Welcome, Rafa. The two simple words that adorn posters outside St James’ Park as of Friday afternoon carry numerous interpretations. Welcome to Newcastle; welcome to a relegation battle; welcome to the Premier League.
Welcome home. Rafael Benitez may have been born in Spain, his football career may never have seen him play for a club outside of his homeland, and the majority of his managerial career may have taken place in said country, but there is an indelible feeling that the Premier League is the manager’s most natural surrounding. He is intrinsically linked to England’s top flight. It is here that Benitez feels most comfortable, most at ease, most content.
In a season in which Leicester hold a five-point lead at the top with nine games remaining, Manchester United and Liverpool both reside outside the top four and reigning champions Chelsea are 10th, the Premier League has proved that it is still capable of encouraging the unexpected. Benitez, a manager whose previous post was at Real Madrid, is now in charge of a Newcastle side for whom second-tier football next season is a sobering probability. The Spaniard’s arrival improves said fate to a mere possibility, but the size of this task should not be underestimated.
Benitez the manager will know precisely what obstacles face him; Benitez the man will know all too well what reaction to expect. The Spaniard has a fractured reputation, not least in England.
Fat Spanish waiter. Bottler. Ranter. Fact. Benitez boasts a résumé that few of his contemporaries can compare to: two La Liga titles, a UEFA Cup, a Europa League, a Club World Cup, numerous domestic trophies. He is also a man who is no longer taken seriously by many. This is a manager who masterminded the rise of a rabble of misfits from also-rans to becoming the greatest club team in Europe.
Only three current Premier League managers have won more trophies throughout their managerial careers. Louis van Gaal has lifted 20 pieces of silverware in 25 years as a manager; Arsene Wenger has won 19 trophies in 32 years; Guus Hiddink has won 14 trophies in 29 years. The current Chelsea interim boss won one trophy during his first spell at the club, and is lauded and revered at Stamford Bridge as an excellent manager. And yet former interim Benitez, also with one trophy as Stamford Bridge stop gap among his 12 in 23 years as a boss, is ridiculed and reduced to a joke figure by the Blues faithful, if not worse.
Newcastle provides potential salvation. The troubled club. The disreputable manager. Both parties are damaged goods, but such an arrangement could work. As far as rebounds from failed relationships go, Newcastle and Benitez will both be aware they have landed on their feet.
“C’mon Toon Army! The club and I need your total involvement!” was Benitez’s missive upon his appointment on Friday. While it is difficult to imagine the typically reserved, introverted Spaniard uttering those words, the message has had the desired effect. Newcastle fans have been united in their support for their new manager, arguably because he simply isn’t Steve McClaren; Benitez has no bizarrely infuriating island of hair on the front of his head. But his arrival has already helped achieve one objective: to earn back the trust of the fans.
The first signs were subtle but positive. The ‘head coach’ is dead, long live the ‘manager’. That simple alteration in the description of Benitez’s appointment heralds a step forward at St James’ Park. McClaren was a failed experiment, but the club have acted to bring in a bonafide scientist of the sport to replace him. This mess can still be salvaged.
Benitez has his faults. He was sacked from his first two jobs in management. Promotion was quickly followed by relegation at Extremadura. Three years at Valencia was an undoubted success, but while the Spaniard flourished early on at Liverpool, he failed to permanently elevate the club. Questionable tactics, peculiar substitutions and a preference for Gareth Barry over Xabi Alonso marred the latter stages of his reign. His next post at European champions Inter Milan was an unmitigated disaster. He was never wanted at Chelsea. He underwhelmed at Napoli. He met the same fate as many of his predecessors at Real Madrid.
But for every failure there is a success. For every disappointment there is a trophy. For every unflattering comparison and withering insult, there is a clearly talented manager. A talented manager with a desire to denounce his doubters.
Where Newcastle could benefit through the preservation of their Premier League status, Benitez is afforded an opportunity to prove his critics wrong again. It is an unlikely union that might just work. It really is rather nice to have him back though; it wasn’t quite the same without him.