Reaction from the Sunderland camp to Rafa Benitez's appointment at Newcastle
Rafa Benitez's arrival at St James's Park last week inevitably prompted as many raised eyebrows in the Sunderland camp as elsewhere in the country.
There was surprise that a manager sacked by global behemoths Real Madrid at the turn of the year had returned to the dug-out with a fractured, struggling club, where there is a real danger of Championship football next season, albeit the Spaniard boasts a get-out clause in the case of relegation.
There was also respect from Sunderland’s players over Benitez’s previous record, and understandably so. After all, this is a manager who has lifted the Champions League, La Liga, FA Cup, Coppa Italia and Europa League.
In Sam Allardyce’s case too, it’s a renewed rivalry against an adversary who clearly isn’t his flavour of the month.
But Benitez’s opening game at the Newcastle helm at Leicester City on Monday night saw Sunderland’s players watching with intrigue.
Sitting with a very calm Jermain Defoe at the Academy of Light less than 24 hours later, the Sunderland striker jokes that he was making studious notes on the Magpies and particularly their makeshift defence.
But on a more serious note, Defoe stresses that for all Benitez’s credentials and lofty CV, he’s not the one on the pitch after Newcastle succumbed to a fourth successive defeat, to remain a point adrift of relegation rivals Sunderland.
“He’s a manager that has never really been in this situation before,” said Defoe.
“He’s been at some of the best clubs in the world and it’s only normal that when a new manager comes in, players want to impress the new man.
“I watched the game on Monday night.
“I thought they looked solid and Leicester didn’t really look like scoring, so you can see he’s done some work already.
“But it’s important that we concentrate on ourselves.
“It’s not a worry. It doesn’t matter who the manager is.
“I certainly won’t be going into the game thinking about Rafa Benitez.
“There’s only so much a manager can do. They pick the team, do the team shape and tell the players how they want you to play.
“But it’s the players who have to go out and play.
“We have to make sure that whatever we do on Sunday, it’s better than them.”
Benitez’s derby debut inevitably prompts memories of Defoe’s own bow in the fixture, when his stunning 25-yard volley last April secured a 1-0 victory at the Stadium of Light.
The 33-year-old said: “That day just felt like a cup final day. I remember waking up and feeling so excited; like a little kid playing his first game.
“When that whistle went, the hairs go up and when I got the goal... it was just a moment that I’ll never, never forget.
“It was just a special moment.”
But this is Defoe’s first taste of a derby at St James’s Park and he smiles when asked about the prospect of the hostile reception which awaits him on Tyneside.
The England international is a shrewd seasoned veteran though.
He stresses the importance of training in an industrious, normal fashion this week, yet realises that nothing can be prepare players for the white-hot atmosphere when derby day arrives.
“It’s important that you try not to think about the occasion too much,” veteran added.
“Yes, it’s the biggest game for years and all that, but the players just have to try to relax, enjoy training this week and stick to the game-plan.
“You try to treat it like a normal game, but when you get off the bus and do the warm-up, you just get that feeling and know it’s a one-off game.
“But first and foremost, we have to make sure we prepare right and make sure we get the points.”