In the divorce of Newcastle owner Mike Ashley and Rafa Benitez, there’s no question who gets the fans

Newcastle must now produce something inspirational, progressive and clever to tiptoe through their latest crisis

Premier League 2019/20: Fixtures that could decide the title

Two hours had passed when Ant and Dec responded to the news that Rafa Benitez had left Newcastle United.

“Disastrous,” their tweet read. “Those ‘at the top’ of our great club should be ashamed. The great shame is that they won’t be. The way they are repeatedly able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory is astonishing. Thank you @rafabenitezweb Mike Ashley – get out of OUR club.”

Within seven minutes, the tweet had 1,000 likes. By 13 minutes it was past 1,800. By tea-time, when a city’s football club still felt unpalatable to its supporters, there had been almost 10,000. It was pretty much the only thing being liked in Tyneside at that point, as the reverberations were still being felt.

‘Benitez going’ had reached a point where it did not feel like news, but ‘Benitez gone’ certainly does. On Sunday night whispers began that the Spaniard’s backroom staff had cleared their desks and their temporary homes. That is a good starting point, because this has the feel of a breakup and right now it is not even a question of who gets the fans.

That there will be no messy divorce to be resolved speaks volumes of the amount of mistrust that was felt by those on either side of a negotiation that has failed in what it was supposed to deliver.

Make no mistake, by the finish, there was contempt felt by both parties.

The talks that were effectively closed with a statement of 136 words at lunchtime on Monday started 18 months ago. In that time recruitment, budget, wage bill, training ground, the Under-23 team and more recently Benitez’s own salary were all discussed at length. It is debatable if a resolution was reached on any of them. Red lines have not proven a particularly successful negotiating tactic on these shores in recent years, and for Newcastle’s part there was £50m for new players each summer, plus whatever was generated through sales. The wage bill, the 14th most expensive in the country, could be moved, but not dramatically. Money was ring-fenced to sign players for the Under-23s and Benitez was told he would retain the final say on player recruitment.

In there though was much of the complication that had all but broken down last summer, when Benitez refused to budge on his desire to sign Salomon Rondon, rather than a younger alternative. The club would not sanction a deal that through its five-year period would cost £39m for a player who is 30 this year. In the end Dwight Gayle got a new, lucrative contract to move temporarily to West Brom and Rondon, who, like his former team-mates, expressed his disappointment on Twitter at Benitez’s departure, moved on loan to Tyneside.

Mike Ashley is not popular with Newcastle supporters 

In the complication of that was yet another warning sign that the relationship was unsustainable, and there have been a few of them, like the first January transfer window when Benitez was blocked from signing Andros Townsend. Only later would Lee Charnley, the club’s managing director, express the enormity of the ‘gamble’ that was being taken to get the club promoted immediately back to the Premier League with a wage bill of £80m and that without promotion there would have been ‘bloodshed’. It is debatable whether things ever recovered from that point, in January 2017.

It is important to remember the starting point, when Benitez arrived. To have been at the training ground that first Friday night, on 11 March, after the Spaniard had taken control, was to watch invigoration. In a corner office Benitez’s staff pored over stats and data with those already at the club. In the training barn, children played with the kind of energy parents ask for when a Champions League winner is walking around the pitches, as he did, in his Newcastle shorts, which he was still wearing much much later, when the snow fell.

Newcastle United came back to life that day, after the moribund procession under Steve McClaren towards the Championship. The club still ended up there, but it had bounce, and such vigour in a final day 5-1 victory on the final day of the season against Spurs that Benitez finally met Mike Ashley in his office at St James’ Park.

‘The great Rafa Benitez!’ Ashley said as he met his new manager. Ashley used to greet Kevin Keegan, on the rare occasion the pair spoke on the telephone, with ‘Hello King Kev!’ Perhaps there was a danger sign lost even back then, for it is Keegan that the comparison is now with.

Newcastle won the Championship and Ashley was there. Benitez was feted on the pitch on a dramatic day, with Newcastle sealing the title when Jack Grealish’s shot deflected into the Brighton goal at Villa Park. The pair spoke then, but the lines of communication were always poor. Benitez was taken in a helicopter to Shirebrook, the head office of Sports Direct, for talks in May of 2017 because the pair could not agree where to hold a meeting that would prove pivotal in extinguishing trust. Benitez would not do it in a pub.

“I’ve confirmed to Rafa and Lee that they can have every last penny that the club generates through promotion, player sales and other means in order to build for next season,” Ashley said in a statement.

Even in there was wiggle room. Newcastle are no longer a wealthy football club, not comparatively. The total was effectively £70m over three windows, not the rich bounty expected. Benitez missed out on Tammy Abraham, Willy Caballero and Sandro Ramirez, and trust left. Newcastle eventually spent around £45m (before incomings). The start of the season was a struggle, but by the finish there was wind in the club’s sails, finishing an unlikely 10th. Benitez, to the fury of those in power at the club, would call that a miracle. Last summer was more of the same, Newcastle were not major players in the transfer market, and the clock ticked that bit faster on Benitez’s contract in a season that saw Newcastle again finish strongly after a poor start, coming home 13th.

Benitez could yet take another Premier League role 

What cannot be understated is the significance of Benitez’s relationship with those who have spent their life watching the team. He reconnected the club to them, firing up hope and pride as he did. He was also a symbol of when Newcastle were a force in England. Benitez had won a competition, the Champions League, that two of his three predecessors – Carver and Pardew – had never even managed in.

It became a marriage of inconvenience by the finish. If it had gone on, it could well have been said it was for the supporters alone. They are now threatening a march on Ashley’s house on Saturday. There were anecdotal tales of cancellations of season tickets on Monday.

It is not a given Benitez will head to China. He could wait and see who is struggling in October. Back in 2015 West Ham offered him a job before Real Madrid, his boyhood team, came calling. You would imagine Arsenal would be of interest if they too show no improvement. But he is no longer manager of Newcastle, who must now produce something inspirational, progressive and clever to tiptoe through their latest crisis.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in