Everton’s decision to recruit Rafael Benitez is the most contentious and controversial managerial appointment in the club’s 143-year history.
William Edward Barclay, who was involved in the original foundation of Everton and was then part of the breakaway Liverpool Football Club, is the only man to cross Merseyside’s managerial divide and this was in the 1890s.
This, however, is the tiniest strand in a remarkable story that has seen the 61-year-old Spaniard arrive at Goodison Park as successor to Carlo Ancelotti, who walked out on Everton to return to Real Madrid in early June.
Indeed, this is not even close to the biggest bone of contention among Everton fans in this decision, driven by owner Farhad Moshiri in his hitherto fruitless search for success.
Benitez is not merely a hugely significant figure in Liverpool’s history as one of four managers to win either the European Cup and Champions League, alongside Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and Jurgen Klopp, he is a personality who has engendered personal animosity among Everton fans since one infamous phrase in February 2007.
He sparked fury on the blue half of Merseyside when he described Everton as a “small club” after a team under the guidance of manager David Moyes frustrated his Liverpool side in a goalless Merseyside derby draw at Anfield.
Benitez has since admitted he made “a mistake” and his meaning was misconstrued amid his use of English, insisting he believed Everton’s tactics were the approach of a small team rather than a broad brush description of the entire club.
It is fair to say many Everton fans did not and have not accepted Benitez’s explanation.
Moshiri, boldly in some eyes and recklessly in others, is so convinced Benitez is the man to revive Everton that he has cast this discontent to one side to bring a revered former Liverpool manager, who still has giant flags emblazoned with his image waved on the Kop before home games, to the other side of Stanley Park.
Why has Moshiri gone for Benitez?
This appointment has all the hallmarks of Moshiri, although it is understood his business associate Alisher Usmanov, who is involved in sponsorship of various arms of Everton, also approves.
As he said in his statement on Benitez’s appointment, Moshiri needs a manager to bring him the rewards for his vast financial outlay and is unswerving in his belief he finally has the right man.
Moshiri has shown two sides to his character since taking a major stake in Everton in February 2016.
He has demonstrated a reactive instinct, by sacking Roberto Martinez after witnessing how Everton fans turned on a once popular figure by brandishing banners and staging sit-down protests after matches, then dismissing his successor Ronald Koeman only nine league games into the Dutchman’s second season after he had taken the club into Europe in his first campaign.
Moshiri has also followed his own path irrespective of fan concerns, and maybe even concerns in his own boardroom. He did it when appointing Sam Allardyce for a joyless six-month reign in November 2017, but he has trumped everything by going all in on Benitez.
He believes Benitez has the pedigree and experience to finally spark Everton, as well as the ice-cold, single-mindedness to shrug off what will initially be a mixed reception – at best.
Moshiri has been hugely impressed with Benitez in several rounds of talks and will have taken soundings elsewhere, noting how he rose above more hostility when he arrived as Chelsea’s interim manager in November 2012 to guide them to the Europa League and third place in the Premier League.
Koeman and Ancelotti fell into his ‘Hollywood’ manager category. Marco Silva was the up-and-coming Mourinho-lite. Allardyce was an act of panic in an emergency.
Benitez is, in Moshiri’s eyes, the tried and trusted Premier League operator who can bring years of experience and an analytical, tactical mind to Everton.
This is Moshiri’s most risk-loaded move yet. It could prove unexpectedly, surprisingly inspired – or have the capacity to become toxic.
Can Benitez win over Everton’s fans?
This is the question that will have weighed heaviest on the mind of Moshiri when attentions turned away from other contenders, such as former Wolves boss Nuno Espirito Santo, to Benitez.
Benitez will not be daunted by what awaits him and this made Moshiri’s decision to appoint him a lot easier. The first weeks will be no time for faint hearts at Everton.
The opening words from Benitez to Everton’s support were typically combative and ambitious, insisting he was at Goodison Park to be competitive and “fight” for the club. He is clearly ready for the challenges.
It is a huge gamble on both the part of Moshiri and Benitez, who will know that defeats may – initially at least – carry a heavier dose of criticism and reaction simply because some fans will apportion more blame than normal on to the manager.
Feelings will be running high although Moshiri clearly felt able to ignore the court of bedsheet opinion when some were daubed with unflattering references to Benitez and left around Goodison Park.
Merseyside Police are also investigating a “We Know Where You Live – Don’t Sign” banner intended for the home Benitez has always maintained in the area from his time at Liverpool – although the message lost some its impact when those responsible could not even leave it outside the right house.
There will also be the more understanding and reasonable Everton followers who may actually be prepared to forgive and forget a 14-year-old stray remark and get behind Benitez. Some more sympathetic and supportive voices were heard after the flag left in the vicinity of his family home, insisting this was nothing like a representation of the vast majority of the fanbase.
They have been relatively quiet so far but there could be plenty of Everton fans with a so-far hidden respect for Benitez’s managerial capabilities, his willingness to fight his club’s corner and his ability to create a “them-and-us” mentality many supporters enjoy.
What must Benitez do at Everton?
There are many tasks for Benitez to dig into on and off the pitch.
For a personality who has had fractious relationships with hierarchy in the past, particularly at Liverpool and Newcastle United, it will be intriguing to see how he works with the volatile Moshiri and Everton’s director of football Marcel Brands.
To give balance, those who worked with Benitez at Chelsea talk with respect about how he operated in an initially unhealthy atmosphere that saw him jeered by more than 40,000 supporters when he walked out at Stamford Bridge for his opening game against Manchester City, a reaction to the intense rivalry between the clubs when he was at Liverpool. He stood unmoved and seemingly unaffected, and in the end got results.
On the pitch he must inspire a team that delivered some of the most dull, insipid home performances in recent memory under Ancelotti at Goodison Park last season, Everton’s record on their own ground a sharp contrast to excellent results away.
Benitez will look to build on the bedrock of England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, France left-back Lucas Digne and England defender Ben Godfrey, a shining light after his arrival from Norwich City.
Ancelotti signings Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure will be vital under Benitez, although it remains to be seen whether Colombian superstar James Rodriguez sticks around after his form and fitness tailed off towards the end of last season.
Benitez will also look to utilise a forward line that is spearheaded by England’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin and the Brazilian Richarlison. The latter was poor last season.
It leaves much work around the edges, namely in finding a long-term successor to veteran captain Seamus Coleman, bringing more authority to midfield and injecting pace into a stodgy-looking side, especially in the wide areas.
As one of the most unlikely Premier League stories of recent times, many eyes will be fixed on the fortunes of Rafael Benitez’s Everton – just that phrase alone outlining the scale of this story on Merseyside.