Tuesday 16 July 2019

Nobody wins as Benitez walks out of Toon

Rafa's departure from Newcastle seems such a waste, writes Jason Burt

Rafael Benitez is off to China
Rafael Benitez is off to China

So, Rafael Benitez will no longer be "seeking assurances" from Newcastle United, which, given that his association with the phrase had become a running joke, probably means it was time for him to go.

Not that the beleaguered Newcastle fans will see it that way. They are again being driven on an emotional rollercoaster. Four weeks to the day since they woke up to the headline "Toon £350m Sheikh Up" - and dreamt of a Mike Ashley-free future with fabulously wealthy Middle Eastern backing and Benitez in charge - the manager has gone and the takeover has yet to happen. They can only hope it is the darkness before the dawn.

The Bin Zayed Group is one of at least three bidders for Newcastle. But no exclusivity agreement has been signed, no one knows whether it will go through or is truly genuine and this story drags on and on - a bit like the one that Benitez had grown frustrated, that he wanted Newcastle to match his ambition and that he was getting nowhere with Ashley. It became a hardy perennial on the Sky Sports ticker.

Maybe the Newcastle owner believed Benitez would continue to cry wolf. But even if those close to him still wonder whether a move to China, however lucrative, is really what the 59-year-old wants, he has at least decided what he does not want. And that is Ashley's Newcastle right now.

On his watch Ashley has either dispensed with or lost four managers who were extremely popular with the fans: Kevin Keegan, Alan Shearer, Chris Hughton and now Benitez. And whatever the merits of those first three, there is no doubt that Benitez is the most accomplished to have either been sacked or walked out.

The real sadness is that it felt like such a good fit. It is no secret that Benitez hankered after a return to Liverpool and there are similarities in the profile of the two clubs and that was something that he was able to tap into. He was also the first manager since Keegan to give Newcastle's fans genuine hope. How envious he must be of the ownership structure Jurgen Klopp has at Anfield.

Of course, Benitez is also a deeply political operator and was able to play on the fact that Ashley was so unpopular. That may appear cynical or simply canny, but it eventually became a tiresome sideshow while also masking the fact that, at times, the football played by Newcastle was underwhelming. Supporters of Benitez will come straight back - and with justification - by arguing that he was dealing with limited resources and limited ambition from those in the boardroom and it is true that over the three years he was in charge, Newcastle recorded a negative net spend.

The club will point to the fact that with a salary of £6 million a year - £1 million more than Maurizio Sarri was paid at Chelsea - Benitez was well remunerated, but then he never denied that. His argument was over the lack of investment in the squad and the lack of what he felt was a genuine desire to push the club forward and force their way into the top eight and maybe further.

The truth is it was naive of Benitez to expect this from Ashley or, maybe, he knew that all along. Even though the Sports Direct billionaire bought Newcastle, on a whim, for £135 million in 2007, he has never given the impression he has either loved or cherished owning the club after the initial flourish. Newcastle have been up for sale since October 2017 and rather like a house with a "For Sale" sign outside for month after month, have been in danger of being forgotten about, overlooked, unwanted. That may change with the takeover but, until it does, there will always be a state of statis, a sense of drift.

What Benitez was being asked to do was sign up to this once more. At the end of last season talks had taken place over a 12-month contract extension to his deal which runs out on Sunday, and initially that felt like an acceptable compromise given the uncertainty over the future of the club and whether he really wanted to stay. Benitez also demanded changes to the way Newcastle are run, but those changes were not made and while the club have claimed there is a £50  million transfer pot to dip into, no player has been signed this summer. It adds yet more strength to the inertia that so infuriates the Newcastle fans.

So what next? For Benitez it may well be China and Dalian Yifang. For all his ability, it is interesting that the Spaniard has not received offers from big European clubs.

For Newcastle? The club say they have been inundated with applications to become their next manager - but every club says that. It is hard to see another Champions League-winning coach going there under their current ownership. That is what has to change. Otherwise there will be no tangible shift at Newcastle, who today are an unhappier club than when Benitez was in charge.

It is a shame. Benitez may be richer where he goes and may be relieved to be out of Newcastle, but there has to be more than a tinge of regret. It felt like such a good match.

Benitez has ego, like all leading managers, and is stubborn and proud. He will feel he had little choice but to quit given what he was being asked to sign up to. So it probably was time for him to go. But it still feels like a waste.

Telegraph.co.uk

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