The reaction from members of the West Kirby branch of his wife’s charitable foundation was telling for Rafa Benitez.
At the end of June, the former manager of Real Madrid, Inter Milan, Chelsea, Valencia, Newcastle – and especially Liverpool – was approached about the prospect of becoming Everton boss.
It was a seismic rendezvous. And some Blues fans have railed against this possibility.
But those who already knew Benitez thought differently.
“Where was I when I got that call? I was home,” said Benitez, speaking to ECHO three months after that revealing meeting, in his Everton training kit, in an office in Finch Farm.
âI live in town and a lot of my friends are already Evertonians. It’s not that all of my friends are red. Some are red and some are blue, and family is the same – so it’s okay.
âBut when it happened, my wife was working with one of the branches of her charity in West Kirby – and they loved me before, but they love me even more now!
âThey were very happy when they heard the possibility and they said ‘you have to go!’
âFrom the start I was excited. I have been leading Liverpool for so many years and want to play again.
âI went to China when there were no teams available here – and China was a project, different things, different methodology, you have to create an Academy to start, which was good, but after the virus everything changed and you couldn’t compete because the rules in china got very complicated and you couldn’t recruit players.
âI was happy to come back to the time and had different options around the world, but wanted to find a club where I could compete.
âIt was a great opportunity. The owners have ambition and they want to compete, they want to do well and there is the new stadium so everything was fine. It was just a matter of agreeing that it was the right one. solution for me and for them. “
So far, the “solution” has been acceptable to all parties.
READ MORE: Jean-Philippe Gbamin’s transfer request ends Everton conundrum in January
The Blues boss saw his very modest signings start quickly.
Everton overcame significant injury absences to make a strong start to the campaign – victory over West Ham on Sunday would take the Blues to 17 points and their highest total after eight games in the Premier League era.
And Benitez won over many skeptics who couldn’t kiss a former Liverpool manager – and succeeded at that – being in the Blues unearthed.
He also had to convince the Everton hierarchy that his ambition still burns as fiercely as when he was a young coach in Spain working with the Real Madrid youth squad.
“I spoke to Mr. Moshiri and then there was a big conference call with a lot of people and then it was fair,” he added. “They wanted to ask questions and then it was something that surprised me, they didn’t know me as a professional.
“They can read the press and maybe ECHO and say ‘he’s this and he’s that’, but they think I’ve been to China and then that’s it. I went to China because I don’t couldn’t compete here and it was a great opportunity.
âIt was a project with potential and money, but the pandemic changed everything. So coming here meant I could compete again. Owners with ambition.
“They didn’t know that when I was at Liverpool I changed academies. I have a degree in physical education and I worked in schools so that I could work with young players. I worked at the Academy of Real Madrid and still in Dalian improves the young players.
âSo we can coach players, we can improve players and we can enter the transfer market because we have some experience and we know a lot of people.
“We will make mistakes like everyone else – but we have experience in the Premier League, we have experience in Italy and Spain and we know people from all over the world – and we love working with young players and improve them. I’m not a normal manager because I’m a coach. “
I am not a normal manager.
If Benitez’s cross-park rival is The Normal One, does that make Benitez the Anomalous One?
He smiles again.
His drive, envy and obsessive attention to detail sometimes obscures Benitez’s fact that he has a good sense of humor.
But its raison d’Ãªtre is to improve everything under its control.
“People sometimes think the manager is there,” he said, pointing to a seat, “… but I trained, I coach the team every day and I coach the players individually and I try to learn as much as possible about them, to improve them as much as I can.
“So if you improve the individuals, you improve the team, and with the experience, the motivation and the commitment of the players, you can improve yourself further.
âIf the players see that you care about them and that you can improve them, they’re happy. And I’m happy.
âWe had Raul at Real Madrid Academy. How do you improve Raul? Or another striker we called Dani? We can always improve them a bit.
“Take Demarai Gray for example, I used to tell him to go more with his left foot, and seeing him score with his left foot when he wasn’t using it too much was really nice for me to see that.”
Benitez has always been a demanding coach.
A succession of former players all say the same thing about him. He’s a coach who defies his accusations. He uses the stick rather than the carrot. But his methods are hugely effective, even if players don’t always realize it instantly.
His Champions League-winning captain Steven Gerrard once said: “He challenged me a lot and picked things he thought I could improve on – he never really praised me.
“It took a while for me to get used to it and maybe my insecurities and emotions felt like he didn’t like me.
“But he was just leading me in a different way.
âLooking back on it now, he brought out the best in me. And that was probably the best way to do it. Great management. But at the time, my insecurities didn’t recognize him. He definitely got my game through. to another level. “
Jamie Carragher agreed.
When Gary Neville asked him to choose between Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez, he said: âRafa Benitez was a better football manager but Gerard Houllier was a better manager.
“I liked Houllier more, but I played my best football under Benitez.
“With Benitez, it’s almost like you don’t like him – actually it’s not fair, of course you like him, we’ve done amazing things – but when you come out of it, you look at it. back and a lot of things I’m talking about now Monday Night Football, a lot of them come from him.
“I wouldn’t say it’s the stick all the time, he would never scream but he would always want more.”
It was a methodology Andros Townsend would recognize. His boss pointed out that the Everton winger should have taken a different stance in a certain situation as he left the pitch after scoring the Premier League’s October goal against Burnley.
Rafa smiles at the assertion that he’s a tough builder.
He explained: “It’s not true! It has to be in a certain way. When I was younger I followed Arrigo Sacchi to AC Milan, analyzing every game, every detail so that I could convey this information to young players in Madrid.
âI have books on psychology and I read a lot of books about it and about dealing with different personalities. Each one is different.
“I’m from Spain and the English players when they have a day off are happy to go have a beer, but I like to train and I like to improve them.”
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Benitez then plunges headlong into a long and enthusiastic monologue about how he has improved the youth of the Madrid Academy.
It’s fascinating and detailed, but the overall theme was that small improvements across the board lead to big improvements.
Dave Brailsford called this “marginal gains” in the transformation of British cycling.
Bill Shankly said, âIf you take care of the little things, sometimes the big things take care of themselves.
Benitez is an enthusiastic defender of both philosophies, but with his own personal stamp.
“Some clubs think being in the middle of the table is an achievement, that staying in the Premier League is an achievement,” he said.
âBut when you’re fighting for titles, one goal, just a minute of making the right decision – or not – can change everything.
âWhen you are in Madrid you are competing with Barcelona, ââwhen you are in Napoli you are competing with Juventus. I am here now, so we have to compete with the best teams. Being in the middle of the table is not not my goal, my goal is to make sure we can go higher and higher.
âSome people say that finishing eighth is a great goal. It doesn’t mean anything to me.
âI prefer to be there when you can play in Europe and then you can play against the best teams in Europe, then just a free kick, just a corner, just a minute at kick-off when you do this or that can change everything .
âIf you don’t have that mentality, you can’t compete at the level you want to compete at and you can’t win.
âIn Spain I use the example of Getafe, always in the middle of the table. Great. – you can finish 14th, 10th or eighth, it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t change much and you are considered successful.
“But if you want to compete with a team that has potential, you have to compete to win something, not just keep expectations, you have to do something more.”
Benitez is always looking to do more and more.
* Tomorrow: Part 2 of our exclusive interview with Rafa Benitez about improving Everton, why Duncan Ferguson was ‘key’ and his first Goodison derby …