Why Rafa’s history means he will turn Newcastle around

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When the announcement came on Friday, Newcastle fans didn’t exactly react the way they were expected to. There was no shouting to the heavens in thanks for receiving one of the sharpest minds in modern football. Instead, the tweets from fans were more focused on jokes at the expense of the man who was cruelly nicknamed the “Fat Spanish Waiter”. It’s always baffling to see one of football management’s recent greats be dismissed so easily. Despite all his successes wherever he’s been, Rafael Benitez still does not get the respect he has earned.

Having received his footballing education behind the scenes at Real Madrid, it was at Valencia that Benitez started to impose himself. He inherited a strong side from his predecessor, Hector Cuper, which included the likes of Canizares and Pablo Aimar. The team was successful in Europe with two Champions League final appearances in a row but Benitez was brought in to shore up their title ambitions back home. Something he did successfully in his first full year in charge. His attacking style of football brought the La Liga title back to Valencia for the first time in 31 years. He would repeat his heroics two years later completing a league and UEFA Cup double in 2004.

This put him on Europe’s radar and he secured a move to Liverpool, replacing outgoing Frenchman Gerard Houlier as manager. Newly christened “Rafa the Gaffa”, Benitez oversaw a Spanish revolution at the Merseyside club bringing in such talents as Luis Garcia and Xabi Alonso from the bowels of La Liga sides Barcelona and Real Sociedad.

Bringing home a Champions League and FA Cup in his first two seasons meant he would be forever in the hearts of the Kop who stayed behind him through the club’s problems on and off the field.

The leaving of Liverpool really hurt Benitez’s reputation. His move to Inter Milan to replace the formidable Jose Mourinho was always going to be difficult. Benitez has always lived in the shadow of the Special One. While Mourinho remains the media darling, Rafa looks visibly uncomfortable in front of the cameras. Jose’s antics on the field displays passion to the fans whereas Rafa’s cool exterior gives off a cold demeanour which doesn’t get hearts racing.

The styles of the two men couldn’t be any different and Inter couldn’t comprehend how their team could go from treble winning under Mourinho to six points adrift of local rivals AC Milan in such a short space of time. While he did add the Italian Super Cup and World Club Cup to the trophy cabinet, it wasn’t enough to save him and he was shipped out.

The hatred towards Benitez really picked up when he was brought into Chelsea as interim manager. It would be fair to say that Rafa never had a good relationship with the Chelsea fans. Despite bagging a Europa League to Stamford Bridge, the fans never gave him a chance. They rejected Benitez out of hand the moment he arrived and his time back in England was short-lived.

It was all set up for Benitez to receive a hero’s welcome when he was approached to take over the Real Madrid job in 2015. His spell at Napoli in the interim had seen him pick up another trophy in the Coppa Italia but still not the recognition he was looking for. He was hoping that a return to his home club would see him finally seen as a force in world football once more. It wasn’t to be however as the Madrid fans, like their Chelsea counterparts before them, had no time for Mourinho.

Benitez’s slower and measured approach to the game was rejected angrily by the faithful at the Bernabeu. The style was seen as boring and wasn’t helped by the emerging force of Messi, Suarez and Neymar at rivals Barcelona. Soon enough, the protests became too loud and he was once again punished for not being Mourinho. It was the first time that he had failed to lead a club to a title of any sort in his last 15 years of management at the top level.

With such a chequered past, maybe the Toon Army were right to be cautious. At the end of the day, his trophy haul cannot be denied. 11 trophies in 15 years is nothing to be sniffed at and he looks like he will deliver in the long term. Presently, the Magpies won’t be thinking of any trophies as survival is the name of the game. Should they be unsuccessful, Benitez’s record once again favours him having promoted Tenerife and Extremadura to the La Liga early in his career.

Maybe that’s what needs to happen. Newcastle are no strangers to the “bouncing-back” phenomenon and perhaps a season in the Championship would toughen the side. It would also provide another challenge for Benitez to overcome. Given the time and space, it’s one that he will surely take on and beat. You may laugh at the Fat Spanish Waiter now but if he serves up success, give him the respect he deserves.

By Matt

Matt is the owner and chief-editor of the Footy Blog, one of the UK's leading football news blogs.