Rafa Benitez headed for the tunnel with a wave. It was a farewell to St James’s Park, for now, but it didn’t seem like a goodbye.
Benitez had just lapped the pitch with his Newcastle United players.
And Benitez – who had just seen his team beaten 3-2 by Liverpool, was “proud” of the team’s achievement.
“We have to try and compete with the teams that are around us and at the moment – it’s not easy,” said United’s manager. “I’m really proud and pleased to stay up, but I would like to compete for something more, so hopefully we can match the ambitions of the fans.”
And that’s the thing.
Newcastle have come a long way in three years under Benitez, but this club shouldn’t have to celebrate Premier League survival year after year. But that’s what United have had to do under the ownership of Ashley.
Remember when the club really had something to celebrate – like European football, even Champions League qualification, or a cup final appearance – on the final home game of the season?
Survival, under Ashley, has long been the be-all-and-end-all for the club’s hierarchy, though that will never be enough for its fans.
Benitez has built a competitive team on a budget.
And his team gave Liverpool – who claimed all three points thanks to an 86th-minute strike from Divock Origi – a game at St James’s Park as the world watched.
Of course, Origi had headed his goal from a free-kick which should never have been given. One of referee Andre Marriner’s assistants flagged after Fabinho went down in front of him – even though Matt Ritchie hadn’t fouled him.
Newcastle deserved something from the game, though things didn’t exactly go to plan during a breathless first 45 minutes, which followed the unveiling of a stunning Wor Flags surfer in the Gallowgate End.
Liverpool twice took advantage of some poor defending – Virgil van Dijk and Mohamed Salah were left unmarked for their goals – and twice United came back.
Christian Atsu cancelled out van Dijk’s opening goal in the 20th minute with a close-range effort after Trent Alexandar-Arnold handled a shot from Salomon Rondon on the line.
Salah, inexplicably, was left alone to score from a cross from Alexandar-Arnold later in the half.
Newcastle levelled after the break through Rondon, who beat Alisson with a shot after Liverpool failed to clear a corner from Ki Sung-yueng, preferred in midfield to Jonjo Shelvey.
Jurgen Klopp lost Salah in the 73rd minute to a head injury after the striker collided with United goalkeeper Martin Dubravka.
And Origi, on for Salah, claimed all three points with a header from fellow substitute Xherdan Shaqiri’s free-kick.
Still, Newcastle had made it tough for Liverpool, who lead the Premier League by two points ahead of second-placed Manchester City’s game against Leicester City tonight.
Klopp said: “Anyone thought Newcastle weren’t playing for anything – wow.
“That was competitive – but we deserved to win.”
United supporters deserve more than another relegation battle next season.
Benitez has had “positive” talks with the club’s hierarchy, though he still needs convincing that he will have the funds, and freedom, he needs to take the club higher up the Premier League.
Only time will tell if Benitez will be back at the stadium as manager next season.