When you get a few miles on the clock following any football club, let alone one as unique as Newcastle United, you start recognising patterns and moments and referencing them to similar points in the club’s history. Since coming away from SJP on Sunday I’ve been attempting to pin-point where we might be in terms of different moments in the time I’ve spent tied to the Barrack Road stake in the ground. Two moments spring to mind.
The first of the two goes back to 1992. Kevin Keegan came back to SJP with United staring relegation in the face and Sir John Hall putting it about that if we did go down that would be it, the club would go bust. For those that laud Hall, always remember this – it was all about the money for Thatcher’s friend in the North. I forget the game but after discovering certain assurances about bringing players in were not about to be kept, Keegan, as determined and headstrong as ever, stormed out of SJP, refusing to be anyone’s dupe and used the memorable line “it’s not what it said in the brochure” to describe how promises made to him were being broken. Keegan was away down the A1 but was memorably intercepted by Terry McDermott, a conversation was brokered between Hall and KK, matters were patched up (i.e. KK made Hall keep his promises) and the rest is hysteria.
The second of those two moments is 2009. After facing that appalling relegation in 2009, Ashley met Alan Shearer and all seemed to have been agreed for our No.9 to take over the reigns and build the recovery of the club from the second tier. Llambias described Shearer as the best decision he ever made. Then they promptly ignored a club legend and Shearer himself often repeats he’s not heard from Ashley since.
This is where we are now. At a fork in the road. Ashley has met Rafa Benitez and they spent a good few hours together. Despite my deep cynicism of Ashley and his motives, I am starting to believe the club is serious about wanting Rafa to stay and Benitez quite fancies it as well. Whether Rafa is playing a game to tease out inducements from other clubs shouldn’t be discounted. I don’t think he is the silly romantic fool many would paint him but the departure of Graeme Carr after an underwhelming period of squandering United money points to a real sea change in attitude at United and supports the theory that the model Ashley has attempted to use since he binned Allardyce has been ripped up. Demands we are led to believe that Rafa has made of wanting to have total control of transfers would suggest they have been accepted and that explains Graeme Carr’s sudden interest in Saga holidays. We are agonisingly close to seeing the appointment, in terms of prestige and record, the most accomplished manager we have ever had and I say that with all due respect and affection for Joe Harvey, Kevin Keegan and Sir Bobby Robson. Benitez is on a completely different level to anyone who has preceded him.
Of course there are many ex-managers of our club who have arrived with strong reputations and bombed spectacularly but nursed grievances at how much they have been allowed to truly manage. Keegan was the last one to truly exert his influence on the club and not even Robson could prevent Shepherd from his doomed manoeuvrings in the transfer market. Benitez won’t stand for that and a man of his standing shouldn’t have to at a club that has failed so persistently for so long. I’m going to take a wild stab at it and suggest all of you reading this would prefer Rafa Benitez former manager of Real Madrid, Valencia, Liverpool, Inter Milan, Napoli and Chelsea to mould a team rather than Lee Charnley, former Reserve Team Secretary at Newcastle United.
Unless Benitez and Ashley are playing deeply Machiavellian tactical games it would seem the wheel is turning in the direction of Benitez becoming the Newcastle United manager.
But. I can’t reconcile myself 100% to the thought that Ashley has changed so much to cede so much power at United to Benitez. Is he playing a cruel game on us? Will he wake up this week and decide he doesn’t want to support Benitez’s demands which aren’t just about his own salary demands but also about money for players, authority for next season but longer term into the future. Benitez doesn’t want to be dicked around like a Pardew or a McClaren with teams Ashley just wants to survive in the Premier League (which has brought a thoroughly deserved relegation) he is looking longer into the future and he wants to build a football club that can be a force in the land and in his own image.
I want desperately to believe everyone in this deal is being 100% honest with each other – Ashley with his readiness to acquiesce to Rafa’s demands and support him with resources for next season and the one after but also in Senor Benitez’s intentions to stay at United for the long term and build the sporting institution we all ache Newcastle United to be.
Looking at the successes of all top managers in the history of the game in this country and they are littered with boardroom struggles where charismatic football men have overcome chairmen and directors who have their own ideas about how things should be. The personal stories of Stein, Revie, Nicholson, Shankly, Busby and Ferguson are punctuated by their battles with the men who sat in the directors’ boxes imagining it was they who brought success to clubs rather than just signed the cheques. Where relationships have broken down i.e. Clough at Derby, success has evaded those clubs and generations later supporters reflect on what might have been.
It’s only my personal belief but I think we are at such a point. Benitez has to stay. The prospect of anyone else coming in now is just too horrific a thought to contemplate. Everyone’s favourite Spaniard is in an incredibly strong position. Ashley witnessed a remarkable scene on Sunday, where a packed SJP of over 52,000 turned up to a cheer a relegated team and drench the man from Madrid in the love and adoration of Newcastle United’s incredible, its peerless support. Were Ashley to fail to seal the deal, a man who is a born deal-maker then I think the despair around United might be irreparable.
The deal has to happen and if it does, if everything is in place we will know Rafa is our man in the dug-out and not the hired hand of an owner lambasted repeatedly for a lack of vision and ambition. We will trust him and we will adore him. He will be working for Newcastle United rather than Mike Ashley and that is the key difference. That is something we have not had since KK resigned in 2008.
For Ashley himself, he has a massive opportunity to heal the wounds of the last nine years. If Rafa does sign it will be as a result of his intervention and the guarantees he has made to the manager. That will put him just about in credit with the supporters, despite a second relegation for which he is ultimately culpable. Ashley has the opportunity to be part of something truly special but as ever, it’s up to him if he wants it.
This week is going to be agony.
Keep On, Keepin’ On …
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