Wednesday 13 December 2017

Best of enemies on the bench and the pitch

Allardyce and Benitez poised to renew bitter rivalry in crucial Tyne-Wear derby

Bolton Wanderers manager Sam Allardyce (R) and Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez (L) Photo: AFP/Getty
Bolton Wanderers manager Sam Allardyce (R) and Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez (L) Photo: AFP/Getty

Luke Edwards

It was a feud sparked by a broken nose, ignited by mutual insults and fuelled for more than a decade by bitterness, animosity and the suspicion that comes when two contrasting football cultures collide amid the tension of the Premier League.

When Sami Hyypia had his nose broken playing for Liverpool against Bolton Wanderers 12 years ago, Rafael Benitez, the new manager at Anfield, responded to the shock defeat by expressing his dismay at the brutal methods used by Sam Allardyce's side. The touch paper was lit and there have been regular explosions ever since.

Tomorrow these two old foes are at the helm of a derby game between Newcastle United and Sunderland, where the consequences of defeat are potentially catastrophic. Benitez arrived at Newcastle only last week on a 10-game mission to save the club from relegation at the end of a season in which they have spent £80 million on new players. He has already lost one of those games and cannot really afford to lose another to their biggest rivals.

Allardyce has been at Sunderland since November and has been struggling to lift them out of relegation danger. Newcastle are second bottom, Sunderland are one point better off and two places higher.


The managers' presence in the dugouts adds another layer to the hostility, another sub-plot in a long story of rivalry between two football clubs and the cities they represent.

As hard as they have tried to avoid discussing their frosty relationship ahead of the most important Tyne-Wear derby in a generation, Allardyce and Benitez do not like each other. There has been too much said and done, too many slights and too much offence caused, for it to be forgotten with a pre- or post-match handshake.

"Rafa has got personal for years now," Allardyce once commented. "That's why I don't like him, and the feeling is probably mutual."

In his autobiography, released last year, he went even further, claiming Liverpool's Champions League success in 2005, under Benitez's management, had "nowt to do" with the Spaniard before adding: "I can't stand people who disrespect me the way he did."

Allardyce may have tried to dismiss the bad blood between them as little more than "mind games" but the hostility was, and is, genuine. "We had our differences," said Allardyce. "We both went to the papers and aired our differences. It was mind games.

"It is not about me and him [on Sunday] but the two sets of players. I always thought joining in the mind games was a good thing in those days, because why does everyone seem to think only the managers at the top of the league could play mind games and not the ones who managed down below?

"There was a lot of unfair criticism of that Bolton team I had. It was complete nonsense to me, so I played mind games like everyone else and found it very, very entertaining."

Benitez did not. The feud began when Allardyce was an ambitious and combative young manager at Bolton Wanderers and Benitez was the new and highly-lauded manager of Liverpool, a jewel in the crown of Spanish coaching having won La Liga twice with Valencia. Allardyce's style of football was alien to Benitez and the Englishman revelled in the discomfort it caused him. Neither, though, could have imagined they would be opposing managers again in the most intense and significant Tyne-Wear derby since these two bitter rivals met in a play-off semi-final in 1990.

Where once there was merely anger and hostility, there is possibly now something approaching begrudging respect, although Benitez hides it well. Asked if they were more alike than they have cared to admit in the past, Allardyce replied: "Probably. We both have our pragmatic approach on our squads.

"If you look at the clubs he has managed in the past, I was surprised when he took the Newcastle job, but he is probably the best [manager] they could have got."

Benitez was also keen not to dwell on his prickly relationship with a manager who is likely to be his neighbour, should he keep Newcastle up, for several years. But there was no hint of a compliment in return.

"I know he likes technology and we have been using technology for a while," said Benitez when told his rival had suggested they are more similar than people think. "In terms of those things there could be some similarities, but after that we are different. Yes, there is [history between us], but I don't think it's important for the future. I've been very happy away [from the Premier League] for two-and-a-half years and I don't have any problems. I am professional and I want to win the game and hopefully the players will be the most important thing during and after the game. As managers, we can sometimes make a difference, and have some headlines, but I don't think that is something to worry about."

Most supporters and pundits believe that, given they are in a three-horse race with Norwich to decide who joins Aston Villa in the Championship next season, whoever loses tomorrow will be doomed. However, Benitez, knows he cannot allow that mentality to creep in.

"This is the game for the fans, it's massive," Benitez explained. "I'm not too worried about that, I'm confident we can win, but the main thing is staying up.

"I don't care if we lose the derby and stay up. I agree this game has the power to shape the rest of the season but, if you can guarantee me that I lose the derby and stay up, I will take that. We will have more chances to win it [relegation fight], even if we lose the derby. But it will make it a lot more difficult." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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