When Rafa Benitez was confirmed as manager at Newcastle United in March 2016, he talked about the importance of club and community working together for benefits on and off the pitch. Securing promotion back to top-flight football, he now faces the tough challenge of re-establishing the Magpies in the Premiership – but not to the detriment of the club’s community focus. Here, the man from Madrid talks to North East Times about community spirit, passionate fans and the much-lauded ‘Rafa effect’
You’ve been the Newcastle United manager for more than a season now. What have you made of the North East?
I was made to feel so welcome by everybody at the club, the supporters and the city from my very first day. That was a big factor in my decision to stay last summer. The North East already feels like home for me and, when the football calendar has allowed, I have visited a number of the landmarks and tried to experience as much of the culture as possible. I believe it is important to embrace a city and its people, and I am grateful to have such a positive relationship with our fantastic supporters. They are always behind us and played a big part in our success last season.
We’ve read that your daughters played a key role in your decision to stay at Newcastle United by showing you the positive feedback by Geordie fans via social media. Is this right?
My family wanted me to stay in England after time away in Italy and then Spain, and it is true that my daughters were showing me what the fans were saying on social media at the time. They were looking on different social networks – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat – and saying, ‘You have stay and win for these people – the fans love you here!’. I have always said that the fans were one of the main reasons I decided to stay and, for my family, the comments they were seeing from supporters helped them to see it could be the right place for me.
Very early on you spoke about the need for the club, the foundation and the city to “work together” to become “stronger”. Why was it important to enforce this message from the outset?
It is important for all football clubs to recognise their role in the community and the impact they can have on people’s lives. The Newcastle United Foundation plays a big part in this. Every day they are out in the city, coaching young people and putting on events that can help to inspire the next generation of supporters or even footballers who could go on to play for Newcastle. Once you have experienced that as a young person, you stick with the club for life. When I came into the club, I wanted to help with this by giving my support and attending some of the foundation’s events. The connection between the club and its community needs to be strong – we want everybody to be working together and helping each other – and I think that helped us a lot last season.
What role should a football club such as NUFC play in the local community?
It should help to inspire people in the local community and give opportunities to those who have maybe experienced difficult things in life. We know our local community lives and breathes Newcastle United, so it is important that the club recognises the impact it can have on people’s lives. By making sure the young people in the city are connected to their local club, you are also encouraging the next generation of supporters to follow the club as they are growing up.
What more can be done to build Newcastle United’s impact in the community?
We have to keep going, keep supporting the foundation and making sure we are helping the people who need it. There is always something we can do to help with the club in the community and to use the power of football to change lives. We want our community to feel that connection with the club and a lot of hard work goes into that every day.
Now the club is back in the Premiership, has its role in the community changed?
Even in the Championship, Newcastle United was still one of the biggest clubs in England and no matter what league you are in, it is important that the club plays its part in the community. Obviously, a lot more people watch the Premier League around the world, it is more high-profile and maybe that can help to inspire the youngsters even more, which can only be a good thing.
You will undoubtedly have had a busy summer preparing for the Premiership but still made time to attend the second Foundation 1892 Cup and hand out prizes to the winning teams. Why is it important that the first team manager attends events like this and engages with youngsters?
It has been a pleasure to attend both of the Foundation Cups so far – it’s fantastic to see so many youngsters enjoying their football at our academy. All of the children there were given our new kit ready for the new season and that is a perfect example of what the club does in the community to inspire the next generation of supporters. Once those children are given the new kit, they are likely to stay with the club for life. There was some really good football played, too! I enjoyed watching the finals and seeing their enthusiasm for football. It is only a small amount of time out of my day to watch the finals and present the awards, but I know it means a lot to them and that is the most important thing.
This year marks the 125th anniversary of the club. How does it feel being part of this landmark anniversary and what are you most looking forward to this year?
It is such a big, historic club and I feel very honoured to be the manager of Newcastle United, especially for the 125th anniversary. Of course, I am looking forward to every game in the Premier League – it is where the club belongs – but I never like to look too far ahead. I say it a lot, but it is important to focus only on the next game and then, after that, the next game! We have to stay focused and prepare for each game as it comes. Then, at the end of the season, we can look back at the highlights and hopefully talk about the times we enjoyed.
The fans have taken you to their hearts. What impact has the ‘Rafa effect’ had on you and how you perform your role at the club?
It is always good to have a positive relationship with the supporters and I am very pleased to have that here – I have always felt very welcome at this club. All I can do is continue to work hard every day and try my best to give them a team to be proud of. They are the motivation in everything that we do and I am really glad we could make them happy last season by winning the title. We know that this season will be tough in the Premier League but, with the fans on our side, it gives us a better chance of achieving our targets.