The view from Red and Blue - Rafa Benítez crosses the great divide

Can the manager still adored across Stanley Park at Anfield really succeed at Goodison?

 Everton’s 26th manager Rafael Benitez became their most controversial before a ball was kicked. Photograph: Tony McArdle/Getty Images

Everton’s 26th manager Rafael Benitez became their most controversial before a ball was kicked. Photograph: Tony McArdle/Getty Images

 

It took until the 21st century for a 19th-century manager to get company. William Edward Barclay was a largely forgotten figure, overshadowed by most of his successors. But he was both the first manager of Everton and of Liverpool and the only man to take charge of both Merseyside rivals. Until Rafa Benítez crossed the great divide.

Everton’s 26th manager became their most controversial before a ball was kicked. “I was very surprised,” says Stephen Warnock, who made 67 appearances for Benítez’s Liverpool. “It just doesn’t happen. If you put Rafa’s CV on the table but didn’t say it was him, you would say: ‘This guy has got pedigree.’ But when you say it is Rafa Benítez and think of his connections with Liverpool …”

Both sides of the city are bemused more by Everton’s thinking than Benítez’s decision. “A lot of people despair of the board,” says Jim Keoghan, author of Everton’s Greatest Games. “When the name was put about, it wouldn’t take much to take the message of the fans’ views; it was explicit. A lot of Evertonians think that there are so many managers out there that they could have gone for so why would you pick someone with his legacy? He is not just an ordinary Liverpool manager; he is a hero to them.”

Blues and Reds were in agreement. “His legacy is pretty well assured,” says Matt Ladson, editor of This is Anfield. “Liverpool fans in the city can see he loves the city, he loves the area, he loves the people and it is that kind of home he wants, so why begrudge somebody that? It is not like it is a recent scar, like your ex that you have not got over yet.”

Ladson is relieved the 2005 Champions League winner Benítez will not be airbrushed out of Liverpool’s history. Instead, he is looking forward to April’s Anfield derby. “He is on the banners alongside other European Cup-winning managers, they will remain and I think that is right,” he says.

Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard and manager Rafael Benitez lift the Champions League trophy in 2005. Photograph: Etsuo Hara/Getty Images
Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard and manager Rafael Benitez lift the Champions League trophy in 2005. Photograph: Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

“To remove it would be almost childish and show Evertonians that it has really got under our own skin. It is funny they will be sat in the Anfield Road End looking at their manager, being reminded he has won the European Cup. I can imagine a scene where we are clapping the Everton manager and the Everton fans themselves are not doing it. I can’t imagine the Rafa song being sung any time soon but maybe if we are 4-0 up in the derby. That might happen and be quite funny.”

There is a shared sense that Jürgen Klopp’s success has made this easier for the Anfield faithful to accept. “I am surprised by the low-key reaction of some of the Liverpool fans I know,” says Gavin Buckland, an Evertonian author and historian. “It indicates the rivalry on Merseyside is not as intense as it once was. There would have been a different reaction if Benítez had gone to Man Utd or Man City.”

Buckland believes some initially sceptical Evertonians were won over by the impression Benítez made at his unveiling. Too few of Everton’s managers since David Moyes have understood the club; he feels the Wirral resident Benítez’s links will help him. “He knows the city, he knows the supporters, he knows the atmosphere,” he added.

“He knows the mood music around football in the city and I think that will help him forge connections with the Everton fanbase. It is not as though he left Liverpool in 2010 and went to live in Spain. His daughters are both basically scousers.”

Not everyone believes Benítez’s past is an asset. “My mum is in her 80s and quite polite but she is a diehard Blue and she dismissed him,” says Keoghan. Such sentiments mean Benítez is less likely to be afforded time at a club with a track record of impatience. “We are already quite an intolerant fanbase,” Keoghan explains. “We are lightning quick to turn on our managers. There are fans who are not going to overlook his past. He would need to do exceptional things to be accepted.”

A philosophical Ladson rationalises: “It won’t take long for the Everton supporters to turn on him and then it will all end in tears anyway.”

Warnock’s playing days contain a precedent that bodes badly for his former manager. “I was part of the Aston Villa team when Alex McLeish left Birmingham and came across to Aston Villa and it could be quite hostile,” says the former England left-back. “The first moment or sign of any poor play or any tactical errors or anything, the crowd would be on him; it was almost like they wanted him to fail.

“They wouldn’t accept a manager from Birmingham. It was always difficult and that is the feeling you get from Everton fans towards Rafa. Any sign of trouble and they will be on his back.” Warnock believes Benítez’s pragmatic style of play will leave him still more reliant on results. “Is the football Rafa plays going to excite them? I don’t think it is.”

Warnock fears for his former manager but feels Benítez’s self-confidence is such that he will think he can win the doubters over. “What you have got to understand with Rafa is he is very, very, very thick-skinned,” he says. “He will not be worried about what people say. The response from Evertonians before he had even signed the contract would have put most people off. It doesn’t bother him at all. He will just be thinking: ‘I will prove you wrong and get the results and then you will come and adore me.’

“It will be incredible if he can do it. I don’t think there’s many managers who have managed both teams in a city and been adored by both sets of fans. But if anyone is capable of doing it, he can because of his tactical nous. He is not the most endearing of people when you work with him but his work ethic is second to none.” - Guardian

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