5th March 2016: Steve McClaren’s Newcastle face Bournemouth at St James’ Park having lost their last two Premier League games. An own goal from Steven Taylor puts the visitors ahead in the 28th minute, and chants of “You’re getting sacked in the morning” ring out from the away support. The home side are booed off at half-time, and in the 70th minute, Joshua King strolls through unopposed to smash a right-footed finish high into Rob Elliot’s net. Instantly, a barrage of abuse streams down from the stands. Home fans trudge out of the ground, the game finishes 3-1, and McClaren is sacked a few days later. Newcastle are in disarray.
Eight months on, the atmosphere around St James’ Park is vastly different, even if Newcastle are now a Championship club. There is unity again, the rift between manager and fans has been sealed, and the Tyneside team are finally playing good football once more.
The turning point was the appointment of Rafa Benítez on the day of McClaren’s sacking. While the Spaniard could not prevent Newcastle’s relegation last season, his side pulled off some hugely commendable results before going down, drawing against Manchester City and Liverpool, as well as humiliating Spurs in a final day 5-1 victory. The latter was perhaps a sign of what Benítez and his team could achieve in the Championship.
The decision to take up the Newcastle job seemed a step backwards for the former Valencia, Liverpool, Inter, Napoli, Chelsea and Real Madrid boss, having won the Champions League, Europa League, La Liga, FA Cup and Club World Cup (to name a few of Benítez’s trophies). But while some of the clubs Benítez has managed stand out, rarely has he received any genuine affection from their supporters. Often he was thrust into awkward positions, as happened at Inter, Chelsea and Real. In Milan and Madrid, he was expected to follow two extremely successful and popular managers in José Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti, while his ties with Liverpool meant that his time as interim coach at Chelsea was always likely to be fraught.
Only months earlier, Benítez had been roundly booed by the Santiago Bernabéu as a PA announcer read out his name, despite the fact that Madrid had won their last game 10-2. Real went on to win 3-1 against Real Sociedad, but it counted for little. Benítez’s side blew a 2-1 lead against Valencia in their next game, drawing 2-2, and Florentino Perez sacked him a few days later. Many rightly pointed out that he had received far more support from Valencia fans over the course of that 90 minutes than from Madridistas during any of his seven-month tenure.
Managing Newcastle would be a challenge but a chance to start afresh for Benítez after the madness of the Spanish capital, at a club where he would be valued from the start. There was a break clause in Benítez’s three-year contract which he could have activated following relegation, and as his team took apart Spurs on the last day of the season, Newcastle fans begged him to stay. But it seems there was hardly any doubt in Benítez’s mind. “The love I could feel from the fans was a big influence in my decision”, he said. “After the last game [against Spurs] it would have been very difficult to walk away. It was amazing. I want to repay the fans.”
There was a sense that Newcastle were lucky to have Benítez, but equally that Benítez was lucky to have them. After the repeated failure of their management model, owner Mike Ashley and managing director Lee Charnley had little hesitation in giving Benítez full control to run the club the way he wanted to, as well as a sizeable budget. Twelve players were brought in over the summer for a combined total of £54.74million, while six were sold for £85.72m. Underperformers such as Moussa Sissoko, Daryl Janmaat and Papiss Demba Cissé helped Newcastle fetch a sizeable profit, replaced by top-level experience and unfulfilled promise in the likes of Matt Ritchie, Dwight Gayle and Mohamed Diamé.
The result is that Newcastle have one of the deepest squads in the Championship and are three points clear in first place. Thanks to a lethal variety of forwards and a sturdy backline led by Jamaal Lascelles they have racked up 34 goals and conceded just 13 times in 16 games. After a shaky adjustment period, with losses to Fulham and Huddersfield in their first two games, Benítez’s team are hitting their stride. Their most recent win was a case in point, as they battled to a 2-1 victory against a blunt Cardiff – the kind of game in which they almost certainly would have crumbled last season – while knowing when to bring out some flair.
Promotion is far from a given, as many former Premier League sides have realised upon relegation to the Championship, and Newcastle are taking nothing for granted. Even so, Benítez’s vision stretches further than this season. The current squad is certainly capable of achieving instant promotion, but whether their success could be translated to England’s top division is questionable, and another overhaul would almost certainly be necessary next summer.
For now, however, the focus is on the immediate future. It has been far too long since the inhabitants of this great football-loving city have had anything to cheer about, but Benítez has changed that almost overnight. After the blow of relegation, the Spaniard has injected Newcastle with some much-needed hope, and they him.
Photograph: Newcastle United Football Club