Muchas Gracias. Feliz cumpleaños Rafa Benitez.
A belated Happy Birthday as the Newcastle boss turned 58 on Monday.
Down the years, we as Newcastle fans have witnessed some cracking teams and seen some great players. Some great moments at St James Park and beyond, watching players attempt to fulfil our dreams of a trophy, even though the final outcome for the most part saw us fall a little (or a long way) short of seeing something tangible added to the trophy cabinet.
What this current group of players do more than any Newcastle side I can remember, is battle, boy do they battle.
Have we witnessed Newcastle sides with more artistry, more flair and more skill? Yes, of course we have, but some of the sides that were built to go hunting trophies in our name, didn’t have the backbone and determination that this crop do, or could be relied upon to find new ways of screwing things up in spectacular fashion.
Be it a lazy left winger, an arsey striker or a egotistical midfielder, or a combination of all three stabbing the manager in the front rather than the back, there was always a weakness to the sides built under Kevin Keegan in the 90s and then Sir Bobby in the early noughties. Tactical naivety was always the concern under Kevin while, although obviously not his fault, the timing of the Bobby Robson appointment was always going to make his project a short-term one, for another manager to reap the rewards of. And we all know how that went.
In the absence of the squillions that Man City are throwing at the league, we have to make do with what we have, which is a workmanlike side that will scrap for every point. It may not come across as very entertaining but there is something in seeing a side ‘get stuck in’ that is a perverse delight to watch.
Rafa Benitez has built a side that is predominantly hard to beat, more resolute and stays in the game, and this marks a change from Newcastle sides of the past. The sides under Bobby and Kevin were always as likely to score four as concede four, this current side is disciplined enough to keep goals conceded to a minimum and hit teams on the break as we saw against Manchester United and now Arsenal, both of which were sides assembled for sums way in excess of our budget.
The flair players and a clinical striker will be next on Rafa’s shopping list, you can guarantee that.
On Sunday, the bloke next to me said, as the players and manager were trooping off after a mini pitch walk around: ‘You’d think we’d won the league’ and ‘Why would you want to leave this?’, as we both took a look around at the staggering 40,000+ that had stayed back after the game to applaud the efforts of the team and manager.
The last player to leave the field was fittingly Captain fantastic, Jamaal Lascelles. He along with the rest of the squad seem to get ‘it’. He can be credited with a lot this season, be it helping to make the defence hard to beat, or even collaring Mo Diame and almost literally slapping him into a remarkable turn about in form. That is what I want from the captain.
The current manager/captain duo are vital to the success in the near future of this club. A world class manager and top defender who is also the club captain and the bedrock of the team, is where everything must start from next season.
Martin Dubravka has delivered an air of calm to the back four and his move will be rubber stamped sooner rather than later, with then the next step surely being the permanent acquisition of Kenedy, who has given us that flair and attacking thrust we have missed. He has certainly helped give Diame, Ritchie and Shelvey more freedom to do their stuff.
While the unwashed down the road find new depths to sink to (#gettingoutofthechampionshipatthefirstattempt) and whilst we ourselves must realise that we have limitations both logistically and financially in getting to wherever it is we want to be, we can be sure that with Rafa (and Lascelles) looking after things, the club is no longer just a stepping stone for players as it was under Pardew, McClaren etc.
It took two years for Sir Bobby to get his side together and become what it became, even though the trophy still eluded us. Rafa is currently in year two of the ‘project’ he keeps talking about and he must be allowed to continue the build, which is where the owner comes in.
If Mike Ashley is to remain as owner, there needs to be no false promises, no untimely televised ramblings of a Bond villain, or PR blunders. There’s £100m+ coming to this club in the summer (before sales) because Rafa has repeatedly done what’s been asked of him.
He was tasked with getting us straight back up from the Championship – he did it.
He was tasked with keeping us in the Premier League – he’s done it.
I’m sure he wasn’t given the specific remit of uniting the club, but boy has he done it, judging by the scenes at the final whistle against Arsenal.
It was a joy to be there at the end on Sunday and as the banner unveiled before the game rightly proclaimed: ‘We are the Geordies – The cock of the north’.
Once again- Muchas Gracias, Rafa Benitez!