Newcastle United is putting up a very good fight in the scramble for Premier League safety. If the club stays up, it does so with Rafa Benitez as the manager (in the proper sense) and we as fans can look forward to supporting a club looking to make genuine progress for the first time under Mike Ashley’s reign.
It all sounds like a dream. A warm, welcoming light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel. Trouble is, it may well be too little, too late. Why the board did not sack Steve McClaren before the Spain trip we will never know. We all knew he was a dead man walking and the players were not responding to him or his team.
Rafa was sacked on the 4th January by Los Galacticos. It may be that he wanted to assess his options and have a break from the game. However, just think how different our league position might look today if the club had canned Schteve in January and given Rafa complete control over the winter transfer window. Why Carr was trusted to blow another 30 odd million is anybody’s guess after the debacle of his summer signings for the 2nd season in a row.
What we are left with now feels like a cruel joke. Mike Ashley has given us a genuine world class manager for the first time under his reign. The result? A man with big cojones who knows what he is talking about has galvanised a squad we all thought was devoid of effort, pride and even basic footballing skills. Players like Anita, Sissoko and Tiote have effectively come back from the dead because we have a manager who knows how to get the best from them – and where their best positions are. He has taught the team how to defend as a solid unit instead a bunch of headless chickens and he has shown no hesitation in making it clear that names and reputations mean nothing to him – by dropping the likes of Shelvey, Wijnaldum and Mitrovic.
Rafa will do what is best for the club. Not what is best for his ‘big’ players. The players will take this on the chin too, because you don’t question a man with Rafa Benitez’ track record. As a result the team has pulled off a strong victory against Swansea and more recently, two extremely impressive comebacks – first at home to money bags Manchester City and then away at Liverpool in a stadium driven by another world class manager and fans of equal passion to the Geordies. All this with a squad full of players that he did not sign. Rafa has taken a lop sided squad and identified a system it can thrive in. He has then applied that system and made the players believe in it. Results continue to follow. Yes – at long last we have a real leader at the club.
So why is his appointment cruel? Because we have so little time left with him before we go back to the same old dross. That is, if we get relegated despite his best efforts. Sunderland have two games in hand, are level on points with Newcastle and have a far superior goal difference. Despite the Toon’s recent resurgence, the club is still relying on our relegation rivals having a stinker of a run in. The odds are still firmly stacked against us.
All fingers and toes are crossed that Rafa and his charges pull off the great escape. If Rafa manages it, it will go down in history with Houdini’s water torture trick and the British commonwealth soldiers escaping ze German PoW camp during world war 2. In fact, it would be even better. Generations will be talking about it all over the globe. There would be annual celebrations with fireworks – and films made about it. Seriously…?
We need to face the very real possibility though, that Rafa’s appointment was just too late in the game to have a meaningful incluence. In that event, we face a fate even worse than relegation- a future without Rafa Benitez. We go back to bang average managers and a squad devoid of passion or leadership. Maybe we get promoted, maybe we don’t. What does it matter? We will just be treading water again for years on end.
That is why the bigger question the board and fans should be asking is not whether we stay up or go down, but can we make Rafa stay no matter what the outcome of this season is? Mike Ashley needs to strike a deal early with Rafa – before the season ends and Rafa gets poached. He needs to cede total control of all footballing matters to the Spanish mastermind and need to give him any assurances he wishes.
The fans need to sing his name loud and proud – all game, every game. Make him feel loved. He has given hints in recent interviews of wanting the kind of relationship he still enjoys with Liverpool fans. The man breathes football and he wants a new spiritual home. We can give it to him and I think that would be enough to convince him to stay in the event of relegation. But we all need to do our bit to make him feel like it would be worth it. Starting with Mike Ashley and finishing with us, the fans.