It said something about Rafael Benitez and Garry Monk that when it came to finding employment earlier this year, neither coach thought the Championship was beneath him.
Benitez’s willingness to embrace the league was especially surprising: a European Cup-winning coach with a tour of the continent behind him and Liverpool, Real Madrid and Inter Milan on his CV.
Monk saw a down-to-earth side of Benitez when their paths crossed two short weeks after Monk was entrusted with his first managerial job by Swansea City in 2014. Benitez’s Napoli contested a 0-0 draw in the first leg of a Europa League tie in Wales and a conversation between the two men at full-time has kept them on friendly terms ever since.
Their competitive instinct will take hold when Benitez brings Newcastle United to Elland Road tomorrow for a box-office Championship match – a sell-out fixture between the division’s leaders and the club in sixth place – but Monk remains grateful for the time given to him by the Spaniard on a February evening three years ago.
“It was one of the biggest experiences I had,” Monk said. “Obviously after games you speak to managers but he was brilliant with me.
“I took that job early and I don’t know if it was my second or third game when we played Napoli (the fixture was Monk’s fourth in charge) but he came in afterwards and had a really good chat. It wasn’t one of those where he shook your hand and said ‘I’ve got to catch the bus or the plane.’
“He sat there and talked for a long time about his experiences as a young manager.
“I saw him again earlier this season when we went to a managers’ meeting and I respect him highly. His career’s second to none.
“He’s been one of the best European managers and he’s won a lot of trophies. It’s great to come against these guys, to pit your wits against them – and to try to win.”
Benitez’s performance in the Championship has done his profile no harm, just as Monk’s time as head coach at Leeds has enhanced his reputation as one of English football’s promising managers. Newcastle, who spent £12m on Matt Ritchie and £10m on Dwight Gayle in the summer transfer window, are top of the table and on a streak of seven league wins. Monk said they had been “the best team so far”.
At the end of October, Monk and Benitez were among the four coaches nominated for the Championship’s manager-of-the-month award. The trophy went to Tyneside, despite Leeds’ compelling form. “He deserves it,” Monk said. “It’s as simple as that. I don’t really focus on those things. It’s great to be recognised but it just means you’re doing your job right and working in the right way. It’s not the biggest focus for me. That’s my team.
“Clearly (Newcastle) are top of the league and that means they’ve been the best team so far. They’ve got an excellent manager, a top calibre manager who’s shown his worth. They’ve got the biggest budget in the league, they’ve got the most expensive players and you expect them to be where they are.
“They’re expected to win every single game so tomorrow’s a big challenge for us but it’s one we’re ready for and looking forward to. We’ve proved in the last couple of months that we can give anyone a game and get good results.”
Leeds’ victory at Norwich City before the international break, a 3-2 win against a side who led the Championship in mid-October, was arguably their most telling to date. Norwich, however, were in a vein of self-doubt after a spate of poor results and victory over Newcastle this weekend, in front of a first capacity crowd at Elland Road for almost six years, would be a bigger feather in Monk’s cap.
“We respect the teams we play against and it’s my job to make our players aware of Newcastle’s strengths but we focus on our way of playing. If we do that the best we can then it’ll be enough to win games.
“Our focus will be on us, 100 per cent – on what we do and how we do it.
“Of course we have to understand how we defend against Newcastle but it’s about our performance.
“For me, it doesn’t change anything whether we win, lose or draw. We remain the same.”