If Rafa Benitez can secure Newcastle’s Premier League status in the next 10 games and stays in charge, he faces another moment of truth in the summer when he will demand total control of transfers.
It is a political battle he does not need to fight now given the Spaniard has an escape clause in his contract if the team gets relegated. But Benitez will not work under the transfer committee which has dictated to his predecessors which players are bought and sold and the club know that changes have to be made. And yesterday Alan Shearer added his weight to the argument by advising Benitez to “run the club as he wants it”.
“It’s a great coup for Newcastle to get someone like Benitez, if – and it’s a big if – he can manage the football club the way he wants to manage,” said the former Newcastle striker. “What’s been clear is that every manager that Newcastle have appointed has come from a point of weakness, where they’ve not been able to set their own agenda.
“They’ve always had to work to a certain structure, whereas I think Rafa will be different, he’ll set what he wants, he can demand that he controls the transfers, and he can run the football club as he wants to run it.”
That final paragraph could be one of the most significant in the future of Newcastle United. On Saturday, in his first press conference as the club’s manager, Benitez almost whispered he would be replacing Steve McClaren not just in charge of the first team but also on the football board that club owner Mike Ashley deemed a good idea last summer.
It must be presumed Benitez, given the vital title of manager, has already pushed forward a revision of the policy to have the chief scout Graham Carr, the managing director Lee Charnley and former captain Bob Moncur sit and help the manager, formerly the head coach, plot a forward path.
Only in Benitez’s carefully chosen words came the warning that he will move for full control if, at the end of the season, he has kept Newcastle in the Premier League.
Then he will march through any discussion about club policy, with the running of the football club then shared between himself and Charnley, who will be in a far too vulnerable a position to argue. Then, the football board will face probable extinction. The former manager of Real Madrid will not run Newcastle United by committee.
When he was asked what needs to change, he said: “As a club, it is a question for the future so I will say again, we have to concentrate on these 10 games.
“I haven’t spoken to him [Carr], but I know him and I have friends that know him. I don’t see any problem. He is a football man, we will talk about football, we will talk about players, and I think we will be fine.
“I understand why the club is going in this direction, and I have to explain why we have to change a little bit, and I think that will be good for everyone.” Referring to the phone call and invitation to lunch he received from Shearer, Benitez added: “He loves the club. He told me if you do well it will be amazing.
He said, ‘If you need me or want to know anything, about the city, about the fans, about everything, you can always ask’.
“But we didn’t have too much time to prepare for Leicester so I said, ‘Listen, fantastic, we will have lunch any time’. He was great, he was really good, but it was just a chat.”
The biggest challenge Benitez faces is to get goals from Aleksandar Mitrovic, Papiss Cissé or Manu Rivière, the hapless trio who helped get McClaren the sack. Tonight they face leaders Leicester in what for Benitez is a baptism of fire. But he believes he knows how to get the team playing. “You have talk with [the players], they have to believe in what you say and after, they have to follow you,” he said. “During the game, we need to do exactly the same things [as we do in training]. Maybe it’s too early, I don’t know if we can do it against Leicester because they are doing really well.”
Leicester winger Jeff Schlupp, meanwhile, believes the influence of Claudio Ranieri has been key in keeping the team grounded as they seek one of the greatest title wins of all time.
“His influence just humbles everyone and keeps everyone grounded,” said Schlupp, who has just returned after three months out with a hamstring injury, said: “We definitely don’t want to get carried away and the way the manager has been with us has really just kept us there, kept us going and he always makes sure we keep working, working and not slacking at anything. I think that’s important.”
One of the former Chelsea manager’s methods for keeping his players alert in training was to ring an imaginary bell – “dilly ding dilly dong” is the sound the Italian makes – and Schlupp believes it has been useful.
He said: “That’s one of the manager’s favourite phrases! It just means to keep alert really and that’s what we’ve been doing.
“He just uses it when people are a bit low or getting comfortable with what they’re doing, it’s almost like a wake-up shout, so you can imagine him using that quite a lot.”Reuse content