On June 10 last year, Newcastle United fans were left largely underwhelmed. The arrival of ex-England boss Steve McClaren failed to excite, yet there was at least a smidgling of cautious optimism.
Days earlier, Real Madrid fans, and neutrals across the world, were also scratching heads at the appointment of Rafa Benitez as the Bernabeu’s newest arrival.
While the Spaniard had a killer CV, winning trophies at almost every club he had managed, Benitez was never the right fit for Florentino Perez’s Real Madrid Galácticos.
Benitez’s stay in the Spanish capital was doomed from the start, pandering to Perez’s whims out of his nature as a control freak who demanded authority. Ultimately he was left to the dogs in a dressing room filled with prima donnas seething at the departure of the beloved Carlo Ancelotti.
While Madrid’s football under Benitez was far from satisfactory – both defensively and offensively – he was made the scapegoat of a toxic environment that has developed under Perez.
McClaren, equally, was the latest in a long line of puppets towing the line in Newcastle upon Tyne, his time at St James’ Park under the control of owner Mike Ashley and henchmen Lee Charnley, managing director, and Graham Carr, chief scout, blotted with a lack of autonomy.
The summer signings of Aleksandar Mitrovic, Florian Thauvin, Georginio Wijnaldum and Chancel Mbemba were already lined up before McClaren’s arrival, giving him a squad that was not his. His lack of authority transferred into a lack of respect in the dressing room, especially as results worsened, with a lack of fight on the field throughout this season all too apparent.
When the winter transfer window arrived, McClaren was in desperate need of a left-back, centre back and proven marksman. He got Jonjo Shelvey and Andros Townsend, admittedly his own picks but not what was required. Then came the bizarre arrivals of forwards Henri Saivet and Seydou Doumbia.
McClaren needed to go, without a doubt Newcastle were heading down. That he lasted so long was down to Charnley – the man who appointed him obviously craved for things to finally click. McClaren’s failure was partly down to motivation, as his efforts to coax performances out of prima donnas fell flat. There were also suggestions that selection advice was received from above.
But the players have to take their fair share of the blame. As Shelvey lamented when the ex-Middlesbrough boss was sacked last week, they let him down. There was a lack of leadership on the pitch, a lack of passion, a lack of anything resembling a living organism.
Leaders did not lead – captain Fabricio Coloccini has been a shadow since he attempted to force through a move back to Argentina in 2013. Alan Pardew’s insistence he remain signalled the end of Coloccini’s calm, commanding and caressing nature in the heart of defence.
Cheick Tiote has fallen heavily from his N’Golo Kante-like season of 2010, Papiss Cisse similarly looks as if he was always just a one-trick pony, his inability to remain offside infuriating. Moussa Sissoko and most of his French compatriots only put in a performance when the worldwide cameras are watching.
Yet hopefully McClaren’s reign has finally shown Ashley that his business model is failing – for a business is how he views this club. The magic trick of hiring willing puppets has failed too often, his trust in Charnley and Carr is surely faltering.
Benitez’s arrival certainly suggests Ashley is veering away from the standard method, for the Spaniard surely would have demanded no less than complete control during contract negotiations.
That Benitez would arrive in an environment not too dissimilar to that in Madrid, albeit quite a few pegs down the ladder, would be astonishing. The 55-year-old most certainly did not need the money, he does not need the stress. As pointed out by Sid Lowe, it is a love of football and an obsessive work ethic that has led him to Tyneside.
For while the constant talk of Newcastle being a ‘big club’ is tiresome and old, as well as the portrayal of Toon fans as irrational, impatient, entertainment hungry hounds, there is little doubt the club has huge potential.
The club can command sell-out crowds when playing decent football, they have a reputation of being everyone’s second team during spells in the 1990s and early 2000s. Yet they find themselves second from bottom, on 24 points, in a dogfight with Norwich City and Sunderland. Two of the three will be relegated along with Aston Villa.
Benitez has made a decent start to life in the Toon. He cancelled the players’ scheduled day off work and has held face-to-face meetings with many players as well as past legends Alan Shearer and Peter Beardsley. Their knowledge will prove vital for Benitez to understand the intricacies of the city and the fans. Getting them onside is crucial to surviving the drop.
On the field there are problems in both defence and attack – Newcastle have the second-worst offence in the league with 28 goals from as many games, while they have conceded at a rate of almost two per game.
The squad does have talent, however.
Mbemba has been Newcastle’s best defender this season while Coloccini still has the ability in his ageing bones if he can find the drive. Keeper Rob Elliot has performed admirably in place of the injured Tim Krul and in front of a porous defence.
In midfield, Shelvey is the man Benitez can build a team around. The player was one of the Spaniard’s final signings at Liverpool as an 18-year-old and has been one of few to show determination and commitment on the field for Newcastle.
Sissoko, while infuriatingly inconsistent with a ridiculously wayward first touch, can be a game changer, as can Wijnaldum, who has been impressive in patches. Mitrovic looks like he has the goods but needs a major confidence boost.
Benitez will likely turn to these players, as well as Geordie Jack Colback, to lead the battle against relegation. The man who could prove the difference for Newcastle, however, is Ayoze Perez.
As one of Spain’s top emerging talents, Perez has yet to wow the Premier League but will likely be snatched away from the Toon at some point. Hopefully under Benitez, who will be more than aware of his reputation, the 22-year-old can explode into form.
Intelligent, agile, an at times lethal finisher and at an age where he needs to start producing consistently, Perez is a player that could help save Newcastle from the drop.
For if United get relegated for the second time in seven years, it is unlikely they will bounce back as emphatically. With the introduction of the Premier League’s new bumper television deal, clubs even in the Championship are starting to spend big.
And strong characters such as Alan Smith, Kevin Nolan, Steven Harper and Joey Barton, who led Newcastle back to the top flight in 2009-10, do not exist at the club. If Newcastle go down, Benitez goes too under a relegation clause, which would be the biggest tragedy.
Benitez has the ability to push Newcastle back to the top of half of the table, he also has the ability to bring silverware to a trophy-starved city through one of the cups. He thrives on the Premier League, and has the proven track record.
Liverpool fans speak of him with undying affection. Chelsea fans, despite a deep dislike for the man due to his rivalry with Jose Mourinho, should at least acknowledge his ability to calm a shaky ship and deliver a trophy to Stamford Bridge in 2013.
Chelsea’s players took to his methods and authority and the team played decent football. If Benitez wins the respect of the Newcastle squad immediately, and it is difficult to see even this sorry bunch reject his lofty credentials, then he will be halfway there.
This is a coup, without a doubt. It is the single biggest managerial appointment for the club since the coup of Bobby Robson in 1999. Robson turned Newcaslte into the Entertainers, Benitez has potential to turn them into the Escape Artists.
If safety is assured, this could be the potential beginning of a fairytale rise for Newcastle. The club is a sleeping giant and the fans’ aspirations have long been slumbering along with it. Benitez could be the man to wake them up, if only he is given time.
That time depends on the next ten games, all of which are clutch. League leaders Leicester City await this morning, though regardless of the score the big one comes next weekend with a home game against fierce rivals Sunderland.
Victory against the Mackems – whom they have not beaten since 2011 – could kickstart a run of form which saves the club, as Norwich away directly follows – after an international break.
Because if Newcastle do not stay up this season, Benitez is gone, and with it Toon supporters’ dreams. Keep afloat and the fog will start to lift, a sunnier outlook emerging for a football mad city.