrard's amazing goal, it was a special night.

“I have some good pictures from this game at my house in frames. There is one of me celebrating after with Steven and (John Arne) Riise.

“Steven and Carra (Jamie Carragher) were both great leaders. They cared about their team-mates and were always there to help.”

Nunez was back on the bench for the following game, a 1-0 Merseyside derby defeat at Goodison Park, but started five out of the following nine games in all competitions - three of which were victories - and seemed to be establishing himself in Benitez’s attacking options.

The last of those however was in the embarrassing FA Cup third round defeat at lower-league Burnley caused by Djimi Traore’s surreal own goal and was the last time Nunez would make it on the starting team-sheet until early April.

By then though he had already carved himself a unique place in Liverpool FC history.

One of his Nunez’s January starts had been in the League Cup semi-final first leg victory over Watford at Anfield and he came off the bench in the final against Chelsea in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium to replace Harry Kewell shortly after half time with Liverpool still in front after John Arne Riise’s 46 second opener.

Steven Gerrard’s own goal fortuitously drew the Londoners level 11 minutes from time and, after Didier Drogba and Mateja Kezman scored early in the second period of extra time to help Jose Mourinho’s side close in on his first trophy as Chelsea manager, Nunez nodded in from close range to reduce the deficit after a Gerrard free kick wasn’t cleared properly.

It didn’t inspire enough of a fightback to force a penalty shoot-out but it did prove to be Nunez’s sole strike in the red of Liverpool, making him the only player in Anfield history to score his only goal for the club in a major cup final.

“I am very happy to know that I am in the history books!”, he admitted.

“That was a strange night with a lot of different emotions. From Riise's volley to the bad luck with Steven's own goal close to the end.

“I had this memory of scoring a goal in such an amazing stadium in a final but I was really sad for the result.”

Disappointment around Anfield at the misfortune in Cardiff was soon eased by the Reds’ continued surprising and increasingly exhilarating progress in the Champions League as well as improving league form which was raising hopes that qualification for the following season’s competition may yet be achieved if Everton, who had spent much of the campaign so far in fourth place, could be overhauled.

Four days after Nunez had come off the bench in the last 16 second leg win at Bayer Leverkusen which set up a titanic quarter-final against Juventus, the Toffees’ pitched up at Anfield for the return Merseyside derby boasting a seven-point advantage over their neighbours with a Liverpool victory clearly critical to their chances of a top four finish.

Two goals within the opening half hour from Steven Gerrard and Luis Garcia put Reds in command but the Blues’ agricultural approach to tackling on the day meant Benitez was forced to use all three of his substitutions before the interval, the first time that had happened in Liverpool’s competitive history, with Nunez replacing left-back Stephen Warnock after only 21 minutes.

Czech striker Milan Baros’s second half red card for a late tackle on Alan Stubbs, along with Tim Cahill pulling a goal back for the visitors, ratcheted up the tension but the ten men in red - some of whom were carrying knocks themselves but couldn’t be replaced with all the subs having already been used - heroically held out to secure a vital three points which psychologically felt very important given how the season so far had played out and what yet lay ahead.

Nunez made his first start since the Burnley FA Cup defeat in the following match, another very hard-won and vital three points against Bolton Wanderers (who had beaten Liverpool at home earlier in the season) thanks to Igor Biscan’s late header, and, after another substitute appearance in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-final victory against Juventus at Anfield, the Spaniard was handed a start in for the second leg in Turin.

Another herculean rearguard action was likely to be necessary given the Reds’ slender 2-1 advantage, with the injury crisis that saw talismanic skipper Steven Gerrard sidelined and Nunez handed a starting role also meaning Xabi Alonso and Djibril Cisse had to be pressed into their first appearances in three and a half and six months respectively following broken legs.

Benitez’s tactical acumen along with the spirit and desire instilled his players ensured that, despite the odds, Liverpool got the goalless draw needed (with Nunez making way for Vladimir Smicer just before the hour mark) that secured their place in the semi-finals and made Kopites begin to seriously dream that the unthinkable might actually be possible.

Nunez would start Liverpool’s final three home Premier League matches against Tottenham, Middlesbrough and Aston Villa but his final significant contribution came on the night those privileged enough to be inside Anfield will never forget - the second leg of the Champions League semi-final against a Chelsea side who only three days earlier had been crowned runaway Premier League champions.

After a goalless first leg at Stamford Bridge, Luis Garcia’s controversial fourth-minute goal (‘Over The Line and Far Away’ as a banner on the Kop memorably recorded when the sides met at the same stage two years later) gave Liverpool the precious early advantage before the Londoners piled on incessant pressure for the entire remainder of the match in search of the away goal which would be enough to take them to the final.

Nunez may only have entered the fray in the 84th minute when he appeared from the bench to replace the goalscorer Garcia but anyone who can remember the excruciating and almost unbearable tension of the closing stages will bear testament to what it took from those in red on the pitch, in symbiosis with those in the stands, to get the Reds over the line and on their way to Istanbul.

Nunez’s dozen or so minutes of action saw him keep possession well on a number of occasions as well as embark on a couple of runs down the right flank which helped keep the ball as far away from Liverpool’s goal as possible, won set pieces and wasted valuable seconds with time seemingly now going backwards for agonised Liverpudlians around the ground and all over the world who were desperate to hear the final whistle blown by Slovakian referee Lubos Michel and erupted in ecstasy when he eventually did.

“There was so much pressure in that moment,” Nunez remembered with a smile.

“We were so close to the final – something you can never imagine you will reach.

“Chelsea had that big chance to score and everything was up in the air. Those last few minutes were the most intense minutes of my life.

“After the game I always remember seeing my brother in the room where all the families would wait.

“We just kept saying: 'We are in the final, we are in the Champions League final'. We were trying to realise what had just happened. Is this really true? Is it a dream? That was a beautiful night.

“The best part was seeing the emotions of the fans. I felt so happy for the people after so many years without playing in the final.”

Nunez was named among the substitutes for the final against AC Milan in Istanbul’s Ataturk Stadium and, while he never made it off the bench that night, was keen to pay tribute to Benitez’s measured approach particularly after the catastrophic first half which saw Liverpool three goals down and facing humiliation on the global stage.

“Walking to the dressing room at half-time, I was thinking: 'We could lose this 5-0 or 6-0'. Milan were playing so much better than us,” he said.

“I was wondering how the coach would face this situation and whether he would be angry.

“But Rafa was very calm. He was acting like the game was under control. He knew the things we had to change and the mistakes we had to correct.

“He transmitted that calmness and confidence. We started the second half thinking it was still possible. The first goal from Steven helped a lot to keep thinking that.

“It was only in the days that followed that you started to realise what had been achieved. Everyone was so happy and it was even better when we came back to Liverpool.

“Wow, being on the bus around the city, seeing all the people, that was amazing.

"My medal is the only thing I always take with me when I move. As I moved so much from one city to another, a lot of my things are in Madrid, but that medal has stayed with me wherever I've gone just to make sure it never got lost."

After three years with Celta Vigo following his Anfield departure, Nunez also had spells with Murcia, Huesca, Deportivo La Coruna and Recreativo in his homeland as well as three years with Apollon Limassol in Cyprus, finally hanging up his boots in 2018 after making just shy of 500 first team appearances for his various clubs.

His career never again touched the dizzying heights associated with the dazzling company he kept in the mid part of the century’s opening decade but there was no sense of bitterness from the Spaniard, who went on to pursue the career in law he had to put on hold when football took off for him, merely gratitude.

“I was very lucky to share a changing room with the best players in the world,” he said.

“Some players are a step above the rest, they have something different from the rest. For example these Galacticos, Zidane, Ronaldo, you could see something in them that was different.

“When I was here in Liverpool I saw the same thing with Steven Gerrard. He was probably the most complete player I ever met. He did everything right.

"Playing for Liverpool was my first experience away from home. That's something you keep in your heart and in your mind.

"It was probably the most intense season I ever lived. All those amazing games in the Champions League and the unique atmosphere of Anfield. I never experienced anything else like that.

"It was only one season but that was the most beautiful season I lived."


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