A Rafa-lution on Tyneside
Or, Why a World-Renowned Coach Would Want to Stay at a Relegated Club
This is a unique football moment.
Despite being relegated for the second time in the past decade, Newcastle United remain on the cusp of retaining a manager who has previously won the Champions and Europa Leagues, the league title in a country typically dominated by a football duopoly and who most recently coached the richest club in the world. The obvious question: why?
While the fans serenading him in the 5–1 mauling of Spurs on the final day of the season will surely play its part, more than anything it’s important to analyze the underlining assumptions driving the decision. Both the manager and the club find themselves at an interesting crossroads. Benitez will certainly have no shortage of offers from other clubs, but more than anything, he likely craves an opportunity to exert control over a club and build it in his own image (as he did in the first half of his Liverpool reign). On the other hand, the Newcastle hierarchy will be desperate to get back into the top-flight as even the bottom club in the 2016/2017 season is expected to rake in ~£100m from the new TV rights deal.
The financial motivations really speak for themselves, and given how the club has been run under Mike Ashley, fans might instead be wondering why someone of Benitez’s stature would want to stick around in a lower (albeit competitive) league. I’ll take a stab at unpacking the thinking of a man who I’ve never met, who’s motivations I can’t pretend to know, but seems like a rational enough person. In other words, I’ll play the part of another outside observer trying to cast a relevant opinion.
The Specter of Real Madrid
What should have been a “dream job” and a homecoming to Madrid quickly spiraled into a losing proposition for Benitez. The main contributor to his ultimate downfall? The manager lacked the one thing he craves above all else: control. Lack of control to play the team he saw fit (most notably shunting in a Galactico-heavy lineup for the Clasico defeat at the Bernabeau), lack of control over transfers (Florentino Perez has first and final say over new players) and lack of ability to plan for the future, to lay the foundations for Real Madrid to thrive over the long-term a la Pep-era Barcelona.
Still, Benitez is a Madrid boy, having both grown up in the city and played for the club at youth level. Despite craving the control that is typically part and parcel of a Rafa Benitez coaching job (the Chelsea interim role and Napoli job being notable exceptions), he was willing to overlook all of his typical prerequisites in favor of not just the largest coaching job in the game, but also his spiritual football home.
Benitez however was badly burned from his short stint at the Madrid helm, notably being publicly backed by Perez but summarily dismissed just two weeks later. To compound the misery associated with the decision, his sacking was announced despite Benitez being assured earlier the same day that he was still in the job at the press conference where his successor was appointed.
Rafa Benitez has historically come across as a relatively cold, rational man in the context of his football jobs. The treachery he suffered at the hands of the Madrid hierarchy is likely not something he wishes to go through again, and his rational and calculating nature (these are not negatives!) likely will influence any future football decision. Having been burned once, he is unlikely to walk into a role where he forgoes even a modicum of control. His ability to dictate who will play on the field, the club’s transfer strategy, and even the development of the youth and reserve teams, will understandably influence the next job he takes. The specter of Real Madrid is likely still seared into his brain, considering that his tenure their only ended four months ago.
The Man in His Own Words
As a I mentioned earlier, I’m sure Benitez will have no shortage of other management/coaching offers. He’s won trophies in three countries and on the grandest of stages, and there will certainly be suitors for his impressive CV. However, I think we can eliminate the possibility of a role outside of England.
I highly encourage everyone (regardless of your feelings on Rafa) to read his blog post on club structure, league regulations and the fundamental difference between a Coach and a Manager. A couple readings quickly reveal a man who seemed happiest at Liverpool from 2007 to 2010, as evidenced by a few off-hand quotes (emphasis mine):
“This is where the plan, the football project, comes in to play, and with owners from the world of business coming in to football, you can only call it a Business Plan. Again I will refer to my own experience. When I went to Italy there was no ‘business plan’. I was only told about it on the last day of the transfer window, when they suddenly and surprisingly said that we were going to follow the ‘Financial Fair Play’ initiative. I will leave it there.”
“In Spain, the continuous dialogue with club officials keeps you up to date on the economic constraints so you know where you are. Although once, I found myself with a surprise signing of a striker by the President on the last day in August because, as he was on loan, he was cheap.”
“In England, specifically at Liverpool during my first 3 seasons, the Chairman and the Chief Executive kept me informed of the restrictions and options that we had. Later on though, the club structure changed, and over time, ‘business plans’ became more and more important than any football project when it came to making decisions.”
It’s clear that Benitez has qualms with the direction in which football is going. The commodification of clubs and treatment of them as “assets” to be run for profit rankles with someone who seems to be more of a purist, someone who loves the game for itself rather than its associated glitz and glamor. Still, given that he is smart enough to recognize this secular shift in ownership thinking, his words highlight that his preferred spell in management came in those first three years at Liverpool.
In those three years, he had seemingly sole discretion over the squad, scouting, transfers, the academy — essentially every facet of the football side of the club — while also maintaining regular contact with the chief executive, the head of the business side of the club. Moreover, these conversations typically revolved around the simple framework of “here’s what I want to do in a footballing sense, do we have the money/resources to do it?”
This level of autonomy is materially different from his Napoli and Valencia experiences (the times in Italy and Spain that he mentions), and in stark contrast to his Madrid tenure. But still, while these words elucidate exactly what Rafa looks for in an ideal football job, the logical extension of these criteria is how on earth can he expect any of this at Newcastle?
If anything, the way Mike Ashley has historically run the club — with its distinct model of buying young players that can be developed and sold at a profit led by Chief Scout Graham Carr — is part of the “business plan” that seems anathema to Benitez. So that brings us to the negotiation table.
On one side we have a man who is likely in demand, and who will most certainly learn from his most recent experience where he was badly burned by giving up the control he typically seeks. On the other is a club whose football and business principles are basically the opposite of how they will be asked to operate under Benitez. So, the ultimate question is: will Newcastle buckle?
A Rafa-lution on Tyneside?
By reliable accounts, it looks like Rafa will get his way (again emphasis mine on both accounts):
“It appears Ashley has offered the 56-year-old carte blanche to rip up his old, failed, Newcastle blueprint and not only granted offered Benítez autonomy over assorted club spheres, most notably recruitment, but accepted his desire to rebuild the squad ahead of the Championship campaign.”
“The former Liverpool and Real Madrid manager — who returned to Merseyside to talk things over with his wife and daughters on Monday — will want written guarantees of Ashley’s promises before formally accepting Newcastle’s proposals but there is an increasing confidence on both sides that an agreement can be reached. The club’s head scout Graham Carr is also expected to stand down as part of the reshuffle.”
This is significant on multiple fronts. First, the article elucidates the significance of the new Premier League TV deal, and just how desperate club owners (even the most spend-thrift like Mike Ashley) are to get a piece of it. They will literally do away with a business model they’ve relied on for years in order to reclaim top division status and its associated riches.
Second, Benitez seems to be aggressively negotiating (and succeeding) to become the Newcastle manager strictly on his own terms. In order to prevent Ashley from just talking a good game to get him to commit, Benitez is angling for a signed contract on each of his demands. This is crucial to not just him joining, but I think to the long-term success of the club in a strictly footballing sense.
A written, negotiated deal that clearly outlines exactly what Rafa can control will breed accountability in the organization, and should put the supporters’ minds at ease that the owner won’t overtly meddle in how the leading football brain at the organization operates. Furthermore, Real Madrid likely constituted the biggest gray area in Rafa’s football career to date, where politics rather than hard, cold football necessity dictated everything from squad selection, to transfers, to public utterances. Having down in writing exactly what he is able to control limits any downside (and loss of control) that could undermine his project.
Third, the already agreed-upon departure of Graham Carr is a very positive step and a byproduct of my earlier arguments: that Benitez wants (and operates best) when he is the man running the football side of the club. While Graham Carr was heralded earlier in the Ashley reign of unearthing rough diamonds in Ligue Un, he’s fallen woefully short in his mandate over the past few years (where Newcastle have been a distinctly mid-table/relegation battling side). I suspect Carr’s resignation as Head Scout was one of the first items on the agenda in order to keep Rafa at the negotiating table.
Can a Leopard Change Its Spots?
Many have lamented Mike Ashley’s time at Newcastle since taking over in 2007, apart from the fifth place finish in the 2011/2012 season. Football clubs are (especially in the case of Newcastle) essentially public utilities; despite the globalized nature of the game, and the increasing dependence on TV revenues (as opposed to gate receipts), the “aura” typically associated with the English game is in large part due to the fans attending the match and the local community built around the club.
However, mirroring Benitez’s own observation of traditional “football plans” morphing into “business plans,” Ashley has run the club on a tight budget. Transfers typically follow the “future value” model, where young, promising players are scooped up to achieve a stated goal of simply existing in the league and sold on for a hefty profit after a few years. Moreover, the one time the owner did choose to invest heavily (this season’s £80m splurge), it resulted in a scattershot team building exercise that yielded no real tangible improvement on the pitch. If anything the mandate even for the transfer outlay seemed to be finding “good enough” players that could preserve status and be sold for a profit, rather than a coherent exercise in team building dictated by squad requirements. On the flip side, Benitez is demanding — and is likely to receive — the opposite: not only the requisite funds to build a coherent squad for the Championship, but sole discretion over transfer targets to avoid the past summer’s seemingly random spending.
However, I worry about Mike Ashley’s arresting “moment of clarity.” This is a self-made business tycoon that built an empire on providing sports equipment at discount prices, but who is currently being investigated for suspect business methods. Even the allegations of operating “Dickensian” working practices is enough to yield a perception akin to robber baron of years past, treating anything and everything as commodities that can be squeezed for further financial gain. The question therefore remains: is this someone who Newcastle fans can trust to just open his pockets and relinquish control? The written agreements that Benitez is seeking should mitigate this behavior, but then again it still remains to be seen what the content of those agreements will be.
The Reemergence of the Football Project?
What makes all of this so fascinating is that it could be the reemergence of the football project at a club that’s recently been run strictly as an incremental profit stream for its owner. Football considerations have largely been confined to “good enough” solutions, all in the name of pursuing a respectable financial return. Moreover, the idea of a long term football project has typically been the domain of the wealthy European elite, many of whom benefit from a bottomless pit of funds courtesy of overseas owners.
Newcastle — and most clubs for that matter — can’t bank on that kind of support of course. However, Ashley’s pursuit of Premier League millions could prove to be a powerful incentive that turns the tide on his thinking and the club’s sporting performance. Moreover, Benitez’s availability and willingness to take over, consolidate power and potentially solidify a footballing legacy could prove too hard to resist.
Right now, I think it will be a slightly uneasy marriage, as you have two parties that crave control in all matters trying to strike some sort of compromise. Someone has to budge, and in my opinion Ashley needs to “free” the footballing side of the club from its mandate of being just another utility that can eke out profits. Of course, everything depends on the nature of the deal that’s signed in the next couple of days, and time will tell that even if Benitez gets the deal he wants on whether he can lay the foundations for sustained success at Newcastle.
Either way, Newcastle’s relegation, Benitez’s harrowing experience at Madrid and the promise of Premier League riches are coalescing to create what truly looks like a unique football moment.