How Rafa Benitez persuaded Matz Sels to snup Premier League and swap Champions League for Championship

Matz Sels was unveiled as a Newcastle player
Matz Sels was unveiled as a Newcastle player

From Champions League to the Championship.

Those were the headlines when Rafa Benitez decided to commit his future to Newcastle last month, despite having the opportunity to walk away after the Magpies’ ignominious relegation from the Premier League.

Rafa Benitez

Rafa Benitez

It was a surprise to many who knew the Spaniard would have other offers, both in the Premier League and abroad if he bided his time. For Benitez, the decision to stay was helped by being given full control of the club, the reaction of Newcastle’s fans and more importantly, his excitement at what he saw as the potential of the club.

And if someone of his calibre – Champions League-winning manager, former Real Madrid and Inter Milan boss – is willing to take a step back to ultimately, hopefully, take two steps forward, why shouldn’t the players.

Step forward Matz Sels. The Belgian goalkeeper excelled not only in his homeland last season but also in the Champions League with Gent. As a result, he was a man in demand this summer, being linked with a host of Premier League clubs including Middlesbrough, Southampton and champions Leicester City.

Yet once Benitez spoke to him and outlined the ambitions – and that word again, potential – of Newcastle, it was an ‘easy decision’ for him to join the Championship outfit.

Matz Sels in action for Gent

Matz Sels in action for Gent

One step back to take two steps forward? The ‘perfect step’ in fact.

“(English football) is maybe the best competition in the world, and everybody followed the English competitions (in Belgium),” Sels said. “I followed it last year as well, and it’s a great competition. That’s why it made my choice really easy, to choose England.

“I talked with Rafa Benitez, and he gave me the impression that we wanted to go up immediately again. It gave me the feeling that I should sign for Newcastle, and it’s a big club.

“A few years ago they played in Belgium in the Europa League, so that means that you’re a good club.

“It’s a challenge, but if you want to improve, you have to make steps. This, for me, is the perfect step to improve and to be a better player.”

Sels became Benitez’s first signing for Newcastle when he put pen to paper on a five-year deal.

Sels – who won the Professional Goalkeeper of the Year award in Belgium at the end of last season – joined Gent from Lierse in January 2014, and went on to make 106 appearances in all competitions for De Buffalos.

After helping Gent to the Jupiler Pro League title in 2014/15, he was called up to the senior Belgium squad ahead of their qualifiers with Andorra and Israel in October 2015, having previously represented his country at every age group from under-17 to under-21 level.

He’s used to big games after his Champions League experience, which included saving a last-minute penalty from former Newcastle target Alexandre Lacazette when Gent took on Lyon.

But he is eager now to sample the famous atmosphere inside St James’ Park for the first time.

“The most important thing is getting to play there every two weeks, in a fantastic stadium for a fantastic crowd,” the 24-year-old said. “I hear the supporters are a little bit crazy, so I’m looking forward to playing for them.

“I’ve played in the Champions League, so I’ve already played a few times in front of a lot of people, but it’s incredible to play every week in front of 50,000 people.

“I’m looking forward to playing for them.”

It’s not just the Newcastle fans who are ‘crazy’, however, with Sels admitting to possessing an element of madness himself.

“I was always a goalkeeper,” he added. “I started playing football when I was five years old, and even then I was a goalkeeper.

“I think, to be a goalkeeper, you have to be a little bit crazy, and maybe I’m a little bit crazy also! It’s normal I think – every goalkeeper is a little bit crazy.”

Crazy could be seen swapping Europe’s biggest competition for life in the second tier of English football. Sels will be hoping that it’s he who has the last laugh.