The unthinkable is imminent on Merseyside. Rafa Benitez was “close” to becoming Everton manager last night. At most other clubs it would be considered a coup to employ someone with a CV like the 61-year-old’s. At Goodison it requires a huge psychological U-turn.
Benitez’s six years at Anfield would normally be enough to get him blackballed from any list of potential Everton managers. The self-styled ‘People’s Club’ have spent most of the past 30 years defining themselves by not being Liverpool – while at the same time expecting to be given the same status as their more successful neighbours. A remarkable confluence of good sense and desperation has put Benitez in prime position to take the club forwards.
The Spaniard has one of the best records in the game. He has won trophies in difficult circumstances at Valencia, Chelsea, Napoli and, most prominently, Liverpool, where he delivered the Champions League in his first season.
Everton have been ambitious to get a quality manager since Farhad Moshiri became the principal owner five years ago. The arrival of Carlo Ancelotti two years ago created an outburst of optimism. Performances did not match the positivity off the pitch and when Real Madrid came courting the Italian barely thought twice before decamping to the Bernabeu.
Ancelotti has three Champions League wins to Benitez’s one but the men are very different operators. The departed Everton manager has a more relaxed approach to the game than many of his contemporaries. He could never be said to be a 24/7 workaholic.
Benitez is the opposite. He lives and breathes the game around the clock with a level of obsessiveness that would leave Ancelotti shaking his head.
There are other big differences between the men. Benitez is, first and foremost, a coach. He prides himself on improving players and organising teams. Ancelotti is a polisher, who can inspire good sides and well-run clubs to greater heights. Goodison needs a builder.
The other big advantage for Everton is that it is almost impossible for Benitez to be tempted away. He and his family have put down firm roots on Merseyside. They do not want to move away from the area. At this stage in his career – and especially after a difficult spell in China with Dalian Pro – he understands the value of going home to his wife after training and sleeping in his own bed. Whisper it quietly, but managing a Premier League team on Merseyside is a dream job for Benitez.
It is not the dream job. The former Newcastle United manager feels he has unfinished business at Anfield after being sacked 11 years ago. His affection for Liverpool comes with mixed feelings, however. He was badly treated during the ownership of George Gillett and Tom Hicks and retains a sour taste in his mouth about his departure and replacement by Roy Hodgson. Yet he is still associated with Liverpool and was generous enough to text friends and supporters with congratulations when Jurgen Klopp’s team broke the club’s long title hoodoo. Benitez wanted so badly to be the man who brought the Premier League trophy to Anfield. He would easily transfer that aspiration across Stanley Park.
As late as 2015, before his ill-fated spell at Real, Benitez was still reaching out to see whether Fenway Sports Group had any interest in engaging him. The answer was an emphatic ‘no’ and the realisation dawned on him that there was no going back. Now he just wants to go forward.
Benitez will be disappointed if Liverpool supporters, whose cause he fought so hard, turn against him. He is also aware that a substantial minority of Anfield fans never took to him and celebrated his sacking. As for Goodison diehards who do not want him, he will not be fazed. The hostility he suffered during his tenure at Chelsea never affected his performance. He will battle as diligently for Evertonians as he did for Kopites or Newcastle fans.
That leads to his somewhat unfortunate reputation as a troublemaker behind the scenes. Benitez’s code is simple: if he agrees something with his bosses, he expects them to keep their word. If they do, he does not complain. The hierarchy at Stamford Bridge were surprised at how low-maintenance he was during his spell in west London. They even briefly considered keeping him on when his contract expired before deciding that the antagonism from fans – and the availability of Jose Mourinho – presented too much of a barrier.
What Benitez has been looking for is a Premier League club with ambition and potential. He has found it at Everton. He is desperate to win more trophies. No one could possibly put more into the job.
Will the fans be happy? Plenty will be furious. Like at Chelsea, Benitez will be given little leeway to make errors. He knows this and thinks the answer is simple: win the crowd over with results.
The unthinkable is set to happen. It may be followed by what has been unimaginable for an entire generation of supporters: silverware. He is the best manager available to Everton and, more importantly, he is prepared to settle in for the long haul at Goodison.
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