With Newcastle well placed to gain automatic promotion back to the Premier League at the first attempt, attentions are already turning to the summer and another re-building job.
The main focus is undoubtedly the future of manager Rafa Benitez. It was a massive coup to attract the Spaniard to aid our ultimately unsuccessful survival fight last spring. Rafa stayed after following his ‘heart and not his head’. The love of the fans, being near his family who are still near Liverpool and the perceived massive untapped potential of Newcastle all led to him sticking around for a season in the second tier.
After a successful season so far, if not with a few unexpected defeats, the concern for Newcastle fans is now keeping the Champions League winner on Tyneside. Rumours have circulated since January that Rafa may leave Newcastle this summer if the club don’t match his ambitions. Cracks appeared when Rafa desperately wanted investment in the January window to solidify our promotion push, with Andros Townsend targeted. Apparently Mike Ashley wouldn’t sanction further outlay on transfers, as he felt we had enough to go up with the squad available. Having just enough clearly isn’t on the agenda for a manager of the calibre of Benitez.
Since then, links to West Ham, Arsenal and China are regularly floated in the media. A lot of this could be tenuous but either way, such speculation causes concern amongst toon fans. It is a different situation to be in for many Newcastle fans as, in all honestly, we haven’t had a manager any club would want to poach in recent memory – Souness, Roeder, Allardyce, Houghton, Pardew (jumped before he was sacked) McClaren, to name a few.
Rafa does also have an interesting past regarding strained relations with previous employers that Ashley would be wise to consider. After leading Valencia to a brilliant La Liga title, he pushed through a move to Liverpool after he felt the board weren’t backing him in his search for a striker. Despite his love of Liverpool, he accepted the Chelsea job in 2012, knowing it would be unpopular with fans at both clubs. As much as Rafa listens to his heart as he did with Newcastle, he is ambitious and won’t stay if it’s not on his terms. Loyalty in football only goes so far.
So why is it so important for the future of the club and the fans that Rafa says?
Quite simply, hope.
Since Mike Ashley bought NUFC, there have been countless poor decisions, bad press stories and a story of decline on the pitch. Before Benitez arrived, the disconnect between the fans, players and board was at an all-time high.
Rallying to almost avoid the drop, doing more work in the community and getting the fans behind the players in their droves; Benitez has transformed the feeling around the club in the past year. For the first time arguably since Sir Bobby Robson, Newcastle have a manager who can attract the players needed to get the club back into the top half of the Premier League on a consistent basis. It is this hope that has united fans.
This summer, the ball is firmly in Mike Ashley and Lee Charnley’s court. They backed Rafa to the hilt last summer to get him to stay. They abandoned the failed head coach model, invested in players over 30 and made Benitez one of the highest earning managers in world football. If we do go up and the board renege on the progress of last summer and alienate Benitez, it would arguably be the biggest mistake to date by the current regime.
It is expected Rafa wants to maintain total control of transfers and wants significant transfer investment, of around £80m, this summer to align with his plans for the club.
If Newcastle keep their side of the bargain it would appear Benitez will stay, even with other offers. Under the Ashley regime though, times the board has done what would appear logical have been few and far between. As always with Newcastle, an interesting summer awaits.