It’s heartfelt, heartbreaking and hard to bear, but George Caulkin’s exclusive chat with Rafa Benitez is an absolute must-read following the Spaniard’s exit at St James’ Park.
The devastating part is how he talks like a man who was desperate to stay and build something big at this club, but it’s clear that Mike Ashley’s lack of ambition and respect for the China-bound boss made it a losing battle Benitez felt unable to win.
It’s a long read, but perhaps the best and worst thing you’ll read all year at the same time, with Rafa touching on his will to stay, his relationship with Mike Ashley (or lack of it), the takeover distractions, the key reasons he left and the player’s he saw grow into highly capable Premier League over his three years at the club.
Rafa Benítez: I lost trust at Newcastle. If those in charge had my ambition, I would still be there
He is not a demonstrative person, but there is a moment — just a moment — when his eyes mist and his voice cracks. It is time to say farewell and it is not easy after three years of adoration and toil, of pushing a dysfunctional club to be better. Rafa Benítez cannot push any more, not against the immovable object that is Mike Ashley’s Newcastle United and so he has to go, but this was never what he wanted.
Before too long, he will be analysing and explaining again, but this man of obsessional detail is also flesh. He hurts. A couple of messages from Newcastle supporters are read out to him, explaining how he made them “feel part of something good for the first time in ages”, that his being at St James’ Park meant “all hope wasn’t lost”. He winces. There is a little cough. “Very emotional,” he says.
Benítez, 59, will forever be associated with Liverpool, but a manager who hoarded trophies at Anfield, Valencia, Inter Milan, Chelsea and Napoli, felt a ferocious, yearning love at Newcastle. He could not keep a fractured team in the Premier League following his appointment in March 2016, but he hauled them back as champions and then, with limited resources, kept them there twice. He was worshipped for it.
Leaving is a wrench. “I’m sad,” he says, “because Newcastle has been my home. If Liverpool is where my family live, then Newcastle will always be my other home. You can sell a house, but you can never sell home. To have that connection with a city and fans, it’s strange and difficult to lose that. I feel like an honorary Geordie now.”
Benítez’s contract at Newcastle, for so long such a source of angst, expired last night; his reluctant departure has sparked a guttural howl from fans. By now he will be in the Far East, where he is set to join Dalian Yifang of the Chinese Super League, which just goes to show how quickly football can pivot. In transit, he spoke to The Times for his only interview.
It still feels extraordinary that Benítez, who had last been seen at Real Madrid, turned up at Newcastle. Amid the permafrost of Ashley’s ownership — calamitous miscalculations, limited ambition — the Spaniard arrived talking stature and possibility, persuading a disillusioned fanbase to believe again, to think differently about their club. His recommitment to them following relegation forged an unbreakable bond.
On the day their demotion was confirmed, St James’ was alive with optimism; Newcastle thrashed Tottenham Hotspur 5-1 and Benítez was implored to stay. “That atmosphere . . . I will always remember it,” he says. “That was a key point in my decision. Everything we shared has been fantastic. I have to praise the amazing players who grew and fought with us, the brilliant staff, everyone involved.
“In your career, you come to understand that football is a business, so you have to be professional, but sometimes it’s about the relationship with fans. I was lucky to have that in Valencia and Tenerife, in Napoli and Liverpool, and Newcastle was the same. In our bad runs, it meant I could stay calm and do my job. They were behind us. It is difficult to say goodbye, to say goodbye to that feeling.
“I have just a . . . not regret, but a little bit of disappointment that I couldn’t go higher. I’m really pleased with what we did with the resources we had, with all the things around — everybody knows it’s not easy — but I’m just disappointed we couldn’t achieve more, that we couldn’t compete and reach the real potential of this fantastic club.”
More than anything, the P word explains why Benítez came to Newcastle and why he has gone. “What I said from day one is what I still feel — I can see the potential of the team, the club, the city, the fans,” he says. “You cannot go away from home and take 9,000 fans without that potential. It means there’s something big there, something really important, as long as you manage it properly.
“I wanted to stay, 100 per cent. I wanted to develop a project, to be competitive, to compete in the cups and to be as close as possible to the top of the league, but you have to have the tools. If you don’t, then you suffer, because you’re at the bottom of the table, every point is massive and you know that a mistake could mean relegation. That would be a disaster for the whole city.
“That responsibility, the fact we were suffering in every game just to get a draw, is something I couldn’t manage for another three years. I couldn’t stay there just to be bottom. It wasn’t my idea when I went to Newcastle. The idea was the top ten, top eight and then maybe try for Europe later on. If the people at the top of the club had the same ideas, I would still be there.”
Benítez is not bitter. He does not want a war with Ashley or Lee Charnley, Newcastle’s managing director. “If I start talking about every problem we had, then it will be wasting energy,” he says. “It is not a time to criticise, but a time to analyse.” Yet some clarification is needed, if only to address the saddest thing at all; how Benítez can be leaving when nobody wished it (or so they say).
When Benítez was appointed, the club’s unofficial mantra was “what Rafa wants, Rafa gets”, but from his first January transfer window, when the manager pressed for a signing to help ensure promotion, he encountered roadblocks. Each trading period provoked spikes of tension, but not because he was asking for a fortune; when he wanted action, he met delay and obfuscation. It was exhausting.
“People talk about power, money and control, but it wasn’t about that,” he says. “It was about doing things right. At Newcastle, we didn’t have the money the top sides had, so the first or second choice targets were really important because the third or fourth ones would be worse and worse and then you lose something. You work so hard to prepare for your signings and then you have to move quickly to get them. Sometimes we weren’t doing that.”
Benítez reaches back into his own past. “When I was at Napoli, Juventus were winning everything, but we won two trophies,” he says. “Why? The resources we had meant we could compete and the relationship with the technical director, the chairman, the financial director was good. We won the Italian Cup and the Italian Super Cup and made a lot of money in the market. If you have this confidence, belief and trust, then normally you will be successful.”
So trust had gone at Newcastle? “Yes,” he says. “We didn’t have that, so I had to choose.” Does he believe that Ashley and Charnley were eager for him to carry on? “Obviously, I had the feeling they were really pleased for me to stay at the beginning, but later on, when we had different views in terms of how to move forward, I couldn’t see this support,” he says. “I couldn’t see this clear desire I could feel at the beginning.”
The club would claim otherwise. In their statement last Monday, Newcastle said they “worked hard to extend Rafa’s contract over a significant period of time”, yet the two sides conversed in different languages. When Charnley made his initial approach, Benítez was fretting about a lack of signings; he was baffled by the timing. As months elapsed, confusion and frustration became entrenched.
The nub of it was about emotional and financial investment. During Ashley’s 12 years, the club’s infrastructure has not been enhanced to a meaningful extent. It was something Benítez thought vital. “When I came to Newcastle, they gave me the plans for the new training ground, I was talking to the architect about changing a few things,” he says, smiling now. “And after three years . . . they painted the walls.
“If you want to attract players, it’s about the facilities, the contract, the city, the way you treat them, the way you treat the agents. If you want to keep them happy, you keep improving. If you want to have a good atmosphere, a real bond, you have to give players the right facilities for when they hang around together. We had that at a lot of clubs. It’s just the way.”
Was Benítez asking too much? Did he demand £100 million to spend this summer, as has been reported? “I didn’t ask for any money,” he says. “I just wanted to know how much [there was]. The club put out some information about the budget being around £50 million plus the money from sales and that was fine. I wasn’t complaining. I knew it was the reality. It was about managing the budget you have — that was the key.
“I knew from day one that you could not compete against the top six, that you cannot spend £100 million every year. But to have a chance, to compete in cup competitions, to be closer to the top, where Newcastle deserve to be, you have to do things really well. The reason I wasn’t happy was because we weren’t competing. We could have done more with the resources we had.”
Even so, at the end of last season, with Newcastle safe again and his contract ticking down, Benítez believed there could still be a satisfactory compromise. He met Ashley and Charnley at the London headquarters of Flannels, one of the owner’s other companies. “I was expecting we would finish the meeting and everything would be done,” he says. “That was my thought. I thought I would be staying.
“Common sense says you’ve been successful on the pitch, you’d reached the target the club wanted which was to stay in the Premier League and the same in terms of business — they’d made a profit. Any owner would surely say, ‘okay, on and off the pitch, you’ve delivered, so this will be an easy conversation’ and then you try to finalise the details. And it was not like that.”
A one-year extension seemed an obvious solution, giving both sides wriggle-room, but when, as requested, he told Newcastle what it would take for him to sign, there was no response (it had been a similar story in the spring). Days went by, momentum drained. When an offer finally came, it was on the same £6 million salary (less than offered in earlier talks), with enhanced bonuses but less control over incoming signings. None of it felt like a club straining to keep him.
With various groups negotiating to buy the club, Newcastle’s takeover saga did not help. “It was a big problem,” Benítez says. “In terms of my decision, I was waiting and I was asking for clarity and, like the fans, we didn’t know. Eventually, you have to decide. I could not continue in the same way, because I couldn’t see how to progress. It had to be clear to me — who was the owner, what would they do — and it wasn’t clear at any time.”
Benítez sent Charnley an email; there would be no deal. The reply, which explained that Newcastle would now pursue other managers, arrived last Monday, moments before the release of the club’s official statement, about which he was given no warning. “I knew I was leaving,” he says. “I had been clear in what I’d said to them. But it was the fact they didn’t say, ‘okay, we understand that and we’re putting out a statement’. It was a simple thing they could have done.”
There has been no further contact from Ashley. “No. But he didn’t do it during the three years anyway,” Benítez says. “I didn’t have a problem with Mike Ashley because he wasn’t around; maybe I met him four or five times.”
Where Benítez excelled was in making an untethered club bind around him. He ventured into the community, donating money and time to charities, often without publicity. He made players better. “We could see how Jamaal Lascelles was coming from a young defender to a proper centre half,” he says. “You could see Paul Dummett doing the same, Isaac Hayden, Ayoze Pérez, all of them growing so much.” Tactically, he drilled them to beat superior teams.
The crushing part of all this is that so much of the club — world-class manager, devoted supporters, willing players — was aligned. It gave fans hope. The thought of what might have been is difficult to bear, but Newcastle’s potential will forever be stunted with Ashley in situ and Benítez cannot wait. He has another plane to catch, another project to obsess over.
There is one more thing; Benítez has accepted an honorary life membership of the Newcastle United Supporters Trust. “Your friends in those messages…” he says. “Newcastle is what they’ve had since they were kids. They must continue to support it. Their commitment, their passion has been so good for me. I tell them ‘thank you very much, you are in my heart’. Hopefully they will be successful and, you never know, maybe we will see each other again in the future.”
So, in short, Rafa didn’t ask for the world, but Mike Ashley made no attempt to compromise – showing how little interest he had in keeping a world class manager at the club who could all but guarantee success to some extent.
And then there’s the poor communication, the cheeky offers, releasing a statement without acknowledging him.
This club has become a complete and utter laughing stock under Mike Ashley. A club with huge potential – something that attracted Rafa – but one that’s being run as nothing other than a business by a man who’s only ambition is to make money and hurt others in the process.
I’m holding onto his final line “maybe we will see each other again in the future“, but, as we all know too well, it’s the hope that kills you.
Thank you Rafa. The Geordie faithful love and appreciate you more than you will ever know.