Kudos to Rafa Benitez for staying on as Newcastle manager despite having the convenient option of a get out clause in the event they were relegated to the Championship. Having only 10 games in which to save them was a task even beyond a manager of his experience and success, and it would have been perfectly understandable for a man who has managed some of the biggest clubs in the world (and the scousers) to say no thanks to the prospect of spending cold winter days traipsing to the regional outposts of Rotherham, Huddersfield and Burton Albion. Instead, he has accepted the challenge of trying to take Newcastle straight back up to the Premier League. It can only enhance his managerial credentials if he should do so. It will be a far more onerous task and a truer test of his managerial abilities than molly coddling a bunch of expensively assembled Galacticos (or even the scousers) to do what is expected of them.
Now cynics might suggest that he only chose to remain because no suitable offers came along to tempt him. That may well be true but considering a record 29 managers in the top four English divisions were sacked in the first half of last season (according to the LMA), surely a decent offer would have come up sooner rather than later. So much easier then to take the break clause, scuttle off to the Spanish sunshine and wait for that bigger, more appealing offer. Instead, he has chosen to take the risk of dropping down a level and managing in the Championship, and put his reputation on the line by doing so.
Obviously he has the advantage of taking the helm of a ‘sleeping giant’. Newcastle have a huge and vociferous fan base – which Benitez cited as a prime motivating factor for staying – a 52,000 stadium and presumably a generous transfer budget courtesy of owner Mike Ashley. Nevertheless, managing in the Championship will not be easy; will Newcastle be able to attract suitable players willing to ply their trade in the less glamorous environment of English football’s second tier where grit, endurance and defensive organisation will take precedence over swashbuckling free flowing attacking football, and will Benitez be able to organise them into a cohesive unit capable of returning to the Premier League straight away? It will be an immense challenge, and should he fail to gain promotion straight away, his managerial credibility will inevitably be questioned.
Yet Benitez should be commended for putting his managerial credibility on the line. It’s all very well being successful at superclubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, or bankrolled clubs like PSG, Chelsea and Manchester City, or even historically successful clubs like Liverpool. Quite another to guide a so-called lesser, unfashionable team to success. It is what makes Ranieri’s Premier League triumph with Leicester all the more credible. Or Mourinho’s European successes with Porto and, to a certain extent, Inter Milan. And surely Alex Ferguson’s greatest triumph was not with Manchester United but taking unheralded Aberdeen to European Cup Winners Cup glory against the mighty Real Madrid in 1983. Similarly, if Diego Simeone is able to mastermind an Atletico Madrid win in the Champions League final on Saturday, it will be a far greater achievement than Zinedine Zidane’s ready made handed-on-a-plate accession to the top of the managerial pile with Real Madrid’s Galacticos.
The charge of handed-on-a-plate success has also been levelled at Pep Guardiola. He is undoubtedly a great coach, perhaps one of the greatest of all time, but he has only ever managed two of the biggest clubs of all time and had some of the greatest players of all time at his disposal. And when he comes to City, he will be coming to a top club with an open checkbook. City will still provide a far sterner test of his managerial ability as irrespective of having players of the match winning ability of Aguero and de Bruyne and a decent international keeper in Joe Hart, they do require some re-building. They have had a disappointingly inconsistent season with a much needed captain struggling with injuries and an expensively bought starlet who has misfired so far. It will be interesting to see whether Pep can manage to build a team more or less from scratch, rather than merely tweak what he has inherited.
Benitez though has had experience of managing at lower level in Spain with Real Valladolid and Extremadura, which should come in very handy and may perhaps provide one explanation of why he wasn’t daunted at the prospect of managing lower down, in the second tier of English football.
In the same vein, wouldn’t it be interesting to see some of the top managers test their abilities by taking on smaller clubs or even ‘fallen giants’. Imagine if Pep Guardiola had dared to go to Aston Villa rather than moneybags Man City? Then he might proved once and for all whether success or failure at a football club is primarily dependent on the manager, the players or a simply a limitless transfer budget.