With less than a month remaining in the 2018/19 Premier League campaign, the future of Newcastle United manager Rafa Benitez remains uncertain. The 58-year-old is adamant that he wants to stay at St James' Park, but he will only sign an extension to his current deal - which expires in June - if he receives reassurances from the Magpies board that they share his ambition to progress. In order to fully understand how and why Benitez became such a political character, and to comprehend the burning desire which still remains within the Spaniard to compete for trophies and European football, it is worth speaking to those close to the United manager. Spanish football expert and journalist Guillem Balague wrote a book on Benitez's Champions League triumph at Liverpool, and has known the Newcastle manager since his days in La Liga coaching Valencia. The pair met as recently as Friday, April 5, too, as Balague ventured to United's Benton Training Centre in order to record a podcast for BBC Radio 5Live which looks back at the best games of Benitez's managerial career. NUFC Writer Chris Waugh caught up with Balague in order to gauge Benitez's private mood, the United manager's ambitions for the future, whether there has been interest from other clubs in the Spaniard's services, and what he believes it will take to keep the Magpies boss in situ at St James' Park for the long term...
Question: How would you assess Benitez's mood at the moment, compared to when you've seen him in the past? Does he appear happy at Newcastle?
A: I think everyone can see, it's no secret, that things have to go in a certain direction with contract talks in order to satisfy him. There are rumours the club could be sold, which would create its own uncertainties - but it does feel like for a while, despite signing Miguel Almiron, he has not necessarily gotten all of what he wants. This sort of uncertainty, for somebody who holds the stature of Rafa Benitez, it creates a little bit of nervousness. But it seems to me that he is focused on the job at hand, and one more victory would be enough to stay in the Premier League, which was the target anyway. The question is: Do you want to be in a place where the target every season is merely to be safe? Or do you want to be searching for progress? That is the question that is always at the back of Rafa Benitez's mind while he's at Newcastle.
Q: Benitez insists Newcastle are the "only club" he is talking to - but has there been interest from elsewhere? Does he have alternatives to Newcastle, if he did decided to pursue them?
A: I know for a fact that he has rejected at least two massive offers - and I mean massive offers - to make him one of the best-paid managers in the world. Those offers came from Saudi Arabia and China. I also feel that it would be a shame if he had to go in that direction, if there was no club that decides he can push them to win titles in England. He is more than capable of doing that, as we know. I do genuinely feel, however, that if he had the opportunity to do that at Newcastle, that would be it for the next 10 years. He seems very, very settled.
Although, in the same week as I visited Newcastle to speak to Rafa Benitez for a BBC 5Live podcast, I visited Manchester City's training ground and Newcastle's training ground. The gap is so huge. Manchester City is not the only example though. Tottenham Hotspur's training ground is brilliant, and so too is Manchester United's, and a lot of Premier League clubs have the same facilities. Newcastle's is miles behind those. And, if anyone thinks you only win games by buying players or by being clever in the market, they're wrong. You need everything else to go with it as well, because otherwise you'll end up creating an atmosphere that doesn't allow you to maximise the potential, or to attract players to come. As we all know, that's what Rafa Benitez is trying to do at Newcastle, and I understand that money is required for it. He has made money from sales, which hasn't been reinvested into the side or the club, so that has to be disappointing. I bet a lot of the time he feels like he is talking to a brick wall, but now could be a turning point. I have got no idea what the future will hold - whether there are new owners or not - but there is already an ambitious manager in place who can achieve extremely positive things at Newcastle.
Q: In order for Benitez to commit to Newcastle, do you believe he wants to see evidence he can start to bridge the gap to the top sides and try to compete for trophies again in the long term?
A: 'Winning' is not only about titles; 'winning' is about being close to winning titles, and at least having the option of potentially winning titles. A hundred things may happen which prevent you from winning titles, but the ability to at least compete for silverware and reach Wembley, those are the things which drive people like Rafa Benitez on. Rafa Benitez comes from Real Madrid; that's what formed his way of thinking, to compete for titles. He will not want to think that for the next five years he's going to be at a club where the only goal is to avoid relegation. He can keep a team up season after season without much money - he's proven he can do that - but, if you think of the clubs he's been to before, I'm sure he doesn't see himself in five years' time staying at a place where the target is only survival. If the club say to him: 'Look, there is a project. There is x amount of money available.' Then I think he'd contemplate it. It's obvious the top five - excluding Spurs perhaps - are getting further and further away from the rest of the clubs in terms of money coming in, but there is another league where the likes of Everton, Wolves and Watford are at the moment. That is the next step for Newcastle; it has to be. If they can say to Benitez that there is money available to try and compete for those positions, then I think he'd be more than interested to push on. But when you've done all the things that he has throughout his career, to be asked to merely avoid finishing in the bottom three of the Premier League every year, he could do that job but he knows it's a waste of his talent.
Q: Does Benitez still have the same hunger and drive to compete that he had when he first came to England with Liverpool? Does the desire to compete still burn inside of him?
A: He doesn't so much have a desire to prove people wrong, but I can tell you that he has not moved one single centimetre from the Rafa Benitez I knew at Valencia. Honestly, it's crazy. We're all getting older, but he seems to have the energy of a teenager still. I'll give you an example, we came up to Tyneside [in early-April] with BBC Radio 5Live to do the top six or seven games throughout his career. It was difficult in itself because it wasn't just games from which he won trophies; for instance there was also the game when he was sacked when he first started out in the Spanish top flight as a manager. So we had to go through all of that - and he has an extraordinary memory - and we had one hour, but in theory I knew it was going to be at least an hour and 15 minutes, or more, which is what happened.
Then we switched everything off, and spent another hour standing up, talking about football. He was challenging my producer, Paul Fletcher, on the whiteboard to talk about man-marking, zonal, and corners.I've seen some of the most famous managers in the world - those like Benitez who have won titles everywhere - who just couldn't wait to get out of the training ground because they had to play golf, or couldn't get away for a break soon enough because they simply had had enough. Some of them are still giving lessons to the media, but you can tell they don't have the desire or the motivation any more. They just want the easy life. Honestly, if I admire Rafa Benitez it's not because he's my friend. Perhaps it's the other way around. I became closer than a friend because I just simply see something to admire, and it's that passion for the job he does. It's not even just tactics, or anything else, either. He has done new things in the Premier League before anyone else - the 4-2-3-1 system, the zonal marking from corners, and a lot of things he has tried before others. But it's not just that; for me, the thing to admire and to take home is just that he does give everything. That, for me, is a lesson in life.
Q: There's always been a political element to Benitez - is that something he will never lose? Is that something which is part of his make-up, because of his desire to make a club the best they can be?
A: In his first experience as a coach in the Spanish first division at Real Valladolid, he had the same experience. He had to fight with the board about certain things. It was a team that was not made for the first division, but circumstances meant they had to be in the first division, which is normally something which you celebrate, but when you're not prepared for it then it's something to be scared about. But he still managed to push the board to get certain things that he needed. It didn't work out, but that was in his first experience, and he is never going to lose that. If it was obvious he was just pushing for extra money for himself and his own contract at Newcastle, then we would have known it by now. For Rafa Benitez, it is to make the best out of his team and to continue improving the team. He may be right or wrong with some of the decisions he makes, or the players he tries to bring in or sell, but that fight is to prevent others who have less knowledge of his squad, and less knowledge of football in general, to make decisions for him. It's as simple as that for him. He still has the political edge, and he will never lose it - and he will keep pushing the Newcastle board for as long as he is at St James' Park.
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