In rugby, the Super League hosts the Man of Steel awards at the end of every season. If football had an equivalent, Rafa Benitez would get my vote.
What an Iron Man he’s proven to be.
Taking over from a Chelsea folk hero who had just won the Champions League would have been tricky enough for any manager in the world to contend with. But for Rafa Benitez, a man openly despised by the club’s fan base, it was a minefield he had very little hope of navigating. His status as ‘interim’ coach, hardly made life any easier.
Berated, booed, and with banners proclaiming their disgust at his appointment scattered all around Stamford Bridge on his debut against Manchester City in November, we all thought the Spaniard wouldn’t last five minutes.
Yet somehow, six months on and the Blues boss is still standing tall. More remarkably perhaps, there’s barely been a wobble.
In spite of the animosity aimed at him from the stands, winning over a notoriously judgemental and opinionated Chelsea dressing room was actually, always going to be Rafa’s stiffest test.
John Terry, Frank Lampard, Petr Cech, David Luiz, Juan Mata and co, wouldn’t have cared about his Liverpool background or what he’d said about the Blues in the past. All they will have been interested in was what he could do for them, and their careers.
Did he know how to handle players? What would training be like? Was he a good motivator? Would he pick them? Would he get the best out of the squad? Could he help them win something?
Those were the big unknowns they needed answers to.
All professional footballers (not just those at Chelsea) can be unforgiving b*****ds.
Obsessed by protecting their own interests, they possess a sixth sense for sniffing out weaknesses - and when it comes to managers they’re especially astute. If a squad isn’t convinced about their gaffer, all it takes is one false move and they’re usually dead.
Luiz Felipe Scolari and AVB, being proof in the Chelsea pudding.
As an ‘interim’ manager, hatefully disrespected by the paying customers, Chelsea’s players had every excuse to turn against Benitez too. They certainly wouldn’t have sympathised had he began to crack under the pressure.
But he didn’t; and that’s how I believe he won them over.
If a player knows he’s on his bike at the end of the season (and that their boss is busy schmoozing his replacement) they have the right hump and find it difficult not to show it. Placed in that uncomfortably embarrassing position, most players down tools and say ‘stuff you’.
Rafa didn’t do that. Instead, with an iron will he’s thrown his heart and soul into the job, doing it to the very best of his ability. In difficult circumstances he couldn’t have been more diligent and professional.
How then, could the players not do the same?
Firm, intense and fully focussed, his enthusiasm for the task in hand has rubbed off on the side, and taken them to the verge of Europa League glory, as well as a top four finish.
With that tight grip and a refusal to show a single crack in his armoury, plus a string of largely successful results, there has been very little for the players to complain about. Even the marginalised Terry and Lampard have quietly accepted their fates, because his clever rotation has worked well for the team.
Everyone knows it doesn’t matter what Rafa Benitez achieves or doesn’t achieve in the coming weeks. He’ll still be leaving west London imminently.
And even if both targets are met, those Blues fans who jeered his arrival will still raise a glass to his departure.
But Rafa can leave with his pride intact. His reputation as one of the most intelligent and disciplined managers in the world, has been undeniably restored.
This Man of Steel won’t have to wait two years for his next job, that’s for sure.
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Read more opinions from the footballer turned journalist Adrian Clarke