“It’s like putting your head in a meat grinder.”
That’s what Chris McSorley, then head coach of the London Knight’s ice hockey team, said when I asked him about going up against his counterpart at the Newcastle, Jukka Jalonen almost two decades ago.
It was a compliment from ex-NHL coach McSorley, who led his better-funded team to the Superleague title in his first season in England.
Newcastle just didn’t have the financial resources to compete with the likes of London, but they were competitive enough under Jalonen, who would go on to coach his native Finland to the gold medal in the IIHF World Championship a decade later.
I was reminded of McSorley’s quote about Jalonen recently.
Rafa Benitez, like Jalonen, is having to do a similar job at Newcastle United.
Benitez had to sell to buy last summer – the club made a profit of more than £20million in the last transfer window – yet he has to compete with teams which have had net spends of tens and tens of millions of pounds.
Owner Mike Ashley doesn’t want to spend a penny more than he has to on the team and the club, yet he’s prepared to pay Benitez £6million a year.
That’s because Benitez is one of Europe’s best coaches. He can improve players and improve teams. Presumably, Ashley believes Benitez can actually save him money overall.
It worked last year. The club didn’t spend big after winning promotion, yet it finished 10th in the Premier League.
Benitez believes it will be a “miracle” if the club stays up this season given the money spent by its rivals.
The challenge for Benitez, United’s manager, is to coach the team out of trouble. He did it last year, and he’s hopeful of doing it again, whatever happens in this month’s transfer window.
Football writers think they know about tactics, but speaking to him – on and off the record – since he arrived on Tyneside about systems, set-plays and so on has been an eye-opener. The detail is extraordinary, and not every player can take it all in.
Benitez needs players with what he calls an “understanding” of the game – and what’s expected of them. When Benitez first took over the club in March 2016 he spent his first training sessions literally walking each player through what he expected of them. They had to take a lot on board in a short space of time.
Newcastle are out of the Premier League’s relegation zone following last weekend’s 3-0 win over Cardiff City at St James’s Park.
And if they stay out of it, it will be down to the attitude and application of the players – and Benitez’s ability to organise and instruct them.
Benitez has the respect of his Premier League peers, and taking him on tactically must be like putting your head through a meat grinder.