Rafael Benítez is confronting possibly the biggest challenge of his managerial career after succeeding Steve McClaren at Newcastle United.
The former Liverpool, Chelsea and Real Madrid coach made an immediate impact, interrupting a scheduled squad day off by summoning his players for an introductory meeting and training session on Friday.
The 55-year-old Spaniard has signed a three-year contract – understood to contain a break clause facilitating a potential parting of the ways in the summer should Newcastle end up in the Championship – believed to be worth at least four times McClaren’s €900,000-a-year salary. He is in line for a significant bonus, believed to be in the region of €2.6m, if he keeps the club in the
Benítez now has two days to coach his new team before their trip to Leicester City, the leaders, on Monday night. Apparently undaunted by the task of ensuring the division’s second-bottom side – who have won only six league games – avoid relegation, he clearly could not wait to be back in a tracksuit, just over two months after being sacked by Real.
“I have the pleasure to confirm I have committed to a legendary English club, with the massive challenge of remaining part of the Premier League,” he said in a statement that acted as a rallying call to supporters. “It will be a challenge not just for me and my staff but for the players, the club and the fans. All of us must push together in the same direction and with the same target in mind. Personally, it means my return to the Premier League, closer to my home and my family. I can’t be happier. C’mon Toon Army! The club and I need your total involvement!”
Already Benítez seems to have succeeded where McClaren – sacked at 11.30am on Friday – John Carver and Alan Pardew failed, by dismantling key elements of the club's previously rigid management structure. Crucially, Benítez, who holds the title of manager rather than head coach, has been offered considerable autonomy over recruitment and permitted to assemble his own backroom team.
A man who left his home on the Wirral, Merseyside, for Tyneside before dawn on Friday will be joined at St James' Park by Fabio Pecchia, Francisco de Miguel Moreno and Antonio Gomez Perez. The existing coaches Ian Cathro and Simon Smith have survived a cull that led to Paul Simpson, Alessandro Schoenmaker and Steve Black departing with McClaren.
Lee Charnley, Newcastle’s managing director, was delighted to announce the installation of a former Champions League-winning coach as the ninth manager of Mike Ashley’s nine-year tenure as Newcastle’s owner. “In Rafa we have, without doubt, secured the services of one of Europe’s top managers,” he said.
Dead man walking
Benítez was in the north-east by the time McClaren, effectively a dead man walking in the wake of last Saturday’s 3-1 home defeat by Bournemouth, was sacked by telephone after rejecting a chance to meet Charnley in person. The former England coach did, at least, receive an apology for a protracted public humiliation.
“We acknowledge that reaching this decision has taken a number of days and that this has caused uncertainty for everyone involved, in particular for Steve and the players, for which we apologise,” read a club statement.
Charnley, whose position has been undermined by his determination to appoint McClaren last summer, added: “I would like to thank Steve personally for his services to Newcastle United. He is a man of integrity and class and he has conducted himself with great dignity during this difficult time.”
McClaren later released a statement via the League Managers Association. After expressing disappointment at the decision and confidence the team would have avoided relegation under his charge, he refused to display any bitterness.
“I would like to place on record what a privilege it has been to manage Newcastle,” he said. “It is a great a club – the embodiment of the city, with incredible supporters. Newcastle United is a club that must build for the long term to deliver what the supporters deserve – success and silverware.”
The timing of McClaren's departure means Benítez will renew old acquaintance with a noted enemy, Sam Allardyce, tomorrow week when similarly relegation-threatened Sunderland visit for the most important, and surely edgiest, north-east derby in years. Guardian Service