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How only Rafa Benitez stood between Newcastle United ending up as another Sunderland

12 months ago
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Sunderland’s tale of woe is one which could have quite easily been Newcastle United’s.

The mackems are now at least seven points (will be eight if Barnsley win their game in hand) adrift of Championship safety in 23rd, with just five games to play including against title-chasing Wolves and in-form Fulham.

The parallels between Sunderland and Newcastle just a year apart are both contrasting and eye-opening. Sunderland look as though they will succumb to relegation to League One this month, while twelve months ago Newcastle were securing passage back to the Premier League.

However, the tales of the two are not so different. Two owners who had systematically neglected the clubs for a prolonged period of time through lacklustre investment, while demonstrating apathy and indifference to the plight of the respective fanbases.

Newcastle’s relegation in 2016 could have spelled the end for one of English football’s most historic clubs. Sunderland’s Premier League relegation in 2017 shared similar elements; a dejected base of supporters, the prospect of away trips to the likes of Burton Albion, and the vast sea of unknown that stood before them.

The main difference was Rafa Benitez.

When Newcastle’s relegation was confirmed, it would have been very easy for the Spaniard to wash his hands of a club he had tried to help in vain, that was headed in one direction, a club he held no affinity or connection to. Why would a manager of his pedigree and stature stick around to manage a Championship club when he could quite easily get another job elsewhere, fighting for trophies both domestic and international.

The fear of losing Benitez was very real.

Newcastle were lucky in the sense that they already had Benitez; Sunderland on the other hand were never afforded that luxury – having to stomach David Moyes until the bitter end of a 2016/17 campaign that had begun with the Scot stating that the club were in a relegation battle, before a ball had been kicked.

The palpable fear was only accentuated when the names linked with the presumably soon-to-be vacant Newcastle job were bandied about. Then-jobless Nigel Pearson and dissatisfied then-Hull boss Steve Bruce were enough to send shivers down any Newcastle supporter’s spine, but who else was better? These were men with ‘track records’ in the Championship and would ‘steady the ship’.

Once again, it is impossible to definitively state that Newcastle would have been League One-bound had they appointed somebody else following Benítez’s anticipated departure, but it is highly unlikely that they would be in the comparatively healthy position they are in now.

However, Sunderland made a similar appointment in the summer of their relegation from the Premier League. Former Leeds United and Preston North End boss Simon Grayson was drafted in to ‘steady the ship’. A manager with a ‘track record’ in the Championship.

Grayson was unable to rid the club of the malaise that had surrounded it over recent seasons. He was unable to drum out the losing mentality that had been instilled in the players at the club. Crucially, he was also unable to rid the club of the deadwood that had been accumulated over the years. The players on huge contracts, such as Jack Rodwell, Darron Gibson and Lamine Koné.

While many publicly made it known their desire to leave Sunderland, it was the ones who were more than satisfied to collect their wages and fail to take any responsibility for the position the club found itself in, that would do the most damage, both financially and institutionally.

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Chris Coleman was soon at the helm of a club in crisis, but even the man who guided the unfancied Wales to the semi-final of the European Championships in 2016, has been proven to be incapable of stopping the rot.

At face value, Grayson and Coleman were not bad appointments by any stretch and objectively speaking, had Newcastle lost Benitez in the summer of 2016, Pearson and Bruce would not have been terrible appointments either. Pragmatic and practical they would have been…but nothing in comparison to Rafa Benitez.

By the end of this season – 19 months after first joining – Bruce will be relying on the play-offs to guide Aston Villa back to the Premier League elite. That’s three games to define a season, to potentially define his stint at the Midlands side, and to save an overspending club from having to massively cut costs.

Elsewhere, Nigel Pearson left Derby County less than three months into the 2016/17 season and is currently boss of Belgium First Division side OH Leuven.

Rafa Benitez stayed and revitalised a club that was destined for a rough ride in the Championship. From top to bottom, the job he did during the summer of 2016 was remarkable and it’s highly unlikely that anybody else could have come close to doing the job he has done to date.

Training ground makeover (on a limited Ashley budget), check.

Giving the fanbase belief, check.

Overhauling the playing squad, check.

This was all achieved in the first few months of his permanent tenure. He didn’t even take a holiday, such was the need for the shake-up and his enthusiasm towards the task at hand.

One of the first things on Benitez’ agenda was to sign characters who he deemed would be needed during the 46-game season. Key members of Newcastle’s Class of 2016/17 would not have shown any interest in joining the club that summer if it weren’t for Benitez.

In contrast, Sunderland struggled in the transfer window immediately following relegation. With few saleable assets, the requirement to pay £10m for a player that no longer played for the club, and an owner unwilling to provide Grayson with any money for new players, it was slim pickings. Players like Wahbi Khazri, Jeremain Lens and Fabio Borini were all shipped out, but only on loan and therefore at least in part still on the wage bill.

In came plenty of cut-price signings such as James Vaughan and free transfers such as Marc Wilson and Robbin Ruiter. With little option but to sign what was made available to them, it was little surprise that Sunderland struggled in a division where grit and determination win matches, rather than dazzling star quality. The team looked devoid of team spirit, of any characters, and most importantly of leaders. Despite the protestations of the likes of O’Shea and Cattermole, they fell on deaf ears, or ears of those who had little reason to care, in particular the loanees.

Plenty of Grayson’s signings were young players on loan deals, with little obligation to the club other than to be used as a stepping stone in their short careers to date. While not a young player, a prime example of recruits failing to commit to the cause was Lewis Grabban, still the club’s top scorer this season, who left the club in disarray in January, to sign for Aston Villa on loan instead.

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To think that that would have been possible at Newcastle is frightening, but Benitez was someone who ensured Newcastle would not find themselves in that position. A team of hard-workers, devoid of prima donnas and big egos, was assembled. While Sunderland retained Cattermole and O’Shea, the old heads who were supposed to care about the club, Newcastle and Benitez continued the shake-up.

The then 22-year-old Jamaal Lascelles was named club captain despite plenty of players in the squad being many years his senior. Lascelles commanded respect immediately and took the leadership role in his stride, which has undoubtedly made him into the player we see today on the cusp of an England call-up, who holds together the United defence.

Matt Ritchie was another character who was given a new lease of life by Benitez; although a risky one at that. A Bournemouth regular in the Premier League, he was persuaded to drop down a division by the Spaniard for another hard slog of a season in the Championship. A grafter if ever there was one. This included moving his young family the length of the UK, something often forgotten about when discussing footballers and transfers. He was up to the challenge and so were plenty more.

Whether it be because of Rafa’s influence or that he commanded their respect, Newcastle were in good hands with a manager and playing staff with a common goal and a common vision. Where Sunderland have faltered this season, Newcastle thrived, but it could have been all so different.

Dwight Gayle was another player earmarked by Benitez as a character and a worker who he wanted in his team. Not the most talented and never prolific in his career, Gayle was still dissatisfied with his opportunities being limited at Crystal Palace under Alan Pardew. The end result was a campaign where he managed to score on 23 occasions. Gayle showed ambition to drop down to the Championship and move to the North East when the comfortable life of a back-up striker in London was on his doorstep.

Speaking of true professionals, Daryl Murphy was yet another. Never heard complaining about his lack of game time due to Gayle’s form, Murphy was always on standby to deliver the goals when called upon. Vital wins at Brentford and Huddersfield wouldn’t have been possible without the help of the burly Irishman.

What was remarkable however, was the notion of Newcastle signing a player north of 28 at the time, never mind a 33-year-old striker. Benítez had a blueprint and he wasn’t going to shift from it. Murphy was a true professional and an important member of Newcastle’s promoted squad.

It would have been fairly easy for Newcastle not to have bounced back from their relegation even without the turmoil at board level and the animosity between fans and owner. Plenty of relegated teams end up becoming stalwarts of the second tier as it is a notoriously difficult league to traverse.

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Of the last six teams to be relegated from the Premier League, it is highly likely that only one will be playing their football there next season – Newcastle United.

Aston Villa and Norwich City were the two other sides relegated with Newcastle in 2016. Villa are reliant on the lottery of the play-offs for a return to the Premier League, while Norwich have somewhat sunk into mid-table mediocrity in the Championship.

Of the most recent relegated trio of Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Hull City, Middlesbrough are the highest ranked team at present, clinging onto a 6th placed spot by their fingernails as their season looks to be derailing amidst pressure from teams beneath them. Sunderland’s League One-bound position has been well-documented while Hull City are yet to confirm their Championship status for next season, teetering in a precarious position above the drop zone.

Plenty of teams relegated from the Premier League are yet to return to regular top level action. Charlton Athletic, Bradford City, Ipswich Town, Portsmouth, Wigan Athletic, Blackburn Rovers, Birmingham City, Bolton Wanderers, all of whom are yet to return to the top flight. Derby County had one season in the dazzling Premier League sun in 2007/08 which ended in misery and have yet to return for longer than a year since their 2002 relegation. Norwich City appear to be settling as a Championship club once again, while Middlesbrough enjoyed one season of Premier League football before returning to the depths of the second tier after what had been almost a decade away.

It’s not easy to bounce back from a Premier League relegation, never mind at the first attempt.

It is quite evident in that case that what Newcastle and Rafa Benitez have achieved since then is nothing short of remarkable. Not only the fact that Newcastle were promoted back at the first attempt as Champions, but that Benitez has taken a club that was effectively on the brink, and transformed it into a club that can once again believe, all the while having one hand tied behind his back.

It is clear to see the benefits of the coaching and advice imparted to the likes of DeAndre Yedlin, Paul Dummett, Jamaal Lascelles and even Mo Diamé. In their respective roles in this Premier League team, they are all much better than when they first arrived on the scene of the Newcastle first team.

Paul Dummett was once told by previous manager Alan Pardew that he would never be good enough to play in his teams, but has been one of the most solid performers under Benitez, going from strength to strength.

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Jamaal Lascelles, a fringe player under Steve McClaren, turned Captain and England hopeful under Rafa Benitez. DeAndre Yedlin, an exciting attacking full-back under Sam Allardyce while at Sunderland with little defensive positioning nous, has been turned into a Premier League full-back under Benitez’ tutelage. Mo Diamé came to United as a bustling No. 10 but has been reinvented as a holding midfield player, making tackles and breaking up play.

The list goes on and the plaudits are almost endless, but one thing is clear, without Rafa Benitez, Newcastle could very well have suffered the same fate as their biggest rivals. Even the outcomes that have befallen Norwich City, Aston Villa and all of the aforementioned teams would have been nothing short of a tragedy.

It is not hyperbolic to say that Benitez is – and will go down as – one of the most important men in Newcastle United’s history.

The club could have succumbed to rack and ruin if it weren’t for him, which is why in United folklore, it is paramount that Rafa Benitez’ name is mentioned in the same breath as Kevin Keegan, Sir Bobby Robson, Alan Shearer, Joe Harvey, Stan Seymour, Jackie Milburn and David Kelly.
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