The Toon Tribune: Why Rafa the Gaffa was more than a manager

Connect in the back of the net

Just over a week ago, the fated and inexorable news broke that would shatter the heart of every single Newcastle United fan – Rafa Benitez would leave his position as manager of the club on the expiration of his contract. A manager who was idolised and adored significantly as well as holding a hero status on Tyneside would be left to walk away; and along with him departed the hope of an entire city.

When Benitez arrived as manager in March 2016, the club was disjointed and lacked coherence in every aspect. A succession of poor decisions from the board in terms of running the club and a deficiency in player recruitment left the Magpies sitting second bottom of the Premier League; facing the possibility of a second relegation in six years. 

Prior to Benitez’ embarkment, there was no optimism for the Newcastle United faithful, with a sense of demise surrounding St James’ Park as well as a non-existent connection between the club and the supporters. The identity was lost at Newcastle United, with the club seemingly content to simply make up numbers in the Premier League every season, a stark contrast to what a generation of fans grew up with; not only a transfer record-breaking European giant of a club that was renowned for playing attacking football, but a club that was the heartbeat of the city and felt like it belonged to the fans, with players and staff alike feeding off the passion of the supporters. 

From the moment Benitez was appointed, Newcastle supporters were fuelled with a sensation which had not been experienced in years – hope. Benitez epitomised hope. The Magpies had a man at the helm who was not only undoubtedly talented but a serial winner – an ingredient that had not been seen at the dugout at St James’ Park dugout since the late Sir Bobby Robson.

Benitez’s arrival in the 2015/16 season sparked an instant boost on Tyneside, while the whole mood of the city was uplifted with supporters feeling a sense of boisterousness upon entering the final matches of the season. Rafa the Gaffer’s task was to revive the season in just ten matches; however, the damage was ultimately done preceding his appointment. Despite his best efforts, including a six-match unbeaten run in the final stages of the campaign, Benitez could not prevent United’s relegation to the Championship.  

This then led to question marks over his future – why would a Champions League winning manager drop down a division to manage in the second tier of English football? Given the stature of the Spaniard, he had every right to leave. 

On the final day of the 2015/16 season, the Geordies packed out St James’ Park to observe an emphatic 5-1 victory over Champions League hopefuls Tottenham Hotspur. Throughout the whole 90 minutes they pleaded for the manager to remain at their club, with Rafa Benitez’s name echoing around the terraces in a commemorative manner. 

The Spurs match would then become the catalyst to Rafa’s future, as he agreed to remain in charge of Newcastle United and vowed to return the club and establish them in the Premier League, stating “The love I could feel from the fans was a big influence for me… This is a huge club and I wanted to be part of the great future I can see for Newcastle United”.  This simple action highlights the class of the man, with his willingness to adapt and face a new challenge even in the Championship. Huge credit is due to Benitez, who is a member of UEFA’s crop of elite coaches, while it is unlikely that any other manager of the same calibre would take up a challenge in the second tier.  

Benitez was widely expected to struggle, given he had never managed in the 46-game, sluggish Championship before. Criticism was a given regardless, and Rafa sought to work immediately in the summer of 2016, opting against a holiday in order to prepare for the forthcoming laborious campaign. The Spaniard overhauled the squad, ridding the dead wood and players who did not want to remain, such as Georginio Wijnaldum, Moussa Sissoko and Andros Townsend. Such players were replaced with established Championship performers and hungry members who wanted to play for Newcastle United, including Matt Ritchie, Dwight Gayle, Daryl Murphy and Isaac Hayden; this was done in order to inaugurate a healthy dressing room featuring a close-knit squad – further evidence of Benitez’s fine craftsmanship. 

United secured promotion back to the Premier League at the first time of asking, clinching the title in dramatic fashion on the last day of the season. This was step one of Benitez’s rebuilding plan, while he added the Championship trophy to his long list of accolades; ascertaining that he is successful wherever he has been. 

Rafa’s next objective was to cement Newcastle’s position in the Premier League. Given that the club were in the second tier the previous season, they missed out on the lucrative Premier League TV money which allowed other clubs to invest heavily in their squads. Nevertheless, Benitez worked wonders on a shoe-string budget, leading the Magpies to an impressive tenth-placed finish. 

Benitez and the Magpies faithful sensed that the following season would be the one to really push on and grow. Their first season back had resulted in over £100m from the TV deal, with Benitez intending to ‘compete’ build a squad that was capable of challenging the League’s big guns. Sadly, controversial owner Mike Ashley’s tight-fisted antics would creep up again. Ashley promised that Benitez would be given ‘every last penny generated by the club’, however this did not occur, with Rafa beginning to lose faith in the board. 

As a model professional, Benitez concentrated on the job at hand, with the 2019/19 season being similar to the previous campaign. Although the accumulated more points, United finished in 13th position, with only £50m being spent on improving the squad – less than half of what should have been available; comparable predicament arose in the 2017 January transfer window, in which Benitez set up a deal to resign Andros Townsend, only for Ashley to pull the plug on it, with Rafa stating “it was not my decision”, despite being promised the final say on all footballing matters at the club.

Such a static manner was not part of Benitez’s nature. His ambitions matched those of the Newcastle fans – to be able to compete, rather than mid-table security season upon season. Unfortunately, Mike Ashley differs in his visions for the club. Rafa Benitez grew fatigued of the deceits of Ashley and ultimately lost trust, and rightly so. 

Benitez and the club were unable to agree to remain beyond his current contract, with Rafa reluctantly leaving the club once his deal expired in June 2019, stating that “those at the top did not share the same vision”. The Spaniard declared himself that he only wanted to compete – a reflection of the fans’ desires. He stated in a post match interview “I’m not looking to spend £200m, but to do the right things”. The ‘right things’ that every other Premier League club is capable of apart from Newcastle United. 

Rafa can be deemed as being a victim of his own success. He did a remarkable job with the tools available, that Ashley believed the feat could be repeated every season. Regretfully, the Toon army are only left to imagine what could have been achieved had Benitez been provided with sufficient resources.

Benitez took the club as far as he could under the regime, with the Magpies faithful being eternally grateful to him. He is a tactical genius and one of the finest in terms of setting up a team and exploiting the opposition’s weaknesses. Rafa’s tactical masterstrokes include victories over Huddersfield (A) in 2017, Spurs (H) in 2016 and Manchester City (H) in 2019, to name a few. 

Rafa repeatedly stood up to Ashley and stood up for the fans. He wanted to improve the training facilities as well as the academy, while having a clear vision for the club, intending to take them back to the upper echelons of the Premier League.

Benitez understood the city of Newcastle and its working-class nature. He gave back to the community by visiting hospitals, schools, famous monuments as well as donating to food banks. 

Benitez brought the buzz back to the club. Supporting Newcastle United was exciting again; the flag displays on match days, the chants, selling out home and away every week – the euphoria of the supporters was reignited. 

Benitez did so much for the club, actions that no other manager would do. He went above and beyond for the best of a club which was the heartbeat of its city. He made fans fall in love with the club again and gave them hope.

Alas, all the efforts from Benitez and his staff have been undone due to the obstinacy of the hierarchy. The future of Newcastle is now bleak after the departure of their messiah.