Rafa Benitez was guarded but optimistic when speaking for the first time as Everton manager. The 61-year-old handled questions about the supporter backlash in a relaxed manner while showing a hint of steel when asked about tactics and the future of James Rodriguez.
The biggest hurdle for the new man at Goodison Park is his association with Liverpool, Everton’s neighbours and the team he managed for six years. His appointment sparked fury among fans. Anti-Benitez banners were placed around the stadium and one was hung on a property near the Spaniard’s family home saying: “We know where you live. Don’t sign.” It was on the wrong house.
Benitez focused on Everton’s potential. “I wanted to come back with a competitive team,” he said. "For sure, no [I wasn’t put off by the flags]. I was convinced this was a great opportunity.”
He suggested that the worst of the hostility was centred around a minority of individuals. “About the banners? We can talk about one, two people,” he said.
The concerns among the fanbase run deep, however. While in charge at Anfield, Benitez called Everton “a small club.” Fourteen years have passed but the memory infuriates Goodison diehards. Benitez maintained that his words need to be seen in “context”. He said: “It was a long time ago. You are fighting for your club and that is what I will do now. I will fight for Everton.
“I will try to do my best every single game. I am really pleased this club is getting bigger every single day.”
That will do little to mollify supporters but Benitez, who is desperate to win trophies, has long believed that Everton have the capacity to compete with the Premier League’s top echelon. While at Chelsea nine years ago he faced similar antipathy from fans but departed Stamford Bridge after winning the Europa League. The mood in the stands will not affect him, he said. “It's not something I’m scared of, it's the opposite. I want to win, I want to do well.”
Everton finished 10th in the Premier League under Carlo Ancelotti last season after a stuttering end to the campaign. Benitez suggested that things were not quite right under the widely-admired Italian. “I’ve had some conversations with senior players and all of them realise that something was missing,” Benitez said. “It’s something we must find. The winning mentality has to be there from the first to the last day.”
Everton’s identity is based around playing good football. The club’s ‘School of Science’ nickname still resonates with supporters. Benitez has a reputation as a pragmatic manager and some believe he is not suited to Goodison. He dismissed this theory. “We have to create a team that’s competitive, that fights for the shirt from the first to the last minute,” he said. “If that means passing the ball five times on the counter-attack or 20 times, we’ll do it. The fans want to see the team winning and playing well.”
It appears unlikely that Rodriguez will be part of Everton’s future. Benitez crossed paths with the talented Colombian during the manager’s seven-month spell in charge of Real Madrid. He was not impressed by Rodriguez’s work ethic. Asked directly about the 30-year-old, Benitez said, “It’s better to talk about the team rather than individuals,” although he did go on to praise Seamus Coleman, the captain. “He’s an inspiration for everyone,” the manager said.
Benitez also made sure he gave credit to Duncan Ferguson, who will remain as assistant manager working alongside Francisco de Miguel Moreno, a long-time associate of the Spaniard. “Duncan is an Everton legend and has great experience,” he said. “He will be vital for us with his coaching expertise and understanding of the players.
“His spirit, personality and character are invaluable. He knows what Evertonians expect. He will be an inspiration and crucial with his insight on the club.”
Showing his playful side, Benitez smiled broadly when talking about the 49-year-old. “I watched some of the goals [Ferguson] scored, he could play,” he said. “If we need a striker he could still go on and play.”
Winning hearts and minds at Goodison will be as difficult as winning games. Benitez is confident he can win on both fronts.