On the day that Pep Guardiola was announced as Manuel Pellegrini’s successor at Manchester City, I took my car down to an independent car-maintenance co-op opposite the local mosque for a wash. I stood, as I often do, talking to Michael, the establishment’s proprietor. The son of a Pole began talking to the tough-talking Latvian of amusingly untellable age about this turn of events. Michael was unimpressed with Guardiola’s pedigree; it is a testament to the agony and perversity of football’s laws of physics and logic that not only he could be so, but that he could be so on perfectly reasonable grounds. “Talk to me when he has gone to a team threatened with relegation, and turned them around. Talk to me then. A top manager? With all that money? Pah.”
Loathed though I should be to launch into such qualifying polemic at length, the carwash chatter poured petrol on an imagining I’d already had some time before: surely, considering that financial components are redundant in modern football these days, the plight of the threatened team must be manna to a manager? A true manager? The glamour of the contender is football’s most fundamental glory, but also its most rudimentary. There is no sterner test of a manager’s stuff, of the completeness of his competency, than to helm a club that teeters on the precipice.
It is on this basis that, if one were to begin a debate on the most respectable manager in world football, I would, on balance, have no one other than Rafa Benitez as my choice. In his first post, inheriting Hector Cupér’s berth in the sweltering confines of the Mestalla, he took a Valencia squad that similarly sweltered with promise and near-accomplishment to the club’s first league title in 31 years. After Jesus Garcia Pitarch’s failure to buy him a sofa, Benitez blazed trails to England, the first Spanish manager ever to do so; to the ailing and reputational Liverpool he brought furia roja that belied the early developments in his country of tiki-taka. His achievements on Merseyside are legion; from the history placating dramas of Istanbul and West Ham that delivered titles, to the far more literal managerial triumphs of keeping Steven Gerrard and fashioning him into the mercury of one of European football’s meanest spines. Thereafter he proved his evergreens with Inter, Napoli and perennial nemesis Chelsea, completing management’s only set of four: the three UEFAs (Champions League, Europa League and Super Cup) and FIFA’s pageant Club World Cup.
But the sharpest feather in his cap? Taking Toon reigns as the St. James’ Park faithful stared into the great maw of relegation. Newcastle’s slide down last season was a travesty of club politics, presided over still as they are by the distinctly malign Mike Ashley, who since downing pints in the Emirates’ away end during the initial honeymoon phase of his ownership has as his main mark of distinction the now near decade-long attempt at a divorce from the club he bought in 2007. No one’s buying. So risible was Newcastle’s slide last season that they periodically brought out the worst in their opponents too: not only had Tottenham Hotspurs already conceded the title chase upon their visit to an equally if differently doomed Newcastle, but they were crushed under the mantle of Newcastle’s hell drive, losing 5-1 to the already relegated side.
The next season, however, brought some kind of rebirth for them both. Rafa was already at the helm, and as Newcastle rode off into the supernova even still on the back of a five-match unbeaten run from matchday 33, he pledged his allegiance to the club. They began their Championship season looking very much like a former top flight side chastened by relegation – swimming in the profit begotten by sale after sale, with a few stars remaining after the squad’s haircut.
Seeing how temperamentally their departing agents have fared – Gini Wijnaldum has fared reasonably in Jurgen Klopp’s occasionally scintillating Liverpool side, and Andros Townsend more occasionally at Palace, while Moussa Sissoko’s Spurs tenure has thus far been risible in its incident – the surfeit of talent Newcastle possessed in their last Premier League campaign may have proved to be their ultimate detriment. Their progress with Benitez has been assured, founded on a goal-rich midfield; a team that is compact, swift in its industry, following the same pattern of reduced unit as is common to high-achieving Championship sides. For those readers less familiar with it, the second tier of English football is like its first, but with its every divisive element exaggerated; in both the onslaught of its fixture list and its seemingly lawful insistence that every match degenerate under the force of its own intensity, it is no division for flair. Ever a footballing realist, one whose approach is often unfairly derided for its lack of prejudice against pragmatism, Benitez evidently saw in the club he inherited a squad building philosophy distinctly at odds with the capacity of the club to deal with such ambition. Ask any club with a successful recent history of consolidated Premiership-ship, and they will insist that every level of management is synchronised upon the same task of promotion and, once they have achieved it, of stability. Benitez’s pruning of the Toon squad has given them that sense of the unit without pretensions, welded too to a fanbase of stoicism and loyalty unparalleled and helmed by a tactician of world class pedigree capable of securing such a refitting of the squad. That latter factor could prove the decisive one, even as the Magpie backroom remains the stuff of sorts that could cheer a manic depressive up.
It is thanks to those changes that Newcastle will likely show themselves capable of rending disturbances in the force next season, particularly if were they to retain Rafa’s services. Alan Shearer insisted upon the Tyneside club’s need of a war-chest from Ashley, but perhaps his notion that Newcastle will again need to prove their Premier League kinship by the wallet is a wrongheaded one: that aforementioned lack of pretence is what delivered them to the top so soon after they had fallen from it. Newcastle have been haunted by a lack of balance throughout their history; imbalance proved the prod that produced a fall from grace in that fitful ’95-’96 season more agonising than either of the relegations Mike Ashley has overseen. Under Benitez’s stewardship, they walk more assuredly on a lower tightrope. They are no longer a benighted albatross; but birds beginning flight on the right plane may to untellable heights come to soar.