Unless there is a remarkable change of heart at Goodison Park, Rafa Benitez will be confirmed as Everton’s replacement for Carlo Ancelotti next week after Alisher Usmanov sought the advice of Roman Abramovich about dealing with the former Chelsea manager.
Usmanov is a confidante and long-time business partner of Farhad Moshiri, Everton’s owner. Although the Uzbek-born billionaire does not own shares in Goodison, his USM and MegaFon companies are important sponsors for the club. USM have the option on naming rights for the proposed new stadium on the Bramley-Moore Dock.
Benitez has a reputation for being difficult to deal with. During his time at Liverpool he became embroiled in internal politics under the calamitous ownership of George Gillett and Tom Hicks. At Newcastle United in his most recent spell in the Premier League, the Spaniard became exasperated with Mike Ashley’s manner of running the club. Some owners and chief executives around the game have been scared away from the Champions League-winning manager because of his reputation for being awkward and playing political games.
The 61-year-old spent six months at Stamford Bridge in the 2012-13 season and impressed Abramovich and the Chelsea board. He was named interim manager after Roberto Di Matteo was sacked and faced huge hostility from the fans. The west London supporters never took to the Spaniard but the club’s hierarchy were pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to work with Benitez, who ended the campaign by leading the team to victory in the Europa League.
Usmanov, a former Arsenal shareholder, is likely to increase his involvement with Everton in the coming years and believes Benitez’s methods will work at Goodison. There is massive resistance among fans to the idea of a former Liverpool manager succeeding Ancelotti, who left after being offered the Real Madrid job, but Usmanov appears to have persuaded Moshiri that Benitez is the right choice.
The imminent appointment has united the red and blue halves of Merseyside – almost no one wants it to happen. For Evertonians, the thought of a man who is so associated with Anfield – and who once called Everton a “small club” – is anathema. Kopites who revere Benitez as the hero of Istanbul, the manager who made Liverpool champions of Europe for the sixth time, are almost as disappointed at the notion of him in charge at Goodison.
Benitez is excited about the prospect of returning to the Premier League with a club with so much potential. He understands the pressure he will face and that there will be little margin for error. There will be no goodwill in the Goodison stands should the team start the season badly or go on a poor run of results during the campaign.
“This is the greatest gamble in the history of Merseyside football,” a source close to the situation said. “It’ll either be a shambles or a huge success. There’s no middle ground.”
There is an awareness around the club that Everton need not only a top-class manager but a coach that can improve the squad on the training ground. Benitez’s work ethic is appealing, too. Ancelotti is not a 24/7 manager and the Italian’s skill is polishing top-class performers rather than developing players and bringing them up a level.
Given the high levels of antagonism directed towards him, it is unlikely that Benitez will make sweeping changes at Goodison. He is keen to progress on the field but he is sensitive to Everton’s identity and culture.
Marcel Brands is likely to come in for scrutiny. The director of football has been under pressure for some time and his position would have been open to question no matter who was appointed. Even so, Benitez will not arrive wielding an axe.
Despite a high level of scepticism from the staff, they will be expected to get behind the new boss. Moshiri is keen to give the manager as much backing as possible. After that the onus will be on Benitez to win over the doubters. There is only one way to do that: winning matches.