Rafa Benitez usually smiles when it is put to him that he is as much politician as he is football manager.
Then he’ll usually tell the story of how he came to leave Valencia for Liverpool after not one disagreement with club bosses over transfer policy but two – which were spread over 12 months.
You see Benitez likes to think of himself as a man of his word. He was disappointed when Valencia signed him an attacking midfielder when what he had wanted was a defender but said his piece, knuckled down and got on with his job. It was a second inglorious transfer window where he felt assurances were not made and kept that made his mind up to leave for Liverpool.
He is not a man who changes jobs particularly freely. He likes to build an empire: to shape and mould squads and clubs and for that you need ‘buy-in’ from people who you are signing and convincing to come on board with you.
At Liverpool he had that. And he turned down Real Madrid because of it. “I received an offer from Real Madrid and I gave my word to Liverpool and I decided to stay. It was a massive offer and I decided to stay,” he said earlier this summer.
“It was a long time ago, obviously, and they were not very happy, but I was happy with my decision.
“A couple of players were asking me, ‘Will you extend your contract? Will you sign a new contract?’, and I said ‘I think so’. They were signing new contracts, both players, and they decided to stay because I gave them my word.”
His word means something and it is the emotional investment of Newcastle’s supporters and their young squad in him and his ideas that is his motivation. Just as Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer before him worked out pretty quickly, affection for Newcastle United does not necessarily mean affection for the people who are running it.
For Keegan it was unconscionable to keep working for Ashley when his power had been eroded by Dennis Wise’s power grab. For Benitez it is more complicated than that: he has influence and authority – see the removal of Graham Carr earlier this summer – but the trust is gone. That was the problem at Valencia.
People have talked of a long goodbye for Benitez but if trouble is fermenting, it doesn’t quite feel like end game just yet. An account, published last year by the Liverpool Echo, of his final days at Anfield are illuminating and fascinating.
Former Liverpool chairman Martin Broughton gave a detailed, blow-by-blow account of the final days of Benitez at Anfield. This was against the backdrop of unpopular owners who had fallen out with Benitez: a mistrust that was impossible to break through. It is worth recounting almost in full.
“As you are aware at that time, there was a very unhealthy atmosphere at that time, where there were three cliques basically. You had the owners, you had the manager and you had the executive, all leaking to people against the other two – and there was a sub-division of that between the two owners as well.
“Rafa had his own full-time PR person who was managing his position. I had expected, given that, that with me coming on board, Rafa would actually make an effort to align himself with a potential ally. It turned out to be quite different.
“This may be me being old fashioned, but I didn’t want my first meeting with Rafa to be on the phone. I wanted a face-to-face meeting.
“Almost immediately after I was appointed, there was a match on a Monday night (against West Ham) so I sent a message to Rafa that I would like to have breakfast with him on the Tuesday morning. Don’t interfere with the manager on the day of the match, so let’s have breakfast the next morning.
“They were leaving Tuesday lunchtime, so I didn’t think that would stop Rafa from meeting Tuesday morning. That wouldn’t have been an issue for me, but in the early hours of the morning a message went from Rafa to Christian Purslow to say that he couldn’t meet me because he had to be off Tuesday lunchtime.
“I didn’t really understand that. I had been at the club three days maybe at this point, and still hadn’t met him. So anyway he went off to Spain, then the following weekend there was an away game (at Burnley) which I didn’t go to.
“Then the following week there was the replay (second leg, against Atletico Madrid) and again I asked to meet for breakfast the day after the match.
“Liverpool won the game but went out on away goals, and again in the early hours comes a message that says ‘I’m too distraught with the result, my head’s not in the right place, I can’t meet’.
“To me, this is getting weird. This was the second opportunity to meet, just for a chat.
“But on the Saturday, in his pre-match chat with the TV, Rafa says ‘I don’t understand what is going on here, the new chairman has been here nearly two weeks and I’ve not even met him yet!’
“We had an interesting thing where I did then meet him, and I had a two-hour download from Rafa, without being able to get a word in, where he told me what was wrong.
“That was fine, get it off your chest, it’s not a complaint at all. I like to hear his version. I then had another meeting with him maybe a week later, and got the same two-hour download.
“I kept interrupting ‘Rafa, you told me that...’ and he said ‘you just need to hear this...’ before we could have a conversation.
“Essentially, I was saying to him ‘what do you need?’ In my background, if you want investment you say what is wrong, what have you tried to do about it that hasn’t worked, what do you need and how is it going to work.
“He had come with a shopping list which included, for example, a left back. And I said ‘Rafa, you’ve been here six years, and you’ve bought six left backs and you’re telling me none of them have worked. So what are you going to differently this time?’ There was no answer.
“I asked him to write down everything he wanted and why it was going to work. And he did. He thought it was totally incomprehensible from a football viewpoint but he did it!
“And I was beginning to think we were starting to get on the right wavelength, when it became obvious that he wanted to have discussions through his lawyer – and that’s when it became obvious that he wanted out.”
It is wordy and Benitez has a different version of it but it is, nevertheless, enlightening in parts. And it is worth remembering that Benitez has been here before – he can work in difficult situations and places great stock in making things work.
It is not as simple as saying the Newcastle boss “will walk”. He may not even accept an offer from West Ham mid-season, such is his affection for Newcastle.
But he also knows that for all that United’s fans support him, it is his reputation that faces potential compromise if the team struggle. He spent part of the week in Nyon rubbing shoulders with some of the best coaches in Europe. He yearns to be able to compete with them; he doesn’t want to lead Newcastle into games against the division’s heavyweights as potential lambs to the slaughter.
These are sporting concerns, not ones driven by ego. His vision as not been backed by the owner: it will likely take a change of ownership or a wholesale change of direction backed by cast-iron assurances to repair relationships now. Neither is imminent.
Benitez will be back at work on Monday, though. He may no longer feel able to trust Newcastle’s hierarchy but that does not mean he will down tools. Perhaps that is the best that United fans can hope for in these anxiety-inducing days.