By Joe Donnohue
15th May 2016 – An already-relegated Newcastle United side demolished Tottenham Hotspur 5-1 at St James’ Park on the final day of the 2015-16 season. In the dugout sat Rafa Benítez – a manager of Champions League-winning pedigree – who was expected to leave the club at the end of the season, expected to pursue more prestigious challenges than a tiresome maiden campaign in the English Football League.
Oddly, despite the fact that when Newcastle inflict 5-1 defeats on teams they tend to be memorable, the result was not the most memorable aspect of that bright Sunday afternoon; it was the reaction of the indignant Newcastle United support.
Having had their relegation confirmed just days earlier by arch rivals Sunderland’s 3-0 victory over Everton, nobody could have blamed the St James’ Park crowd for being a little deflated. These supporters had become accustomed to finishing above their rivals for many years, even qualifying for the Champions League in 1997 on the same day that the Black Cats and fellow North East rivals Middlesbrough were both relegated.
Sunderland supporters had paid for a plane to fly over the stadium, with a banner that read “Auf Wiedersehen Prem, Tyne to go”. That was the least of most Newcastle fans’ worries as Daryl Janmaat struck the hosts’ fifth of the afternoon.
Even before the first goal had been scored, St James’ Park was rocking. The atmosphere was rocking and it was the sound of 52,000 die-hard Black and White men, women and children behind a common goal. That was something of a rarity; Newcastle’s fanbase had been divided on plenty of issues for some time.
What united them was one man and the recognition of his influence on the club, despite having been there for a mere two months.
The 15th of May 2016 could be a turning point for so many reasons, but it all hinged on Rafa Benítez being persuaded to remain as Newcastle United manager. The atmosphere was utterly fantastic, on a level similar to a goal being scored at the Gallowgate End, and that was just to greet the team onto the pitch.
“Rafa Benítez, we want you to stay” was bellowed from the rafters. Those who often abstained from singing were on their feet, in all sections of the ground, serenading the Spaniard sat below or across from them.
Benítez is a man who has experienced some of football’s most impossible and logic-defying moments; Istanbul 2005 as Liverpool manager is one that certainly springs to mind. He is a man who has first-hand witnessed and felt the fervour of important goals being scored at Napoli’s Stadio San Paolo, a fan-base so notorious for their passion that when Kalidou Koulibaly scored a late winner against Juventus earlier this season, a small tremor was recorded in a Naples suburb.
In subsequent interviews, Benítez stated that he had been moved by the support on that day and that it played a part in his decision-making regarding whether to remain at the helm or not. However small or large a part those 52,000 played in Benítez’s decision to stay and take on the challenge of rebuilding a club and uniting a fan-base, it is certain that the power of the collective support was evidently felt by the ice-cool ex-Real Madrid boss.
That in itself, is nothing short of remarkable, and an achievement in itself for the supporters of Newcastle United.
Sunday 13th May 2018 – Newcastle take on Chelsea in the final game of the season, at St James’ Park. The hosts – at the beginning of the season unfancied for survival – have been safe for weeks. Rafa Benítez has done a magnificent job with limited resources, often compared to having one hand tied behind his back, and sees his Newcastle side sitting pretty in 10th place.
He has one year remaining on his current deal as manager of the football club and a reported £6m release clause if any club see fit to part with the cash to prize him away from Tyneside.
Sunday’s match is yet another call to arms for those 52,000 who did not stop singing for those ninety minutes against Spurs almost two years ago to the day.
Benítez knows very well how much affection the Newcastle United fanbase and its players have towards him. Taking time out of his no doubt meticulous and busy schedule this week, he sat down for a short impromptu interview with 78-year-old Albert from Wooler, a fan of the club since 1944.
His class and tact knows no bounds and is in stark contrast to his predecessors. Benítez himself has been quoted as saying he wants to compete for honours at St James’ Park. He has said that he wants to make the club a competitive force once again. It is music to Newcastle United supporters’ ears because he is a man who can finally deliver, who makes them dream about better days to come.
This weekend, the call to arms is less so towards Benítez himself, it is to the Board, to the club. It needs to be loud and proud and a demonstration of the importance of one of the most influential figures in the club’s recent history.
If Newcastle United do not do everything in their power to retain Benítez beyond the end of the 2018-19 season it could prove to be one of the gravest mistakes the club has ever made, of which there are plenty under the current regime.
It is not often the case in recent years where Newcastle United enter the final game of the season where the result matters very little. Last season the Championship title was decided in the final few minutes of the campaign, meanwhile in 2015 Jonas Gutierrez ensured the club’s Premier League status for another year in the dying minutes of a 2-0 win over West Ham United. In 2012, Newcastle were still in with a chance of qualifying for the Champions League, eventually finishing fifth, the same position where Sunday’s opponents find themselves in.
Chelsea are chasing the elusive fourth-place spot and will be firmly focussed on the task at hand. Newcastle on the other hand can finish anywhere between 10th – the position they currently occupy – and 15th depending on the final score at St James’ Park and results elsewhere. At face value, all that rests on Sunday’s outcome for the club is the additional revenue in the form of Premier League prize money.
Once again, the fate of the club’s future relies on a Sunday afternoon in May. Following the end of the season, talks will likely continue between Benítez’s representatives and the club regarding an extension to his current deal.
In a match of little individual importance for Newcastle United, the indignant 52,000 will no doubt hope to play a part once again, on a day with such contrasting short and long-term significance.