Ex-Newcastle United boss Rafa Benitez aims veiled swipe at Mike Ashley as he discusses his Dalian project and building a legacy in China

Ambition, infrastructure, legacy.

Tuesday, 2nd July 2019, 17:00 pm

Rafa Benitez did not take the decision to swap top jobs in the Premier League and Europe for the riches of the Chinese Super League lightly.

Less than 36 hours had passed between his statement confirming the reasons for his Newcastle United exit and he'd been announced as the new boss of Dalian Yifang.

To many, the CSL is viewed as a retirement home for those lacking in ambition but keen to improve their bank balances.

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 24: Rafael Benitez Manager / head coach of Newcastle United during the Premier League match between AFC Bournemouth and Newcastle United at Vitality Stadium on February 24, 2018 in Bournemouth, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

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Sven-Goran Eriksson, Fabio Capello and Luiz Felipe Scolari have all sat in the dugout in China - not when they were fresh from or at the height of their powers, rather in the autumn of the careers.

On the pitch the likes of Nicolas Anelka (Shanghai Shenhua, 2012), Carlos Tevez (Shanghai Greenland Shenhua, 2017) and Javier Mascherano (Hebei China Fortune, 2018) have dipped their toes in the water in China as their careers waned, while players such as Oscar (Shanghai, 2017), Mousa Dembélé (Guangzhou R&F, 2019) and Marouane Fellaini (Shandong Luneng, 2019) have gone the Benitez route and swapped the elite Premier League for the emerging markets in the Far East.

As a result, it's no shock to see many call Benitez's move - where he will earn £12million per year after tax - as money driven, lacking ambition, which he so publicly craved Mike Ashley to show at St James's Park.

Benitez does not see that way, though.

Speaking to the Times, he has explained that this move to the Liaodong Peninsula – separated from Kim Jong Un's North Korea by a small stretch of the Yellow Sea – is about a lot more than collecting the yuan notes, even though it was a big draw.

It's about the chance to build something from the bottom up, with vision, resources and the chance to really create a legacy – something he feels he was denied on Tyneside by those employed to run the football club by Ashley.

“The group is one of the biggest companies in the world,” said Benitez on his new paymaster, Wang Jianlin, who is reportedly worth £17.2 billion re the Forbes richlist.

"The project is about developing the whole football club, to organise it from the academy at the bottom to the very top.

"And then to be sure that we have a methodology, an idea about football and then especially to develop the local players because Dalian is a place where they’re really proud about their history as a football club.

"They want to use the resources they have to guarantee that the club will be stronger and stronger, using local players as much as they can but also competing in the international market."

Chelsea were sniffing, Marseille also tested the water earlier in the summer, but Benitez wanted to remain on Tyneside – of that he is certain. And while he is happy to be taking up the opportunity, Dalian was very much second choice.

He continued: "I said no in the past, but we don’t have many good options around and this is an opportunity.

"It’s with people who really, really want you and with someone who really wants to build something. And at the same time, it’s an exciting experience of another culture, another country where everything is different. It’s another challenge: can we adapt, what we can learn from them? And can I leave a legacy?”

"My ambition hasn’t changed. I want to compete. I want to win. In this case, I have to adapt, but I had to adapt at Newcastle, too. The challenge is not just the first team, but organising everything at the club in terms of football. If you’re successful, everyone can be pleased with that."

Newcastle United and Geordies left a real mark on Benitez, positive and negative.

While the warm, welcoming nature of the fanbase, starved of hope for so long, hero worshipped Benitez, stoking up emotions not felt since his glory days on Merseyside, the reality of working under an owner unwilling to budge on the smallest of details physically drained the man.

A fresh challenge and focus, is just what the doctor ordered for the 59-year-old Spaniard.

"After Newcastle, it makes no sense to be fighting again at the bottom of the table," he said, big spending Dalian have the likes of former Napoli man Marek Hamsik and Belgium international Yannick Carrasco on their books, and are in the process of spending £230million on new training facilities.

"I don’t think you can find a team in the the bottom ten bigger than Newcastle in terms of potential and structure and everything. Why do I have to wait for that when I have a chance to build something? You have to consider the situation. It’s not about saying ‘I’ll stay in England and wait and dream about the right club at the right time’.

"I’m just really pleased and really excited that someone was really keen to get me, to give me the opportunity to develop a project and at the same time, with a really good economic proposal. You want to do something, build something, leave something behind. At the same time, you cannot be lying; it’s good money.”

The above comment will be seen by many as a veiled dig at his former charges. And it probably is.

Who can blame the man, though? Throughout his time on Tyneside he was striving for United to be the best version of themselves they can be - with the fans and the players, without those in the halls of power.

Benitez has never come across as a man who'd ever be happy with his feet up relaxing, anyone lucky enough to spend any time in his company will know this. The man lives and breathes football, he lived and breathed Newcastle United once, too. That slowing evaporated towards the end of his time at St James's Park.

And this is the crux of the move – it may be temporary, it may be longer-term - but the main driver of his switch to the Far East is that he cannot comprehend not working.

“I’ve had the experience of staying at home, waiting,” he said.

"It’s so frustrating for you to see teams struggling and think ‘I could do this, I could do that’ when you are at home. No chance. I want to make sure that I have a job and perform at the level that I can perform, anywhere.

“I like to train, to coach. I did the same with my daughter’s team at her school. I can’t just be sitting and waiting. My wife would just tell me to go away, anyway. It’s better if I get a job and if it’s a good job with a good project and good money then I’m happy with that."