A change took place at some point when we weren’t looking.
Much like Rip Van Winkle, the character created by the novelist Washington Irving, who was wandering in the woods one day when he came across a group of men who give him a drink. He felt drowsy and fell asleep, but when he woke up, he found his beard had grown a foot in length, and upon returning to his village no one recognised who he was.
Winkle had, in fact, been asleep for 20 years. In that time, America had fought the revolutionary war and gained its independence from Britain. But he missed it all.
Modern football can be repetitive at times, but even so, I don’t think it’s put anyone to sleep for two decades. Not as far as I know. Yet somewhere along the line, the game seemed to stop being about footballers and start taking more interest in the managers instead. It’s been hard to pinpoint when the change occurred.
It’s not really all that new, of course, which is part of the problem. Big managers have always been box office and personality cults and football have a complex relationship. But it feels like coaches have started to become more of a fetish for a Premier League audience in recent years. The arrival of some of the biggest names helps, but still: these days it’s gone so far that Sky Sports recently showed a league table with managers’ faces beside the clubs where crests would usually be. Surely that’s a new level of managerial navel-gazing.
You can see why that climate would attract the biggest and brightest names in club management, though. Most have egos. And one of the bigger egos even went down a division last season in order to use certain promotion as a chance to manage a big club in the top league.
It’s easy to see, from an egoist’s point of view, why Rafael Benitez would choose to manage Newcastle United despite their relegation last season – a demotion suffered under his watch, though not under his command – and their season playing Championship football.
The answer might have something to do with the club’s place in the city, the fans’ fabled devotion to their real heroes, and, of course, their predisposition to nominate the biggest figures as Saviours and the like. What with Benitez’s Messiah complex and all, it looks like the perfect club for him. He’ll hope for a Kevin Keegan-like nickname, or an Alan Shearer-like statue.
And yet, it’s not all that delusional: Newcastle very much is a sleeping giant. As Hugh McIlvanney said in 1999, they may very well make Rip Van Winkle look like a catnapper, but note that he didn’t dispute their size. No one could.
The Magpies managed to attract, on average, over 50,000 people through the gates every other week with the promise only of second tier football. Indeed, so bad were they at home, that they only managed to finish fourth in the home table – though clearly that means the traveling fans had a fair few good days.
But that’s what happens when you take a city as big as Newcastle and give it only one football club. The fans flock in their droves, even when things aren’t going well. But when they do win, the euphoria is immense.
And so imagine being the man to take that club from one of their lowest ebbs, in the second tier, up towards the top of the Premier League and competing with the top six clubs, with their astronomic finances and huge-name players.
That’s the kind of calculation that Benitez must have made.
The last title came in 1927, their last FA Cup in 1955. But twice in the last decade they’ve won Championship titles. Rather than see that as a club ‘honour’, it might well be viewed as a dishonour, having been relegated in the first place.
If Newcastle are a giant that’s been asleep for longer than Rip Van Winkle, when they wake, they may not recognise the world they’re living in, but they’ll still undoubtedly be giant. So too will be the rewards for the man who manages to do it. Waking the sleeping beast of the North East like pulling Excalibur from the stone: the prize is giant and it’s tempting to everyone, but many have tried and found it impossible. Surely one day the right prince will arrive?
If that’s to be Rafael Benitez or not, who knows, but you get the feeling that the real hero might come more in the form of a super-rich investor than a football manager. For all the egoism of top managers these days, they are still undoubtedly in thrall to billionaire owners, and that top six won’t crack itself.
But that’s the challenge. For all the good reasons why top managers and wealthy investors should be looking at Newcastle, there’s still no guarantee of anything given how established the top clubs feel right now. That’s the world the sleeping giant would wake up into – and as Rip Van Winkle found out in the book, it’ll be hard to adapt.