The odds against Rafa Benitez at Everton, but he aims to prove everyone wrong
Rafa Benitez is a character who divides. He inspired great devotion and aroused equal contempt during his career. For once, almost everyone in Merseyside agrees about it. Hardly anyone wants the 61-year-old to be Everton’s manager.
The only person who is thrilled is Benitez himself. The former Liverpool boss is delighted to lead Goodison Park.
The Spaniard has already worked in hostile territory. He was interim manager at Chelsea for six difficult months and his presence brought the crowd at Stamford Bridge to the point of insurgency. Benitez’s relations with owner Roman Abramovich and the club’s board were positive, however, and he left west London on good terms after handing over the Europa League trophy.
The Evertonians are mad at the former Liverpool manager. When they look at Benitez, they don’t see a Champions League winning boss. Seen through blue lenses, he is simply the man who called Everton a ‘little club’ and gravely offended the sensibilities of supporters of the City’s senior squad.
Across the divide, many grapple with the idea that a man whose face adorns the Liverpool banners walked through Stanley Park to join the enemy. Relations between supporters of Merseyside Premier League clubs have deteriorated over the past quarter of a century. The “friendly derby” is getting less and less brilliant year after year.
Benitez has created a strange kind of unity. Both fans regret his presence in Goodison’s canoe. Almost everyone will enjoy it if he fails at Everton.
None of this concerns Benitez. He has a one-way mind and is obsessed with winning trophies. Although he enjoys building relationships with fans – he has been involved with militant supporters at Liverpool and Newcastle United – he has no interest in trying to charm enemies in the stands.
The biggest threat to Benitez comes from inside the club. His appointment to replace Carlo Ancelotti last month was not prompted by owner Farhad Moshiri but by Alisher Usmanov. The two have been associated for many years, and Usmanov is the primary partner in the relationship. The Uzbek-born billionaire has no financial stake in Everton but his companies – USM and MegaFon – are major sponsors of the club. Usmanov convinced a skeptical Moshiri that Benitez was the right choice. Hardly anyone else in Everton’s hierarchy agrees.
That should change. Over the years, Benitez has gained a reputation for being cold towards the team and difficult to deal with in the boardroom. Players are often pleasantly surprised by his methods and talent for improving those who listen to him on the training ground. It responds well to owners who set clear parameters and keep their commitments. It is when his employers renounce their promises that the difficulties arise.
This raises questions: If Benitez’s biggest funder is neither an owner nor a board member, will it get the level of support it expects? Usmanov may have unwavering confidence in Everton’s new manager, but will Moshiri’s commitment falter at the first sign of things going wrong?
Having Usmanov in your corner can’t be a bad thing. The former Arsenal shareholder consulted his oligarch colleague Abramovich during Everton’s hiring process and received glowing reports from the Chelsea owner. Benitez was shy about the details of his appointment at his first press conference, saying it was “complicated”. This was, in part, because of Usmanov’s involvement. When Ancelotti arrived at Goodison two years ago, there was a feeling of excitement and the feeling that Everton had pulled it off. The mood is different now. The club weren’t quite intimidated into accepting Benitez, but there was no elation.
The underlying suspicions mean there is no room for error for Benitez. He must start the season well. Any drop in shape will send the crowd into a frenzy of anger. Moshiri will have to stand firm behind an employee of whom he remains doubtful. A source close to the situation said it was “the biggest bet in Merseyside football history”.
Ironically, without his background at Liverpool, Benitez would be the perfect manager for Everton. He launches into his work and shows a total commitment; he is a superb trainer; and unlike Ancelotti, he won’t be easily attracted to. He has developed deep roots in the area and the family home is only about 10 miles from Goodison. His ambition is to become a local hero. Again.
The odds are against Benitez, but he takes up the challenge fearlessly. He senses the opportunity and thinks he will prove that almost everyone is wrong.
Updated: July 15, 2021 6:00 a.m.