I have hope once more and can dare to dream. Newcastle United appointed Rafael Benitez as manager on Friday with just 10 games to go in a bid to save their season. The Magpies are in a perilous position with only 24 points from 28 games in the English Premier League. Benitez’s predecessor Steve McClaren managed only six wins in the league and seven in all competitions as the Toon bowed out of the League Cup, in the third round to third-tier Sheffield Wednesday, and in the FA Cup at the same stage to Watford.
In my opinion McClaren should never have been appointed but that blame should be laid squarely at the door of club managing director Lee Charnley. Fans have vented their anger at owner Mike Ashley and say what you will about the Sports Direct tycoon, Newcastle shelled out some £80 million over two transfer windows. Ashley threw money at the problem created by Charnley, who invented this “power triangle” that renders the manager nothing but a head coach. Charnely, chief scout Graham Carr and McClaren formed a transfer committee and while the former England manager would have had a say, he could easily have been outnumbered 2-1.
Nevertheless managers, or head coaches, are judged on their results and it was time for the Englishman to go. The Toon have shown the kind of ambition not seen since the £16 million record transfer fee capture of Michael Owen in 2005 by bringing in Benitez. The Spaniard is the only manager in history to have won the Uefa Champions League, Uefa Cup, Uefa Super Cup and the FIFA World Club Cup. He also has a collection of La Liga, FA Cup and Coppa Italia titles to his name.
The Tynesiders have brought in the highest profile manager in their history. The Spanish mentor has signed a three-year deal but there is a catch, namely a get-out clause for both parties if United fails to beat the drop. The good news for the north east club is that it is only one point from safety and this brings hope. Moreover Benitez actually averages 20 points from his first 10 games in charge of his previous six clubs. If he can replicate that the Geordies will be home and dry.
Benitez even convinced Charnley to scrap the club’s dreadful transfer policy and he will have total control over who he brings in, including his backroom staff, who are already in place. Newcastle no longer have a head coach, but a manager, and the new boss cracked the whip without the ink even dry on his contract when he called his overpaid, underperforming players in on their off day to a training session late on Friday.
So accepting that Aston Villa are a relegation certainty and West Bromwich Albion have rediscovered their form, not forgetting the surge seen by Swansea City since Francesco Guidolin took over from Garry Monk, it leaves the Magpies in the company of bitter local rivals Sunderland and Norwich City. Benitez will face both in his first three games.
What has already been dubbed the Rafalution on Tyneside, starts with a visit to league leaders Leicester City on Monday night. Despite my obvious bias, even I cannot see the Toon pulling off anything at the King Power Stadium. Benitez has had too short a time with the players, who themselves endured a nightmare of a week with the “will McClaren or won’t McClaren be sacked?” saga going on until Friday lunch time. However they will be fully charged for the Tyne-Wear derby against the Black Cats and I am going to back the lads to pull off their first win under the new boss in that fixture before going to Norwich and making it two wins for the new gaffer.
Benitez will take his side to Southampton and his old club Liverpool, probably two losses although the Saints are struggling at the minute and with the Reds anything is possible right now. That is followed by a home game against Crystal Palace and a trip to Villa; a real chance of another six points handing Benitez 12 and taking the Toon up to 36 which could be enough.
They face Tottenham Hotspur on the final day and Spurs could be in with a shout of winning the league although if all goes well Leicester would have wrapped it up by then and so would the Magpies giving them the freedom to finish the season off on a high against a Spurs side that will already be on their summer holidays.
Okay, I am being optimistic but Sunderland are unlikely to beat Leicester, Arsenal or Chelsea in their run-in and who would fancy Norwich getting anything against Manchester City, the Gunners or Man United? The stakes are high. Of the three clubs Newcastle probably have the better quality of player, man for man. Crucially, who can honestly look another man in the eye and say Sam Allardyce or Alex Neil are more likely to come up with a winning formula than Rafa Benitez.
Charnley has indeed made one last throw of the dice and this time around it has every chance of coming off. The only hope is that it has not come too late.