Rafa decision vindicated as Newcastle are promoted

Date published: Monday 24th April 2017 10:09

Rafael Benitez took a gamble when he chose not to make a swift exit from Newcastle in the wake of relegation.

The Spaniard, who had started the 2015-16 season in charge at Real Madrid, ended it having failed to halt the Magpies’ headlong slide into the Sky Bet Championship after a 10-game cameo which brought three victories and four draws, but not enough points to undo the damage wrought during Steve McClaren’s ill-fated reign.

Benitez could have walked away having negotiated an escape clause in the deal he signed when managing director Lee Charnley had persuaded him to take on the challenge of preserving the club’s Premier League status.

Few would have blamed him if he had done so – indeed, there was as much surprise as delight on Tyneside when in May last year he announced his decision to stay having agreed a new three-year contract.

He said at the time: “I can see the possibilities, the size of the club and what it means to the fans, even the press. I can see it is massive and I want to be part of that.

“To be successful, we have to do well. That is football. You cannot guarantee things, but I am here because I am convinced we can go up next season and stay for a long time in the Premier League, even win trophies.”

In truth, Newcastle were fortunate to get to Benitez when they did.

He was keen to return to English football – the former Liverpool manager’s family still lives in the north-west – and despite his reputation and sustained success, he was short of attractive offers.

What worked in the club’s favour was that his initial spell at St James’ Park had whetted his appetite, a process aided in no small part by a 5-1 final day drubbing of Tottenham and the crowd’s reaction to it which gave him a little insight into the potential of a club which has laboured for so long to fulfil its own expectation.

So grateful was the Magpies’ hierarchy for Benitez’s continued presence that he was handed full control of football matters, something most recent predecessors Alan Pardew and McClaren could only dream of.

And so began the long and gruelling haul back towards the big time. Moussa Sissoko, Georginio Wijnaldum and Andros Townsend were sold for an eye-watering total of £68million as he embarked upon a radical overhaul to build a squad fit for the Championship.

Ciaran Clark, Matt Ritchie and Dwight Gayle were the most eye-catching of 12 new signings, and all three have played key roles in a season which has been far from straightforward, but one which has seen the only objective – promotion – achieved with two games to spare.

For that alone, Benitez will be afforded the kind of status reserved for a special few as he joins Kevin Keegan and the late Sir Bobby Robson on an exclusive pedestal.

However, in many ways, his job has only just started.

For him, promotion will serve simply to right the wrong of relegation, to restore the club to a position from which it should never have fallen.

The hard work to stabilise it once again – the Magpies failed to do that after returning at the first attempt seven years ago – begins now, and that will bring its own challenges.

Owner Mike Ashley, to Benitez’s surprise and disappointment, thwarted his plan to bolster the squad from a position of strength in January, but there is little doubt that there is significant work to do if the club is to compete, let alone thrive, in next season’s top flight.

The extent to which the sportswear magnate is prepared to bankroll the next phase of the 57-year-old’s masterplan is likely to determine just how harmoniously the summer months unfold at St James’.

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