Disappointing, gloomy but, above all, not at all surprising; the backdrop as Newcastle United head into yet another season under Mike Ashley’s ownership is typical. Rafael Benitem, the manager, has spent the majority of his two-year reign fighting a losing battle with those above him. Nothing has changed, nothing has moved forward, and the long-term future is looking bleak. But, with another campaign on the horizon, Benitez can focus on what he does, winning football matches.
There can be no doubting that Benitez has lost in the power struggle with Ashley, and although he has appeared apthetic at times, he has never given up on the cause he believes in. It is clear that he and Ashley are on completelty different pages in almost every aspect; from transfers and the academy and training facilities to the general atitude and ambition, time is running out. At the time of writing, Transfer Deadline Day is reaching its climax; Newcastle, hunting left and centre back cover, are on the verge of completing a deal to sign Swansea City defender Federico Fernandez, who knows Benitez well having played for him at Napoli. After Stanley N’Soki turned down a move from Paris Saint-Germain, back up for Paul Dummett, which was needed last summer, appears unlikely, as does another option in the number ten position.
One quote made by Benitez last year stands out more than any other. In the midst of a nine-game losing streak, which ran from late October until just before Christmas, he gave a cold, calculated analysis of the situation: “We are where we are because we did,” he said. Newcastle did not match his ambitions 12 months ago, and it has been exactly the same this summer. When Benitez decided to stay in 2016 down in the Championship, he was backed with the players he wanted and everything seemed to be going his way. As soon as he looked to be doing what Ashley needed, getting the club back in the Premier League, the freedom to allow him to work ceased. But, with one year remaining on his contract, the power in his personal situation is swinging back to Benitez.
For all of his frustration, with reports emerging on Thursday that his most recent deals have been blocked by the board because some of his signings have not been successful, Benitez is likely to stay until the end of the season. That level of disrespect is incredible if it is indeed true, and feels as though it could be the final nail in the coffin as far as contract negotiations are concerned. Newcastle are never likely to change under Ashley; he expects Benitez to toe the line, which of course would be utterly pointless.
But what could be in store for what appears to be Benitez’s final season at St James’ Park? Trouble, most likely; the reason why that comment from last season struck a chord is because it is so true. Spending money wasn’t the only issue then; Newcastle had a chance to be guided in their first season back in the top flight by Benitez, but instead they risked it all despite numerous prior warnings and failures, and relied on his nous to overachieve. This year, again, could have been different, but the same careless apatchy has held everything back. Ashley will be expecting Benitez to work his magic again, but with three of last season’s top five to come inside the first month of the campaign, starting with Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday, and most of the teams below them in the table strengthening, Benitez, who has already warned the hierarchy at St James’ Park countless times, will most likely be cutting a forlorn figure on the touchline this season.
Wolves and Fulham, two newly-promoted sides, have brought in proven quality from the continent, as have West Ham, while Brighton and Huddersfield, who came up with the Magpies last summer, have both spent more than Newcastle ever have on one player. Ashley, Lee Charnley, the Managing Director, and the fans are all relying on Benitez to again prove he is one of the best coaches in the world yet again; he could be all that stands in the way of a third relegation under the current regime. Treating a man of that importance to the present and future of the football club calls Ashley into question more than anything that he has done before.
Nobody ever expected Newcastle to challenge Manchester City for the Premier League title this season, but back in May, when Ashley said Benitez could have “every penny generated” to spend, a much more comfortable campaign seemed to be on the horizon. Promises have been broken, and not for the first time. Jamaal Lascelles is the captain and the leader, a man who believes in and embodies Benitez’s approach; he, Jonjo Shelvey and two posiitive summer signings, Kenedy and Salomon Rondon, will give the team a fighting chance, but improving on last term will be a tough task and, despite all intentions, not the aim. Once again, for one final time under their world class coach, Newcastle will be looking to avoid relegation, before he leaves and the cycle of misery restarts. Change is needed from the top, but until it comes, the bare minimum is all that can be expected.