Rafa Benitez Can Rebuild 'Zombie Club' Newcastle, If Given the Power to Do so

Jonathan Wilson@@jonawilsFeatured ColumnistMay 12, 2016

Newcastle United's Spanish manager Rafa Benitez arrives for the English Premier League football match between Newcastle United and Crystal Palace at St James' Park in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, north east England on April 30, 2016. / AFP / SCOTT HEPPELL        (Photo credit should read SCOTT HEPPELL/AFP/Getty Images)

Newcastle United were relegated on Wednesday evening, the 92nd anniversary of the birth of perhaps their most iconic player, Jackie Milburn.

But although they ended up being undone by a minimalist masterpiece of escapology by Sunderland—never higher than 17th, fewer days outside the relegation places than any other club—the truth is that Newcastle relegated themselves, their demise brought about by the toxic spirit that pervades the club and for which the owner, Mike Ashley, must take responsibility.

New Magpies manager Rafa Benitez oversaw an upturn in form, but having only taken over as manager in March, he arrived too late to be able to inspire survival.

“You can’t blame him,” even his great rival Sam Allardyce acknowledged after Sunderland’s 3-0 victory over Everton. Nine games in charge have brought 10 points, and more significantly, Newcastle are unbeaten in their last five.

There’s fight and organisation where previously there was chaos. But there remain significant doubts as to whether he will stay to try to mastermind a promotion charge next season. After all, this is a manager who began the season in charge of Real Madrid. Burton, for all its charms, is not Barcelona.

Realistically, what might tempt Benitez to stay? He likes England: That is clear. His family has continued to live on the Wirral while he has worked for Napoli and Real Madrid. Newcastle are, without question, a big club. Even with all the frustration surrounding the club at the moment and the anger felt towards Ashley, they’ve averaged gates of more than 48,000.

Newcastle fans continue to turn out in force.
Newcastle fans continue to turn out in force.Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

As countless managers have said since the FA Cups dried up in the late '50s, there is enormous potential at the club. At some point, somebody will do what Kevin Keegan so nearly did in the mid-90s and win a trophy for the first time since 1969. Whoever does that will be loved and revered, and they will ink their name indelibly into the history of the region.

There is the possibility not just of being another name on a list of the greats, as Benitez is at Liverpool, but of being top of the list, of becoming the Bill Shankly or the Matt Busby or the Don Revie or the Brian Clough that all others must follow. Even in a world as obsessed with money as modern football, that must mean something.

Recent jobs have been chastening. Internazionale was a disaster. He did a fine but unappreciated job at Chelsea, winning the UEFA Europa League. Napoli felt like a missed opportunity. Real Madrid, like Inter, ended after a few fraught months. Benitez has always, even at Valencia and Liverpool, wrangled with directors. He seemed to relish political battles more than was healthy—and given the situation at Newcastle, it’s hard to imagine that pattern not continuing.

But imagine Benitez were given a free hand. Imagine he were given the sort of freedom to shape a club that was afforded to Shankly and Busby. It might not even be possible in the modern world, and there would certainly have to be delegation, something that Benitez isn’t necessarily good at, but it’s easy to imagine him being tempted by the opportunity to build a club from the ground up with the sort of raw materials Newcastle offer.

The suggestion this week that, having said that he would leave if Newcastle went down, and having a clause in his contract allowing him to do so with no financial penalty, Benitez is reconsidering.

There are counter-rumours suggesting those reports have been planted by Keith Bishop, advisor to Ashley, to try to quell potential fan unrest ahead of Sunday’s final day of the season, against Tottenham at St. James’ Park.

It’s understood that Benitez has already been promised control over transfers—although what that means in practice is another issue—and the main issue appears to be whether he feels the club is prepared to back him with the resources he believes he needs.

Financial fair play regulations will restrict Newcastle, but they made a profit of £32.4 million last year, which suggests their financial position is healthy, if Ashley wants to invest. The picture may not be quite so clear as that, though.

Although the latest Forbes list, released a day after relegation was confirmed, has Newcastle as the 20th wealthiest club in the world, they will see their income from television revenue drop from £65 million a year to £37 million at a time when sides in the Premier League are guaranteed around £100 million.

In addition, after a period of restrained transfer activity, this season saw a sudden splurge of £81 million—significantly, three of the five £10 million-plus signings did not start Saturday’s draw at Aston Villa.

Owner Mike Ashley and managing director Lee Charnley are not popular on Tyneside.
Owner Mike Ashley and managing director Lee Charnley are not popular on Tyneside.IAN MACNICOL/Getty Images

“The process of scrutinising what went wrong and planning for what is to come has already begun,” Newcastle’s managing director Lee Charnley said in a statement released after relegation had been confirmed on Wednesday.

Few doubt that the stepping-stone policy of buying cheap, young players—mainly from the French league—with a promise to sell them on to bigger and better things after a couple of seasons (as Yohan Cabaye moved to Paris Saint-Germain or Mathieu Debuchy went to Arsenal) has left a transient squad with little feeling for the club.

A policy of prioritising league position and the money it brings over the possible glory of cup success and the sense is of a bloodless institution, one of the great old clubs in England reduced to a clearinghouse for aspirant foreign talent. The result is a team that habitually folds when the going gets tough, something that underlies an abysmal away record that has seen them pick up just nine points from 19 games this season.

Football will always be about more than balance sheets. For all its recent pursuit of capital, the example of Leicester City has hammered home what is possible with the indefinables of spirit and canniness.

Benitez, perhaps, could be the leader to restore Newcastle to that path, to restore the heart to a zombie club that, lessons unlearned, a fifth-place finish illusory, has been lurching dead-eyed towards this relegation almost since the moment promotion was attained six years ago. The question, really, is whether the club will let him try.

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise stated.