Last season was drawing to a close when Rafael Benítez stood in a quiet corridor at St James’ Park briefing a small group of newspaper journalists on his seemingly interminable negotiations over a new contract with Mike Ashley.
Little of substance was said but, as the conversation drew to a close, something unusual happened. Instead of the customary thumbs up or little wave as Benítez turned on his heel and wandered off there were firm handshakes and, for this reporter, a kiss from Newcastle United’s manager.
It could have been something or nothing but, at the time it rang slight alarm bells. Was Newcastle’s best manager since Sir Bobby Robson saying “goodbye?” Had the erosion of trust in his relationship with the club’s owner dictated that Benítez would not be returning to the city he had fallen at least half in love with and the club he once dreamed of leading back into Europe?
Discussions with Ashley dragged on and talk – yet again – of a potential Emirati takeover promised, tantalisingly, to change the narrative but, on Monday the fears raised in that corridor were realised.
Some of those who know the Spaniard well are convinced he has had at least one foot in the departure lounge for a good couple of months now and few could blame him. At 59, Benítez feels he has another decade left in management. As a serial winner of trophies who thrives on big European nights, part of him knew his talents were in serious danger of being wasted on Tyneside.
The frustration is that so much was perfect; the 52,000 full houses, the almost unconditional love from fans who repeatedly chanted “Rafa Benítez; we want you to stay,” the citadel-like stadium situated right in the city centre.
As a city Newcastle shares many similarities with Liverpool and it was no surprise it seemed like a natural habitat for a man who enjoyed one of the happiest, and most successful, periods of his career on Merseyside, where his family home remains.
Indeed, Benítez had long had a soft spot for what would become his adopted home on Gallowgate. During an interlude as Chelsea manager, he stood in that aforementioned St James’ corridor following a defeat inflicted by Alan Pardew’s then side and, as he debriefed reporters, there was a definite sense that he rather envied Pardew’s job.
So much so that when Ashley sacked Steve McClaren, Benítez swiftly made it clear he was available – it was not long after his departure from Real Madrid – and rather fancied stepping in. Initially he joined on a nine-game contract but when, through no fault of his own, Newcastle were relegated that season, he shocked a lot of people by agreeing to drop down into the Championship with them.
Promotion swiftly followed – but the celebrations had barely subsided before things started to go wrong. Benítez and Ashley are both, to differing degrees and in contrasting ways, control freaks, both men are enigmatic and their partnership was never going to be straightforward.
Perhaps fearing that Benítez’s political manoeuvres might push him into unwelcome corners, Ashley managed things by very rarely speaking to, and almost never meeting, his manager. This dysfunctional union was held together by Lee Charnley, the club’s managing director, who frequently struggled to satisfy two such invariably incompatible masters.
Money is Ashley’s main motivator and possibly he struggled to understand why Benítez’s £6m-a-year contract was not enough. But the manager did not like the retail tycoon’s policy of signing players only aged 25 and under so that they possessed decent resale value. He wanted to leaven youth with experience, to revamp Newcastle’s academy and radically overhaul a training ground which, compared with those of some Premier League counterparts, was more functional-yet-tired mid-range hotel than modernist six-star spa resort.
And then there was the budget: the owner envisaged spending around £50m on transfers this summer, his head coach would have preferred at least double that amount. But it was more than merely about pure figures; Benítez became increasingly disturbed by how long it took Ashley to execute any potential deal, how everything had to go through not just Charnley but the owner’s fixer, the lawyer Justin Barnes.
The striker Salomón Rondón became a bit of a cause célèbre for Benítez’s philosophy. The West Brom forward who joined on loan was much too close to 30 for Ashley’s liking but his goals and all-round excellence at centre-forward played a big part in preserving Newcastle’s Premier League status for a second season running and the manager believed it was imperative he should be signed on an expensive, permanent deal.
Ashley, though, could not seem to understand why the former Champions League-winning coach was so hooked up on the player and his reluctance to spend the money on the Venezuelan quite possibly kiboshed any hopes of a contract extension.
If part of Benítez always knew he was leaving this summer, maybe another part hoped Ashley would finally blink first. When, a couple of weeks ago, his camp started briefing that Chelsea might, slightly startlingly, want him back it appeared part of a classic game to push Ashley into accepting his demands.
The news that he could command a £12m-a-year salary in China looked a similar ploy but the resultant headlines failed to produce the desired breakthrough and Newcastle are left seeking a new manager able to reprise Benítez’s feat in somehow avoiding relegation by coaxing one of the Premier League’s weakest squads into significant overachievement.
That newcomer can expect to meet closed hearts and minds on Tyneside. The emotional barriers threaten to be formidable; whoever they are and however good they may be, they will not be Rafa Benítez.
Maybe one day Ashley will reflect on precisely how he let the best manager he ever had slip through his fingers. First, though, he will need to understand why Benítez spent more than three years trying, forlornly, to tell him that it really is pointless knowing the price of everything if you don’t appreciate the value of anything.