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16th Jul 2016

Rafa – “Some clubs are like Hollywood, but when you look inside there’s nothing.”

Dion Fanning

For Rafa Benitez, the names have changed but the game remains the same. He is preparing for Newcastle United’s time in the Championship with the same intensity he prepared last summer for the Champions League with Real Madrid.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 15: Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid and head coach Rafael Benitez look on during Real Madrid training session at Melbourne Cricket Ground on July 15, 2015 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

Benitez knows no other way, but his methods and his manner have been more appreciated at Newcastle than they were at, say, Chelsea or Real Madrid.

He is more content in Newcastle as well, finding a club where the supporters’ values mirror his own, but he may have taken the job because of a deeper contentment. Benitez still believes he is as good as any manager in football, but he may not be as restless in his determination to prove it, a restlessness which may in the past have prompted him to make some unwise career choices.

“I have been around the world for a long time now. I wanted to be close to my family. I wanted to be sure I could do a proper job as a manager. Everyone here, the fans, the club, the staff, is trying to help and we were excited about the new challenge.”

He is sure he can meet the challenge at Newcastle, where he has been appreciated in a way which wasn’t the case elsewhere, at clubs which may have seemed more appealing.

“It depends what you want to sell. Some clubs are like Hollywood,” he said on Friday. “You can see everything, there’s a marquee, but after that there’s nothing.”

Benitez has experienced the glittering prizes in football, but he also has  experience of those places which promised gold but left him with a profound sense of disappointment.

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - MAY 15: Chelsea Interim Manager Rafael Benitez poses with the trophy during the UEFA Europa League Final between SL Benfica and Chelsea FC at Amsterdam Arena on May 15, 2013 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

“Football is a lie,” has been the caustic motto Benitez has used to describe much of what he has encountered in the game and in recent years, he’s rarely considered it amending it to a more upbeat message.

Supporters are led to believe one thing, but the truth is very different. Strangely, at Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United, Benitez has found a place where he believes he can make a connection and get things done.

That has come primarily through the remarkable bond he made immediately with the supporters who saw something of themselves in Benitez and felt their club finally had a man of stature.

NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE, ENGLAND - MAY 15: Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez applauds the fans after the Premier League match between Newcastle United and Tottenham Hotspur at St James' Park on May 15, 2016 in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

“Everything was easy because I could see that we could improve little things and then it would be a massive improvement,” he says of the decision he made at the end of last season to stay, despite relegation.

“Newcastle is a big city, very similar to Liverpool, people who enjoy football, but are also hard-workers who will be behind the team if the players give everything. Then they would be happy with them. So a lot of similarities. To be here, to have opportunities to do things in your way was, for me, was really important and was making the decision easy for me.”

He now has what he needs to be successful. A club which is letting him make the decisions and fans who believe in him.

“If you analyse my career, maybe 80 per cent of the clubs I have been to I have very good relationships with the fans. It’s something that I like. You work hard, you try to do your best for your team, for your club and the fans appreciate that. I like this feeling.”

Relegation last season may have been confirmation, as he puts it, that they did something “wrong”, but there has been an extraordinary response to that demotion.

On Friday, the club announced they had sold 33,000 season tickets already, an example of the belief that has been restored to the club since Benitez arrived.

It has been different at Newcastle United. He uses the term he said he picked up from South American players when he says you can “smell football” in the city.

“You can feel the fans, they like football, they are really really supportive, they will be behind the team and behind the players if they give everything. I like this feeling too.”

For most of his career, Benitez has had this feeling, but spells at Chelsea – which was more successful than usually acknowledged – and Real Madrid were debilitating misjudgements.

Benitez believes in his own ability so many were surprised that he was prepared to stay when Newcastle were relegated, but he has seen what can be achieved at a club where the supporters unite behind the team.

Maybe as importantly, after working across Europe, he felt it was time to work closer to home.

Home, of course, is Liverpool. Newcastle have spent the week in Carton House Hotel preparing for Saturday’s game against Bohemians and, more importantly, the season to come. There were a few Liverpool supporters there every day and Benitez always had time for a selfie with them as well as the supporters of his new club.

LIVERPOOL, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 08: Supporters on the Kop show off their flags and scarves prior to the UEFA Champions League Quarter Final, second leg match between Liverpool and Arsenal at Anfield on April 8, 2008 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

“In Ireland, there are a lot of Liverpool fans. My connection with the Liverpool fans is fantastic, I love them.”

Benitez has that bond with the city he calls home and Newcastle allows him to return there more often. His daughters have grown up on Merseyside and the eldest is now getting ready to go to university next year, but Benitez is happy about her possible choices. “I’m lucky, my daughter likes Durham University so that will be even easier.”

Benitez has found something similar at Newcastle. “With the Geordies now, you can see the same. You can see they are behind the team, they are behind you and they appreciate that you give everything so I will do that. I will give everything and hopefully next season we will be in the Premier League and we can keep building the big club everybody knows Newcastle is.”

Newcastle will be busy in the transfer market with players going and coming out before the season begins, but Ashley has given Benitez money to spend and he will be in charge of shaping the club’s recruitment.

Promotion will be essential, but Benitez stresses the need to stay calm in a long race, something which might be necessary especially in the first month when they are still reshaping the squad.

With Mourinho, Guardiola and Klopp all gathered in the north-west of England, Benitez might be restless to get back to that level, but he is patient and calm.

“I have won some trophies,” he said on Friday. “My aim now is to have a challenge and then try to do well. I don’t need to win more trophies to be happy. I need to be happy every day, to be sure I can enjoy my job.”

He thinks he has found the platform for happiness at Newcastle and he feels he has nothing to prove.”I can see the trophies that I have. I have a lot of confidence in myself, in my staff, in everyone. What I have especially is a club and a city with everyone behind me. That is the main thing for me.”  The game may be the same for Rafa Benitez, but it may have changed in a profound way as well.