Newcastle United are managerless and rudderless amid fan unrest on Tyneside
It’s over. Rafa Benitez has gone. And he won’t be back.
Newcastle United’s players, however, will be back in three days for the start of pre-season.
It’s another fine mess.
There’s seemingly no certainty about anything at St James’s Park.
A week ago, Benitez was still manager of the club – and there was still hope that he would stay. Within hours, that hope had gone, extinguished by a 134-word statement from the club.
And Benitez’s association with United formally ended last night when his contract expired.
The backlash from fans on social media was immediate and ferocious. Boycotts are planned, while some supporters have cancelled their season-tickets. More may do so. The Newcastle United Supporters Trust, which aims to represent the interests of the club’s fanbase, has recruited many more members.
The club is now looking to appoint a new manager – or even a head coach – and there could yet be a change in ownership over the coming weeks or months.
It’s a confused and confusing picture. Little seems black and white.
A report yesterday claimed that Ashley had pulled out of contract talks with Benitez as the Bin Zayed Group, which claims it has “agreed terms” on a £350million takeover, didn’t want him as manager.
If that is the case, surely they are misguided. However, supporters, understandably, greeted the story with cynicism. They’ve seen it all before.
Benitez’s departure is down to one man – Ashley.
Ashley has made many bad decisions in his 12 years as owner, but recruiting Benitez in March 2016 after Steve McClaren’s disastrous tenure was a good one. And Ashley profited from it, handsomely. Benitez added value to the club. Yet that wasn’t enough to persuade him to show the modicum of ambition that the 59-year-old wanted to see from the billionaire in their London meeting in May.
And here we are. The club is managerless and rudderless just three days before the players report back for the start of pre-season training. Jamaal Lascelles and his team-mates will most likely be welcomed back to the club by Neil Redfearn, the recently-appointed head coach of the club’s Under-23 team.
The pressure is on to appoint a successor before the team heads for China for the Premier League Asia Trophy in just under a fortnight.
Does managing director Lee Charnley – who will start approaching potential candidates this week – look to make a short-term appointment? Or a longer-term one? Ashley will have the final say.
And how do you persuade a top-level coach to join a club with so little certainty? Time, yet again, is running out for a takeover, though there are optimistic noises coming from Dubai.
Late last season, Benitez drew up lists of potential targets with Steve Nickson, the club’s head of recruitment. Nothing has happened on the recruitment front since then, and clubs are circling the likes of Ayoze Perez and Sean Longstaff, two players that Benitez saw to be fundamental to the team moving forward.
Well-informed journalists close to Manchester United have been reporting on the club’s interest in Longstaff for some time. A bid for the midfielder seems inevitable, and few fans would blame the 21-year-old if he saw a better future for himself at Old Trafford. That club wins trophies.
Benitez didn’t have control over the transfer budget but, crucially, he had the final say on any departures from the club. Will his successor have the same power?
Perez, so important last season, has hinted at his frustration at being involved in successive relegation battles. The pull of Spain is strong after five years on Tyneside. The 25-year-old is reportedly a target for Valencia.
The Newcastle team which finished last season so strongly could well be broken up. Few now expect Salomon Rondon, 29, to return, despite his success at St James’s Park, given the club’s reluctance to sign players of his age.
And the revelation that Benitez’s successor could be a head coach led to fans voicing fears that the next appointment would have little or no control over transfers. That structure didn’t work with McClaren and Graham Carr, who was then chief scout.
Benitez pulled everything together. He joined the dots. The club functioned as it should, despite the biannual transfer wrangles which punctuated Benitez’s memorable tenure.
Could Mikel Arteta, the favourite with bookmakers, do the same? Or Patrick Vieira? It’s a tough, tough job, and it’s consumed many, many managers. That it didn’t consume Benitez is a credit to the Spaniard, who was always so at ease at a club which has long been viewed as unmanageable.
It had that reputation before Ashley bought it in 2007, and the job’s got even harder in the years since then.
Ashley, unlike United fans, never seemed to truly appreciate the job Benitez did at St James’s Park. Sometimes, however, you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.