This season has taken its toll on Rafael Benitez. The strain of a relegation haunted campaign is chiselled into his face, the emotion that comes with carrying the hopes of a football-centric city has weighed heavily on his shoulders, the stress of dealing with an owner like Mike Ashley has drained him of the enthusiasm he had when he first become Newcastle United manager.
Yet, still the eyes sparkle when he talks about football, players and what needs to be done to improve. Benitez’s mind is constantly buzzing with ideas and thoughts in the quest to return Newcastle to the upper reaches of the Premier League.
The fire still burns. Football management was once described as a drug by one of his predecessors at St James’ Park, Sir Bobby Robson. Benitez is an addict with no interest in booking into rehab.
This is what he does, since he was just 13 years old, recording match details from his youth team on a Commodore 64 computer. Football has consumed him. It is a life he has endured, as well as enjoyed, for more than 40 years.
“I don’t want to say that I am always working because it’s ‘Oh, Rafa is just football’…. I have my family,” said Benitez, when asked, at the end of a training session during a warm weather training camp in Spain, if he is obsessed with his job.
“I sleep but at the same time, I feel the responsibility. Not just for the games and the performances of the first team, every decision. I go to the training ground early in the morning, between 7:30am and 8:30am. Not just me, my staff. Then, sometimes I leave at 8pm or 6pm.
“I have a big screen in my office to watch games and I prefer that, because if I go home, I only have the computer and that’s quite small.
“I don’t only watch football, I like films. But I am [also] on the computer [watching football], you can see someone punching someone or jumping over things, or whatever, in the background, you can concentrate on both things.
“It is easier now, at the start of my career, I only had VHS tapes. I would have two screens, two remote controls in my hand and I would watch both at the same time.”
This is Benitez - a man who claims he likes watching films, but only does so while he has some sort of football on at the same time.
Speaking to the former Liverpool, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Napoli and Inter Milan manager at the team’s isolated hotel, a short drive from Spain’s south coast tourist resorts, Benitez is in high spirits, the 3-0 win over Southampton the previous weekend, lifting Newcastle five places clear of the relegation zone.
But all is not serene. The 57-year-old loves this job, the club and the city. He enjoys the sort of adulation not seen on Tyneside since Robson was in charge 15 years ago, but he has found working for a man like Ashley difficult to say the least.