The Discreet Charm of Rafa Benitez
How English football came round to a manager who hates spontaneity
When Gary Lineker interviewed Rafa Benítez from the Match of the Day studio in September 2017, it ended with the show’s illustrious anchor bursting into a fit of adolescent giggles. “Alan Shearer has promised to do Match of the Day in his underwear if you win the league – can you pull it off?” asked Lineker, before realising what he’d said. The innuendo seemed lost on a bemused Benítez, but the moment was in keeping with an interview conducted in a spirit of cheery bonhomie, both men struggling to suppress boyish grins.
It’s fair to say that, in 2018, English football has finally come round to Rafa Benítez. If “love” is perhaps putting it too strongly, then he is certainly regarded these days with fondness and esteem. He is outright adored in two parts of the country, of course, but that’s not the point – after all, he always had his devotees. It’s the broader attitude towards him that that has, over the course of a decade or so, not so much shifted as swung completely.
It seems a long way back now, but 10 years ago – when George W Bush was in the White House, Nickelback were storming the charts and Manchester City’s danger man was Benjani Mwaruwari – Benítez was not a popular man. He had been in England for four years and he’d brought Liverpool two Champions League finals and an FA Cup, but as far as the sporting establishment was concerned he was an outsider, and not a welcome one.
The Premier League in which Benítez had arrived in 2004 was a strange and conflicted beast. Net migration into Britain may have risen five-fold under the premiership of the soon-to-be-reelected Tony Blair, who championed diversity as "a source of strength, a reflection of a modern country in the modern world", but the football world was showing how internationalism can trigger identity crisis. It had been over a decade since the English game had flung its doors open to the world with its rebranded top flight, but the sport was still struggling to reconcile its longstanding love of battle and butchery with this new age of dashing cosmopolitanism. You never had to look far to find affronted assessments of foreigners' ideas and protocols. During Benítez's first season in England, Arsène Wenger named English football’s first all-foreign match-day squad; Paul Merson called it a "disgrace". Three years earlier, the appointment of a Swede as manager of the national team was taken by the Daily Mail’s Jeff Powell as an invitation for "the football men of England to pull the sackcloth up over our heads and let the grave-dancers pile on the ashes. Welcome to third-world Britain." As flashy foreigners continued to stream in, many saw it as imperative that the sport did not lose the hallmarks of its homeland: mud, blood and straining sinews.
Benítez did not tally well with this self-image. It wasn’t so much that he was foreign, it was that he couldn’t have been more foreign if he had tried. English football liked its managers to swear and bellow from the dugout; Benítez muttered, fidgeted and checked his watch. English football liked its players run to the point of collapse; Benítez rotated with mathematical consistency so as to conserve energy. “Liverpool will never win the league while Benítez keeps tinkering,” wrote Stan Collymore in his Mirror column. That his first move upon joining was to inform England’s golden boy Michael Owen he was no longer needed did not curry any favour with the national media.
Mainly though, it was his apparent aversion to spontaneity that proved most aggravating, not least for some of his own players. “I would think: why don't you just stick some batteries in me and call me a robot?” recalled Jermaine Pennant some years later. One of Benítez’s unfailing habits was to make a substitution at around the 68-minute mark, regardless of the nature of the game. He liked to say that “the stats” proved this was the optimum time to make a change, an explanation that caused much umbrage among those who prized gut instinct over dreary data. Nearly a decade before Michael Gove, Benítez was making it plain that Britain had no time for experts. “Managing by numbers” became a favourite term of disparagement for Andy Gray, the ubiquitous Sky Sports pundit and former bruising centre-forward who rarely hid his distaste for a coach whose go-to footballing metaphors were chess boards and short blankets. Benítez’s preference for zonal marking was another perpetual source of anger for Gray – though not nearly as much as the deployment of Steven Gerrard.
While the common consensus was that Gerrard, a classic British captain in the fire-and-fury mould, was born to bestride the battleground of central midfield, Benítez believed he lacked the discipline the position required. Instead he preferred to station Gerrard on the wing, with the more restrained Xabi Alonso in the middle. It became an ever more rancorous bone of contention, with Gray and Jamie Redknapp among the eminent TV figures and well-connected journalists campaigning for Liverpool’s captain to be unleashed centrally. Benítez, of course, refused to budge.
Those who were convinced that Benítez’s chief motivation throughout this saga was simple stubbornness were not short of evidence to support their case. His substitution of Gerrard, mid-title charge, during a critical draw against Wigan was described by the Guardian’s Rob Smyth as “a decision so wilfully controversial, such an obvious assertion of Benítez's authority, as to invite the perception that he would have no qualms whatsoever about munching off his nose if he thought his face wouldn't like it”. It was hardly the only such example. The year before, his riling of the punditocracy had reached a pinnacle when, during the Merseyside derby and with the game finely poised at 1-1, he did not just take Gerrard off, replacing him with the little-known Lucas Leiva, but followed it up afterwards with the explanation that Liverpool’s lionheart had been “playing with too much passion”. Second language or not, such exquisite incitement is rarely an accident. And Benítez had proved early on that he wasn’t above the odd moment of petty trolling, his labelling of Everton as a “small club” in the wake of a goalless draw at Anfield setting many a columnist’s quill aflutter.
With Benítez it was never hard to get the impression that public pressure to take a certain course of action merely entrenched his determination to do precisely the opposite. When in autumn 2008 the club’s marquee summer signing, Robbie Keane, was being kept out of the side by the attacking duo of Gerrard and Fernando Torres, most onlookers saw a self-evident solution: reinstate Gerrard into midfield and voila, all three headline acts slot neatly into the right positions. Benítez saw things differently: Gerrard and Torres on the pitch, Keane on the bench. Again the situation quickly reached boiling point. “You don't treat people like that, especially £20m players,” said Redknapp after watching his former Spurs teammate reduced to a bit-part role against Everton. Two weeks later, Keane, six months a Liverpool player, was sold back to Spurs for a £7m loss. Benítez had had his way.
But perhaps the clearest glimpse into the mind of Benítez came in October 2006, when he had gone a full 99 games without naming an unchanged side – a run that had whipped sections of the media into a frenzy. Of course, it was the much-anticipated 100th match when he found it within himself to curb his instinct for tinkering. The papers were denied their headline. If pettiness is all about the little victories, then Benítez was a man for whom no triumph was too small.
In 2007, after his attempts to engage Liverpool’s US co-owners about possible transfer funds had been met with a terse email instructing him to focus on training and coaching the team, Benítez turned his next press conference into a display of open belligerence. Every one of the questions presented to him by an increasingly bewildered press pack was answered with the same phrase: “I am focused on training and coaching my team.” The following day, Benítez – never previously seen on a match day in anything other than a suit and tie – appeared on the touchline clad ostentatiously in a billowing training-ground tracksuit and box-fresh trainers. If he hadn’t had his way, he’d certainly made his point.
If such naked obstinacy annoyed some, it only endeared him to others – not least in a city where anti-authoritarianism is taken as a virtue. And among many Merseysiders, whose relationship with the country at large has always contained a strong undercurrent of mistrust, the animosity Benítez engendered from the establishment was all the more reason to take him to heart.
Benítez arrived in England the same summer as José Mourinho, and the difference in how the two were received was telling. Mourinho, a translator by trade and a man who specialised in savvy soundbites, was immediately at home in a football culture whose managerial icons were orators first, tacticians second. And if his smooth patter was natural fit with England’s past, then his penchant for pantomime catered generously to its present. The press were infatuated.
Benítez, in contrast, was a faintly awkward type with no great gift for speechifying. Like many people speaking a second language, his English was stilted and often jarringly literal. He had no desire to chummy up with the national papers, displayed a maddening reluctance to give a straight answer to a simple question and his press conferences rarely delivered a headline-friendly snippet. The few attempts he did make at media power-plays invariably fell flat. His famous "facts" speech in 2009 failed not because it was an unhinged “rant” but because it was the opposite: fitful and low-key, badly at odds with its call-to-arms intention. Other times he was foiled by the nuances of translation. After being sacked in 2010, his parting shot to the owners was to say: “We have a saying in Spanish: white liquid in a bottle has to be milk.” No one knew what he meant.
He and Mourinho got off on the wrong foot and stayed there, their three years in England together marked by more bitter bickering than you could shake a shitty stick at. More often than not, it was a war of words that that saw Benítez come away second best.
For his harsher critics, though, it wasn’t his linguistic struggles that held him back but something more fundamental about his personality. “Benítez is an incredibly difficult person to warm to,” wrote the Telegraph's Henry Winter in October 2009. “Too detached, too cold.” The same month, the Daily Mail's Ian Ladyman wrote: "Benítez has always been a peculiar Liverpool manager, never connecting either with his players or with the Anfield community in the manner of many of his predecessors. A clinical, unemotional man, the Spaniard has been tolerated, admired and forgiven largely because of the European trophy he secured four years ago."
It wasn’t just the media’s eminent figures who found Benítez a tough man to love – so too did the old guard of Premier League management. Alex Ferguson and Sam Allardyce famously circled the wagons in response to an apparently anodyne hand gesture made by the Spaniard during a win over the latter’s Blackburn side. “Arrogance is one thing but you cannot forgive contempt,” said Ferguson a week later, “it was beyond the pale.” The keen semiologist within Allardyce was only too happy to elaborate: “It was open arms and then a crossover of the arms as if to suggest that was it, game over. In terms of respect, you don't expect those sort of things to happen in a game of football. I was very, very upset by it. The game is hard enough as it is.”
If Fergie and co couldn’t wait to see the back of Benítez, a lot of Liverpool fans felt the same. The Spaniard may be near-unanimously loved at Anfield these days, but it was not always thus – indeed, his entire reign at the club was marked by a polarisation within the club’s fan base. While a large contingent treated him with reverence, there were plenty who were convinced his pig-headedness was holding the club back. When, in December 2008, a draw at home to West Ham took Liverpool top of the league, the final whistle was greeted by many with loud boos and calls for the manager’s head.
The word “divisive” is generally used as a euphemism to describe someone who unites everyone in hatred, but Benítez was divisive in the true sense: the subject of endless factions and feuds, loyalists and loathers. As his reign reached its latter stages the sight of home fans at Anfield openly seething at each other was not uncommon.
Benítez’s time at Liverpool coincided with the early years of internet fandom and, in hindsight, the debates that raged over him offered a grim glimpse at what was to come: the middle ground fast narrowing, nuance being bulldozed by blinkered hysteria. On message boards, his tactics were squabbled over, the finer details of his transfer spending frantically manipulated to prove either side’s point. Depending who you listened to, he was either the master economist who'd gamed the market to land Torres, Alonso and Mascherano, or the dunce who'd sold off the family silver for Keane, Pennant and Aquilani. Benítez was either a genius or a fraud, and neither party wanted to listen to the other.
If English football’s knee-jerk suspicion of the professorial type could account for some of this antipathy, it’s only a partial explanation. The simple truth is that Benítez – a self-described "loner with a laptop" – was a man with people skills that would make Larry David cringe. Torres recalls shyly informing his boss that he and his wife was expecting their first child, only for conversation to be impatiently redirected towards how the striker could tweak his near-post runs; one of Benítez’s first conversations on the Istanbul pitch in the wake of the penalty shootout was to lecture Djibril Cissé on his misreading of Milan’s offside trap.
When Xabi Alonso opted to remain with his wife during childbirth rather than travel to play in a vital Champions League tie against Inter, his decision was met with astonishment by a manager who spent some of his honeymoon watching AC Milan train and who two years earlier had missed his own father's funeral to coach Liverpool in the Club World Cup, a glamourised friendly tournament. "I offered to take a plane and meet them there," recalled Alonso. "He didn't accept it." His manager spent the following summer trying to sell him to Juventus.
Alonso's experience was no great exception: Craig Bellamy described Benítez as an “unsmiling headmaster”, Albert Riera said he “had no tact”, Jerzy Dudek called him “cold, almost inhumane”. For a manager so fixated on his players' “character”, Benítez seemed resolutely unwilling to get to know any of his them in the slightest.
Even those who flourished under him were less than gushing. Over the years, Gerrard's appraisals of Benítez have come to take a familiar format: restrained praise caveated with one major failing – a lack of love. "To Benítez, I am Steven Gerrard, footballer and LFC employee, not Steven Gerrard, flesh and blood, thoughts and emotions," he wrote in his autobiography. Jamie Carragher, who said he never spoke to Benítez about anything other than football, wrote: "Rafa is an excellent manager and perhaps the biggest influence on my career. But he is, without doubt, the most political figure I've come across in the game." When that politicking came to a head in his final season, Liverpool’s form unravelling badly, the loss of faith in Benítez by “major dressing-room figures” became a theme in the stories of better-connected reporters. There was little doubt who those figures were.
Benítez was eventually sacked by Liverpool in June 2010 – a month after the election of a new government that would revel in the demonisation of immigrants – and his dismissal was met in the media with far more cheers than tears. “Liverpool are in their worst state since Bill Shankly arrived at the club more than 50 years ago,” wrote Alan Hansen, Match of the Day’s star pundit, in his Telegraph column. “And although Benítez will cite a variety of reasons, he is the man who has filled a squad that is littered with bad buys.”
Some went a step further. “Now that this cold political animal has gone, Anfield requires a manager who can empathise with players. This observer has long felt that a great institution like Liverpool Football Club deserved better than this awkward Spaniard,” wrote Henry Winter, before giving his endorsement to “a manager brimming with anecdotes and wisdom garnered from a life in the game, who generously hears others' tales. If there is one sadness in Roy Hodgson's appointment it is that England have missed out.” (England's time with the great raconteur would come later, of course.)
If all of this seems rather at odds with the general warmth in which Benítez is held these days, then the events of the intervening years offer some explanation.
By the time he returned to England in 2012, the two and a half years that had passed had alleviated both familiarity and contempt. Those attuned to the smaller details will also have glimpsed Benítez’s warmer side: upon being sacked by Liverpool’s owners, his parting gift to the city was a donation of £96,000 to the Hillsborough Foundation; when, the following year, he attended the annual memorial service at Anfield he was moved to tears. While he went to manage in Milan, Madrid and Naples, his family remained on Merseyside, his wife working to help fund local community projects for children.
After leaving Inter, Benítez returned to the Wirral and, with no job offers on the table, began coaching his local school team. “It was hilarious,” recalled his wife of his first game in charge. “He stood there on the touchline and shouted at them as if it was the first division, waving his arms around.” (Benítez, for his part, remembers different details: he made a key tactical switch, moving a tall player up against a small defender, and his side went on to win.)
Certainly sympathies softened throughout his time in charge at Chelsea, a toxic saga whose enduring image was that of the Stamford Bridge support wielding home-made signs protesting their manager’s presence. Yet despite all the ill will, a man renowned for his pugnacity never went on the attack. Instead diplomacy was the order of the day. “The majority of Chelsea fans are splendid,” he said, after three months of being booed by a sizeable section of them. “They can blame me for everything that goes wrong but if we get into the Champions League I will be the happiest man in the world, then I will leave because my contract ends.”
Amid the acrimony, he steadied a shaky ship and departed as promised with his dignity, reputation and medal collection enhanced. “Benítez will never be accepted by Chelsea fans but he deserves credit, praise, thanks,” wrote Winter after Chelsea had lifted the Europa League trophy in Amsterdam. “He can walk away with his head held high.”
For a manager disliked due to his taste for politicking, there is no little irony in the fact that his time at England’s most politically turbulent club proved the turning point for his public image. In describing the triumphant manager being hugged by his players at the Amsterdam ArenA, the Mirror’s Oliver Holt wrote: “At the very last, after so much hostility, Benítez the unlikely hero was feeling the love.”
Six months after English football had at last begun to warm to this most un-English of men, the home secretary Theresa May published a new immigration bill with the express intention of making the country a "hostile environment" for illegal migrants and dispatched a fleet of vans to the streets bearing billboards telling them to "go home".
If the Chelsea experience presented the public with a more sympathetic figure, Benítez’s brutally brief stint at Real Madrid provided more of the same. At his Bernabéu unveiling, the famously frosty coach was teary-eyed. “It’s emotional to come home,” he said, voice cracking. But six months later he was packing his bags, having failed to win over a brattish squad or appease an authoritarian chairman. Real Madrid, viewed by many in England as the ultimate example of modern football gone to pot, had claimed another victim. (Once again, there was some quite heroic petulance at play: time and again Benítez was invited to pronounce that Cristiano Ronaldo, rather than Lionel Messi, was the best player in the world. Time and again the team-oriented coach refused to deliver the soundbite the media – and Ronaldo – craved. Tensions eventually reached breaking point.)
In 2016, as Benítez returned to England for a second time at the behest of Mike Ashley, the national sport was in a very different state from when he had first arrived 12 years earlier. The Premier League’s internationalism had continued apace: Manchester United were captained by a Serbian, City by a Belgian, and fewer than half the clubs in the division remained under English ownership. Ferguson had retired and with him had gone the idea of the all-conquering British manager, a myth exposed by the wretchedness of his replacement. Fergie, Shankly and Clough had given way to Allardyce, Pardew and Moyes: serial underwhelmers destined for the division’s lower echelons. The division's two establishment figures of the post-Fergie years – Wenger and Mourinho – were both Anglophile foreigners.
At national level, memories of England’s heroic failures in the 90s had long since been supplanted by the hubris and haplessness of what came after, by wallies, brollies and wags. Tournament exits were no longer marked with teary-eyed public pride but with rueful talk of root-and-branch reform, of technical and tactical advancement, of adopting the Spanish or German model. English football's view of itself had gone from red-blooded to red-faced.
As the refugee crisis gripped Europe and Britain became increasingly subject to fearmongering, xenophobia and ugly nationalism, English football was experiencing something else entirely: the country was waking up to its flaws and limitations, outsider know-how was being sought and welcomed with open arms, and the anti-foreigner brigade had been whittled down to a much-mocked lunatic fringe.
Against this backdrop, Benítez arrived at a club in need. His decision to take over at Newcastle as they scrambled to avoid the drop was largely seen as a decent deed and his narrow failure to keep them afloat did not negate the goodwill he had amassed in two months on Tyneside. During Newcastle's final match of the season, with the home side relegated and the manager free to leave of his own accord, Benítez was lustily serenaded by all corners of the stadium from the first whistle to the last. Again this famously unfeeling character reached for the E-word. "I am very, very emotional," he said after the game. "My heart is obviously telling me [to stay]. But at the same time you have to use the brain."
It didn’t take long for Benítez to come to a decision: he would follow his heart. Newcastle supporters were elated, only too grateful to join forces with a continental specialist who boasted high pedigree, wide-reaching connections and no little expertise. A fortnight later, Britain voted for Brexit.
Two years on, Benítez has again amassed a fervent following in one of the grand industrial cities of the north, reviving the dormant zeal within another of England's more sentimental fanbases – no small feat given the all-consuming stench of apathy that had descended on St James' prior to his arrival. For such a clinical figure, Benítez has an uncanny ability to stir supporters' emotions. For someone so wilfully unlovable, he has a strange tendency to attract blubbing adoration on a mass scale.
And for someone who apparently doesn’t “get” people, he certainly gets places. Namely, proudly provincial ones whose football club lies at the heart of the community. When he left Valencia, after a bitter hierarchical wrangle, a poll showed than 99% of the club’s fans wanted a street in the city to be named after him (44% wanted two). In Liverpool, his status as honorary Scouser has long been secure.
On Tyneside, too, there has been a natural inclination to embed himself within the region and its people. Food banks are regularly visited, a book about Keegan’s Entertainers has been handed out to all his staff, in his public pronouncements togetherness between club and city has been his running theme. “When I talk about Geordies and Scousers, you can see the similarities in terms of the cities and the people," he said in October. “They support their clubs unconditionally. The connection between the players, the supporters in the stands and the city is strong." As at the Mestalla and Anfield, giant banners bearing his portrait are routinely unfurled by the St James’ crowd.
But this time, it’s not just a partisan hardcore doting on Benítez – the establishment figures are on board, too. His relationship with Mourinho has gone from malignant to magnanimous – Newcastle's hard-fought win over Manchester United in February was described by the Portuguese as "a beautiful thing" – and he was even spotted sharing a smile with Allardyce when the pair met at Goodison Park in April. “Life’s too short for grudges,” chuckled his old foe before the game. “That was 15 years ago when he just got here and I was winding up anyone I could.” Benítez responded by voicing his sympathy for Allardyce after some dubious treatment at the hands of Everton’s hierarchy.
In the media, the tide has turned. This summer saw a familiar scenario present itself – Benítez in a boardroom standoff, his transfer budget unclear and his future uncertain – yet this time, the big hitters of Britain’s broadsheets appear in no doubt whose side to take. "Along with the fans, Benítez's is Newcastle's biggest asset," said Winter on BBC radio. "Ashley has to sell up." And Match of the Day’s headline act is now his biggest fan. “No one can blame him if he turned around to fans and said ‘I can’t put up with this,’ said Alan Shearer in May. “He needs backing. He needs assurances. Hopefully he’ll get that because he has done an incredible job.”
Clearly Benítez has won over many sceptics by strapping himself in at Newcastle for the long haul, braving the rough and tumble of the Championship and turning what began as a short-term rescue job into a full-scale restoration project. Perhaps, too, the relative serenity of mid-table has meant less fractiousness and fall-out, less tension with a story-hungry press.
And to a large extent English football has caught up with his methods. Squad rotation and zonal marking are no longer seen as his worst traits but rather best practice, likewise the use of two deep-lying midfielders that once drove his detractors to distraction. But there have been concessions on Benítez’s part as well: the grandstanding substitutions are no longer part of his playbook, nor are his in-game changes made with such militant inflexibility.
Most of all, his star players no longer seem so ambivalent about their boss. His captain, Jamaal Lascelles, has described him as “definitely, definitely a special manager” and credits his own improvement to Benítez, “not just footballing-wise, but man-management as well. He tells me to keep the dressing room positive and he’s taught me how to speak to other people: some people need a pat on the back, some people I can have a go at.”
Jonjo Shelvey, Benítez’s latest ill-disciplined midfield talisman, has recounted the aftermath of a sending-off last season: “I sent a text to him and some of my teammates when I got home, just apologising. The next day I came into training and he put his arm around me and said, 'Just forget about it, let's move on.’ Luckily for me, I have a manager who trusts me, has faith in me.” Jonjo Shelvey: flesh and blood, thoughts and emotions.
Undoubtedly in the league's lower-mid reaches, the bar for such flattery is a shade lower, the egos not quite so demanding. But there’s little doubt that the man himself has loosened up a bit as well, that the headmaster has finally learnt how to smile. Certainly a beaming Benítez – two words that would have constituted a contradiction in terms during his time at Liverpool – has become a regular spectacle after a Newcastle win; his post-match interviews are now concluded with a warm handshake rather than an impatient escape.
Fourteen years after he first pitched up on British shores, we can safely say that English football has been reluctantly won over by Rafael Benítez's curious charm. And Benítez himself has been equally won over by English football, which – as his saintly status in Liverpool and Newcastle attests – has a certain outward-looking charm of its own. Like a pair of warring teenage brothers who finally reach adulthood, an eternity of turbulence seems to have dissolved into a state of mutually grudging affection.
At the end of it all, a man forever determined to do things on his terms has met us somewhere in the middle. Not that he’d ever admit it.