Rafael Benitez is the most important signing Newcastle United have made since they appointed Sir Bobby Robson in 1999, writes Derek Bilton.
The money sloshing around the English game because of the new Premier League TV deal means we are set for a summer of transfer business like no other – but one club has already made their most significant signing.
Last week Newcastle United confirmed that Rafa Benitez will be staying on with them as they plot a path back to the Premier League following their relegation back to the second tier.
Make no mistake, Newcastle deserved to be relegated to the Championship. They won only nine games all season, scoring just 1.16 goals per game while conceding 1.71.
Their beleaguered fans have had an issue with the way the club has been run for years. Owner Mike Ashley, who has now taken the Magpies down twice during an outrageously controversial nine-year reign, has been the obvious target.
But men like managing director Lee Charnley and chief scout Graham Carr should also not escape censure, and the decision by Charnley not to replace the hapless Steve McClaren until March 11 almost beggars belief. That meant that Benitez only had 10 games to turns things around, and it was just not enough time to clear the decks and bring some stability to the club.
The fact that the club went down while bitter parochial rivals Sunderland stayed up just rubbed salt into black and white wounds. Charnley said there would be a full inquest, while refusing to fall on his sword. He and Ashley are figures of hate on Tyneside, but the dastardly duo went some way towards appeasing fans by securing the services of Benitez in the longer term. The importance of having the Spaniard at the club next season cannot be over-stated. For Newcastle, it is the most important signing since they brought Sir Bobby Robson back to his beloved Tyneside in 1999.
So just why has Benitez decided to risk his reputation and go from Real Madrid to the Championship inside 12 months? I feel it all comes down to potential. Newcastle have the potential to be a massive club. A sleeping north-east giant whose fans continue to support them in huge numbers despite chronic mismanagement from the boardroom and poor results on the pitch.
Speaking after confirming that he was no longer set to activate the relegation break clause in his contract, Benitez said: “I am here because I am convinced we can go up next season, stay there for a long time and even win trophies.
“It is a challenge, yes. I have won trophies all my career. The reason for me to stay was the fans, the stature of the club and the future”.
That future will start with trips to Burton and Rotherham next season, with estimates suggesting relegation this season will cost the club anything up to £200million. If ever there was a season not to be relegated from the Premier League, this was it. But it has happened and in Benitez they surely have the man to take them back to the promised land.
The signs are promising. Newcastle went six matches unbeaten at the end of the season and thumped Tottenham 5-1 in their final fixture.
Furthermore, Benitez has had assurances that if he doesn’t want to sell players he doesn’t have to, though the Magpies have spent some £120million in the last four transfer windows and the players need to shoulder some responsibility too.
Georginio Wijnaldum was a £14.5million arrival who looked a steal in the early part of last season as he put in a series of stellar shifts, including scoring four in one match against Norwich City. However, he has been an absolute passenger in 2016 and has still to score a goal away from St James’ Park.
Jonjo Shelvey was another big-money buy, but the £12.5million they gave Swansea in January for the England playmaker didn’t turn out to be good business and it seems Benitez just doesn’t fancy him. Fabricio Coloccini, once revered on the Gallowgate, is another who failed to cover himself in glory this season and the fact he has not featured once for Benitez suggests he might be out of the door sooner rather than later.
The most significant quote to come from last week’s press conference announcing that Benitez was staying on came from the club itself when they confirmed “Benitez will have day-to-day responsibility for all football-related matters at the club”.
Without those assurances, Benitez would definitely have walked. It’s well known in football circles that Benitez is something of a control freak. He is not known for his ability to compromise. For Rafa, as long as everything is exactly the way he wants it, he is totally flexible.
Eyebrows were raised when he decided to stay on Tyneside, but the lure of making this club a significant force again with 50,000 fans chanting his name while he does it in the end proved just too great.