15 May 2016. A 10-man, already relegated Newcastle United have just thumped Spurs 5-1 at a sold-out St James’ on the final day of the season.
Despite being unbeaten in our previous five games, our supporters flocked through the turnstiles knowing that Championship football was a formality – but we had one mission in mind..
“RAFA BENITEZ – WE WANT YOU TO STAY”
This was the most unifying moment of the Ashley era between the players and the fans. The only time where, despite obvious difficulties headed our way, we still had hope. This was the moment Rafa “got it” at Newcastle. If he stayed on, it gave us a chance.
Benitez chucked out the mercenaries, the deadwood, and the players who simply didn’t want to be here that summer and turned us into a team of grafters, securing the Championship title on the final day. After years of Pardew, Carver and McClaren, we finally had a team that played for the black-and-white shirt.
More than anything, he saw the potential of the football club and the city. Go back and watch his pitch-side interview with Jamie Carragher after our 1-0 win at Leicester last season, with our fans still signing in the corner.
You can tell that he loves this club – and we loved him.
A startling fact is that we made an £11m profit on transfers in the three-and-a-half years Rafa was at the helm. We had a Champions League manager operating with a League One budget. Yes, some of his signings were poor (I’m looking at you Joselu), but imagine what this man could do with some serious dough to spend.
The man rumoured to be first-choice by the Saudis is Mauricio Pochettino, a highly sought-after manager who built a decent team at Southampton and an impressive one at Spurs, all on a relatively low budget. With Man United and Real Madrid sniffing about for the Argentines services, you could say that, alongside Klopp at Liverpool, Pochettino is very much flavour of the month.
However, let me give you another startling fact – Pochettino has won the same amount of trophies that Steve Bruce has as a manager. Zilch. Rafa, on the other hand, is a born winner.
Pochettino managed a Spurs side that choked in a Premier League title race – Twice. Rafa Benitez pulled off one of the hardest gigs in football by winning La Liga with Valencia at the expense of Real Madrid and Barcelona. He also did this twice.
The Argentine took an unfancied Spurs into the Champions League final, losing to Liverpool in the biggest game in his career so far.
When Rafa took a modest Liverpool team to Istanbul against the star-studded AC Milan side of the mid-noughties, we all know how that Champions League final went. Do you see where I am getting at here?
Rafa has won it all at the top-level and he loves being an underdog. Once the Saudi takeover is complete, that is exactly what we will be.
Give the “wee club in the North-East” a bucket-load of cash, a manager who understands the club and its city, and a united fanbase behind them and let’s see how far it goes.