Frustrated Benitez says every game will be a challenge
When Rafa Benitez sat down with the North-East press for the first debriefing of pre-season at Newcastle's Carton House base in Kildare, he was looking forward to the summer and the new season.
Six weeks on and, seated in the club training ground, the Spaniard is evidently unhappy. He's dreading the start of a new campaign, and a return to the Premier League.
Newcastle said farewell to the Premier League with a 5-1 thrashing of Tottenham two years ago. Despite relegation, fans serenaded Benitez, begging him to stay. A frank meeting with owner Mike Ashley secured his status as a manager in control of recruitment.
He made £35m profit last summer, signing players equipped for the Championship, such as top scorers Dwight Gayle and Matt Ritchie whose combined £22m was covered by the sales of Andros Townsend and Daryl Janmaat to Crystal Palace and Watford respectively.
After promotion, Benitez had expected, or was promised, cash from the £30m deal which took Moussa Sissoko to Tottenham on last year's deadline day at least but so far Newcastle have spent £25m on Norwich's midfielder Jacob Murphy, Eibar centre half Florian Lejeune and full-back Javier Manquillo. Borussia Dortmund's Mikel Merino has joined on loan.
Despite Ashley's appalling record in the transfer market, which has now resulted in two relegations, Benitez was full of optimism when Newcastle spent a week training in Ireland. He had a list of targets, all achievable, all adding to the squad which won the Championship on the final day of last season.
But Chelsea's talented young striker Tammy Abraham joined Swansea on loan for the season after Ashley's right-hand football man Lee Charnley dithered over an offer for the England under 20 World Cup winner. Former Manchester City 'keeper Willy Caballero also slipped through their fingers and joined Chelsea.
On Wednesday, when Benitez returned to the bosom of the Premier League for the managers' meeting and the countless interviews for the season previews, he was unable to hide his frustrations. Cue panic on Tyneside. Geordies have taken Benitez to their hearts, much like Bobby Robson, Kevin Keegan and Chris Hughton. Ashley sacked the latter two so while his lack of realistic financial support may not come as a surprise, it is a concern.
Benitez last week promised supporters he will not quit, although that is a stance that could change if his squad is not significantly stronger by the end of the month. Not since he was the manager of Valencia 13 years ago has Benitez had his hands so severely tied.
Newcastle go into their third Premier League phase as a decent Championship team seriously lacking players with Premier League experience and the ability to cope with an expectant but realistic crowd and a demanding manager.
Benitez must sell before he can invest but his squad are on good wages by Championship and European standards so business has been slow. The repercussions, he knows, could be painful.
"From the beginning I was working very hard to get our targets and we couldn't do it," he said on Friday. "Why? I said, 'We have this problem, this one, this one, this one' - what do you want to do? And I said, 'I want to stay'. I want to stay because we fought so hard to be here. We have a city behind the team, 52,000 every week, amazing away support. I said, 'Listen, it is a pity, so we will try to do our best', and we are pushing and trying to change things and do things in a normal way.
"We are not demanding crazy things. We are just demanding to do things the right way, like we did with Liverpool or with Chelsea or other clubs.
"I had two or three targets, who wanted to come here because of me - and that is not my ego. I couldn't let them down. I cannot leave people waiting for me to do something, I cannot let them down.
"I decided to stay in the Championship which was a risk for me. I wanted to stay in the Premier League at a massive club to compete at the top of the table."
Benitez says the problem Newcastle face is the expectation around the club. "The problem we have, if you compare with Huddersfield or with Brighton, is that they are not expecting anything so everyone will be happy and supporting the team. At Newcastle, they expect us to be in the top eight but we will put too much pressure on the players and everyone will be anxious and they will play worse. I want to win. I don't want to play Klopp, Guardiola, Pochettino and lose 5-0. I want to compete.
"I could say, 'I want to finish in the top eight' and the fans would be over the moon. But maybe it's not realistic. If I say, 'Just to avoid relegation', they will say, 'Oh, we are in a relegation battle already'.
"If we win three games in a row, people will say, 'We have to win the title'. If we lose three games in a row, they will say, 'We are already relegated'. I just want my players to understand every game is a challenge. One game at a time."
Benitez is in no doubt that his summer dealings would be more fruitful, and his frustration is clear. But he says the team must stick together.
"We knew we needed more players. We couldn't get the players we wanted and now we have to be sure we are improving. We cannot compete against some of these teams. Some of the targets we had, teams at the bottom of the table paid £20m, £25m for them, so it's not normal but that is the market.
"I am not saying if this is fair or not, because it is crazy. But now we are in a worse position. I have confidence that if everything is fine, we can compete."
Sunday Indo Sport