By Nick Friend
Just from walking through the gates of Newcastle United’s Benton training complex, it is clear that this is a very different club to the one that, until relegation was finally confirmed five months ago, found itself almost annually marooned in the bottom quarter of the Premier League.
Infighting had become the norm, the fans asking – not for a team that won, but for one that tried. Meanwhile, the club had banned portions of the local media for their reporting of fan protests against Mike Ashley’s running of the club. Alan Pardew, John Carver and Steve McClaren had all tried and failed to galvanise an increasingly impatient fanbase – an entire city of football-mad Geordies pining for a cup run, a modicum of adventure, anything to lift them from an increasingly underwhelming slumber.
On 11th March 2016, one man woke them, taking them from the depths of a nightmare to the beginning of a dream. As I chat with Rafa Benitez, it doesn’t take long to understand how a club and a city have come to adore and trust him with their football club.
Those in the boardroom felt the same way – removing the shackles previously placed on the club’s managers, and handing total autonomy to the impressive Spaniard. Player recruitment is in his hands; local media have been welcomed back, Benitez and his captain, Jamaal Lascelles, regularly and willingly attend events throughout Newcastle. The last manager to create such unity in this footballing hotbed was the late Sir Bobby Robson. And while the self-effacing Benitez is reticent to compare himself to the former England manager, he is not shy in telling me of his love for the club and the support he’s received – even after failing to stave off relegation.
“I’m really pleased to be here”, he gushes. “When we came, we knew it would be a challenge and that we’d have to try our best. But then we couldn’t stay up.”
He openly admits to me that long discussions followed, as the two-time La Liga winner considered his next move. But the hardest decision of his career? Not a chance. The choice, he explains, ultimately was a no-brainer.
“No, no. After having so much experience, I’ve had so many situations in my career – but this one was [a decision made] to be close to my family, to be sure that I could do a job with a top side, with a side that could improve, and with the passion of the fans. Of course, it wasn’t easy in terms of, after so many years, dropping down from the Premier League, but because of the stature of the club, the support of the fans and wanting to be close to my family, no, it was not so difficult.
“The fans, the city: you could see the passion there. And I’m really pleased that I decided to stay because you can see with the fans – the way they stay with us and support us – even when the team isn’t playing so well. They still stay behind the team. And now we can see and feel the whole city behind us.”
These reasons behind dropping down into the Championship to stay with Newcastle are, in a nutshell, what captivates me as we talk. For Rafa, a man with an almost unrivalled CV in this cutthroat business, the pull of genuine emotion from the stands and a genuine connection with a city is still what makes him tick. He oozes class throughout our chat and it is difficult not to sense the obvious contentment and confidence etched all over his demeanour.
This is a chance for him to work with a different kind of player. When challenging for titles at Europe’s top table, nurturing and developing are not part of the job description; nor, indeed, is the independence that he’s been given to oversee Newcastle’s revival like the power he’s held at any of his former clubs – even at Liverpool, his hands were often tied.
Newcastle and Liverpool have oft been compared because of the raw passion emanated by the clubs’ fans, as well as the impact that footballing success has on the mood of an entire city. This, Benitez explains, has always attracted him to the club.
“I can see the similarities: the city, the fans – they’re world-class people. They support the team, they follow the team. There are a lot of similarities – that’s what I like. My memories of the Liverpool fans are amazing and my memories so far from here – though there aren’t as many yet, they are amazing too.”
‘Amazed’ he may be, but having visited St James’ Park with both Liverpool and Chelsea over the years, he is hardly surprised at the fervent noise on show.
“I always knew about the passion of the fans. So, I’ve obviously been really impressed with the passion of the fans and how when we go away to every game, we have a full allocation every time and the same thing at home – we fill the stadium. I guess it’s not a surprise but, even so, I’ve been really pleased with that.”
It is a mark both of the love of the game in these parts as well as the respect for Benitez and the football his charges are displaying that even in a different division, St James Park is never anything but a packed house. Indeed, 49,042 supporters came to watch Newcastle put six past Preston last week in an EFL Cup tie. Only Anfield, Emirates and Old Trafford produced bigger crowds in the competition’s fourth round. Even more impressive perhaps, is the 5,700-strong away allocation that flocked to Barnsley on a Tuesday night last month – a show of cohesion between players, fans and manager that has been absent so often in Newcastle’s last decade.
The special bond that appears to exist here is no coincidence. Creating it is one of his greatest qualities though, by Benitez’s own admission, there is no special formula.
“It’s true, I’ve managed to have a very good relationship with the majority of the fans at the clubs I’ve been at. It’s been amazing here but it’s always difficult to say where it’s been best because I’ve had the same thing at Tenerife, Extremadura, Napoli – where I had very good relationships with all of the fans.
“It’s simple though – we are professionals, we try to do our best with everything, and I think that the staff, the players and also the fans and the press, they can see what we’re trying to do, they know we’re trying and they appreciate that. As professionals, we always work hard for the club, and that is the best thing for everyone here.”
Throughout our conversation, Rafa highlights the importance of his relationship with the fans, citing a real desire to do well for them. As we spoke, I found his charm and humility almost overwhelming. Yet, it also puzzled me. Looking in from the outside, this is the man I’d always witnessed on Match of the Day, on the touchline, through his immense charity work. Yet, players have spoken of a manager more detached from his players. Steven Gerrard describes his relationship with his former manager as “emotionless and distant.”
It’s an assertion that, while not a criticism from Gerrard, who was equally happy to acknowledge that his best football came under the Spaniard, I struggle to comprehend. The Montse Benitez Foundation, set up in the names of him and his wife, is testament to the open-heartedness of a man whose commitment to his community is remarkable. Having moved his family to Liverpool with him when he joined the club in 2004, they have never been uprooted, living on the Wirral for the twelve years since.
“We do a lot of things for the community and for Merseyside through charity”, he tells me. “My wife works very hard with the Blind Society, with the National Autistic Society. To be fair, we’re doing a lot of work with a lot of charities. I think that the fans – even the Evertonians, appreciate what we’ve been trying to do for the city.”
Indeed, when Benitez left Liverpool in 2010, he handed a symbolic £96,000 contribution to the Hillsborough Family Support Group, while continuing to support them through his Foundation. Similarly, following the murder of 11-year-old Everton fan Rhys Jones, Benitez donated a sum to his memorial fund.
All of this merely emphasises the Merseyside resident’s admiration not just for his home city but also England as a country. Despite having managed in Milan, London, Naples and Madrid since leaving Liverpool, it remains his home.
“My family now are settled down in England, my daughters are both English – they both talk to me in English, not Spanish! I always say, it’s for them – they’re English, and for my wife, who is really pleased here. On the Wirral where we live, it’s a nice place – the weather’s not so bad. We’re really pleased here and we’re really well settled.
“When I first came here, a lot of Spanish people said: ‘Listen, why don’t you stay in Europe with the nice weather and everything?’ But we are happy here because the people around us are nice and they have respect for what we are trying to do here.”
It is a comment entirely typical of a man totally immersed in English culture and makes his decision to stay at Newcastle all the more logical. Aged 56, and having won the FA Cup, Champions League, Europa League, La Liga, UEFA Super Cup and the Coppa Italia, a year in the Championship gives him a different sort of challenge at a club that he clearly loves.
It is, of course, a myth that the lower reaches of domestic football are totally alien to Benitez. Indeed, his first two jobs in management saw him achieve promotion to La Liga with Extremadura and Tenerife. As a result, he hasn’t been surprised by what he’s seen, despite the outdated stereotypes that follow lower league football around.
“I haven’t been surprised too much because I was watching it before. The only thing is that everyone talks about how difficult it is because it’s ‘traditional English football’ – physical, direct football, second balls. But it’s not. Most of the teams, they try to play and they pass the ball – it’s more continental that you would expect.
“The intensity, the physicality is there, sure – but this is obvious. But a lot of teams do play football and we were expecting it, more or less, to be this intense and physical. Maybe the amount of teams with a passing game has been a surprise –we were probably expecting to see a bit less.”
Championship sides have been playing with modern-day flair for some time now. Bournemouth won the title two years ago in fairly gung-ho style, while Tony Mowbray’s West Brom sides regularly ran rings around their opposition nearly a decade ago. The desire of opposition sides to go toe-to-toe with Benitez’s men has played somewhat into their hands. The 6-0 trouncing at Queens Park Rangers in September was the culmination of some exceptional football coupled with a naïve and over-exuberant opposition.
Benitez is quick to defend Rangers’ performance, claiming, “It was not because they were poor. I think it was because we were really good and working well.”
That victory came without Dwight Gayle, Mo Diame, Daryl Murphy, Jack Colback and Vurnon Anita. The strength in depth is unprecedented at this level – but necessary according to Benitez, who explains that while he has had to deal with playing twice a week throughout his entire career, the mental stress of having two league games in the same week makes a big squad crucial.
“We have had this with a lot of teams – Liverpool, Chelsea, Inter, Napoli, Real Madrid, in terms of Champions League, Europa League and cup football. In these situations, you also play two games a week so it’s not an issue for us.
“The difference is having to play two league games a week. That is quite interesting because when you play Champions League on Wednesday, and then you play on Saturday or Sunday – it’s a league game so you can change your mentality, your players can change their mentality, the fans change their approach. Everything’s different, even though you’re still playing two games.
“In the Championship, you play two league games and it’s always the same. Maybe mentally it is more demanding.”
With games coming thick and fast, Rafa suggests to me that his rotation policy that was placed under the microscope during his time at Anfield has had to come under review. Of course, with three points often on offer twice a week in this most competitive of leagues, resting key players is a risk – but still an essential one.
“We know, more or less, who to use if we had to play a crucial game. But I think that the important thing is that, because we have so many games, we have to give everyone the chance to be there, to be ready, to be important for the team and to keep everybody on their toes. I think this is a positive more than a negative. It’s so long and such a difficult competition that you have to have a good squad to be sure that you can manage the whole season.”
The fruits of Rafa’s desire for a large squad were borne in one of the most accomplished transfer windows seen at any level of English football in recent years: twelve players brought in – eight from top-flight clubs, at a £30m profit – the direct result of the autonomy on recruitment demanded by Benitez post-relegation. Daryl Janmaat, Gini Wijnaldum, Andros Townsend and Moussa Sissoko were sold for a combined £75m, leaving the manager, “really happy with the players that I have.”
We end our chat with a look ahead at early May. Has he set a points target for his squad? The simple answer is yes.
Three points on Saturday, he tells me, far too professional to look any further beyond. Setting a target, he emphasises, is pointless if another team gets beyond what you set out as success.
These are the words of a man who means business, a man with a desire to take this club and its immense fanbase back to where it belongs.
As we finish, I realise what a privilege it is to be speaking to an often-underrated colossus of football management. Few have achieved what Rafa Benitez has done, and even fewer can have done it with such class, humility and outstanding values: a selfless individual in it for the long haul and to give a city the success that it deserves.
“I like enjoying my job – and I really enjoy it here. When you can coach the team and manage the team and you can see the players progressing and improving and the team and club progressing and improving, then I’m a happy guy. It doesn’t matter where.
“I’d love to stay here for a while. It would mean that we’re doing well and that we’ve been successful in what we’re trying to do so I’d be really happy with that too.”
Photographs: Newcastle United Football Club