InGoodConscience

Colourful Benitez sees his life defined in black and white

The managerial surprise of this week was not Jose Mourinho completing the move he, and his agent, set out to get when he was sacked by Chelsea last December.

The writing on the Manchester United wall was a done deal behind Louis van Gaal's back all that time.

And the boast by United's executive vice-president Ed Woodward that he has signed "the best manager in football" simply beggars the question why he thought first David Moyes, then van Gaal, were better choices after Alex Ferguson retired as the best manager in the club's English league history.

But, since all this was so predictable, and was written about months ago, let's discuss a more surprising (and I'd say special) managerial appointment.

I refer to Rafael Benitez agreeing a three-year deal to stay at Newcastle United.

Seemingly every man, woman and child in the St James' Park stadium, crammed to its 52,000 capacity, begged him to stay. (It was) the power of the people, as opposed to the power of propaganda.

Something really special happened there.

Rafa had an escape clause in the contract he signed when he was appointed in March to attempt what turned out to be mission impossible. He improved, immensely, on the team spirit and tactics left behind by the fired Steve McClaren.

But, despite a last day 5-1 thrashing of third-placed Tottenham, Newcastle was relegated. Benitez couldn't save a sunken ship.

However, something remarkable and heartfelt happened on that last day of Premiership life up at Newcastle.

Seemingly every man, woman and child in the St James' Park stadium, crammed to its 52,000 capacity, begged him to stay.

The power of the people, as opposed to the power of propaganda.

Benitez, and his wife and two daughters who were in that stadium, discussed as a family how he could turn his back on such a huge, and clearly genuine, swell of affection.

This is a man who has been sacked by Liverpool and by Real Madrid. A manager who has done the hard miles at places like Valencia, Inter Milan, Chelsea and Napoli.

He knows what it is to be wanted, and what it feels like to be unwanted.

People who know him, who have played under him or (like Mourinho and Fergie) sparred with him on the touchline, talk about a ruthless streak in him. Ruthless, control-freaking, utterly single-minded.

So what possessed Benitez to sign on for three years at a club which everybody knows is broken from the top down, and going down to play second-division football where he has never been before?

"The love I could feel from the fans was a big influence on my decision," he said. "This is a massive club and I wanted to be part of the great future I can see for Newcastle United.

"I'm convinced we can go up next season, stay in the Premier League for a long time and win trophies."

Benitez admits he turned down some big money offers elsewhere. He could, and maybe most men would, have delayed signing a new deal at Newcastle to play the field and see what interest there was out there for a man with his track record.

"Maybe it's because I'm older that I'm more emotional now," he said. He's 56, so really old!

"But after the last game (against Spurs), it would have been very difficult to walk away. It was amazing, no? I want to repay the fans, we need to be back to where we belong."

Benitez has no experience in England outside the top division. But he won promotions in Spain with Extremadura and Tenerife when, as a player wrecked by injury, he turned his passion into an obsession to work other players into winning teams.

I once bumped into him at an airport when he was Valencia's coach, a dozen or so years ago. I think I got in one question of my own, and was on the end of a long interrogation from him about English football.

The politeness masked a serious obsessive nature. A restless nomad, with temporary stays in 12 places, he now says he needs a project. The Championship (alias the second tier of English football) is the start of that project.

He is absolutely right: Newcastle is a one-eyed, one-horse town where the only team that matters is the black-and-white, the Magpies, Newcastle United.

I've known tough men, hardened coal-miners and shipyard workers, who cry for their club when they wouldn't cry about losing their livelihoods in the recession.

St James' Park really is a fortress, amazing in its sound and in the fury of the audience that their beloved club has been so wretchedly badly run - not just under the current ownership of sports retailer Mike Ashley but under successive boardrooms in the past.

Apart from the mid-1990s when owner John Hall hired Kevin Keegan and came within a whisker of deposing United at the top, the Magpies were low-flying.

Ashley has poured money into the club, but the men he trusted to run it had a dysfunctional system of trying to buy low and sell high (a bit like his business model).

Benitez grasped the opportunity to demand that he has the last say in who the club buys, who it sells, and who he believes has the stomach for the grind of winning back the English Premier League status they had effectively lost when he was a panic appointment with the team already in the quicksand of demotion.

There's one other reason, a huge one, why he signed that new deal. Mrs Benitez and their daughters have made their home on the Wirral. They never left after he was paid off in 2010, donating £96,000 (S$193,350) of his reported £6 million severance pay to the Hillsborough Family Support Group.

There is another team on Merseyside - the blue team called Everton - who is without a manager after the sacking of Roberto Martinez.

With Rafa on the doorstep, and that clause allowing him to leave if Newcastle dropped, Everton had their chance to sign a winner. It didn't happen; perhaps the tribal rivalry on Merseyside meant that it never could.

No matter. Newcastle made the managerial appointment of the week, regardless of the Mourinho hoopla.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2016, with the headline 'Colourful Benitez sees his life defined in black and white'. Print Edition | Subscribe