Liverpool and Newcastle united in love for Benitez
Benitez has all the tools needed to improve football teams, an expert eye for a player, a psychologist's ability to motivate and the calm authority of a natural leader, but he is more than that.
He is a politician, a public relations expert. He is a man of the people; one with an instinctive understanding of what needs to be done to woo a crowd, a man who loves to be loved. He can make enemies, fall out with board members, provoke conflict behind the scenes, but in doing so he has inspired two sets of supporters, capturing hearts and minds on Tyneside and Merseyside in a way few have before.
Geordies and Scousers share much in terms of values, attitudes and politics, but it is their relationship with their football clubs which led to Benitez's popularity. It is the Spaniard's ability to feed off the intensity of that relationship, to understand what makes the clubs, and the cities, tick that explains the adulation he will receive from both sets of supporters when the teams meet tomorrow.
"One of the great contradictions of Liverpool, both as a club and a city, is that for all its outward swagger it cares very deeply about the quality and integrity of its leaders," explains Andy Heaton, of podcast The Anfield Wrap.
"That Rafa turned up in 2004 with a CV that was, at the time, the envy of Europe and just quietly got on with the job he was employed to do without fanfare instantly endeared him to a lot fans. For better or for worse, we put great stock in what is and isn't a 'Liverpool manager'. The manager of Liverpool isn't merely the coach, he's the embodiment of what we perceive to be the values of the club, and Rafa had those values in spades."
It was his relationship with Liverpool supporters, as much as a CV that listed clubs of the glitterati, like Real Madrid, Napoli and Inter Milan, that meant Newcastle followers could not believe Benitez wanted to become their manager, too, particularly when they teetered on the brink of relegation last year.
After bargain-basement appointments Alan Pardew, John Carver and Steve McClaren, Benitez was a complete change, not just in class, but also character. He took over a club who were broken and brought unity. He made a city fall in love with football again.
"When it comes to creating unity both inside and outside a club, it is usually in the natural make-up of the manager," says Mark Jensen, editor of respected Newcastle fanzine The Mag. "Kevin Keegan and Sir Bobby Robson had it, Rafa Benitez is another. You can set up all the PR stunts you want to, but fans are wise to that. When Alan Pardew and Steve McClaren smiled, it wasn't with their heart.
"Keegan and Sir Bobby immersed themselves in Newcastle United, Rafa does the same. He involves himself in things like the foodbank initiative because he wants to. He doesn't view it as an obligation. A manager who can do what all these three do, gets it back tenfold from fans."
There is another side to Benitez. One that is not seen when the cameras are rolling. He can be both an agitator and a schemer.
For all his success on the pitch, Benitez can be a difficult employee, challenging, cajoling and complaining in equal measure. It is no coincidence Benitez's popularity has soared at clubs where fans have misgivings about the way things are done at boardroom level. He gives off a deliberate impression he is a man fighting on their behalf against the ineptitude or spite of others.
"He only arrived at Liverpool after falling out with the board at Valencia," adds Heaton. "It's almost as if he has a masochistic desire to put himself in the most testing of circumstances.
"I think it's fair to say Rafa is incredibly stubborn. He values loyalty above all else, and sometimes he might make you want to bang your head against a wall, but when it mattered, he put his neck on the line to his own detriment when it started to go south under our previous owners."
It has been a similar story for Benitez in the North East, where Mike Ashley's parsimonious regime has frustrated him in his recruitment plans.
There was a stream of leaks over the summer suggesting he could quit, in protest, but he did not. "At Newcastle under Mike Ashley, we appear destined to have either puppets, or managers who refuse to be undermined," says Jensen. "Benitez needs to be properly backed or else he will be wasting his time. When people say he is political, I read standing your ground, that is what is needed at Newcastle - especially with Ashley pulling the strings."
If Benitez leaves, regardless of the circumstances, he will not be blamed. Few managers achieve that at one club, let alone two. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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