By the time Rafa Benitez had completed the signing of Islam Slimani, a centre forward he had coveted for more than 18 months, the player was racing back to his Midlands home to celebrate his son’s birthday.
It had been a whirlwind transfer deadline day for the Algerian forward; called by Benitez in the morning, picked up in Mike Ashley’s private jet, flown to Newcastle, shown around the training ground at Benton before signing a temporary deal as his new club were conceding a late, cruel own goal against Burnley.
Not handed the number nine shirt so cherished on Tyneside (and currently the property of Dwight Gayle) but a striker nonetheless, given the not inconsiderable task of saving Newcastle United. From stagehand to leading role in the blink of an eye.
It had been that kind of week for the 29-year-old. West Ham and Monaco were suitors, as were Roma, as the window closed. There was a suggestion Leicester would not do business with West Ham because of a newspaper column written by Karen Brady, criticising their owners for the size of a wine bill.
Newcastle themselves had bid £13m and then £17m for the Feyenoord forward Nicolai Jorgensen, short of the club’s £25m asking price. It was the usual tale of Tyneside angst as the clock ticked down to within 24 hours of the window closing, and only late last Tuesday night did Benitez and his scouting staff finally believe they could land a player who had been signed by England’s champions for £29m in 2016, smashing Leicester’s record transfer fee in the process.
“The 24 hours before I signed were complicated but I think I made the right choice,” said Slimani. “Rafa Benitez is a big coach with a great reputation. Him calling me had a big effect. Speaking to the manager, it gave me the confidence to know this was the right choice.
“It’s true that there were a lot of clubs interested in me but Newcastle is a historic club so I’ve known about it from a very young age. When I was young, the film Goal was around, but more importantly there were legendary players like Alan Shearer. It was obvious how big a club it is. The fans love this club. That played a part.
“I’m a goalscorer and that is what the team needs. I will help fight to remain in the Premier League.”
Newcastle’s need for goals right now is huge. Joselu and Ayoze Perez are top scorers, in February, with four. Slimani, with chances limited at the King Power Stadium, has scored that many in the Carabao Cup alone this season, but it has been stop-start since his move to England, scoring twice on his debut but finding Jamie Vardy an immovable force. There is no shame in that, or the fact he was a potential replacement for a player who never left.
Slimani, an Algerian Ballon d’or winner in 2013, will need to rediscover the form that saw him find the net 27 times in 33 games in his final full season for Sporting Lisbon in Portugal’s Primeira Liga. In his final game, at the start of the 2016/17 campaign, he scored the equaliser in a 2-1 victory against rivals Porto. It was his fifth goal in three games against them, earning him the nickname ‘Dragonslayer’. He cried on the pitch as he said goodbye. In total Slimani had scored 57 times for Sporting in 109 games. He admitted he was convinced by international teammate Riyad Mahrez to join the Premier League, a far cry from his youth in the western Algiers suburb of Ain Benian. Then, he could not afford a fishing rod so his friends would fish with plastic bottles tied to pieces of string.
Slimani joined WBAB (in the Algerian fifth tier) in his hometown when he was a teenager. He moved to JSM Cheraga and scored enough goals in the youth team to join the first team squad. He scored 18 goals and in 2009 CR Belouizdad paid £7,000 to sign him. In his second season he scored ten goals. He became an Algerian international in 2012 and scored his first goal for his country against Rwanda. In 2013 he signed for Sporting after a dispute with his club, who he proved to the Algerian Football Federation, had reneged on contractual promises.
There have been 27 goals now at international level, and it is not pushing it too far to suggest Newcastle’s future needs those goals. The city cannot contemplate a third relegation in less than a decade and the prime emotion Benitez has shown since signing the player, who has both pace and aerial ability, has been relief.
“No, he’s not a risk,” he said. “I watched him in Portugal and he did well, but he’s a player that if you have Vardy up front it’s very difficult to play ahead of him.
“We knew about him but, when Leicester paid £30m for him, we started thinking about other things. Then when we heard he was available on loan, he became an option. Clubs were pushing until the last minute so we had to do it quickly and we had to do it well, it was not easy.
“He knows the league, he’s strong, he can run behind defenders, different things that we don’t have. We have players, one can run, one can win in the air, one can be strong, but this one maybe can do a little bit of everything.”
Much will depend on how quickly he adapts. The thigh injury he arrived at Newcastle with has cleared up. He trained on Wednesday and Thursday with his new team-mates. There are 11 games remaining - he cannot play against his parent club - and the size of Slimani’s impact will most likely play a huge part in the club’s survival bid.
No pressure then.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies