Can Everton's Rafa Benitez win over the fans despite his Liverpool past?

Rafael Benitez has never been the type to take the easy option for the sake of a quiet life, so those who know the 61-year-old were not surprised when the former Liverpool manager embraced the challenge of taking charge of Everton earlier this summer.

Having described Everton as a "small club" during his six-year reign as manager at Anfield between 2004 and '10, when he masterminded Liverpool's fifth Champions League triumph in 2005, Benitez had always vied with former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard for the dubious distinction of being public enemy No. 1 in the eyes of many Evertonians.

But the noise surrounding his appointment -- and the threatening banners close to his house, warning him against taking the job -- did little to dissuade Benitez from trading red for blue in a football-crazed city. In the end, he did what he always does, refusing to be affected by outside influences.

"One of Rafa's greatest strengths, and some would say his biggest weakness, is his honesty and refusal to say or do anything other than what he believes in," a long-time associate of Benitez told ESPN.

"I remember one occasion when he was in charge at Real Madrid and was asked whether Cristiano Ronaldo was the best player in the world. Anyone but Rafa would have said, 'yes, he's amazing, the best footballer I've ever seen,' because that's the way to operate if you coach Real and you are asked that question about their star player. But instead, he said that Ronaldo was simply the 'best I've coached' and you can imagine how that was received!

"But that's Rafa: he won't go against his principles just for an easy life, and that's why he has taken the Everton job. He sees it as a great chance to manage an ambitious Premier League team again and his Liverpool past was never going to be a problem for Rafa."

Benitez's Liverpool past is still a problem for some in the blue half of the city. When it became clear that Everton owner Farhad Moshiri wanted Benitez to replace Carlo Ancelotti, who left Goodison Park in May for a second spell as Real Madrid manager, social media erupted with anti-Benitez messages from some Everton fans who had not forgotten his "small club" comments, which date back to a verbal spat with former Everton manager David Moyes in 2007.

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At the same time that Everton fans were raging, however, the #AgentRafa hash tag began to trend on Twitter thanks to merciless Liverpool supporters goading their neighbours.

As for those banners, some were personally insulting towards Benitez and others openly threatening -- "We know where you live - Don't Sign." -- also highlighted the ill-feeling towards Moshiri's first choice to succeed the popular Ancelotti.

"Talking about banners, it was maybe one or two people, you never know," Benitez said at his introductory press conference last month. "It is better to think about positives and a lot of people are encouraging me to do well, and I am happy with that. I am not scared: it is the opposite. I want to win, be competitive and ambitious. I am sure we will do it."

Those close to Benitez believe that the animosity towards the former Chelsea, Inter Milan, Napoli and Newcastle coach actually helped win over some skeptical Evertonians, who were appalled by the hostility from a minority of the club's fans.

"Those banners turned 75% of fans around and made them throw their support behind Rafa," Benitez's associate told ESPN. "They rallied out of decency because they didn't want to be associated with that kind of thing, especially because of Rafa's connection to the city, which goes beyond managing Liverpool."

Dave Kelly, an Everton fan for over 50 years, is backing Benitez to succeed and he is urging the more pessimistic Evertonians to give him a chance.

"I want Rafa Benitez to be our manager for 10-15 years," he said. "If that happens, it will mean that Everton have been successful and that's the only way I will judge him -- what he does for us rather than what he did for Liverpool. I'm sick of hearing fans saying that they have thrown their season ticket back because we've appointed Benitez. They would happily take Mo Salah from Liverpool, so the same should apply to the manager.

One central factor in Benitez's determination to take the Everton job are his deep roots to the city.

Since leaving Valencia to succeed Gerard Houllier as Liverpool manager in 2004, Benitez has maintained a home in nearby Caldy, with wife Montse and their two daughters continuing to use it as a home base while Rafa continued his coaching career away from Merseyside following his departure from Liverpool in 2010. During that time, Montse has established a foundation that raises funds for vulnerable and disadvantaged children to enjoy respite trips, and the couple have also consistently contributed money to local hospitals.

It has also been well-reported that Benitez donated £96,000 to the charity representing the families of the 96 Liverpool supporters who lost their lives in the Hillsborough disaster in 1989. Less well-known is that Benitez also made a donation to the family of Rhys Jones, the Everton-supporting 11-year-old, who was murdered by gunshot while walking home from football practice in August, 2007.

"Rafa didn't do that for publicity or spotlight," his associate told ESPN. "He was upset by what happened and moved by the family's grief. He asked a friend to find the boy's parents and give them his donation, and it ended up with Rhys's mum being given a cheque while she was working in a local supermarket."

Benitez has also contributed to local charities during his time in Naples and Newcastle, helping food bank charities while in charge at St James' Park, while his efforts to help those in need of help on Merseyside has been recognised by fans on both sides of the football divide.

"When Rafa was in charge of Liverpool, I used to look across at them with envy," Kelly, who is Chair of Fans Supporting Foodbanks, told ESPN. "Not because of what he did for Liverpool on the pitch, but because of the way he worked with, and for, the community. I know he was also heavily involved with charities in Newcastle, so it is a good thing in my opinion that he is now in charge of my team.

"The Walton area of Liverpool is unique in England in that it is home to two Premier League teams -- Everton and Liverpool. They are two iconic clubs, businesses with huge financial wealth, yet the 68 wards [regions] of Walton are among the most deprived in the country and food insecurity is on every street corner. So I am looking forward to having Rafa Benitez involved with Everton and continuing the work he has done in the city over the years."


Gerrard on Everton job: Never an option, not surprised by Benitez

Rangers manager Steven Gerrard says he would never take the Everton job, but wasn't surprised former Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez did.

But while Benitez the man has earned the respect of the majority of the city of Liverpool, regardless of football affiliation, Benitez the manager has still to prove he can be the right pick for Everton.

His last Premier League job was a three-year spell at Newcastle between 2016 and 2019, when he had to juggle the task of managing a huge club with few resources at the same time as managing supporter anger towards owner Mike Ashley. Benitez kept Newcastle in the Premier League, but his days of competing at the highest level in Europe were behind him and a subsequent two-year spell in China, managing Dalian Professional, took him even further away from the heart of the action.

His desire to work in the Premier League again made him hungry for the Everton job, though, and his former captain at Liverpool, Gerrard, told ESPN that he was not surprised by his old manager's readiness to cross the divide.

"Rafa wasn't born in the city, he's not a red through-and-through, and he never played against Everton for 20 years and competed against them," he said. "He is his own man and will make his own professional decisions, so there's no surprise that he wanted to get back in the Premier League at a big club and have the opportunity to compete against all the top teams in the league. I wasn't very shocked and surprised at all, in all honesty."

While Benitez is the first manager to take charge of Liverpool and Everton, several players have made the same transition over the years, and only a small number endured a hostile reaction from the supporters of their previous club.

Don Hutchison spent two years at Everton after four years with Liverpool earlier in his career, and enjoyed some of the best times of his playing days in the blue shirt. But with a knowledge of the demands and sentiments of the Evertonians, Hutchison admits he struggles to see Benitez's move to Goodison having a happy ending.

"I really hope to be proved wrong because I still have a great affection for Everton, but if Rafa gets past Christmas as manager, he will have done well," Hutchison told ESPN. "His appointment reminds me of Jose Mourinho going to Tottenham: it just doesn't feel right and I worry that it will all end in tears.

"If you look at Everton's early fixtures this season [they won their opening game 3-1 at home to Southampton], they are quite soft and it gives Rafa the chance to get off to a winning start, but that gives him a problem. If they don't start well, he will be on the back foot right from the off and it will be so difficult to turn it around. And if he does start well, he will build optimism and expectation up to a point where it will be difficult to sustain it and then you have to deal with the negativity that would bring."

The first Merseyside derby of the season is scheduled for Nov. 30, when Liverpool visit Goodison Park, and it will be crucial for Benitez that Everton impress in that game.

With some Evertonians still waiting to be convinced of his commitment to the cause, what he says or does prior to the derby will be interesting for a man who has always made his relationship with the fans his No. 1 priority.

"My first game as a fan was in May 1966, a week before we won the FA Cup, and I was so proud of the team and our stadium," said Kelly. "I was hooked from that point on, but I am sick of telling my grandkids what a great club Everton are because they have never seen us win a trophy. So I just hope that Rafa can bring the success that enables my grandkids to discover the joy of supporting a club that wins trophies."

That, ultimately, is the challenge that has proved too big for the past eight full-time Everton managers, who have all failed to end a trophy drought stretching back to the 1995 FA Cup final. But Benitez is ready to meet that challenge head on in his usual fashion.

"For me, managing Everton is an opportunity to show I am still competitive and capable of competing against anyone," he said. "It depends on your team -- but I am ready to compete and try to do really well in every single game."