One of my favourite cover versions in the history of the musical universe is The Black Crowes’ version of Otis Redding’s ‘Hard to Handle.’ I mean, don’t get me wrong; Otis Redding’s version is a bit marvellous, but from the moment Chris Robinson screams out the first word “BABY!” I’m hooked.
Who taught him to do that? Can you teach it? Interestingly, it’s got the same notes, the same words, and the same title as Otis Redding’s version. So what is different? And why do I find the Black Crowes’ version of ‘Jealous Guy’ a bit of a drag?
Football managers have the same problem. Some managers fine tune everything they touch at one club into a tight, harmonic machine, only turn it into an X-Factor ‘My Grandma said I could sing’ disaster at the next. Just ask David Moyes. Or Ruud Gullit. Or Steve McClaren. I’m not going to mention the Graeme Souness top 10.
In the modernish era, Kevin Keegan and Sir Bobby Robson brought us some great things to sing about. And Chris Hughton was respected, though not by the board, who gave him an executive’s job to do with the contracts, and sacked him when he failed to deliver it, weeks after taking Sunderland apart. But not for a long time has the feeling of direction, with real managerial talent, been so trusted, as it seems to be with Rafa Benitez.
This talent in managing people, leading rather than dragging, hasn’t only been in the difficult moulding of a lot of new signings. It hasn’t been in the tactical ability to play different players for different situations. It’s been what he’s done with two players who were already here, and had been the cause of so much frustration.
Yoan Gouffran and Jonjo Shelvey have been, for some time in their careers, working on that difficult third album. Bags of potential, glimpses of class, only to run out of pitch, or appear to just not be that bothered. Gouffran in particular has struggled in the past with positional sense, reading the game, judging a shot, but these days…he’s exciting, he’s positive, and above all, he’s confident. His brain and feet are in harmony.
Jonjo Shelvey has shown signs of class at every club he’s been at, and he started well enough for us last season. But then he either ran out of ideas, or realised he was playing alongside a lot of players who had already given up.
His attitude and temperament has been doubted. Rafa has rewired him. Now, he has the confidence to pick out a pass and deliver it, and deliver it to players who are already thinking about what they’re going to do with the ball when they get it.
Behind this, is Rafa. Is it the quiet, calm manner of his interviews? The trust of his Newcastle players who are rotated? Whatever it is, he has tuned up these two players into something better. Players coming back from injury are frequently trotted out as being like a new signing, but Gouffran and Shelvey are like new signings; they’re different players to the two versions of themselves we had last year.
I’m not pretending that every decision Benitez makes will work out. They can’t. Against Fulham and Huddersfield, the habits of last season were there to see. It’s also worth noting that the Liverpool team that won loads of those silver things rarely went a goal up in any of the finals they played in. But nor, on the other hand, did they give up. Tactics could be changed, and the players had belief.
It was said by many a pundit that Steve McClaren was a coach, but not a manager. That’s not a criticism. Benitez has shown that the ability to give specific instructions and jobs aren’t just important, but essential; that tactical ability, twiddling with team selection, is one of his traits; but in reviving Gouffran and Shelvey, we could have classic cover versions: something new out of something old. You can’t teach that.