"The Gaffer will come up to you in the corridor and he’ll say something like, 'Stay side-on, Jamaal,' and then he’ll walk off. He knows you won’t be able to stop thinking about it. He does that a lot. He gives you little tips all the time. I’d walk away and think, 'I need to do that.' It stays with you. Has he made me a better player? Without a doubt."
Jamaal Lascelles is sat in Newcastle United’s training ground on a brilliant, sunny day. He does not look comfortable. It is the day after the hernia operation he should have had four months earlier.
Newcastle are potentially one game away from winning the Championship. Beside him is Ciaran Clark. The two have barely left each other’s side all season, becoming the base for the surge towards promotion; right-sided centre-half meet left-sided centre-half. The pair had not even met before Clark ended an association with Aston Villa that went back to when he was a child. Now they play together, hang out together and even car-share to work.
"We got on straight away," says Lascelles.
Clark was one of the finds of the season, a snip at £5.5 million when Newcastle caused further fury in the fractious relationship with Villa by activating a release clause.
"I think I’ve improved too, yeah. Just as Jamaal said, you can be out there training and he’ll pull you to the side and say, 'You need to do this.' As defenders, he grabs you and tells you to work on stuff. I’ve never really had that before. Even after games, after QPR away he never came in and said well done. He said, 'If we can do this and this we can be better.'"
"That was after a six-nil win as well!" interrupts Lascelles. "He wants us to do better," adds Clark. "If he can improve individuals by doing little things it obviously improves the team."
"I think he’s a perfectionist," says Lascelles. "Not necessarily on mistakes but the minute somebody does something wrong tactically or positionally he’ll stop the whole training session and tell them where they should be, and when the gaffer is constantly doing that it sticks with you.
"You don’t need to question it in your own mind. It’s Rafa Benitez. What I would say is that in victory or defeat he’s the coolest man in the stadium. He has the most pressure on him. Sometimes at half-time the players will be having it at each other and he’ll be fine and say, 'Calm down.' That is so important.
"Playing at St James’ with 52,000 there is a lot of expectation and pressure, you need someone of his calibre to say, 'Relax, trust yourself, you’re good players.' Because of the way he’s been it’s helped a few of us."
Lascelles was 21 when he signed for Newcastle United. His league debut for the club was a taste of what he had joined, coming on as a substitute in a 6–1 defeat to Manchester City. Lascelles railed against the inertia he discovered in that dressing room. He stood up for himself and he stood up for the club during a season that ended in relegation, and for that Benitez entrusted the central defender, when he was still just 22, with the captain’s armband.
"I won’t sit here and slate the team before," he adds. "They were a good bunch but the signings [Benitez has] made not only were good footballers but good lads in general. There has definitely been a change.
"He called me into his office before the season started and he gave me the armband and I was, like, overwhelmed. I felt it was a great moment, I felt happy and I felt pressure, all in one, it’s a big thing, but there again, having these lads around me I’m not by myself.
"It’s always interesting when a new player comes in. Just to see what they’ve got, not just on the pitch, what they’re like as lads. One thing I do remember, one of the first sessions where Matt Ritchie trained, he said to one of our boys, 'When I do this, I want you to do that.' I thought for somebody on his first day to be bossing people about is a really good sign. I spoke to him after and said, 'We’ve been lacking things like that. It shows to me straight away you care. You need to keep doing it.'
"I think what goes on in the changing room is massive. That is a crucial part of why we’ve been so successful because everyone’s good friends; I’m really good friends with Ciaran now. Obviously being partners with someone I car-share with and we talk every morning, I think it rubs off on the pitch. We’re a real tight group. We have good banter, we go for food together, we have nights out, things like that. It has had a massive effect on this season.
"Nah, I didn’t lead that, not really. I wear the armband but a handful of players in there are leaders and pretty much the equivalent of what I do. The team before, nothing like that used to happen. They would never really go for food. They would just train, go home and wouldn’t really talk to each other. There would be groups, segregated, whereas now everyone gets involved: the French lads, the English lads get together, everyone really likes each other.
"We’re in a group chat. I put in, “Go for food?” We’ve had meals this season, nights out, thing like that. Just put it in and it happens."
Clark had come through the academy at Villa Park. He made his full debut for the club in August 2009, three months after Newcastle had been relegated at the same stadium. The following season he established himself and had played 134 times in the Premier League before Villa too fell through the relegation trapdoor and Benitez and Lee Charnley activated his release clause.
"Rafa came in for me and straight away I wanted to come and give it a go," he adds.
"In the heat of a goal in a match you don’t really know what you’re doing. You’re still celebrating. Sometimes the gaffer does pull you aside, if you go for a drink he’ll pull you and have a word in your ear: 'Make sure you’re staying focused, concentrate. Try not to concede straight after scoring.' He’s always on to us."
It is difficult not to like the intensity of Lascelles or the enthusiasm of Clark.
"We got on straight away," says Lascelles. "We were car-sharing from the start because he lives around the corner. From playing with him quite a while now I know what he’s going to do, and I know if I do something he will cover me. We have a relationship that just clicked."
They both talk fondly of Benitez as a man.
"Yeah, he’s very warm, the door is always open to go and speak to him," explains Lascelles. "It’s not just all about football. He’ll have a laugh with you as well. He tells stories, he’ll get involved with a bit of banter as well. He’s a cool guy to have around the place but at the same time you can be sat there and he’ll be sat behind you and you can feel his presence because of who he is. He’s got two sides to him. Both positive.
"He has been unhappy after games with the result and what we’ve done on the pitch but he’s never dug us out, he has always stuck up for us."
Perhaps more than anything, Lascelles has led a football team back into its community. The distance between player and fan was huge when he arrived. He was young and almost instinctively he took to bridging the gap.
"I was twenty-one when I came," adds Lascelles. "It took a while to get used to. It was massive. At the end of the day I’m an ordinary twenty-three-year-old that happens to be all right at football, but they think the world of you so it’s only right we try our best come game day and give everything."
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