Rafa Benitez travels to Arsenal today on the back of a run of eight games that feature seven defeats and only one draw.
It is now eight weeks since Newcastle last won, a dismal display against then bottom of the table Crystal Palace, saw United snatch a late winner via substitute Mikel Merino in the 86th minute with their first serious effort on goal.
If not for that late late Merino winner, Newcastle would actually be on a run of 13 weeks and 12 Premier League games without a win,
Even with that victory over Roy Hodgson’s team it is still only six points from the last 36, easily the worst in the whole division,
Despite this you have a pretty unique situation, one where despite the dismal results, the fanbase has stayed resolutely behind Rafa Benitez.
However, one journalist has broken cover and claims the mood is changing.
The journalist in question is Martin Hardy and on the eve of the Arsenal match he has claimed that Rafa Benitez is fighting to retain the support of both players and supporters.
There was a rash of books that came out on the back of Rafa leading Newcastle instantly back to the Premier League but Martin Hardy’s one was claimed to have had unrivalled access to the manager himself, in ‘Rafa’s Way: The Resurrection of Newcastle United’.
However, it now looks as if it is more a mood of ‘insurrection’ at St James Park if Hardy is on the ball.
He writes: ‘The movement against him (Rafa Benitez) is growing. Newcastle supporters were arguing with each other inside St James’ Park’ (during the defeat to Everton).
As for the squad, Martin Hardy states: ‘Benitez is treading precariously with the confidence and backing of his players, who keep making mistakes.’
So is Rafa really facing a battle for the support of the Newcastle fans?
I don’t really see it.
Yes, fans are obviously going to have their own ideas about who should and shouldn’t be in the team but underpinning that is I believe, a general acceptance that whatever team he puts out, they are not going to be better than the opposition, player for player. The only way they can get wins/points as they did earlier in the season is by playing to their maximum as individuals and as a team, plus making sure they don’t make mistakes.
The opposite has been happening. He is only one of many who can have the finger pointed at him for mistakes but it is difficult not to single out Karl Darlow in terms of what has happened in the last seven days.
Against Leicester, Newcastle took an early lead and were looking confident, with the Foxes not causing too many problems, only for then a long-range effort from Mahrez to beat Darlow, when it should have been easily saved. The team and fans visibly deflating and the mood stifled.
The opening stages against Everton saw Newcastle on top, the visitors pinned back, Ritchie seeing his rocket shot come back off the post. The scousers then go up the other end and a weak header fumbled by Karl Darlow, Rooney scoring from a few yards. Newcastle United once again rocked as a self-inflicted wound would prove to be fatal, yes Mikel Merino was unlucky to see his near 35 yarder come back off the woodwork but Newcastle never really threatened to create danger in the Everton penalty area once they’d conceded.
Without those two pieces of poor goalkeeping I think there is every chance Newcastle could/would have picked up four, or even six, points from these two home matches. However, with those kind of mistakes, similar to what many of his teammates have been doing, then you have very little hope. No manager can legislate for that kind of amateurish play.
Rafa Benitez stated in public in the summer that he wanted a new experienced number one and it was made clear Karl Darlow could leave, a move to Middlesbrough falling down. Rafa was blocked in bringing in that experienced keeper, no doubt due to a refusal by Ashley to pay a fee/high wages on somebody who there would never be a resale value, the net result is Rob Elliot’s form got so poor, Benitez had little choice but to turn to…Karl Darlow.
Supporters understand that this is most definitely a case of a desperate need for some better players, rather than believing there is a better manager that Mike Ashley would appoint in Rafa’s place.
As for Martin Hardy’s point about Rafa Benitez potentially losing the ‘confidence and backing of his players’, I have some sympathy with this.
Rafa Benitez has made a point not criticising any individuals in public but when a manager is repeatedly saying he desperately needs to add better quality to his team, it has to eventually have some kind of negative consequence. The goalkeeping position a perfect example, the manager saying he was desperate for a new number one and then being left with Elliot and Darlow. Neither are close to being a Premier League first choice keeper but knowing your manager agrees with that, can’t be a positive.
As for the supporters, in our poll of thousands of Newcastle fans, 98% wanted to see Jonjo Shelvey play against Everton after being left out for three matches, he then produced that feeble performance which was then topped by a selfish pointless red card with the game already lost. Fans want to see Rafa shake the pack in the hope that it brings a better outcome but he only has the same pack of cards to play with each time and all the aces are missing.
Two or three Premier League level aces added in January could go a long way to getting everybody happy again and pulling in the same direction.
If though in the meantime Rafa Benitez did indeed lose the support of fans and/or players, then the situation would indeed be truly hopeless.
Martin Hardy writing for The Independent:
‘It is once more a romantic football club without any romance. There is a lack of patience and a growing belief among the club’s argumentative fanbase that Benitez is making too many mistakes.
The movement against him is growing. Newcastle supporters were arguing with each other inside St James’ Park during the latest defeat, against Everton, on Wednesday.’
‘Benitez is treading precariously with the confidence and backing of his players, who keep making mistakes. He was at his most angry in the dark hours that followed the loss to Sam Allardyce on Wednesday because of a goalkeeping mistake, a position he had identified as a problem as soon as the transfer window was opened.’
‘Benitez wanted a goalkeeper, a left-back, a number ten and a striker at the start of a summer that has the potential to be another historically significant mistake, so inside his anger and hurt of the current situation is a major element of ‘I told you so.’
‘He has risked further anger by overlooking Aleksandar Mitrovic, who he thinks is not quick enough to play on the counter attack and Jonjo Shelvey (who received his second red card of the season on Wednesday and now has a two-game suspension).’
‘It means Benitez is fighting for the one thing that has always seemed a given – his relationship with Newcastle’s fans.’