“Rafa Benitez, we want you to stay”.
That was the message from Newcastle United fans after watching Rafa Benitez’s side convincingly, and comfortably, beat Chelsea 3-0.
It was a bright performance on a bright afternoon at St James’s Park.
And the future of this club, under Benitez, should also be bright.
The roof of the Milburn Stand cast a shadow over the pitch, and events have cast a shadow over the future of Benitez.
Owner Mike Ashley, again, wasn’t at St James’s Park.
Ashley missed a very good performance from a team assembled at a fraction of the cost of that sent out by Antonio Conte, who admitted his side was “outplayed” by Newcastle in his post-match press conference.
“Newcastle outplayed us in many aspects,” said Conte.
“Newcastle showed great desire, a great will to fight, a great will to take three points and to finish this season in the best possible way.”
Just imagine what Benitez could do with a bigger budget.
And just imagine where the club could be in one, two or three years’ time.
The Chelsea game came two years after a memorable 5-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur.
That day, fans implored Benitez to stay. Speaking ahead of the Chelsea game, Benitez was asked if his head would rule his heart this time.
“You never know, but we will see where are,” said Benitez. “My job is to focus on the game, to win the game and I’m sure the fans will help the team. If everything is positive and the atmosphere is good, it’s always much better.”
Benitez made one change from the team beaten at Wembley by Tottenham Hotspur in midweek – Jacob Murphy replaced ineligible Chelsea loanee Kenedy in the starting XI – while Conte sent out a much-changed visiting side.
Conte made eight changes ahead of next weekend’s FA Cup final against Manchester United.
A huge banner bearing the slogan “Where there is unity, there is always victory” was held up in the Gallowgate End, decked in black and white, as the teams emerged from the tunnel.
Newcastle’s strength this season has been their unity. The whole has been greater than the sum of the parts.
Benitez has united the club and the city.
And the team showed it was United in more than just name on the pitch in a blistering opening 25 minutes.
Newcastle took the game to their hosts. Jonjo Shelvey forced a save with a fine half-volley, while Mohamed Diame had two early efforts.
The breakthrough, when it came, was deserved. Thibaut Courtois pushed out a shot from Murphy and Gayle reacted first to the loose ball.
Chelsea – who recovered some composure late in the half – were fortunate not to concede a penalty when a defender pulled back Perez, who also shot wide in first-half injury time.
Joselu replaced an injured Gayle early in the second half and goalkeeper Martin Dubravka, a spectator before the break, tipped over an effort from Olivier Giroud.
But Newcastle soon picked up where they had left off before the interval. A headed clearance from Tiemoue Bakayoko dropped for Shelvey, whose shot was redirected past Courtois by Perez.
Dubravka denied Ross Barkley before Perez netted his second goal. Shelvey delivered a free-kick into the box which was put across goal by Florian Lejeune. Perez tapped it home.
Many Chelsea fans had seen enough at that point. They got up and left.
Newcastle supporters, meanwhile, stayed in the stadium long after the final whistle to applaud Benitez and his players on their lap of the pitch.
Will Benitez be back next season?
It’s over to you, Mike.