Steve McClaren knew better than to get involved.
McClaren understands the politics at Newcastle United better than most.
Derby County’s head coach was asked about the club’s failure to strengthen its squad in the transfer window after his team’s 1-0 defeat.
Just as he had repeatedly done during his disastrous nine-month tenure at St James’s Park, McClaren sidestepped an awkward question.
“Please don’t take me back,” joked McClaren.
“I’ve got enough problems trying to get my sick and injured ready to face the Premier League champions this week.”
Before he headed off to see Benitez in his office at the stadium, McClaren added: “I’ll have a glass of wine and a good conversation, and it will be very interesting, but it’s private.”
McClaren hadn’t got what he wanted in the transfer market.
And the end result was a disastrous relegation.
McClaren had seen his Derby team throw everything at Newcastle during the second half.
And had it not been for an awful miss from Tom Ince, the visitors would have probably taken a point back to Derbyshire.
McClaren said Derby “had a right go” after the break. And they did.
United, driven on by Mohamed Diame, had been the better side in the first half, but the loss of Isaac Hayden to injury had a knock-on effect.
Diame was asked to play deeper and Ayoze Perez wasn’t as influential in the No 10 role.
But Matt Ritchie’s 27th-minute goal, his 12th of the season, was enough to claim an important three points for Newcastle three days after a disappointing home draw against Queens Park Rangers.
It had been a difficult game to end a difficult week.
A week earlier, an unrecognisable side had been knocked out of the FA Cup by League One club Oxford United.
Then came transfer deadline day. Then the QPR result.
Benitez needed a result. And Newcastle needed a result.
United’s manager had spoken, at length, about the need for everyone involved at the club to “stick together” after the window closed.
Benitez returned to the same theme in his programme notes for the Derby game.
“My message to the players today is that they must make sure that they give everything on the pitch, and show the personality and the character that we – and you, the supporters – expect from them,” Benitez wrote.
“And my message to the fans is that it doesn’t matter what happened during the transfer window. What we need to do is stick together, be behind the team.
“The main thing is that the players that are here feel the support of the fans.”
QPR manager Ian Holloway – who talked about Benitez in glowing terms – had talked about the “expectancy” at St James’s Park after last Wednesday night’s game.
Against Derby, United’s supporters didn’t just turn up, sit down and expect to be entertained.
They played their part.
The Gallowgate Flags were back before kick-off time, and Benitez’s name was sung throughout the game.
Benitez felt that backing got the team through some difficult spells against Derby.
And there were a few of those, though had Aleksandar Mitrovic, recalled to the starting XI, put his second-half chance away then the victory would have been far more comfortable.
Benitez also replaced Jamaal Lascelles – who had been below-par against QPR – with Grant Hanley, citing a minor groin problem as the reason he left out his captain.
Hanley played well. So too did Ciaran Clark alongside him in the heart of Benitez’s defence.
Midfielder Jonjo Shelvey, one player McClaren succeeded in bringing to St James’s Park last January, was quieter than usual.
And it was Diame, instead, who caught the eye in midfield.
The 29-year-old, making his first start since returning from the Africa Cup of Nations, created space for himself with a series of neat touches
Diame was also tenacious when he had to be before the break.
It was a different story in the second half, though Mitrovic, without a goal since late October, should have scored a second goal for United.
Fortunately, Ritchie’s strike was enough, though Newcastle, arguably, made their own luck.
That didn’t happen too often during McClaren’s tenure.
McClaren – who backed his old club to go up as champions – did make one pointed remark during his post-match Press conference.
Asked what he made of United this season, he said:“It’s a great club, great supporters. The staff have always been good and the majority of the players.”
Note the use of the word “majority”.
McClaren, an able coach, was let down by a number of players, though he was never the right fit for Newcastle.
Benitez is a perfect fit. It’s working, and we’ve not been able to say that about United too often over the past few years.
And owner Mike Ashley should be mindful of this over the coming weeks and months.