• Benitez inherited a squad that had been injected with £80m-worth of talent in just over eight months, funds that the Spaniard undoubtedly envisaged he’d be entitled to one day.
• A run of two wins in eight with the finishing line in sight seemed to end any hope of ending the season as Champions and opened the door for Huddersfield to take advantage.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this. But three years, three months and 14 days since first stepping foot in St James’ Park as Newcastle United boss, Rafa Benitez has left the building in the most acrimonious of fashions.
Against the backdrop of constant battles with owner Mike Ashley over investment into a club that is playing catch up with its peers off the pitch as well as on, The Spaniard has left behind a bereft fanbase that have lost their symbol of hope.
And yet, he also leaves behind a legacy that every supporter will have been grateful to have witnessed.
From the very start of his tenure in March 2016, Benitez carried the air of a messiah, brought in at the eleventh-hour to salvage the mess left by his predecessor Steve McClaren. He inherited a squad that had been injected with £80m-worth of talent in just over eight months, funds that the Spaniard undoubtedly envisaged he’d be entitled to one day.
However, the damage was already done. The 59-year-old pulled together a fractured dressing room and support but was unable to keep them in the Premier League, despite going unbeaten at home during the final 10 games of the season. Everything suggested the relationship might stop there, but Newcastle fans had other plans.
They spent the entire 90 minutes on the final day of the season — against Champions League-bound Tottenham — serenading their boss. It had the desired effect. The Toon went out with a bang – winning 5-1 – and Rafa decided to extend his stay on Tyneside and take the plunge into the Championship.
“The love I could feel from the fans was a big influence in my decision,” he admitted on signing a three-year deal just two weeks later. “This is a huge club and I wanted to be part of the great future I can see for Newcastle United.”
That first summer, the rebuilding began in earnest. Funded by the mammoth fees received for the likes of Georginio Wijnaldum and Moussa Sissoko, Benitez moulded a squad he felt capable of returning to the top flight at the first attempt. Things didn’t take off right away — defeats in their opening two matches against Fulham and Huddersfield were a shock to the system — but steadily Newcastle found their feet and their way to the top of the table, largely in thanks to a run of eight straight wins. All was rosy when the first signs of trouble crept in. Halfway through a gruelling 46-game league campaign, Benitez wanted to take the opportunity to freshen up his squad in January. Ashley refused him that chance.
A deal for Andros Townsend to return just six months after leaving was worked on, his time at Crystal Palace not working out for him in its early stages. However, the owner refused to sign off on a deal that would have seen United pay back the £13m they’d received for him that summer.
The failure to bolster threatened at times to derail the promotion push. A run of two wins in eight with the finishing line in sight seemed to end any hope of ending the season as Champions and opened the door for Huddersfield to take advantage. That only served to make what happened on May 7 even more miraculous, as Newcastle re-entered the Premier League as Championship champions after Brighton’s end of season capitulation. The picture of Benitez lifting the old first division trophy into the North East sky was supposed to be a sign of things to come.
Instead, in a nod to what actually lay ahead, supporters’ enthusiasm would be dampened by a testing summer as Benitez fought for the funds needed to create a team capable of just keeping their heads above water.
Just five new faces were added to the squad, the most costly being boyhood fan Jacob Murphy – who appeared to be snapped up for £12m from Norwich based on his own performances against the club alone.
The frustration was only compounded in the stands by matters on the pitch. Jonjo Shelvey’s red card was the telling contribution to an opening day defeat by Spurs before a deflating 1-0 loss away at fellow newcomers Huddersfield.
After October 21, they went on a run of nine games without victory as they toyed with an immediate return to the second tier.
Two recruits in January saved their season. Benitez pushed and eventually got Martin Dubravka to add some much-needed composure in goal. Kenedy added that bit of quality that had been missing all season long. The fact both were only brought in on loan told its own story.
The relief of new additions flowed down from the stands and on to the pitch. Home form picked up dramatically, with Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea all beaten at St James’ Park. Benitez’s men finished the season in the top half — 10th. Ashley even ended the season with a rare public statement: ‘Rafa, as always, has my full support, and contrary to some media reports that portray me as a pantomime villain, I will continue to ensure that every penny generated by the club is available to him.’
It appeared to be a call for a truce. If it was, it was short-lived as Benitez once again grew frustrated with the lack of power he wielded to build the squad as he saw fit. The ‘every penny generated’ line began to rankle with the boss, and fans as it became apparent this was not the case. That summer saw Newcastle recoup £43.5m in transfer fees. Benitez was only able to fork out £10.5m on incoming players. After a 4-0 defeat at the hands of Portuguese outfit Braga in pre-season — having fielded a starting XI of which 10 had been part of the Championship winning side – the civil war reached a head.
“I said two months ago what we needed, and 10 days before the start of the season we still are where we are,” he stated. “There’s four, five players we thought we could bring but we haven’t.”
Against Tottenham at home on the opening day of the season, Benitez was forced to start with Joselu, the much-maligned Spaniard, as his first-choice striker. This despite having a deal in place all summer to bring in his No 1 target Salomon Rondon. He signed two days before the window closed.
Newcastle still struggled to get going. A 2-1 defeat at Chelsea in January saw the club slip into the bottom three. Despite the struggles, United slipped their manager a contract offer – one that he had no intention of signing given, what he felt, was the club’s constant reneging on promises. Then came a chink of light in the gloom. Miguel Almiron arrived for a club record fee of £20m from Atlanta United. Suddenly it appeared a corner had been turned. St James’ Park rocked as champions-elect Manchester City were beaten 2-1.
The season came to a close with renewed optimism as they comfortably escaped the drop. A final day 4-0 victory against Fulham pointed to a brighter future. But while there were positive noises, doubt continued to creep in amongst supporters as the contract placed in front of the Spaniard continued to go unsigned. Those doubts turned to fear, a fear that was realised on Monday when the all too predictable, but altogether unavoidable, happened. Benitez has left Tyneside and hope has followed him out the door. Memories of an unforgettable tenure are all the supporters have left.