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Scrupulous Rafa shows tough love his own way

Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez.
Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez.

LONDON • Francisco de Miguel Moreno is Newcastle United's assistant manager and fitness coach. But the man everyone knows as "Paco" is also "the official cook" when the club's staff have the day off.

Rafa Benitez is part of the regular gatherings and if you want to understand Newcastle's manager, it is instructive to speak to those around him.

"I don't know if he's just being polite, but normally, Rafa eats everything," Paco said.

Without fail, there will be a suggestion - a little salt, a touch more paprika.

"Always," the 44-year-old added. "In food, in everything, it is about detail with him."

Benitez is a detail manager, forever thinking, wholly intense, obsessing over minutiae. Just as he was by Liverpool fans, he is adored by Newcastle supporters, because he taps into something vital.

At a moment when a failing club was defined by how small it felt, this garlanded Spaniard arrived and spoke about stature and possibility, encouraging reconnection.

TYPE A PERSONALITY

He has the capacity to analyse everything, to be clinical. It's terrible. Good for football, terrible to watch a film with.

PACO, Newcastle United assistant manager, confesses his boss has a perfectionist streak in him.

It can feel like a contradiction, that relentless streak - the dawn phone calls to his Newcastle staff, talking a player through an error as he walks off the pitch - and the emotion Benitez stirs.

"There was a bit of tough love and coldness about me and Rafa, but I think it drove the best out of me," Steven Gerrard, his captain at Liverpool, said. "I was always searching for his love."

One year, an English friend and associate sent Benitez a Christmas card, taking the trouble to write it in Spanish. He felt pleased with himself, until the response came. Benitez marked out corrections to the spelling and grammar, before expressing his gratitude. "Seasons greetings to you, too. C+".

Paco, who has worked with him since Anfield, had his own tales.

"If you watch a movie with Rafa, he'll say, 'Stop, rewind!' He'll notice the actor opened the door with his right hand and in the next frame, is holding it with his left," he said.

"He has the capacity to analyse everything, to be clinical. It's terrible. Good for football, terrible to watch a film with."

Newcastle held a training camp in Ireland last month.

"We were all together and Rafa asked us if we knew what day it was," Paco said. "He said it was the 17th day of the seventh month in 2017: 17, seven, 17. He's the kind of person who will see that."

Benitez, 57, wears an old digital watch - negligible fashion sense, 100 per cent accuracy.

But Newcastle are unlikely to be pushing for the league title any time soon. Their return to the top flight began with a 2-0 defeat by Tottenham at home a week ago, and they remain winless after yesterday's 0-1 loss at Huddersfield courtesy of Aaron Mooy's 50th-minute winner.

Benitez will not let up. He pushes and pushes. Do something well and he will hurry you to the next task.

"If you make a mistake, there is understanding," his friend who sent the Christmas card said. "If you're suffering, he cares."

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 21, 2017, with the headline 'Scrupulous Rafa shows tough love his own way'. Print Edition | Subscribe