Rafa Benitez is not the most obvious folk hero. A nondescript looking man who resembles an exasperated Paul Giamatti character, he rarely seems excessively delighted with anything, his charisma isn’t publicly obvious and his football often cautious and controlled. But seven years after leaving Liverpool he remains a hero there, and now he has inspired a previously downtrodden and disenfranchised Newcastle fanbase into being enthusiastic about their club again.
Benitez has a knack of letting fans know he’s on their side. At Liverpool his early success obviously helped, but he knew how to talk to the people in the stands, he knew that a well-placed ‘YNWA’ here and there was advisable, and while his own popularity was not the reason for his support of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, that couldn’t hurt. He knew how to paint himself as an underdog, which was sometimes true, doing well in spite of those in charge rather than because of them, which will always endear him to supporters. He’s done a similar thing at Newcastle, making it pretty clear that he joined, stayed and wanted to do well for those in the stands, not those in the director’s box.
After relegation in 2016, Benitez’s arrival and promise to stay on in the Championship cut through the apathy that had chipped away at Newcastle for the previous decade. Mike Ashley’s time in control of the club had made the atmosphere at St James’s Park the equivalent of a giant collective shrug, fans without the ardour to even be angry about the state of things. Benitez changed that, and while promotion at the first attempt wasn’t quite the drama-free cruise that some thought it might be, it was achieved without excessive fuss.
Benitez has brought some form of stability to Newcastle that they clearly needed, a man capable of running a team and enthusing a fanbase. And more than that, he’s ensured that Newcastle need him much more than he needs Newcastle.
Benitez has made clear that things must be done on his terms. His unhappiness with this summer’s transfer market moves is just the latest way he is kept the ever-present threat that he might leave hanging over the club’s hierarchy. He has leveraged his popularity into a method of getting what he wants, shrewdly and to this point successfully.
I’m not happy,” Benitez said this week, when asked about Newcastle’s relative inertia in the transfer market. “I’m not happy with it, but, at the same time, for me, it’s a challenge and I will try to do my best. If I decide to stay, it’s for the city, the fans, the stature of the club, to stay in England and in the Premier League. So I want to do my best, but obviously every manager wants to improve.”
Everything was there in that short statement: the pledge of loyalty to the fans; the pressure on the board to do his bidding; the looming threat that he could walk away at any moment; the implicit distance between himself and the Newcastle high-ups. A carefully chosen collection of words that serve as further illustration that Benitez, arguably, is the most powerful manager in the Premier League.
There aren’t too many other managers who can hold such a powerful threat of departure over his club. Arsene Wenger might be so influential at Arsenal that nobody has the power to sack him, but a significant portion of their fanbase would be happy if he went. Jose Mourinho is treated with enough suspicion by some at Manchester United to not be indispensable. Manchester City have a lot invested in Pep Guardiola but they know well enough that he probably won’t be there for longer than a few more years. Eddie Howe is perhaps the only other to be as important to his club as Benitez is, but that will soon change if Bournemouth have a bad start to the season. There are other managers who hold significant sway – David Wagner, Mauricio Pochettino, Antonio Conte – but basically every other boss is, to some extent or another, expendable, depending on results.
Newcastle have been here before, a wildly popular manager on the brink of leaving because he’s unhappy with how transfer business has been conducted. When Kevin Keegan walked out in 2008, it was the last time most of their fans trusted the current regime with anything. They can’t afford to let that happen again.