Rafa Benitez wanted to stay at Newcastle United for a decade – then this happened
Earlier this month, Benitez visited Newcastle United's training ground.
Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a story. After all, it was – and is until June 30 – Benitez’s place of work. But it made the headlines.
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That’s because these aren’t ordinary times at St James’s Park. It’s been an extraordinary 24 hours at the club, though yesterday’s revelation that Benitez would not be staying beyond the June 30 expiry of his contract wasn’t a surprise. It had been coming.
It’s doubtful that Benitez will be back at United’s training ground before the end of the month.
The 59-year-old visited on June 10. Interestingly, and probably not coincidentally, a TV crew was there to record his arrival at the club’s Benton HQ. Benitez spoke to staff and moved some boxes before leaving.
Benitez’s appearance at the training ground had raised hopes that he was about to re-commit to the club, though some fans suggested that he was clearing the desk in his office, which looks on to the pitches.
We’ll probably never know what he was doing – and whether the visit was just for show – but, by then, the odds on Benitez signing a new contract had seemingly lengthened.
Benitez, offered a one-year deal, had wanted a quick resolution to his contract situation, yet nothing much had happened in four weeks.
Exactly a month earlier, Benitez, craving more ambition and more autonomy, had delivered his final pre-match press conference in the cramped media room at the training ground.
Just as he had done so many times before, he walked through the indoor pitch, sat down with a smile and took questions, in turn, from TV, radio and print journalists.
That day, he was asked about a proposed end-of-season meeting with Mike Ashley, the club’s owner.
“I’m going to the meeting in a positive way, because we have the potential and we can do a lot of things better,” said Benitez. “If we do that, we’ll have more chances to be closer to the top 10. Do I think we can change everything in one window and be in the top six? No. Can we get closer? Yes. We can head in the right direction.”
It was Benitez’s way of saying he was willing to compromise. For all his misgivings about the way the club was run, he wanted to stay. That was his preference. And this was the project he wanted.
The relationship between Benitez and Ashley had been strained since the summer of 2017. The previous year, Benitez had delivered a profit on player trading of more than £30million – and rebuilt the squad he inherited from Steve McClaren. Benitez expected to see the £30million that summer – but that never happened. Instead the club had a net spend of just over £20million.
That rankled with Benitez at the time, and it would continue to rankle. He trusted Ashley – who put the club up for sale later that year – less and less.
Then, the following January, there was the first stand-off over his contract, which, at the time, had 18 months left to run. Ashley wanted Benitez to sign a new deal before moving on his transfer targets. Benitez, however, wanted get players in first. Eventually, three players arrived on loan.
There was another impass last summer when Benitez, again, refused to sign a new deal.
Benitez was already simmering by the time the Foundation 1892 Cup, a tournament for North East schoolchildren, was played out on a warm day at the club’s Academy in July.
Asked about his contract, Benitez told the Gazette: “I said that we have to see how things are going on and then we can sit down later on and discuss about that. I would like to stay here five years, 10 years, if its possible, because I can see the potential, the fans, the city – everybody pushing in the same direction.
“But we have to do things like I imagine has to be done in a football club.”
That wasn’t the case. Benitez was forced to sell to buy – the club made a paper profit of more than £20million on transfers – and Benitez was asking himself if he could really work for Ashley for much longer.
Then came the January arrival of Miguel Almiron, which seemed to give Benitez – and the club’s fans – some hope that there could be a way forward while the club was still in Ashley’s hands. But more intrasigence from Ashley over transfers and investment this summer spelled the end for Benitez.
Benitez, wanted by Dalian Yifang, is expected to go to China – but not with United in pre-season.
Where Newcastle go from here is anyone’s guess, though there’s still hope on Tyneside that a takeover can be completed in the coming months. Ashley could yet be gone.
But the damage is done. Benitez is gone, and there’ll soon be a new manager in Benitez’s vacant office tasked with following in the footsteps of the most successful United manager since Robson.