During Match of the Day on Saturday, pundits Jermaine Jenas and Trevor Sinclair were asked for their prediction about which Premier League club would survive from the terrible triptych of Norwich City, Sunderland and Newcastle. Both tipped Sunderland, with Jenas citing his former Tottenham teammate Jermain Defoe as the deciding factor and Sinclair repeating his familiar mantra that Sam Allardyce would be the key figure in the Black Cats’ survival. The bookies tend to agree with Newcastle a slight 1/4 to be relegated to the Championship.
But if Allardyce is a key figure in this relegation battle, then what does that make Rafa Benitez? What does that make a man who has won La Liga twice, the Champions League and the Europa League? What does that make a man who was named coach of the year twice by UEFA? The clue is in these quotes from defender Chancel Mbemba after Saturday’s win over Swansea:
“For me, as a young player, it is absolutely fantastic to work with Rafa Benitez. He’s a fantastic coach and fantastic man manager. I have been lucky in my career to work with some fantastic managers but I am really proud to work with him on a personal note. The win was for the fans this weekend. They motivated us, and so does the manager, every day in training. We have so much pride to be able to work with him.”
Imagine being signed by Steve McClaren and then finding yourself being managed by Benitez. Imagine losing a fiver and then finding a £20 note on the floor. Allardyce certainly has the edge over Benitez in his experience amongst the minnows of English football, but can you imagine any young player talking about his ‘pride’ at working with the winning manager of the League of Ireland First Division in 1991-92? Benitez’s aura is Newcastle’s most potent weapon; the club’s players, staff and fans cannot quite believe that they are being managed by the much-decorated Spaniard, and that engenders a willingness to work that gives Newcastle a fighting chance they would have under no other manager.
“I think he knows what he’s doing so you can’t exactly sit here and criticise him with his record and his CV,” said Jonjo Shelvey when asked about his reaction to being dropped. It’s not something the £12m Englishman could or would have said when he was publicly humiliated by Garry Monk. As illustrated by the image of Liverpool’s Adam Lallana collapsing into the arms of new manager Jurgen Klopp, footballers can find extra reserves of maturity and energy when they think ‘bloody hell, I can’t believe I’m playing for…’. You could argue that they should already have been ‘doing it for the fans’, but that naive path is paved with gold and well-worn by unicorns.
“The manager’s ideas finally clicked into place,” said Newcastle’s other £12m January signing Andros Townsend, tacitly accepting that the largest slice of credit should go to Benitez, who inherited a circus act but fielded an actual football team against Swansea. The performance was clearly the result of endeavour and concentation – “this week we worked a lot” was the reaction of unlikely captain Moussa Sissoko. It showed.
Tactically, Benitez has done nothing revolutionary. Against Swansea, the defence kept their shape, a pair of defensive midfielders showed discipline and the attacking quartet were charged with an awful lot of running against opposition rather more adept at keeping the ball. All but the disappointing Georginio Wijnaldum carried out Benitez’s instructions to the letter. When one of your wide men makes more tackles than any other player on the pitch, you know your message has been received. Was it pretty? No. Did they ride their luck? God yes. Can it be done again? Why not?
Matching the players’ desire to please Benitez are the fans, who have been given their role by a manager who has appointed them 12th, 13th and 14th men in this relegation battle. It was only the first victory of Benitez’s reign and yet they sang his name, chests puffed out that such a manager had chosen them. They would be right in thinking that no other team in the bottom half of the Premier League would hold the same allure to a manager sacked by Real Madrid.
“Thank you to the fans,” said Benitez, who knows how to make a girl feel special. “If we stick together then it’s easier for us to approach the game and gives us the chance to win.”
At last, Newcastle have the calibre of manager to match the calibre of fans; if the players join the party for more than one day, Newcastle could yet be playing Premier League football next season. They probably won’t feel so ‘proud’ to train with Nigel Pearson in the Championship.