Sad departure of Rafa Benítez says everything about Newcastle’s woes

Harry Savill on 25 June 2019

Just over three weeks ago, there was a palpable though repressed gasp of relief on Tyneside as news began to surface that an investment firm in the Middle East was on the brink of taking over Newcastle United. Just days earlier, a feeling of optimism had coursed through the streets of the city after promising contract discussions between the much-adored manager, Rafa Benítez, and the woeful owner, Mike Ashley.

The masterly and reassuringly calm presence of the Spaniard looked increasingly likely to stay, as his boss – though more often than not, adversary – appeared finally to be on his way out. There was therefore a sense of astonishment that accompanied news on Monday that Benítez, after three and a half years of unrelenting graft and unrewarded loyalty, was to depart the club. A disagreement in vision between Ashley – an owner sculpted in the vision of a footballing Scrooge – and the manager was the cause for the split.

While many fans knew it was always a possibility that Benítez would leave – 12 years of Ashley has desensitised us – few were truly braced for what came, and nor too was Benítez, supposedly. Such is obvious from the utterly deflated atmosphere in the city, the response from the club legends Alan Shearer and Robbie Elliott, and the mood, dare I say it, on social media.

When good things come to an end it seems fitting that you look back on their beginnings. And there is no doubting that Benítez’s arrival on Tyneside was special. Having won trophies including a Champions League, two Uefa Cups/Europa Leagues, two La Liga titles and an FA Cup, you would be forgiven for thinking Newcastle United was an outlier on an otherwise glittering CV.

The truth is – and this is exactly what endeared him to so many – he saw the value in the project, the fans, the unrealised potential of a club that had been cut adrift for too long. The aim was not to compete with clubs such as Manchester City or Chelsea – the ambition Ashley constantly ascribes to the fans – but to return some modicum of pride to a club that had for too long been paralysed by underinvestment and short-sightedness.

For more than three years he battled to realise that ambition, lifting an honest and downtrodden team back from the Championship and, with minimal investment, defying expectations to twice keep them in the Premier League, with an overall net spend of minus £11.2m. His gritty style earned famous victories against Manchester United, Manchester City, Spurs, Chelsea and Arsenal – arguably no manager has done more with less.

Carrying on the charity work he was known for at Liverpool, Benítez has forged a deep connection with the community in Newcastle. From supporting the NUFC Foodbank and the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, to attending the disabled supporters’ association the day he signed a new deal, the man was a class act on and off the pitch. The city stands to lose so much more than a managerial hero.

Behind the scenes, controversy has engulfed the club in the years Ashley has been in the north-east. This summer he had already overseen a raft of abuses: the new Puma home shirt, at a mind-boggling £65, is the most expensive in English football. Coupled with that, and amid massive annual TV revenues, the club found little shame in raising season-ticket prices by 5%. Elsewhere, a revamp of the directors’ box at St James’ Park, a stadium physically scarred by years of neglect and scrimping, and consequently band-aided with Sports Direct advertising, is emblematic of where priorities lie at the club.

Mike Ashley has been Newcastle’s owner for 12 years.
Mike Ashley has been Newcastle’s owner for 12 years. Photograph: James Marsh/BPI/Rex/Shutterstock

However, Benítez’s departure is conceivably the worst thing that has happened here, supplanting Robson’s sacking and both of Keegan’s resignations. We were an established Premier League club then, challenging at the right end of the table. Without a manager such as Benítez, we run the risk of going and never coming back.

Already, odds have been massively shortened for the club to go down which, and when you look at some of the names being mentioned as Benítez’s successor in the media, such as Avram Grant and Michael Appleton – yes, you are reading that correctly – it is unsurprising.

That Benítez, who embodied the undying spirit and resilience of the club, has been allowed to leave sends the clearest message yet that this regime has been, and will continue to be, guided by unscrupulous avarice and self-serving pig-headedness. It sends a message to the hundreds of thousands of doting supporters whose hard-earned money has been spent on following their team up and down the country, across Europe and further afield, that they simply do not care. At best, they are downright ignorant as to what is in front of them.

Barring a journey across the Tyne and a few miles south to Sunderland, whatever Benítez chooses to do next, he will have the full support of Newcastle fans. I would like to think few would fault him for his departure – a dignified refusal to play the puppet Ashley wanted of him – and he will for ever, regretfully, be remembered as the one that got away.

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If there were to be one silver lining in the thick dark clouds that have hung over Newcastle United over the past 12 years, it is that the man who oversaw these evidently catastrophic renewal talks with Benítez may well be following him out of the door soon enough. Ashley supposedly remains in talks with several potential purchasers, including the Dubai-based billionaire Sheikh Khaled bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates.

That said, the club arguably derived so much of its present value – what Ashley deems to be £350m – from its manager and what he represented; he was the pride of the club, upon whom our survival in the Premier League has been reliant, and upon whom our imagined future rested. With Benítez gone, it’s plausible the investors’ interest will drop off.

And in the wings, the fans will be left, as they often have been under this regime, with a sense of nothingness. Pre-season starts in 10 days: no manager, no signings, no hope.

@HAJSavill is editor of The Spectator’s View

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