Ken Early: Rafael Benítez has little to lose at Newcastle
Spaniard’s methods usually take time to bed in and he only has 10 games to save club
Rafa Benítez is the ninth manager to take charge of Newcastle since Mike Ashley’s takeover in 2007. Photograph: Biel Alino/EPA
‘Of course they can win it. I believe they will win with three games to spare.” Alex Ferguson, at least, doesn’t expect a late collapse from Leicester. Tonight Leicester can regain their five-point lead over Tottenham provided they beat Newcastle United, which probably looked a slightly easier game this time last week.
The final straw for Steve McClaren as Newcastle manager may have been his TV interview after the 5-1 defeat at Chelsea last month. In an apparent effort to set an upbeat tone, McClaren conducted the interview with a twinkly grin, but his positivity proved not to be infectious.
Newcastle took so long to arrange a replacement for McClaren that they ended up issuing an apology for not sacking him quickly enough. You could understand why the new manager, Rafael Benítez, seemed to need time to weigh his decision. He knew that Newcastle United under Mike Ashley has been a graveyard for managerial ambition.
Benítez is the ninth manager Ashley has appointed since his 2007 takeover. Only Chris Hughton and McClaren have been lucky enough to be appointed before the start of the new season, with the benefit of a summer to lay their plans. Usually Ashley has made crisis appointments in mid-season. Of the eight managers he has appointed before Benítez, only two have completed more than a year in the job.
The only manager who has lasted longer than two years is Alan Pardew, who ended up such a reviled figure among the supporters that he eventually left to take over at Crystal Palace, even though the move was widely seen as a step down.
Why did Pardew succeed where the others failed? The main reason is that early in his spell at the club, Newcastle’s chief scout, Graham Carr, masterminded a string of effective signings which saw Cheick Tiote, Yohan Cabaye, Demba Ba and Papiss Cisse all arrive within an 18-month period. The goals of Ba and Cisse helped propel Newcastle to fifth in the Premier League in 2012, their highest finish in the Ashley era.
Newcastle, long a byword for mismanagement and waste, finally appeared to have hit upon a winning recruitment model. Ashley was so impressed with Carr’s work that he awarded him an unprecedented eight-year contract. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the club hasn’t made a good signing since.
Now it’s Leicester City who are applying the Carr formula with outstanding results. The Carr figure at Leicester is head of recruitment Steve Walsh, who was hailed by Ferguson as “the most influential person in the Premier League” for signings like N’Golo Kanté and Riyad Mahrez. Walsh will be basking in this year’s success for a long time, but the story of Carr reminds us that in the transfer market, nobody’s magic lasts forever.
At least Ashley has been consistent in his loyalty to the once-vaunted model. The hallmark of his time at Newcastle has been a perplexing inconsistency which has infuriated and demoralised in equal measure.
At the start of the 2014-15 season, Newcastle’s football staff were informed that they would no longer receive free match tickets for friends and family: if they wanted to bring anyone to the game they’d have to pay. This measure obviously annoyed the staff, but it must have saved the club a few thousand pounds.
Later that same season, Alan Pardew departed to take over at Palace and Ashley was left without a manager. Rather than appoint a proven high-level coach, Ashley entrusted the job to John Carver, who had no relevant managerial experience. An experienced manager would have been more expensive, and hiring Carver instead might have saved the club about a million pounds.
Newcastle immediately plunged towards the foot of the table. They set a club record in the Premier League of eight consecutive defeats, and only avoided relegation on the last day of the season. Had they gone down, it would have cost them tens of millions of pounds.
How can Ashley pinch pennies over the small details while demonstrating such epic complacency on the big-picture questions?
Newcastle’s owner probably thought he’d got away with the Carver mistake, but it might not have been that simple. The team acquired a formidable losing habit under Carver which they have so far been unable to kick. McClaren failed to jolt them out of the rut, and now only 10 games remain for Benítez to save the day.
Mood of a club
With a few more matches you would back him to carry it off, but the time-frame is against him. Benítez has never been a Tim Sherwood-style motivator who sweeps in, throws an arm around the shoulder of all the players who are feeling sad, and transforms the mood of a club in the short term. He is a hard-working method manager whose sides are known above all for their well-drilled defensive organisation – the sort of teamwork that takes at least a few weeks of training to learn.
And yet knowing all this, Benítez has decided to give it a go. Perhaps he reasoned that even if he does lead Newcastle to relegation and end up leaving the club after 10 games, the harm to his reputation will be minimal, as everyone will conclude that the damage was already done.