There is a school of thought amongst the dimmer elements of English football pundits that managerial mavericks such as Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola will only ever truly ‘prove’ themselves in the British game if they were to achieve success with lower league teams such as Darlington or Gillingham.
It’s the managerial equivalent of “Could Messi do it on a wet Wednesday in Stoke?” (Spoiler alert: he definitely could). It is simplistic, wrong-headed and based at least a little in xenophobia. It assumes that Johnny Foreigner isn’t a proper football man and takes for granted the pressures of managing at an elite level. Harry Redknapp is a proponent of the theory, which tells you all you need to know.
While choosing to remain in charge of the recently relegated Championship favourites is hardly managing at the coalface of mid table League Two, surely Rafa Benitez has now proven himself to Redknapp et al following Newcastle United’s immediate return to the Premier League last week.
Here was a manager who had won the Champions League, two Uefa Cups/Europa Leagues, two La Liga titles and an FA Cup sticking around with a troubled club following relegation to the Championship.
Newcastle will return to the Premier League as champions and you would imagine that Benitez would allow himself at least some satisfaction at guiding the Magpies back to English football’s top table at the first time of asking. Not a bit of it.
Almost as soon as Newcastle’s promotion was secured, Benitez was speaking to the press about his future with the club and addressing a thinly veiled message to chairman Mike Ashely.
You never know, that is football.
Now is the time to enjoy what we have done. But then I must make sure we do the right things.
We have to prepare everything to be strong enough for the Premier League.
Benitez moved swiftly from a promotion chase to a war footing with his chairman, making Ashely aware that survival next season will not come free. It was not, however, the first time in his career that Benitez has sought conflict. In fact, it has essentially been his career.
Having won an incredible two La Liga titles and a Uefa Cup across three seasons with Valencia, smashing the Barcelona-Real Madrid duopoly in the process, Benitez sought reinforcements to his squad to allow Valencia establish themselves at the top of La Liga. The reluctance of the board to spend the money requested by Benitez led to one of the great managerial quotes of the last 15 years.
I was hoping for a sofa and they’ve brought me a lamp.
The fallout from that row would eventually lead Rafa to Liverpool, where one night in Istanbul in his first season ensured he would go down in club legend.
This lofty status did not placate Benitez however and he engaged in many running battles in his 6 years on Merseyside.
He enraged Everton and David Moyes when he dismissed Liverpool’s city rivals as a “small club”. There was open animosity between his team and Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea (more on Jose and Chelsea in a second) thanks to how often the sides clashed in high stakes games. Of course, there was the famous “facts” press conference in 2008-09 when, in a title race against Manchester United, Benitez lost the mind game battle to Alex Ferguson.
The most significant war Benitez found himself in as Liverpool manager, however, was with American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillette. Buying the club in 2007 with borrowed money, the American duo loaded Liverpool with debt, bringing the club to its knees. Benitez, who had nearly been replaced by Jurgen Klinsmann as manager and was routinely over-ruled on transfers, was engaged in a 3 year battle for the soul of the club until he was forced out in 2010.
Benitez’s battles with Jose Mourinho would not end at Chelsea vs Liverpool. The Spaniard followed the self proclaimed Special One into two high profile jobs, at Inter Milan and Real Madrid. Benitez was not to win either battle; constant sniping from Mourinho undermined any Benitez success and Rafa lasted less than a season in both jobs. He was ousted from the Bernabau, despite having won 17 and lost only 3 of his 25 games, for playing a style of football deemed too boring by fans and board alike.
Benitez’s history with Chelsea did not end with the club’s battles against his Liverpool side either. Following Roberto Di Matteo’s sacking in late 2012, Benitez was appointed as interim manager. Given the heated history between Benitez and the club, the Chelsea supporters rejected the appointment and Benitez received at best a mixed reception for the majority of his time in charge. Despite his lack of popularity, Benitez lead a previously struggling Chelsea to the Europa League that season.
The goal in pointing out all of Rafa’s feuds and running battles was to show that, with the exception of at Chelsea, Benitez rarely came out as the winner. And yet, here we are again, with Rafa on a war footing. It is clear that Benitez is stubborn and principled, which explains in part his willingness to engage in conflict throughout his career. Benitez is admirably willing to forego personal job security in order to tackle problems he sees within his clubs.
But Rafa is adored in Newcastle as he has not been by a fanbase since Liverpool. Yet with an adoring public and a successful team, Rafa still looks to pick a fight. As a Benitez fan who wants to see him succeed, I am left with the question “why can’t Rafa be happy?”.