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Rafa, Toon, and a Football Manager's Many Roads

Friday 17th February 2017
Robert Frost celebrated individuality and choice with his poem The Road Not Taken. In our result-driven myopia, football fans see managers who arrive at success from unexpected origins as emulating Frost's spirit, ignoring that they are all seeking to climb the same mountain but have merely been forced to travel back roads to beat traffic, as it were.

José Mourinho, who has spoken to match officials, physios, and the press in anger, but never kicked a ball in that particular emotional state, was first a translator for Barcelona as a means to get his foot in the door. Then, mentored by Sir Bobby Robson and Louis van Gaal, he returned home to Portugal to manage Benfica, Uniāo de Leiria, and Porto. A surprising Champions League campaign at his final native destination put him on the so-called well-trodden path.

Jürgen Klopp did play, exuding the same fiery passion now displayed along the touch-line. His pedal-to-the-metal approach afforded him a fast lane to the top, beginning his coaching career in the Bundesliga with Mainz. Yet, for those focused on the biggest clubs and names, he seemingly came from nowhere.
Sam Allardyce began coaching as a player-manager with Limerick. Apropos that. It's difficult to recall a football boss who more inspired one. But Allardyce credits his breakthrough success with Blackburn to an introduction to statistics and sports science during his one season playing with the now defunct NASL's Tampa Bay Rowdies. If Big Sam was ahead of the curve on analytics, it can hardly be called a road less taken, can it?

JRR Tolkien also waxed poetic about roads in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Bilbo Baggins' walking song, The Road Goes Ever On, notes how paths taken in a life spent coaching or otherwise tend to converge, with everyone seeking the same thing.

Of course, roads have many twists and turns, some leading to dead ends. Bob Bradley chose not to fall back on Major League Soccer when the USSF called time on his tenure with the United States national team. Instead, he took a road American coaches seldom are given an opportunity to tread. In keeping with his proclivity for going against the grain, Bradley coached Egypt during the Arab Spring then wintered in Norway with Stabæk. Next, he went to Ligue 2's Le Havre. His inherited side turned out to be Havre-nots after missing out on promotion to Ligue 1 on goal difference. Nonetheless, coming so close with another manager's players was a feather in Bradley's cap. Swansea's US owners, noting he'd thrived despite Middle Eastern and French anti-Americanism, invited him to have a go with the Welsh strain. We all know how that turned out. Battling Bob famously said he would be ready to manage "tomorrow" should another club call. Thus far, tomorrow hasn't arrived.
When coaches do manage to reach the mountain top, they are seldom prepared for the challenge of staying there. They can't all be Alex Fergusons. Realizing holding down a single peak for a generation was not for him, nimble-minded Pep Guardiola decided to hop from one pinnacle to the next. The leap between La Liga and the Bundesliga was within his range, especially with a year's running start. The standing broad jump from Germany to England was more tricky, with the Catalan failing to stick the landing. Guardiola's reputation affords him time to get it right at the Etihad, however. Should he not, it will be interesting to see how he negotiates the other side of the mountain, aka the downgrade.

Some Sunderland fans are seeing David Moyes' post-Man United career unravel before their eyes. It isn't pretty. Although, if validation is your thing, it could be worse. Forget the other side of the mountain. Three former Real Madrid coaches, Manuel Pellegrini, Juan Ramón López Caro, and Vanderlei Luxemburgo are putting in anonymous shifts on the far side of the world in the Chinese Super League. Marcello Lippi, who coached Juventus to three Scudettos and the Azzurri to a World Cup, thrice won the Super league with Guangzhou Evergrande before accepting the Chinese national team's reins. No one in this hemisphere seems too interested in the unlikelihood he can complete the bookend. Carlos Queiroz, another former Merengues boss and Fergie's longtime number two at United, has been coaching Iran since 2011. One can understand the relief in being able to focus solely on football absent a blinding media spotlight.

Yet, for some that spotlight matters. They'll do anything to have it shine on them one more time. Rafa Benítez is currently working on Plan C to further his career.

Plan A went to pot when Tom Hicks and George Gillett nearly ran Liverpool into the ground with poor financial management and the man himself ran Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano out of town by failing to put a muzzle on his ego.

Plan B was to do a better job than José Mourinho at whatever club his nemesis had recently departed. With his first effort, Rafa imploded a treble winning Inter side in less than four months. In his third, he somehow managed to endear himself to Madridistas even less than the Portuguese. In between, he actually had some success at Chelsea, although his history as Liverpool boss made Bob Bradley's welcome at the Liberty Stadium seem like Nelson Mandela's homecoming in comparison to the Spaniard's Stamford Bridge reception. Worse, any luster from winning the Europa League after taking over for the sacked Roberto di Matteo early in the 2011-12 season was tarnished by the "fact" his predecessor had delivered the Blues' first and only Champions League crown.

Plan C was to take over for Steve McLaren at Newcastle but he couldn't keep the Magpies in the top flight. Surprisingly, Benítez agreed to stay on at St James Park to engineer a quick return to the Premier League after he was unable to pull Toon back from the precipice.
Benítez has long professed a love for the English game and the current Premier League bosses whose resumés surpass his can be counted on one hand. Mou, Pep, Arsène Wenger. Perhaps Antonio Conte. Among the four, only Mourinho accepted posts where he could not rely upon ownership's backing. He earned it at Inter before betraying then-chairman Massimo Moratti for the greener grass at the Santiago Bernabeu but always needed to keep his realtor's number on speed dial when working for Roman Abramovich and Florentino Pérez. Having apparently learned, he again has the opportunity for stability at Old Trafford. Guardiola and Conte both are stricken with wanderlust, but have never left a position with "mutual consent." Either could have spent their respective careers in charge at Barcelona, Bayern, Juve, or with the Azzurri.

Conversely, Rafa has seemingly never valued a strong partnership with any club chairman. Rather than sharing power, he has always preferred total control. He had it at Anfield, but hurt his career by attempting to bully carte blanche out of Moratti through the media. At Napoli, Aurelio de Laurentiis is and was very much a hands-on owner. Unsurprisingly, Benítez resigned after two years. Whether it was down to differing opinions, the impossibility of competing with Juve's economic might, or a combination thereof, is anyone's guess. At his onset with the Partenopei, the club was coming to terms with Edinson Cavani's departure for Paris Saint-Germain. Gonzalo Higuain replaced the Uruguayan, but he was gone to Turin a year after Benítez's exit. Perhaps Rafa had read the writing on the glass ceiling and decided to seek a less limited opportunity.

Despite its dubious ownership history, Newcastle certainly qualifies. St James Park is the fifth largest stadium in the Premier League. It ranked fourth until West Ham moved into the Liz to begin this season. Although broadcasting rights have taken the fore, gate receipts are still an important revenue source for football clubs. The Magpies have long failed to exploit an advantage that should have seen them competing with Manchester United at the top of the table for decades. Television money is both massive and equally distributed, however. Remaining at a club with a large venue and cash to burn, as he had enjoyed for awhile at both Valencia and Liverpool, must have seemed sufficiently appealing to Rafa to endure a campaign in the second-tier.
There is, of course, the small matter of owner Mike Ashley. The Magpies' chairman tends to view players much like off-the-rack shirts from his discount sportswear business. Buy low, sell higher, but, most importantly, keep turning over your merchandise. Benítez had the foresight to negotiate complete control over transfer policy but his emphasis on recruiting role players before going all-in after earning promotion has begun to chafe at the powers-that-be in Geordie Land. Several Benítez signings are not playing regularly, meaning they aren't in the shop window. As they are also regarded as limited commodities, their resale value isn't ideal. Rumors are circulating the Spaniard may not be long for the North East.

Rafa does have Toon topping the Championship table but he isn't running away with the title in the manner Chris Hughton did the last time Ashley and Newcastle went down. Even with Hughton's success, he was sacked before the holidays in the club's first season back in the Premier League despite sitting comfortably mid-table. Benítez's track record certainly laps Hughton's. Whether it's enough to keep Ashley from wielding the axe is doubtful. The owner stuck by close friend Alan Pardew despite horrific abuse hurled on both by supporters. By all accounts, there is no friendship between owner and manager in this instance, however.

Is there another Premier League fit for Rafa should the axe fall? Even if Arsène Wenger is truly on the outs at the Emirates, Benítez's ego doesn't seem to dovetail with the calm, measured approach of Arsenal's American ownership. Leicester City, Crystal Palace, and Sunderland may all have openings in the summer. The Foxes are the only club among the trio likely to make a change should they survive their relegation battle, though. Would the Spaniard be willing to spend another season in the Championship? Does it fit his ambitions to carve out a niche as a promotion specialist? Would he ever settle for a last payday out of the spotlight in China? Every job he's taken since leaving Liverpool seems a desperate attempt to relive the glory days but Rafa's long and winding road never seems to lead to the desired door.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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