There are times when I stop in my tracks and let it sink in that Rafael Benitez is the manager of Newcastle United FC. I also have a smile that he confounded the talking heads and know-all pundits by staying at SJP last summer following our relegation and re-built the club so that it should return to the Premier League by winning the Championship title. Yes, money was invested to make that happen but money is no guarantee of success and what Rafa brought to United goes way beyond winning football matches.
Let’s take a step back to those days when Steve McClaren was predictably leading United to ignominy and failing to arrest the decline of a club for whom many were culpable – Ashley, Llambias, Pardew, Carr, Carver and Charnley – a rotten bunch of bluffers and phonies all working to their own interest for which Newcastle United was simply a vehicle for their own agendas. The atmosphere around United was toxic. There was a complete absence of hope and pride. The club was sliding hopelessly and inevitably to a relegation that had been long in the post and which sentient supporters could spot a mile off.
There was nothing good about Newcastle United bar the stoic support which was crumbling around the edges with loyal, lifelong Mags concluding they could no longer face paying their money and spending their time supporting a Zombie football club. Indeed, these pages crackled with discord between supporters between those who had not yet concluded they should leave their spots in the stands at SJP and those who had taken that leap. If I’m honest I was personally reaching the point of no-return with the club and on the verge of calling to an end of 40-odd years following United and I know I wasn’t alone. People ask what ex-Mags do with their time, bemoan the loss of friendships built around going to the match and all of that. It’s true, I’ve lost touch with mates who have chucked it … Mags who have followed the club through the good and bad times, who I’ve gone to matches with by transit van, jet and God knows what else. But following a football team is much more about meeting a few friends for a drink and I know I can replicate that in many other ways that don’t require me going through a purgatory of 90 minutes watching a hologram of a football team thousands have invested so much money, hope and aspiration into. Most of you reading this have other interests beyond Newcastle United and if I was to call it a day I wouldn’t be the last to find something much more rewarding to do with my time. That was my personal narrative in February 2016.
Then came Rafael Benitez. Now, let’s get it right here, the stars had to align significantly for Benitez to come to St James’ Park. That his family are settled in the North West of England massively helped our cause. I doubt had they been returned to Spain and resident there the allure of our club would have been quite the same for Rafa. Likewise the availability of jobs which meet his superb CV. As ex-Liverpool manager he’s not going to get the Everton or Man Utd jobs and the managerial positions at his old club, Arsenal, Chelsea, Tottenham and Man City are similarly occupied by some stellar names in world coaching. Throw also into the mix the world-wide fame of the Premier League, Rafa is inevitably attracted to as a testy of his skills. Timing is everything of course and after just being jettisoned by serial sackers Real Madrid, even one as myopic as Charnley could see McClaren’s time was up. Another time and Rafa might have wound up at West Ham. That is a club known to still covet Benitez.
Our relegation brought into sharp relief for everyone that our club was empty and without Benitez was just about done in. There was no magic that separated us from Aston Villa last season – simply a world class manager, preparing our team and winning football matches.
Over the last twelve months, the mood amongst the fan-base has changed immeasurably. I don’t think the formation and success of Gallowgate Flags would have been possible without Rafa at the helm and the hope his presence engendered amongst supporters exhausted by the monotony of crass bad management. I would extend that to the heart-warming support there has been for the NUFC Fans Foodbank which should give us all some pride in collective achievements action.
Clearly, winning football matches is a game-changer but it goes deeper than that. Rafa is credible of course but he has a common touch that only KK has had as manager in my time following United. He’s relaxed but most of all he wants what we want. That is clearly recognisable from those who listen to him speak about his plans and ambition for the club. I’ve had the privilege of spending time with Rafa over the last season and I’ve been enthused by the man’s wisdom, pragmatism and determination to develop a project at United that could change our football club for the better.
Then there’s Ashley. I’ll say that not for one moment would I trust this bloke as far as I could chuck him. I’m completely of the view every decision Mike Ashley takes is with his own interests at heart. I don’t imagine he thinks for one moment like you and I do about Newcastle United. I don’t believe he shares any grand vision for the club and if there is any progress to be made at United it will be because of Rafa’s determination and skills rather than Mike Ashley’s commitment.
In the immediate aftermath of a successful promotion season, we heard Ashley pledge to make every possible monies available to Rafa to build for what will be an incredibly tough season back in the Premier League. You heard that as well as I did. You’ve also heard rumours of investment in United and even a potential takeover for which nothing substantial has developed for weeks on end.
The latest we’ve heard is Rafa is becoming increasingly frustrated with the club’s inability to finish the business he has been working on in relation to the recruitment of new players. We did hear there was a 2-way battle between United and Brighton to take Abrahams on loan from Chelsea. Then the player joins Swansea. Maguire from Hull was widely reported to be on the Rafa radar but he’s now gone to Leicester. You might imagine these are the kind of deals we could conclude without much fuss but apparently we are back in the era of those stomach churning transfer windows we experienced so many times with Pardew and his “over the line” platitudes and insults about which clubs we could and couldn’t compete with.
What I do know is Rafa Benitez is no Alan Pardew. Rafa will not bluff in front of the cameras for Mike Ashley and degrade himself to stay in a job he should never have been appointed to.
Rafa Benitez is a bigger man than Alan Pardew will ever be and has too much regard for his reputation as a proper football man to hang around and be made a fool of by Mike Ashley and his lickspittle Lee Charnley.
Not every supporter will accept there is a problem at United right now but I can tell you there is and although it is not at a crisis point and I don’t want to alarm or over-react, the position isn’t great. I understand perfectly why supporters don’t trust a football media which discredits itself by the day with desperate click-bait and its increasingly dubious links with its news and betting sites as so eloquently pointed out by our editor, Alex Hurst in his excellent editorial blog – GALLOWGATE VOICES – SPECULATORS – available on the site. There is so much reporting to drive clicks and provide an income for an industry in crisis that the temptation to dismiss it is understandably strong.
That would be a mistake in this instance. There is a problem and it needs to be put right before United under Ashley reverts to type and that crisis becomes very real.
There are of course competing theories abounding at this time. Amongst them is one which I find myself reflecting upon and it involves putting the block on any outgoings right now in order to make the latest set of books look better for any investor / takeover bid and that player purchasing can start on 1/Jul/17 so as to make our spreadsheets look great. That’s not one I am saying is on the money but I do think its worthy of some consideration.
I don’t think the departure of Graeme Carr from the Football Board is really that meaningful though on balance I’m glad to see the back of him to be honest. The truth is Carr hasn’t had much of a direct impact upon player recruitment since 2015 though I am told he was whispering poison into Ashley’s ear about some Rafa signings and it did disturb me that he turned up at away games during the January transfer window alongside Ashley when its known the manager communicates with the club owner via Lee Charnley. For me, the most important men at United are Mike Ashley the owner and Rafa Benitez, the man who is desperately needed to provide the real, world class guidance to get anywhere like fulfilling its potential or even being the best it can be. That they don’t communicate directly astonishes me and I don’t blame Rafa for that.
There is another reason of course why supporters will refuse to believe the news in the football media about United at the moment and that is because we don’t want to lose the good-feeling we’ve had about United under Rafa. We want to continue to believe in Ashley’s pledge to Rafa about resources. We don’t want to go back to the teeth grinding misery following our club had become only 18 months ago. Some of our supporters are in denial but I understand the reasons and I’ve been guilty of it myself. I read and hear supporters down-playing the whole transfer window and I think we were in exactly in the same place in 2008 when the whispers started about KK being unhappy and I heard the same things about players and agents being on holiday (like it’s a Factory fortnight rather than the most crucial time of the calendar for their business) and giving the full window before drawing conclusions. We all know how that turned out.
Keegan and Benitez are very different characters but they share a professional pride that was completely absent in desperate men like Pardew and McClaren.
I’m desperate for promises to Rafa to be kept and to go into this new season full of unity of purpose as we were for much of last season.
What I do know is this however, were Rafa Benitez to be forced out of United by the deceit and lies of Mike Ashley then the likes of me and thousands of others would follow him.
Keep On, Keepin’ On …