At the base level, I get it. The man wants to keep working and wants to keep working in something he loves. He’s probably not interested in the various commentator jobs that would gladly be handed to him by various outlets or as a football director somewhere. He’s a football manager and that’s what he wants to do. Almost as important, after a decade of being a nomad from London to Spain to Italy to Newcastle to China, he was handed the opportunity to return to his family’s home in Wirral and have breakfast with them every morning before heading off to training. That’s a completely understandable motivation. No one wants to be separated from those closest to them and getting a top division job just down the road from the place you genuinely call “home” is ideal.
On that basis, I can’t possibly summon the outrage that others are feeling seeing Rafa Benitez, Liverpool hero immortalized on the Irishkop banner alongside Shankly, Paisley, Fagan, King Kenny, and Klopp, being the first manager to cross Stanley Park in 130 years. This is the business of modern football and tribal loyalties shouldn’t be the ones that get in the way of a good opportunity that also reunites someone with their family on a daily basis. If the Bitters still want to get in a twist about the “small club” comment, that’s their problem. The hard truth is that, in the Premier League era, Everton pretty much have been a “small club” whose only motivation is to do better than their Red rivals, regardless of anything they might actually win on their own. You don’t become the namesake of The Guardian Football Weekly’s mock trophy for finishing outside the European places (“the Everton Cup”) for nothing.
Another thing that (ahem) colors this situation for me is that my relationship to Rafa and his memory aren’t as gilded as many others’. I think he’s a good manager. I will always hold a fond place in my heart for what he achieved in Istanbul and with the 2008-09 nearly-a-monster squad. But the truth is that I really don’t like his style of football and never did. As many fans of Chelsea (and Inter and Real Madrid and ManU and Tottenham and now Roma) will likely tell you, at some point you decide that even if Jose Mourinho’s style isn’t easy on the eye, you’ve usually been winning stuff. Rafa’s style isn’t the abomination that Mou’s is, but it’s still very reactive and grindy. Unfortunately, it also wasn’t very successful when he was at LFC, outside of that immortal Champions League, a SuperCup, and the largely-irrelevant FA Cup. Certainly, his later years were burdened by the emerging financial chaos under Gillett and Hicks and there’s absolutely no disputing his ability when you look at the results at Valencia, getting Newcastle back at the first time of asking, and even guiding Chelsea to a Europa League title. Beyond football, there also can be no dispute that he’s a wonderful guy. The amount that he’s personally contributed to the Hillsborough families’ efforts and to other charities around Liverpool, in addition to the work that his own foundation does, is considerable. Most Liverpool fans love Rafa and for good reason.
And that’s what makes the above picture a little jarring. As I said: man’s gotta work, so I get it. But this is a weirder moment than even the Chelsea appointment. The outrage at the latter was pretty prominent because the distaste for Chelsea at the time was riding pretty high; the upstart to the big 4 clubs, the wash of oil money, the direct competition we’d been in for the Champions League a few years earlier. There was a lot of recoiling from the idea that a former Liverpool manager could go… there. That’s what makes today’s event so odd. Even with Rafa present, no one really expects Everton to be a competitor to the modern version of LFC in the way that Chelsea was. It’s not a matter of a manager many consider to be one of our own possibly helping a club directly impact Liverpool’s fortunes. It’s just a question of trying to reframe our thoughts about that “one of our own” standing on the touchline not in nearby London or distant Madrid, Napoli, or Dalian, but less than a mile away. Right across the street, as it were.
So I don’t think outrage is the proper response here. This isn’t like Stevie G getting his first Premier League gig and deciding he should set up shop at Old Trafford. While I can understand people getting a little ornery about it (and will point and laugh at Blues fans foaming at the mouth over getting an actually capable manager, given the majority of their recent appointments since Moyes), my primary response is something along the lines of: “Feels weird, but there are bigger things to think about.” Which, in the end, is almost perfectly Everton, right?