Rafael Benítez back in the big time with Newcastle

Spaniard adored in northeast England, and this was a big factor in him signing new deal

Ireland international Ciarán Clark shares a joke with Jonjo Shelvey as Newcastle manager Rafa Benítez looks on during a visit to Dublin. Photograph: Photocall

Ireland international Ciarán Clark shares a joke with Jonjo Shelvey as Newcastle manager Rafa Benítez looks on during a visit to Dublin. Photograph: Photocall

 

After a year which saw him lurch from the Bernabeu to Burton Albion, Rafael Benítez is back in the big time.

The Spaniard took over at Newcastle United in March 2016, charged with the near-impossible task of keeping the club in the top flight.

Newcastle were spiralling towards relegation in the wake of Steve McLaren’s doomed tenure, and Benítez was unable to arrest the slump.

Benítez’s appointment at St James’ Park was his first since becoming the latest victim of Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, after just six months in the Spanish capital.

It was widely expected Benítez would leave Newcastle as they slipped down a division, soon to be cherry-picked by one of Europe’s top clubs.

Yet he stayed, and after a season’s hard grunt securing a notoriously difficult promotion from the Championship he is about to embark on his first full season with Newcastle in the Premier League.

At some of his previous clubs – namely Chelsea and Real – Benítez had a strained relationship with supporters.

However, he is adored in northeast England, and this was a major factor in persuading him to sign a three-year deal last May.

Benítez said: “I said I decided to remain [at Newcastle] because of the fans, because of the stature of the massive club that was Newcastle United.

“It was my idea also to stay close to my family because I was going everywhere for two or three years. It was good for me to stay and it was a great experience.

“My decision was a risky one, maybe at the beginning, but after I’m really pleased because it was the right decision.”

Pre-season

With his decision to stay vindicated by an instant return to the big time, Benítez and his squad have spent the week at Carton House as their pre-season kicks into full swing.

Newcastle were bookies’ favourites for promotion, boasting a squad which was the envy of the division, but Benítez believes he needs reinforcements if his side are to survive, or better, next season.

“It’s not easy. We are bringing in a couple of players now, and then we have to manage in the market that we can manage. We will try to do our best in this market. We have to bring in different positions.”

The signing of England under-21 winger Jacob Murphy is imminent, but one deal Newcastle have sealed is for Eibar centre-half Florian Lejeune for around €9.8 million.

Lejeune will provide direct competition for Ciaran Clark, but the signing doesn’t necessarily relegate the Ireland defender to second choice.

Benítez said: “I think my idea always in every position is to bring in players who can compete. Lejeune, he has to understand the Premier League, the tempo and intensity of the league.”

Rafael Benítez signed Ciaran Clark for Newcastle last summer. Photograph: Serena Taylor/Getty
Rafael Benítez signed Ciaran Clark for Newcastle last summer. Photograph: Serena Taylor/Getty

And he praised the impact of Clark, a €6 million signing from Aston Villa last summer. “Obviously I knew him before, we were following him for some years and we knew that we were getting a good player with experience. You don’t have too many centre backs [that are] left-footed, who can play the ball and win in the air – tactically that is good.”

Ireland international

However, one Ireland international whose Newcastle career looks to be on borrowed time is striker Daryl Murphy, with Benítez confirming a permanent move away this summer is likely.

“He knows the situation, I know the situation. I’m really pleased with him, and his contribution last year was really important, not just because he was playing some games and scoring goals but also in the dressing room. He’s so positive.

“He knows if somebody comes in he will go but it has to be the best one [move] for him and for us.”

Benítez has earned a reputation as an astute tactician and a particularly effective cup manager. However he is now in charge of a club whose last trophy came in the form of the 1969 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup.

Indeed, in 2014 the Newcastle board confirmed at a fan’s forum that trophies were low down the list of priorities, with performance in the league the be all and end all.

So, would a long-awaited cup run be one of the Spaniard’s targets for the new season, or would silverware again be sacrificed for survival?

“I think always at the beginning of every season you try to do your best in every competition, so my idea is always the same. If you can do well in the Premier League it will be easier to do well in the cups.

“Our idea will be one game at a time as I was saying last year, so the first one will be against Tottenham, and if we have a cup game we will try to win the cup game.

“It always has to be like this, you cannot concentrate on one competition – you have to try your best in all of them.”

Newcastle’s last term in the Premier League ended in a morale-boosting 5-1 thrashing of Tottenham at St James’ Park. It is unlikely, but if they can repeat the dose against Spurs on the season’s opening weekend next month it would send a statement that Newcastle, and Benítez, are back.

Benítez was talking during a visit to Sports Direct’s new flagship Irish store at North Earl Street, Dublin. Newcastle United’s new third kit is available at all Sports Direct stores and sportsdirect.com

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