France Football Magazine have released a wide-ranging interview from NUFC boss Rafa Benitez – and it’s brilliant.
No doubt Rafa is constantly asked to do interviews in his homeland Spain, or Italy (the country he resided in for several years during spells with Inter Milan and Napoli), but requests from across the Channel show just how world renowned the NUFC boss really is.
Here are the best bits of the interview, ranging from Rafa’s decision to drop down a division last summer, his love for NUFC fans, his hopes for the club, his style of management and his reputation following spells at Real Madrid.
Q – Why did you stay at Newcastle following relegation?
Benitez: “You have to look at the overall picture. Me, I saw the stature of this very important club, with great fervour, a passionate city – and a stadium like no other, a unique atmosphere. I saw a rare link between the fans and the club and that’s fundamental to building something lasting. When making a choice, it is important to measure this energy, this craze, to know if we can create momentum. OK, the club was not in a good position when I signed and we finally got relegated. But I understood that in Championship, we would have the means to rebuild, to start on a real project, which is more difficult sometimes than to fight for your immediate survival. However, I felt that there was room to return to the Premier League very quickly, but also to play a real role in the long run.”
Q – It’s amazing that you, someone who is so analytical, speaks as much of the passion of the fans as a decisive element in the success of a team, is it not?
“It’s not just romanticism. The strength of a club is measured by its financial means, its know-how, but also its popular support. When Liverpool won the Champions League in 2005, do you think it would have been possible without the fans? If we do not analyse this dimension, we miss something.”
Q – You were impressed by Liverpool as a city. Did returning to a similar environment, like in Newcastle, help you make your choice to go there?
“My family still lives in Liverpool. My daughters grew up there, they have friends there – it’s really their city. The relative proximity of Liverpool to Newcastle was a factor because you can get from one to the other pretty fast. When I was working in Naples or Madrid, it was more complicated. In addition, I like the atmosphere that reigns in Newcastle, like Liverpool – where the fans know how to invest in you and the work that you do. These are places where people live for their club. Where the fans want their players to give everything on the field because they give everything for the club. Like Liverpool, Newcastle is a city of workers, so there is also that mentality that must be shown by the team: work is everything.”
Q – You were used to working with great champions before, and then when you came to Newcastle you had to deal with ‘lesser players’. Was it like a new job for you in some ways?
“I had already experienced similar situations and I had two experiences like this at Extremadura, then Tenerife. OK, it was in my early days, but still, I know what it’s like to play and win the lower divisions. In England, many people warned me that summer: ‘Careful, the Championship is very special.’ In spite of everything, you have to trust your methods; do not deviate from your plans because you do not succeed immediately. I knew that we had a very good group for this level. But if the players see you panic after results, it can be complicated because the Championship is a very hard competition, very physical, and anything can happen. So the best way to keep things under control is to stay on your course.”
Q – Did you change your way of working? At Real Madrid, at Chelsea or even at Liverpool, you managed the ‘creme de la creme’, whereas in Newcastle your players are more…
[Benitez interrupts] “Working-class heroes? No problem, I understand what you mean. On the training ground, the principles remain the same. What will change, eventually, are your tactics. Whenever you are at Real Madrid or another top club, it’s up to you to play the game, to create situations, whereas when you’re not a top-five team, you’ll play more of a game where you try to stop the opposition a little more. So, we will inevitably work on different blocks, directions of set pieces and different passes. But, apart from this, the methods remain largely similar. Players like to be offered sessions that are rich in terms of how technical they area – so it’s both fun and rewarding. It’s so motivating.”
Q – What do you give to these players, in terms of coaching and knowledge, given that they have never played at the highest level?
“The key thing is not to tell them: ‘Do this, do this.’ No, I have to give them keys so that they resolve the situations themselves. So I put a lot of dialogue in our sessions to ask them what they thought of this or that problem to solve. Because, in matches, they will not play with a headset on and they must not make the same choices systematically under the pretence that it is what was worked on in training. In football, no situation is exactly the same. So you have to be able to read the game to bring the correct answer. Thinking for yourself is more effective and rewarding. The players are happy to learn this way. That’s what I try to bring them.”
Q – And you, what did you learn during this year in the Championship?
“When playing at the top level or in Latin countries, the game remains the same, it remains open. But, in Championship, all that goes up in flames. There is a major challenge around second balls, for example, and you have to be able to handle that. It was also necessary to learn to control the tempo, not to get carried away in the match and allow them to bring you to their level. It is also necessary to learn how to control blocking. When faced with ‘kick and rush’, we were sometimes caught out by long balls. In other countries, the goalkeepers are protected relatively while in the Championship, even more than in the Premier League, there will be challenges in the air and you must find solutions to protect yourself. All of this is useful for the future. Without a doubt, I am a better coach today.”
Q – Did you not fear damaging your reputation by joining Newcastle?
“I imagine that some people drew quick conclusions when I went to manage in the Championship. OK, I accept that. But there are others that have said: ‘It’s a coach who has confidence in himself to be able to go to the Championship, while he is a multiple winner of European trophies. Let’s see what he can do in this environment.’ With a very good team, a coach’s reputation can be reborn with victories. I think that it is more honest and more complete to analyse that I have won European championships, national cups and trophies with very good teams but also that, in a different context, I won the Championship. It is also a proof of my know-how.”
Q – After your six-month experience at Real Madrid, was Newcastle a challenge you needed, a kind of homecoming?
“It is more the opportunity to return to England that came at a good time. I found a place where the manager is really the one who is in charge of the work that needs to be done. When a manager is chosen and supported, then there is no interference [in England], he does things in his own way. That’s what I needed: to be the master of the project again. Newcastle presented itself – I thought it was an excellent challenge.”
Q – Is building a club up from its foundations, and not just coaching the first team, the type of project your prefer?
“I am a pragmatic person. If I come to a club where the whole structure works perfectly, I’m happy and I have no problem taking care of first-team training, and that’s it. But in England, it is the role of the manager to make sure the club progresses in different sectors, such as with the training centre, recruitment, etc. So, I also apply that role. I have a degree in physical education, I like teaching, guiding. Especially with age, experience, also life experiences from the many countries I have been to – my knowledge has been refined and I am delighted to share it with my colleagues.”
Q – So coaching is almost as important as winning to you?
“No, my first goal is to win. Because victory is necessary to earn trust, then it gives you time to work in depth and to ensure the whole club progresses. First and foremost, you have to win. With 13 trophies in 15 years, I think I’m not doing too badly, right?”
Q – Given the level of the clubs you have managed previously, is Newcastle your most-difficult challenge?
“Not necessarily. When one is able to rely on a whole city, on these fans, on this history, at such a stage and with very solid means, I believe that there is a lot of assets to help us succeed in this challenge. And I have the means to improve what is here, too. Really, in Chelsea or even in Liverpool, you have to succeed quickly because they are already competitive clubs when you arrive there. In other situations, it may take longer. It is necessary that the club is aware that this progression requires time.”
Q – What is the goal for Newcastle this season?
“We were in the Championship last year. That means we missed a lot of money from TV rights while the other teams have been able to add to their squads significantly. We are in a new phase, we must be patient. The key is to stay in the Premier League this season, regardless of the final positions. Then we will have a lot of money and we can strengthen ourselves significantly to go higher.”
Q – You have won three European trophies in your career. Are you afraid of never knowing that feeling again?
“Yes, at the moment I am. But over time, many things are possible. You know, when I came to Liverpool in 2004, the club was struggling to be in the top four every year. However, we were European champions in our first season, we replayed a final two years later and reached several other finals and semi-finals in different competitions. Who could have predicted that when I first signed?”
Q – Did Leicester City winning the title in 2016 give all other clubs the secret dream of winning the Premier League?
“Probably, yes. But I think everyone is realistic too. If we take Leicester to one side, over the last 20 years, it’s still been the club that had one of the two or three biggest budgets that was crowned champions. Leicester, it happens once a century.. So, rather than dreaming, I prefer to work. After that, who knows …”
Fascinating stuff from the Spaniard. One bit stands out the most to me and it’s his first few lines, where he explains just why he stayed on following relegation last summer.
If you ever wanted proof of how much Benitez ‘gets it’ at NUFC, this sums it up:
— NUFC Index (@NUFC_Index) January 25, 2018
What a bloke, and whats a great interview. He gets this club, he gets this city and the people in it who fill St James’ Park every week. Time now for Ashley to get out and new owners to arrive who are capable of matching Benitez’s big plans for a club he’s clearly become so fond of.
We are lucky to have him and to lose him would be unbearable. Let’s hope he stays with us for many more years to come.