Michael Walker: Benitez’s grand plan for Newcastle

Manager will look for the right resources to be able to compete with Premier elite

Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez celebrates promotion to the Premier League after the 4-1 win over Preston at St James’ Park. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez celebrates promotion to the Premier League after the 4-1 win over Preston at St James’ Park. Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

 

Had it been possible, Rafa Benitez would have shaken hands with the stadium itself. A sometimes buttoned-up man, who wears a waistcoat to the match, Benitez was striding around St James’ Park grabbing the hand of everyone he could meet – players, officials, coaches, physios, groundsmen and ballboys. It looked as if he might even shake the goalpost.

“I just wanted to say thank you to every single one in the stadium,” Benitez later explained. “It was the time to say thank you.”

This was the unconcealed delight of an analytical man who had completed his assigned task. Newcastle United had been promoted back to the Premier League. The land of milk and money beckons.

The state of this vast, unfulfilled club on its return was top of the agenda. Then 36 hours later the taxman turned up and suddenly heads were swirling. It was an unwelcome, if familiar current of uncertainty on Tyneside.

Benitez had already supplied some of his own though.

Amid the collective euphoria of Monday, Benitez produced a thumping reminder that personal considerations and career trajectories are also elements to be considered in any club.

Promotion means the 57-year-old Spaniard is back into the weekly thrust and cut of Pep, Jose, Klopp and Conte, the Rafa peer group, where he sees himself, where others see him. Only Arsene Wenger is more experienced.

Benitez could have been a satisfied man at the thought of his return to this company but, 20 minutes after shaking a last hand on the pitch, he was inside St James’ being asked about his position at Newcastle next season and replying: “You never know”.

Reporters looked at each other. It was one of those moments, reminiscent of almost a decade ago when Kevin Keegan sat in the same seat on the same podium at the same time of the season and said Newcastle were “miles off” the Chelsea team that had just won there. What a catalyst that turned out to be.

Keegan wanted investment in order to make Newcastle challengers and after a turbulent summer which ended with the sale of James Milner, Keegan was gone. The 2008-09 season had just begun, by its end Newcastle were relegated. In the middle came the “Cockney Mafia”.

Own tools

This is why Benitez’s “you-never-know” sent a similar charge through the room, even if it came with a smile. He, like Keegan, does not want to be taking on Premier League tanks with a Championship water-pistol.

Pep, Jose or Jurgen running over Rafa is not an experience or headline he wants. Benitez has been coaching for 31 years, he is a manager to his core. He will need to be convinced he will be allowed to buy his own tools and use them as he wishes. And this is not a done deal.

Mike Ashley had been owner for a year when Keegan made his remark; now he has been owner for a decade. Ashley has seen Sam Allardyce, Joe Kinnear, Alan Shearer, Chris Hughton, Alan Pardew, John Carver and Steve McClaren in the flesh, as well as Keegan and Benitez. He must recognise it is the last two who have the most authority.

Superficially Keegan and Benitez seem different. The clichés say one is too emotional and the other not emotional enough. Actually what they share – an understanding of the reality of team-building and that hard-won authority status – is far more telling. Nor did either enter football management to make up the numbers.

The two men also share a restless managerial ambition, which is personal as well as collective. When Benitez speaks it is often “we” he uses rather than “I”. He was at it again three days after Monday night. “We did well,” he said.

Benitez was talking in the past tense even though the season is not finished. His tone was a great deal more harmonious than “you never know”. Having not sat down face-to-face with Ashley since his appointment last year, Benitez said he will meet the owner in the next week or so. The two men had spoken. This was positive noise.

Ashley will discover in his manager a balance of analysis, ambition, commerce and emotion – possibly in that order. When it comes to pedigree, Benitez can mention the Champions League, Europa League, those La Liga titles with Valencia, these among other achievements such as a title he won with Real Madrid under-16s three decades ago – which he referred to on Thursday. “I was so pleased.”

If Ashley is prepared to listen, Benitez may even tell him of the library of statistics and videotapes stored in his parents’ attic in Madrid. Though that might be a chat too far.

Whatever the outcome, it will be a crossroads conversation for Newcastle United and Rafa Benitez. The club offered him a chance last March to rejoin English football; this is a chance for Ashley to show that he has learned from the lurches of the past.

What Benitez wants as he said on Thursday is: “That you know you can fight for something.”

The key words there are “you know”.

That’s quite close to “you never know”, only completely different.

****************

Even those of us who can restrain from gushing praise on Tottenham Hotspur, are able to recognise that Mauricio Pochettino’s team were better than Chelsea at Wembley last Saturday. (Having said that, Antonio Conte’s XI started without Eden Hazard, Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas. )

It was unfortunate for Dele Alli that Nemanja Matic chose this occasion to score a goal better than his. Christian Eriksen may have felt the same as it was his sweeping pass that teed up Alli for his picture-book finish.

Eriksen made up for his disappointment at that by scoring spectacularly at Crystal Palace on Wednesday, a goal that means Spurs maintain an interest in the title race.

But winning at Palace is one thing, now Spurs must beat Arsenal at White Hart Lane, a last north London derby at the old ground. What was said last week prior to Chelsea about Tottenham winning big, decisive matches applies again.

*****************

It is tempting to write that the PSNI probably do not pay much attention to the Irish League fixture list, but in reality they probably pay it quite a bit. Thus someone will have seen that on the last day of the season Linfield travel to Cliftonville.

What could not be foreseen is that Linfield travel hopeful of winning the league at Cliftonville.

Given that Linfield were unable to play at Solitude for 28 years due to the security situation in Belfast, this is certainly a climax.

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