Rafa Benitez was the special guest for Sky Sports during their Monday Night Football show yesterday.
Chatting alongside Jamie Carragher, the Spaniard spoke openly about all things NUFC, giving some compelling answers when quizzed about our season so far, Steve Bruce, his time at the club and the players he worked with.
Here is what he had to say in response to some intriguing questions from Carragher:
Q: Have you been surprised with the progress this season?
“Not really. I had a lot of confidence in the team. You can see the group of players, the way they were working last year, the commitment and passion they had.
“You can see a team that is organised, they are pushing and they are working especially when they play at home.
“The fans are supporting them, and even if they don’t have too many fans they are still out supporting them. I can see the team doing well and I don’t think they will be relegated.”
Q: You went to a back five in your time at Newcastle and were successful. There was talk earlier in the season of a back four, he’s then gone to a back five. Does that system really suit the players that are there?
“Yeah. Signing the players that we signed – especially Schar. Schar is a player who has quality on the ball so he has more freedom to go forward and play from the back.
“Lascelles in the middle was strong and could be good in the air. Dummett on the left side, he’s quite clever. He was the one who could play as a left full-back to cover Ritchie when he was going forward, or he could play from the back.
“For these three players it was really good. Yedlin who is really quick and Ritchie who has a lot of energy were giving us the width.
“When we signed Almiron, he and Ayoze and Rondon linked really well. Almiron could run behind defenders, Ayoze could run behind defenders and also go inside. So we have the width and the players that could go behind. We have the balance in defence.
“Dubravka was a great signing because he made a difference from day one when we beat Manchester United.
“The two midfielders – one that could pass the ball and one that could tackle and could keep position – we found the balance.
“In the second part of the league we were seventh. We did really well and the commitment of the players was there.
“I think the fans they accept that and accept the commitment of everyone that was there.”
Q: What was your idea to improve that team and take it even further forward, if you could have got certain players?
“If I was guilty of anything, it was to work really hard and to have some ambition. We gave the fans hope that we could go forward and improve that.
“I’m really pleased they are doing well and I’m really pleased for Steve Bruce because he’s doing a great job.
“When you are watching the table, we finished 10th and 13th and you are expecting the next step to do the right things and be in the top ten. But it was not the idea and it’s fine.
“The fans, the staff, the players – everybody was pushing. Everybody was trying to do what I said when I decided to stay in the Championship.
“It’s a massive club and has the potential.”
Q: There was investment in the summer. They spent big on Joelinton, Allan Saint-Maximin. Were you sitting there thinking why didn’t I get that kind of backing?
“No, not really. Obviously you can’t explain everything that happened in three and a half years.
“For me, it’s important to move forward and also for the fans. I’m really pleased they are doing well, I’m really pleased for Steve Bruce, for the fans and everyone involved.
“They can do well. But it’s another time, another league, it’s different. You see teams like Arsenal, Tottenham, Everton, and West Ham having problems this year they didn’t have last year.
“It’s totally different, they are doing well and hopefully they will continue doing well.”
Q: The Rafa Benitez love story with Newcastle – would you leave the door open later down the line?
“For sure. I am quite lucky because I have very good relationships with Liverpool fans, Valencia fans, Napoli fans the same, Newcastle United fans the same.
“For a manager, when you got to four or five clubs and do really well, you keep the relationship with the board and the fans. You have a commitment not just with the players and the club, but also with the city.
“I can go to Valencia and it will be very difficult for me to walk in the street because they will be asking for autographs all the time. It’s the same in Napoli. Liverpool, I come here by train and always find a Liverpool fan.
“In China, you have Newcastle United fans, Liverpool fans and Valencia fans. For you as a manager, you are really proud of that And Dalian Yifang fans?
“Believe me, people don’t know but the Dalian fans are similar to Newcastle United and Liverpool fans, more so now Newcastle United fans because they used to win in the past and now they want to go back to the same level.
“Obviously they know it’s a project and a young team with young players. Hopefully we are doing our bit and we will be better.”
Q: Is the owner going to spend any money?
“They can because everybody has money.
“They are waiting for the new rules this week, and they will have some limitations.”
Q: How did you feel when the likes of Gary Neville criticised you constantly for negative tactics at Newcastle when playing the likes of Manchester City?
“I never lost any game here [the studio]. What is a good manager? You can get the best from your players, you can adapt and you can win games and you can win trophies.
“I tried to do that. When you have won in three different countries not with the top sides – Liverpool was not a top side when I came, Valencia were not a top side, Napoli was not a top side. If you can win with these teams as a coach it means you are doing a job.
“People from outside talking about in this case Newcastle United who finished 10th. The story about Newcastle United is they were relegated when we were there. We decided to stay and the fans loved the commitment we showed.
“We finished 10th with a team that was new in the Premier League. We finished 13th the second year. This is the third year of Newcastle United so for two years, you have to bring the best from your players.
“Playing four at the back, we had problems. We played five at the back, we were compact, and with Almiron we finished seventh in the second part of the league. Why? Because we could go forward. “You have to get the best from your players. That’s it.”
It’s good to hear Benitez wishing us the best and showing his class and expert knowledge on all things NUFC.
Benitez will always be remembered fondly in Newcastle and would be welcomed back with open arms should a potential return ever be back on the cards.
Not matter how well Steve Bruce is doing, it can’t be overstated how much of a good job he did for the club during his time on Tyneside.