Newcastle’s decision to sack Steve McClaren and appoint Rafael Benitez could prove a huge success – but Derek Bilton says he’ll have to tame the United board first.
Rafa Benitez will never be mistaken for Jimmy the Greek but as gambles go his decision to take over at Newcastle is right up there. Benitez was confirmed as the new Toon boss last week and short term at least his remit is simple – keep the club in the Premier League. Plenty in the media have asked why he would want to put his impressive managerial reputation on the line to boss a club that seems to be toiling under Mike Ashley and his minions.
Looking at it coldly it marks an incredible shift for Benitez, who started the season as boss at Real Madrid. There will be no Galacticos in Geordie Land however, just a looming dogfight that began with Monday night’s 1-0 defeat against Leicester City.
These are troubled times on Tyneside, where even the seemingly straightforward task of sacking a manager seems a struggle for the suits upstairs, with the club forced into making a public apology to Steve McClaren following his protracted ousting last week.
History will remember McClaren’s nine-month reign on Tyneside as wholly ignominious, and for good reason. However others need to be held to account also. For starters the whole recruitment process needs overhauling given the Magpies conceded the second most goals in the division last season – but of over £70million spent since the summer just one defender has been added to a famously brittle back line.
There is clearly a crisis of confidence within the club and McClaren himself spoke earlier this season about the players carrying “mental baggage” from their shocking finish to last season that almost resulted in them falling through the Championship trapdoor.
Money has been spent, but the results haven’t picked up and relegation this season would be an absolute disaster given they would miss out on cash from the mega TV deal coming in the summer. Results have not been consistent and neither has selection, with a genuine feeling that McClaren didn’t know his best team despite being in the second week of March before he was shown the door.
Worryingly there is no identifiable playing style either so Benitez is going to have to hit the ground running, starting with the Tyne – Wear derby this weekend. There have been some big ones down the years but Sunday’s clash at St James’ Park is now a ridiculously big game for both clubs.
The influence from the boardroom must also be toned down.
Benitez is a man who isn’t afraid of players, the media or owners and he needs autonomy and time to be allowed to build his own kingdom.
One of the fiercest criticisms levelled at the club in recent seasons is the amount of boardroom interference from the likes of club owner Ashley and manager director Lee Charnley. One hopes the reason it took Newcastle so long to make an announcement about their new boss was down to Rafa making it crystal clear he wants to be able to run the club in a certain way.
In terms of pedigree Benitez is hands down Newcastle’s best boss since Sir Bobby Robson. He’s won a Champions League, two UEFA Cups, two La Liga tittles and was twice named UEFA Manager of the Year. According to a certain broadsheet over the weekend Benitez will earn himself a £3million bonus if he can keep the club in the Premier League but that will be money well-earned if he can stave off relegation, especially if it is at the expense of the auld enemy just down the A19.
Much was made of the get-out clause allowing him to leave St James’ Park in the event the club was relegated. But such an arrangement might be mutually beneficial for both parties. Benitez clearly doesn’t want to be managing a side in the Championship and heading to places like Preston, Brentford – and who knows, Burton – next season after starting this campaign in the Bernabeu dugout. Likewise Newcastle won’t want to be paying top money for a manager if they fall into the Championship and will also have to cull some star names on big wages.
It is a gamble, but Benitez is no fool and he will see this as a gamble worth taking. If he can keep them up and adequate funds from the humongous TV deal are released in the summer to recruit players he himself wants, the potential at Newcastle is still pretty frightening.
Granted they cannot be considered as a big club in the sense that Arsenal, Chelsea or the two Manchester clubs are after spending years in the doldrums lurching from crisis to crisis. But as Leicester have proved this season you don’t have to be part of the fabled ‘big four’ to be a threat in this league anymore.
There is sufficient money flying about for even middle-of-the-road top flight sides to sign players in the £15-£25million price bracket.
Rafa likes his sides to be rock solid at the back and build from there. If he can attract some real quality and build some momentum then the fans will get behind him and the team. Big time. Make no mistake about it, Benitez has rode into town because he is attracted by the potential of what Newcastle could be.
His capture has galvanised the fans and the atmosphere on Sunday will be white hot. Rafa is taking a punt but sometimes in life it’s better to risk all than die wondering.