Nearly four months into his third full season and I still have to sometimes pinch myself that Rafa Benitez is manager of Newcastle United.
It’s worth looking over to the dugout and remembering what has been sat in the manager’s seat in years gone by. It remains one of the most incredible managerial coups in football in recent times and as much as I hate to admit it, the day will come when he walks out of Barrack Road, not to return.
When that happens we may be a long time away from getting another manager of the same calibre, regardless of who owns Newcastle United. He will win trophies again at some point. The only hope is that it is while he is the North-East rather than back in Spain or Italy.
Take Monday night’s win at Burnley as a prime example. Rafa outfoxed Sean Dyche tactically with the back three, allowing us to dominate possession and build from the back. The players were excellent at Turf Moor, but it all came from the base of a perfect Benitez gameplan.
Previously we have rolled over easily in game similar to Burnley away. With Rafa in charge we are rarely not still in the game with 20 minutes to play. He has rid us of the soft underbelly that has plagued us for years.
His contract is, as the whole football world seems to know, up at the end of the season. But am I actually worried about Rafael Benitez leaving? Bizarrely not.
Our Spanish gaffer is holding every ace in the history of cards. Mike Ashley knows he will not be able to get another manager who can get premier league survival with the current resources. Even more crucial is the fact that Rafa also knows this. He is also prepared to play the long game.
Whilst it might put unnecessary pressure on the squad if no investment is made in January, I don’t think it would force Benitez’s hand. For him it is in his interests to see out the season. If he keeps us up again it’s another remarkable achievement and his reputation will be even further enhanced ahead of the summer.
Ashley will be facing the biggest crisis in the history of his NUFC ownership if Rafa left at the end of the season, even if premier league status was maintained. Complete fan mutiny with a hit in season ticket sales, players likely to push for moves and losing a manager who was the reason for staying afloat.
Even for a man with his disregard for supporters and feeling around the club, it would not be a welcome scenario ahead of another year of Premier League football. He may not care about improving the team but he does care about revenue, which can only be maximised in the top flight.
He even said a few seasons ago when doing the infamous sky interview pre-West Ham on the final day, that he would spend enough to guarantee premier league football (if you could do such a thing). His manager is as close to a guarantee as he will ever get, and I do think Ashley and Charnley have actually grasped this. This could be the key to Benitez receiving the reassurances of investment required, and hopefully the gateway to another deal.
The contract situation is clearly in stalemate but far from hopeless. It is reaching a decision either way from the top of the club. Either invest or risk long-term downturn in revenues from our club. I think Rafa is also realistic and knows a new owner won’t come out of thin air. The Ashley meals and attendance to games is odd behaviour but does probably point to the fact a sale is far from imminent.
Personally, I have real doubts over whether Ashley has any interest in selling the club at all, but hope I am wrong. For the time being Rafa Benitez knows this and is prepared to work with base resources and push for more.
I can see one more incoming in January, certainly if we are still in the bottom half, and this might be all that is needed to keep both parties reasonably tolerant with one another. In truth, I think the limitations of the current squad are shown when Rondon is out injured, meaning we are probably a striker short. If Benitez got one more in over the transfer window, it would probably be enough to at least convince him to see out the season.
As history shows, our gaffer is more than capable of riding out political chaos in football clubs, and dealing with difficult owners, albeit perhaps no one as difficult or frustrating as Mike Ashley.
He did it at Valencia and then at Liverpool when Tom Hicks and George Gillett were running the club into the ground. He is wily and shrewd enough to make the best of the situation. We should have no doubt he won’t be forced into walking early, which plays into our hands.
One thing Ashley isn’t, is stupid. He knows the clock is ticking and we are approaching end-game. I still back Rafa to have the last laugh and a new contract to be tied up before the end of the season.
One final thought to finish with however, is that in 11 years of Mike Ashley ownership, predicting his next move is virtually impossible. Therefore even Rafa Benitez will expect the unexpected.
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