Johnny’s new series takes a positive look at managers in the media and what we like about them. This week he turns his loving gaze upon the current Newcastle manager and a man who many of us love with an almost unhealthy passion, and man who, like Madonna, Sting and Beethoven, only needs one name. That’ll be Rafa, then.
Who Are Ya?
Rafael Benítez Maudes wasn’t much of a player. He turned out 150-odd times in Spain for Parla and Linares as, what one would suspect was a robust, somewhat pink-cheeked defender. Got a major twang and by the young age of 26 had retired to work as a coach at Real Madrid, so his talent in this regard must have been evident early on.
Did the hard yards from 1993 – 2001 as manager of Real Madrid B, Real Valladolid, Osasuna, Extremadura and Tenerife. Got his big chance at Valencia and wowed everyone by winning La Liga in 2001–02 and again in 2003–04 when he also won the UEFA Cup. Yes, he was brilliant and that’s why Liverpool hoovered him up.
At Liverpool there was an existential connection between the fans, the club and him. Like all loving emotion, it does not surrender to easy or cheap words but there was and still is an obvious and lifelong bond that nothing will erode.
Look at any photo of Rafa and you can see a gentle kindness in his eyes and yet, when needed, he also has some steel shutters in there. One of the few managers in the league not to sport a flat stomach, which is another reason to love him, he is just tubby enough to suggest he is a man who likes the finer things in life and in substantial quantities.
Has a kind of rolling, side-to-side gait that looks informed by excellent red wine.
The sort of man it is impossible to imagine in anything other than a decent but far from extravagant suit, white shirt, club tie, cheeks always a little flushed facial hair trimmed and modest.
Of course, Liverpool fans still love him and his family still live on Merseyside. Theirs is an unusually special relationship for football. He just ‘got’ Liverpool. He understood the club and still feels the place deeply and this is reflected back to him by the fans. And if you think this isn’t true, if you think this is romantic nonsense, then here is your proof.
Trotted around Europe picking up lots of big jobs and then decided to join Newcastle United, even though they were destined to be relegated. Clearly, a man who likes a challenge and this made many of us admire him even more.
What I have always liked about Rafa is that when he’s being interviewed pre or post game, he turns his head slightly to one side and narrows his eyes as he tries to understand whatever the microphone holder is saying. He also almost never raises his voice or expresses his emotions in a voluable or passionate way. He is the model of restraint when speaking as he is when pitchside. His behaviour in the dugout has always been quite remarkable. His team can score an incredible and important goal and it won’t register any emotion on his face at all. Rather, he will take a note of something on a piece of paper. Similarly, when things go against him, he’s not one for screaming at referees or kicking water bottles. Indeed, you can rarely tell by looking at him, whether his side has won or lost.
He does allow himself that impish little grin when interviewed after a good victory, which is always a rare wee pleasure.
Loves to pepper a sentence with “yeah” which I assume is a way to give himself time to think. Always refers to “we” and never “I”. “Quality” is “kwallity”. I’d love to think he’d affect not to understand a question in order to avoid answering it, but these days everyone knows he’s fluent in the Queen’s English.
Media Hit or Miss?
Still quite divisive, weirdly enough. Chelsea fans seem set on disliking him, which is only denying themselves joy and thus seems pointless and yet Liverpool and Newcastle fans are his soul mates.
When Liverpool manager, I think it is fair to say there were some tabloid press who didn’t like Rafa because he wouldn’t play their games and was from somewhere that wasn’t here, thus wanted to stick it to him. This is why his infamous list of ‘facts’ was called “an extraordinary rant” in the first place, even though he was reading out a list in a perfectly reasoned and non-shouty manner. Even though it was a well-detailed litany of how Sir Alex Ferguson bossed the administration of the game at the time. Something which no-one would find contentious now. But by the time it had been put through the tabloid mangle, you’d have thought it was something verging on a nervous breakdown.
These days gets more respect in general, but I always sense there are some that would rather like to see him fail and it annoys them that he attracts so much affection. Earlier this season Andy Dunn thought he’d have a dig at him. Some thought it was at the behest of Mike Ashley’s PR people, others thought it was just good old fashioned ignorance or vacuous space-filling. ‘The repetitive strain of Rafa’s unsubtle railing against the lack of investment is becoming a little tiresome’ he wrote in a little diatribe which mistakenly seemed to suggest he should be doing better on the budget provided.
If he thought this would have any other effect other than to galvanise all decent people to the defence of our hero he was wrong. Rafa himself has balls of absolute steel. This was a man who won the Europa League with Chelsea despite being hated by their fans for months. Indeed, his smirk of pleasure seemed ever more cat-that-got-the-cream with every win to the delight of the rest of us. Never in modern football has any manager taken a ruthless, cold-hearted revenge on abusive fans by actually winning a European trophy. That is the measure of his brilliance and size of his cajones.
Proper Football Man Rating: 2%
Gets a few points for an epicurean approach to refuelling between games and not being ripped like an athlete. But there’s no doubt that his legendary status at two of England’s greatest clubs is infuriating to many a PFM manager who feels he’s not been appreciated by any of the clubs he’s managed and still craves a love that he will never know, because when he’s suggested as the new manager, even the mice in the club shop start throwing themselves on the traps.
They are also driven half crazy by the fact Rafa is largely a defensive coach and doesn’t get criticised for it whereas when they put the emphasis on defence by deploying five centre halves, it’s called negative.
These days they tend to have taken the path of least resistance with Rafa and are at least prepared to concede that Newcastle won’t attract a better manager.
What The People Say
The response to my request for Rafa love was a veritable tsunami of really lovely, life-affirming affection. There were so many, I just couldn’t include them all. There were also a lot of great photos of fans with Rafa which we haven’t got room to include here but if you go to my Twitter timeline you can enjoy them all. It is so heartwarming to read so many great stories about a man that is held is such huge regard by so many. We should all strive to be so loved and so respected. Now, sit back and wallow in the warmth…
Dan Walker: ‘I once played chess against Rafa at his house for a TV piece. We filmed the first few moves for the camera and then I thought we’d get on with the interview. “Sit down… we haven’t finished” he giggled. “You never start a challenge without finishing it”.’
Rory Smith: ‘When I finished his book, he sent me a signed copy inscribed with words to the effect that it was good and he was pleased, but he’d have done it better. He’s a very nice, very funny man. Incorrigible gossip. Loves a Caesar salad.’
‘When he takes on a job, he takes on the club, the city, the people, the culture. He’s more than a football manager.’
‘He made me be bothered about football again, despite Mike Ashley’s best efforts’
‘How many managers inspire fans to write 100ft messages of support to them in their native language?’
‘As a #nufc fan I’m biased but he’s just the nicest, most genuine man you will ever come across. Has time for everyone, is warm and will talk to people regardless of the demands on his time. Quite frankly, he’s amazing. He’s also hilarious!’
‘My friend went on hols a few years ago and his kids noticed Rafa and his wife on their flight. Rafa waved at them as obviously he realised they were looking at him. When they returned home a couple of weeks later, Rafa walked up to them and asked how their holiday had been! Nice!’
‘Came into a broken club and united one of the most divided and divisive fanbases in the country behind him. Spoke with enthusiasm and determination; made no excuses like his predecessors and oozes class in everything he does off the pitch, particularly in the local community.’
‘Lots of obvious examples, but one which gets a little forgotten now was when he went to the pub in Cologne the night before Liverpool played Bayer Leverkusen. It was full of Liverpool fans, and he spent the whole evening with them. Top man.’
‘Forget the football manager bit for a minute, Rafa Benitez is a thoroughly good man. Donations to the Hillsborough fund, community and family focused work, professionalism in all aspects of his life’
‘He saw potential, A sinking ship that was about to hit rock bottom. He calmed the storm. The fans, The city United again. He fought for us and now we’re fighting for him. This club is our club, The house of Benitez, Wor Rafa.’
‘Ex-players of his may have described him as cold, but he’s anything but when it comes to supporters. I want nothing more than to sit on his knee, shopping centre Santa-style, while he tells me about defensive positioning or something of the sort.’
‘Never understood what the fuss was about his huff & puff #LFC team, his tactics, or why the fans loved him. From day 1 at #NUFC it made sense. He can be summed up with the same 3 words you hear constantly about him – he gets it – football, fans, history, community – he gets it.’
‘He’s shown care, class and love to a one club city that has been treated with nothing but neglect, contempt and dishonesty for the best part of a decade. Plain and simple, he’s given us hope where there was none.’
‘Which other ‘top 10’ world class manager globally, has put his neck on the line to take over a flailing club to try and make something of it? This is what makes Rafa stand out. He doesn’t just rely on a bulging bank account and world class players’
‘He has introduced us #nufc fans to a revolutionary concept of having a good defence.’
‘Champions league semi against Chelsea. Penalty shoot out. He sits down on the pitch so he didn’t block the view of the supporters behind him. Plus all the charity work him and Montse do in Liverpool and on the Wirral’
‘Just after we got promoted against Preston he made sure before he took a lap of the pitch that he shook every one of the ground men’s hands and thanked them for the work that season. Pure class.’
‘He frequently stays at the same hotel which my wife runs when Newcastle stay overnight before games. Says he’s an absolute gentleman, but has a fondness for a certain brand of chocolate ice cream. So she always sneaks some into his room so the nutritionist doesn’t tell him off!’
‘Was hard to keep up with the shit he had to take. One time John Solako in talking about his Liverpool team side stepped tactics and analysis and went with ‘I just don’t like him’
‘Rafa’s a gift. Simple as. Most evidently and importantly, to the community and city in which he works. He’s a bonafide genius of a manager, yes, but his impact stretches way beyond the inevitable improvement of the first team.’
‘Loved by Liverpool & Newcastle fans. I think that just about says it all.’
‘I was lucky enough to meet Rafa after a game the season before last. It was just like talking to another fan. He talked & talked & talked about each player, and what they’d done, and what they could have done, and what might happen for the rest of the season etc. Top bloke.’
‘Outstanding trolling of Chelsea fans by managing them. Seems like he’d actually be alright if you met him. Manager most likely to finish his plate.’
‘Gave me the happiest day of my life after my kids’
‘1) Rafa took a Liverpool team featuring Djimi Traore, Antonio Nunez and Igor Biscan to the biggest game in club football & beat a Milan team chock-full of genuine legends. 2) When he left #LFC Rafa donated £96,000 the Hillsborough families, long before the Truth finally came out’
‘Forget the football side of things, Rafa has given so much to the local communities. A gem of a human.’
‘Just an incredibly great man, love him more than anyone else in football.’
‘Will always love Rafa. A class act. Both as a manager and as a person.’
‘He’s absolutely pivotal to #nufc and it’s future, few managers would have got better out of this squad of players than he has over the last couple of seasons.’
‘It’s hard to bake it down to one event. It’s rare for a man to get a city and team so much. My run in with the man in Newcastle, even for the briefest of moments was a true highlight for me. He was kind, patient and friendly to a gobsmacked grown man.’
‘Adore the man. The ability to be so rational as a coach and so emotional as a person is such a great mix and endeared him to Reds so well. Istanbul, his affection for working class cities and communities, his and his wife’s charitable work for H’boro, yep, just adore the man.’
‘Love him to bits. Had to deal with all the shit that was going on behind the scenes at Liverpool and yet still made it work on the pitch. By all accounts a lovely fella, and I’m so happy that for the first time in years he has a fanbase who loves him, which is what he deserves.’
‘I had the pleasure of having a 90 minute 1-to-1 with Rafa. He literally made me use pepper mills & salt shakers to recreate the Liverpool backline from the 2005 CL Final v Milan! Most meticulous, passionate and talented manager I’ve known. He lives and breathes football’
‘The way he threw himself & his support into the Hillsborough Foundation and the emotion he showed at the memorial service is something that gets me every time. He elevated our club in testing times. An amazing coach. Our family named our dog after him. Amazing man. Love him.’
‘St James Park, May ’16. Spurs only needed a win to finish above Arsenal for the first time in years, NUFC were already relegated, and down to 10 men. A full stadium sang the man’s name for 95 minutes to convince him to stay. It finished 5-1 and was remarkable to witness. Truelove’
‘I was and still am astounded to have a manager of his standing at #nufc. You trust him instinctively and know that he has a plan and knows exactly what he is doing. More importantly though, he appears to be a top quality, dignified man of great heart and integrity. I love him!’
How Long Has He Got?
Unlike almost any other manager in the league, Rafa could stay at St James Park for the rest of his life if the fans were to have their way. But Mike Ashley is still squatting on the club like a gigantic bloated leech, draining the life force out of it with his vampiric feasting on its blood.
Now, Rafa, as we already know, loves a battle. He knows he has the moral high ground and that Ashley is statistically likely to have a massive heart attack soon enough. He knows that Ashley knows that Newcastle will never attract a better manager capable of keeping them in the top flight on very little investment. So it remains a face-off. Quite why someone hasn’t bought Newcastle from Ashley yet, given it is a licence to print money, remains a mystery. Indeed, I suspect Ashley is deliberately not selling it in order to take the piss a little bit more.
Rafa remains dignified and cool and I bet that enrages the undignified and frankly utterly grotesque Ashley even more. Maybe Rafa staying and thus denying Ashley the joy of the fan’s misery him leaving would engender, is his ultimate revenge upon the amoral weird jeans-wearing planet-killing sportswear blancmange/incubus hybrid.
One thing is certain, no manager will be as loved by two different sets of English fans as Rafa is and never has a man deserved that hero status more.