The question Rafa Benitez just won't answer until the end of the season at Newcastle
Once again, there are more questions than answers at Newcastle United ahead of a pivotal summer.
But Rafa Benitez’s team have spoken for their manager on the pitch.
Benitez will hold his press conference ahead of Sunday’s game against Arsenal in a small room at the club’s training room.
The room has seen some abrasive exchanges and some awkward moments, though not with Benitez.
There was the manager that railed against some “f****** disgraceful journalism” before one presser, and Steve McClaren’s ill-advised dig at a journalist he accused of having an “agenda”. That didn’t end well for McClaren.
Benitez always sits down with a smile.
The room will be busier than normal given the opposition and the significance of last weekend’s 2-1 win over Leicester City at the King Power Stadium.
And United’s manager is certain to face more questions about his own future – and the summer – now that his team, which is 10th in the Premier League after winning its last three games, is all but safe from relegation.
However, Benitez, not one for soundbites, will undoubtedly reiterate his 40-point target. He’ll do it again and again until his team get there.
Newcastle are two points short of that target ahead of Arsenal’s visit to St James’s Park. Benitez won’t give much more away, though he has already revealed that planning is underway for next season.
But will Benitez be here? That’s the question, and it’s unlikely that we’ll get a definitive answer from Benitez – who has been disappointed by the club’s efforts in the last three transfer windows – until next month, when he hopes to sit down for talks with Mike Ashley.
Ashley, so far, has been unable to find a buyer for the club, so some common ground must be found given that there’s a strong possibility that he will still be the owner next season.
One thing Ashley won’t do is accept an offer much below his original £350million valuation. He had been prepared to accept less when the club was near the foot of the table, but the situation has changed thanks to the efforts of Benitez and his players.
To United fans, the club looks an attractive proposition. There’s the fanbase, the stadium, the history, the passion – and Benitez.
Benitez has brought many things to Newcastle.
One thing is stability. He’s the glue that’s stuck everything together since relegation the season before last.
Benitez was calm during a difficult run late last year. He believed in what he was doing, and so did his players. The 57-year-old always felt that his team would be stronger in the second half of the season.
Benitez didn’t panic during a run of four consecutive defeats in October and November. And he didn’t panic after another run of defeats the following month.
Week by week, month by month, his players have improved through the work done on the training pitch. That has, in turn, improved the team, which has been ably led by captain Jamaal Lascelles.
There’s a reason why Benitez is one of European football’s highest-paid coaches.
And there’s a reason why Ashley is quite prepared to pay him a multi-million pound salary, despite his keenness to keep costs down at St James’s Park.
Benitez has coached – and coaxed – United up the table.
It’s what he does best.
Meanwhile, former Newcastle midfielder Joey Barton is a target for Kevin Nolan at promotion-chasing League Two club Notts County.
Barton, 35, was banned a year ago for breaching betting regulations. He can resume his career next season.
Nolan and Barton were team-mates at United.
“Me and Joey are good friends,” said manager Nolan. “He’s a top player, a top lad, and I really get on well with him. We’ll always be in touch, so let’s see what happens.
“Joey’s probably going to want to play at a higher level. If that doesn’t come to fruition, then I’m sure there’ll be a conversation in the summer.
“He describes himself as Joey on the pitch and Joseph off it, and I respect both of them very highly.”
Nolan signed ex-United striker Shola Ameobi last year, and the 36-year-old striker will make a decision on his future in the summer.
Ameobi said: “It’s a tough one. My mind wants to (continue playing), but I have always said I will take stock at the end of every season and give myself a couple of weeks to mull it over and see if I’m good to go.”