Miles Starforth: Rafa Benitez's departure at Newcastle United has made one thing abundantly clear
Rafa Benitez will be just fine. But what about Newcastle United?
Benitez will leave St James’s Park with his head held high – and having enhanced his reputation.
The 59-year-old, a £12million target for Chinese side Dalian Yifang, will get another job. Newcastle, of course, will get another manager, but it’s hard to see the club getting one half as good as Benitez, who will leave when his contract expires on Sunday.
Garry Monk, sacked by Birmingham City this month, is among the early favourites with bookmakers.
Former Arsenal midfielder Mikel Arteta, a coach at Manchester City, has also been linked with the post.
So too has Jose Mourinho, Benitez’s long-time managerial rival. He has been out of work since leaving Manchester United last year.
United, in a statement, said it “had not been possible to reach an agreement with Rafa and his representatives”.
Benitez, however, wanted to stay. It was entirely possible to persuade him to stay beyond June 30.
All Benitez wanted was some ambition, and some more freedom, from Mike Ashley, who has been trying to sell the club since October 2017. Benitez’s departure, surely, makes it less valuable to any would-be buyer.
Benitez has transformed the club since taking over from Steve McClaren in March 2016. He has won promotion and guided United to 10th and 13th-placed finishes in the Premier League. What’s more, he did it without a significant net spend.
Fans – who hoped they were getting a look at the future at Craven Cottage on the final day of the season when Newcastle beat Fulham 4-0 – could only imagine what he’d do with a more competitive transfer budget.
The small details made a big difference under Benitez, and it was fascinating to get a glimpse of his meticulous methods at St James’s Park.
Benitez is diligent and dedicated. Nothing is left to chance. It’s a cliche, but he lives and breathes football. And he was genuinely proud to manage Newcastle.
Speaking in late 2016, he said: “I hear the fans and read when they talk about me and they compare me with Sir Bobby Robson or Kevin Keegan.
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“I’m really pleased about that. I have my CV, but when they put you at the level for people who have been so important to this club and, in football, it is always good, always positive.
“You have to be proud of that. But I’m still at the beginning. My career is fine, because I’m old. But in terms of Newcastle, the city and what Sir Bobby meant to the club, that is still far away for me.”
A lot has happened since then, and Benitez, now, can be mentioned in the same breath as Robson and Keegan, the club’s modern-day managerial greats.
The club’s statement continued: “We would like to thank Rafa and his coaching team for their efforts over the last three years, and their significant contribution to what has been collectively achieved.”
Yes, it has been a collective achievement, but it wouldn’t have been possible without Benitez.
There’s shock on Tyneside – and there’s sadness and anger – but I’d imagine few are surprised, despite the optimistic noises Benitez made in early May following a meeting with managing director Lee Charnley.
Benitez said: “Yes, it was positive, because Lee he knows what I’m talking about and what I think. And I know what they think. So at least we can now move forward. It’s not more or less confident, but it’s more positive, because at least we’re talking now. The fact we had that conversation was progress.”
There wasn’t much progress after that. Benitez wanted a defined budget and more freedom in the transfer market, having seen proposed deals blocked since guiding the club back to the Premier League. Benitez also wanted improvements to the training ground and Academy, though not at the expense of his playing budget.They couldn’t reach an agreement, and a stand-off ensued. United, after a number of weekend reports on Benitez’s future, confirmed what had seemed increasingly inevitable in a 134-word statement.
The club said it was “disappointed” in the first paragraph. The last line read: “We would also like to thank our supporters, players and staff for their patience during a period of uncertainty. The process to appoint a successor will now begin.”
The patience of fans has worn thin, having endured two relegations under Ashley and numerous cup exits.
In fairness to the club’s PR team, there was no positive way to spin Benitez’s departure, and the club’s staff will be as gutted as the fanbase at his leaving.
But what comes next? A new manager will have to come before a takeover, and there’s no telling what a new owner will inherit if, as it’s hoped, the club, the subject of interest from the Dubai-based Bin Zayed Group, changes hands in the coming months.
That may yet prove a forlorn hope, though the sooner the club is in the hands of someone who really does care, the better.