On a mild Monday night in March, Newcastle United supporters danced in the concourses of Leicester City’s King Power stadium. This was a club deep in the relegation mire, but a support lifted by a new arrival. Thousands triumphantly chanted the name of their manager.
“Rafa Benitez…Rafa Benitez,” went the song, to the tune of La Bamba that Liverpool fans made so famous. “Chancel Mbemba, Gini Wijnaldum, Shelvey and Perez.” A club had found its new hero.
Less than five months later, one of the players in that chant had left the club, and another had been banished to the fringes of the first team. While Leicester won that evening and went on to lift the Premier League title, Newcastle were relegated for the second time in seven years. A club that Steve McClaren had insisted could finish in the top eight on the eve of the season had ended it in the bottom three.
Yet still they dance; still they sing.
On the final day of the 2015/16 season, Newcastle hosted a relegation party rather than a sombre wake. Supporters did not busy themselves with bidding farewell to the Premier League, but instead offered a charm offensive towards their apparently short-term manager. Benitez is a man used to chants, banners and petitions from his time at Chelsea, but at St James’ Park the demands were of a very different nature. As Newcastle beat Tottenham 5-1, a city was begging him to stay.
Against all expectation, their begging paid off. As the Gallowgate and Leazes Ends poured their love onto Benitez before and after the final whistle, as well as during the game, something stuck. Plenty has changed at Newcastle this summer, but the manager remains the same.
Shifting from Real Madrid to the Championship will be viewed in some quarters – not least the Madrid media – as a humbling fall from grace, but Benitez doesn’t see it that way. After the maelstrom of the Bernabeu, the Spaniard sees Newcastle as a chance to start a journey that he has a realistic hope of seeing through from beginning to end. At both Valencia and Liverpool, Benitez has shone brightest when taking on a project. He was incredibly fortunate to land the Real Madrid job after comparative failures at Internazionale and Napoli, but it was hardly his natural fit. Newcastle might be.
“The love I could feel from the fans was a big influence in my decision,” Benitez said when accepting the job in May. “This is a huge club and I wanted to be part of the great future I can see for Newcastle United. I’m convinced we can go up next season, stay in the Premier League for a long time and win trophies. This is a massive club and I want to stay part of it.”
The vast increase in revenue on offer in the top flight dictates that relegation can never be considered a positive, but it may well have been a necessary step for Newcastle to undergo the detox that they so desperately require. The argument is that standing still is impossible in the Premier League, introspection incredibly difficult. Players on high wages and long contracts are hard to shift, so you are instead coerced into topping up an already bloated squad. Newcastle know that feeling more than most.
That’s certainly the feeling among supporters. The general mood during the final weeks fell between resignation and devastation, but that was more due to the prospective loss of Benitez than their Premier League status. Offered the choice between relegation and Rafa or survival and someone else, a high percentage of fans would have preferred the status quo. The Premier League remains the holy grail, but only if your club is in a fit state to make the best of it.
That deep cleanse is now happening at St James’. While Aston Villa have found it difficult to clear out much of their deadwood, Newcastle have moved on Florian Thauvin, Fabricio Coloccini, Steven Taylor, Papiss Cisse and Remy Cabella, and Moussa Sissoko will surely follow. The funds provided by Georginio Wijnaldum and Andros Townsend’s unsurprising moves back to the Premier League have allowed Benitez to invest in his squad, and the result is a group of players finally all pulling in the same direction. The appointment of Jamaal Lascelles as captain, one of the few who improved their reputation last season, at the age of 22 is indicative of the forward-thinking, feel-good attitude that now pervades the club.
Most importantly, this detox goes beyond the tangible. After years of atrophy, fans see the shackles of Mike Ashley’s ownership being slowly released. For years they have been told that cup competitions don’t matter, even managers who were successful remaining subservient to the owner. Benitez’s presence is the catalyst for change. No longer must the manager have his decisions ratified by Joe Kinnear or Dennis Wise, and no longer will the once-cherished Graham Carr be in charge of transfers.
Benitez’s influence on every aspect of the club has been exemplary. He has attended numerous charity functions and played his part in the community schemes run by the club more than any previous manager. He cancelled his summer holidays to outline his plans to overhaul the academy and create better partnerships with grassroots clubs in the area, including the formation of a new tournament hosted by the club for primary school children in the area. Newcastle United Women’s Football Club has also had its relationship with the club formalised. The ambition is clear: Newcastle should be proud of its football club, on the pitch and off it, and it’s been too long.
Yet this is not simply a charity mission on Benitez’s part. Having endured plenty of headaches in Naples, Milan and Madrid, the manager is intending to use Newcastle as the perfect tonic. Having received the adoration of Liverpool supporters, Benitez knows what to expect in the north-east. Liverpool and Newcastle are two cities that feel isolated from the country’s capital, where football has become the cultural staple. Divine status is but a triumph away.
Newcastle are the overwhelming favourites for the Championship title, but this summer and season was and is about far more than an immediate return to the Premier League. Rafa Benitez wanted to stay because he saw the potential for greatness, not so much a sleeping giant as one placed into a coma by the wanton disregard of its owner. Slowly, surely and with a residual base layer of mistrust, Newcastle supporters are falling in love with their club again. The Cockney mafia exists only in grim memory; they’re all singing La Bamba now.