Newcastle United's latest turbulent season will do little to convince Rafa Benitez to stay
Spanish manager is hugely popular among the fans - but with his contract set to expire in June and no new deal agreed, there are growing concerns about his future
It has been yet another rollercoaster season in the recent history of Newcastle United – a turbulent ride that will feel all too familiar for everyone connected with the Premier League club.
Both on and off the St James’ Park pitch, the similarities between the last two campaigns have been striking to the point of freakish.
Lack of investment in new players, manager on the brink of walking out, fans protesting about the owner, an owner trying to sell the club, a team going through demoralising winless streaks, flirting with relegation before eventually pulling away from the drop zone.
In 2017/18, Newcastle went on a disastrous run through November and December that saw them win one game in 11, drawing one. Relegation seemed a certainty. They ended the season 10th.
The Magpies began this season with a disastrous run of form that saw them win their first game at the 11th attempt, drawing two. Relegation seemed a certainty. Going into Monday night’s match at Arsenal, they sit 14th, seven points above the relegation zone with seven games left.
Goals were hard to come by last season – Azoye Perez finished as top scorer with just eight. Solomon Rondon tops the chart this time round with nine.
Last season, Newcastle conceded 47 goals and had a goal difference of -8. So far, this time round they have leaked 40 and have a goal difference of -9.
For manager Rafa Benitez, the frustrations have been all-too evident. The Spaniard, adored by the fans, sees his current contract come to an end in June and has yet to agree a new deal.
The former Valencia, Liverpool, Inter Milan and Real Madrid manager is seeking cast-iron assurances from owner Mike Ashley that funds will be provided to strengthen the playing side – and also improve the training ground and academy set-up – before committing to the club.
Newcastle will never have the money to challenge the top-flight big guns every season – Ashley has always made this very clear. “I am nowhere near wealthy enough in football now to compete with the likes of Man City”, he said in 2017. “I cannot and I will not.”
Benitez understands this but sees an opportunity to establish the club as a top-10 side every season.
But despite the money brought in by players sales, 50,000 crowds for every home game, television cash and Premier League prize money, Newcastle made a net-profit in the transfer market over the summer.
While striker Aleksandar Mitrovic was sold to Fulham for £22 million (Dh105.4m), the club refused to sanction a £16m move for Rondon from West Bromwich Albion and Benitez had to settle for a loan deal.
Newcastle’s record goalscorer Alan Shearer is sympathetic to the 58-year-old’s situation. “I think he is fed up, frustrated, feels like his hands are tied behind his back at times,” Shearer told the BBC. “If they survive again, it will be a very, very good season, and that's the sad thing about it.”
Make no mistake, Benitez is a top-table manager who has won the Uefa Champions League, Europa League and La Liga during his career and made it clear in February that he still has eyes on the prizes.
“I want to win every game,” he said, “so, of course I still want to win trophies. I don’t like to play against any manager and not have the chance to compete, that is crucial ... you have to be ambitious.”
But does Ashley share those ambitions? For two consecutive years the sportswear tycoon has claimed that he was looking to sell the club.
Last year, it was Dubai financier Amanda Staveley, and her firm PCP Capital Partners that appeared to be serious bidders, but that deal fizzled out.
This season, there were thought to be four serious bidders with Ashley saying in December that “talks are at a more progressed stage than they’ve ever been”. Once again, nothing materialised.
The writing looked on the wall in January when no progress seemed to be being made on the transfer front. Benitez’s exit looked inevitable.
Then suddenly, Ashley finally dug his hands into his deep pockets and sanctioned a club record £21m move for Miguel Almiron from Major League Soccer side Atlanta United.
It beat the £16.8m Newcastle paid to Real Madrid for striker Michael Owen in 2005 – two years before Ashley bought the club.
At the Paraguayan’s unveiling, managing director Lee Charnley admitted that Benitez had “had to wait longer than he would have liked” to sign the player.
Almiron’s impact has been immediate. Since appearing as a substitute in the 1-1 draw with Wolves, Newcastle have won 10 points out of 15 and dragged themselves away from the drop zone.
But will this be enough to persuade Benitez to remain at the club? Does the man who, despite the struggles on and off the pitch, has guided his side to wins over top six sides Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal during his reign, have the appetite for another relegation fight?
When the Stavely offer petered out into nothing last year, an club source was quoted as saying that dealing with PCP Capital Partners had proven “exhausting, frustrating and a complete waste of time” – sentiments that feel very familiar to fans who have witnessed the 12-and-a-half year Ashley reign first hand.
And if Benitez finally decides enough is enough this summer and walks away, the mood in the city will once again shift to something far more visceral than mere frustration.
Updated: April 1, 2019 03:28 PM