Rafael Benitez’s departure from Newcastle United will leave the long-suffering Toon Army nursing an acute sense of betrayal and – if this is actually possible – widen the gaping chasm between themselves and owner Mike Ashley.
Magpies supporters started the day ramping up “Rafa Appreciation Week” as the clock ran down on his contract, only to end it organising a peaceful protest at the Sir Bobby Robson statue at St James’ Park as he cleared his desk. Only at Newcastle.
It was the latest devastating blow to this vast support as the manager they trusted to the point of hero worship simply could not find enough common ground in his differences with Ashley to contemplate staying on Tyneside.
How has it come to this?
Benitez and Ashley always seemed the most unlikely of sporting marriages since they came together in March 2016, following the sacking of Steve McClaren.
The Spaniard is never shy of engaging in football’s political manoeuvring and he has proved that with his sometimes fractious relationships with those above him. At Valencia, he produced his famous “I hoped for a sofa and they bought me a lamp” quote over transfers, and at Liverpool, many inside Anfield felt that no matter what level of control and finance he was handed, he would eventually want more.
Ashley, meanwhile, is the billionaire who runs the club his way and cedes control to no-one, helped by a skin so thick it is hard to think of any owner so unmoved by dissent or discontent from supporters.
In fact, the biggest surprise is that the pair have lasted so long together.
The public relations battle is a no contest.
Benitez will be seen as a manager of tactical brilliance who has had Newcastle punching above their weight, with Ashley viewed as the villainous owner who has claimed his latest victim.
So what are the issues that led to the announcement on Monday that plunged Newcastle into their latest crisis?
Ashley’s business model is that Newcastle is a club that must look after itself financially but Benitez was not happy with a summer transfer budget of £60m plus money raised from sales, or at least how he would be able to spend it, given the desire to ensure the squad retained a relatively youthful look.
Ashley wanted a young squad with potential sell-on value and it was very unlikely any long-term contracts would be sanctioned with players aged 28 or over – again a bone of contention for Benitez.
The owner did loosen the purse strings enough to break the club record to sign Paraguay playmaker Miguel Almiron from MLS side Atlanta United for £20m in January but even this rare show of financial boldness in the transfer marker failed to persuade Benitez, who wanted to push the club into the top 10, that it would become the norm.
He has always wanted a huge measure of control over the club he manages – with some justification given his track record of success, stature and experience – but it would surely not have come as a huge surprise that Ashley was slow to give ground on this wide range of issues.
The Spaniard will surely also have harboured concerns about whether Newcastle would offer the sort of contracts to attract the calibre of player he wanted to push the team forward, while an upgrade on the club’s training infrastructure, another source of concern, had not been addressed.
Throw a failure to agree on transfer finance, contracts, control and infrastructure into the melting pot and the relationship between an intransigent, immovable owner and a manager demanding what he would never get is unsustainable. And so it proved.
Ashley and Newcastle can insist they have been trying to get Benitez’s signature on the dotted line for well over a year, but the offer of a one-year contract on his current reported £6m-a-year terms failed to break the impasse.
Newcastle might also say they would be right to display a reluctance to hand out long-term deals to players working under a manager only committed for the next 12 months.
|Best win % of Newcastle managers in Premier League era|
|Sir Bobby Robson||188||83||51||54||44.1|
What is beyond question in that Benitez has been a force for good at Newcastle.
He restored them to the Premier League in 2016-17 after failing to stop relegation then followed it up with respectable finishes of 10th in 2017-18 and 13th last term.
He also, as he did at Liverpool, tapped into the sort of language Newcastle fans understand, portraying himself as the man on their side, a boast Ashley could never make.
This meant, as Benitez walked around St James’ Park surrounded by players and families at the end of what turned into his final campaign, there was hope Ashley might find the wriggle room to give Newcastle’s supporters and the manager what they wanted.
History should have told them they had the wrong man. Ashley had his position and was not moving. Benitez had his position and was not moving.
For Ashley, however, this is another highly damaging episode that will only reduce his standing with Newcastle’s support even further – and all conducted against a backdrop of the latest proposed takeover project involving United Arab Emirates billionaire Sheikh Khaled bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s investment group.
Ashley’s past suggests he still will plough on with what he thinks is right regardless of how many people gathered around Sir Bobby Robson’s statue on Monday evening.
Indeed, those same fans will have as much joy banging their heads against that statue as they will trying to get Ashley to alter his strategy for running Newcastle.
What next for Newcastle?
The proposed takeover will not, according to those involved, be affected by Benitez’s departure – but that has all gone quiet in recent weeks.
So the next item on the agenda is a new manager, with pre-season training looming and bookies wasting no time in making a Benitez-less Newcastle favourites for relegation.
The list of names being touted will hardly have fans heading for the city’s Bigg Market in celebration, especially with the Ashley factor and a possible takeover to inject into the equation.
Manchester City assistant manager Mikel Arteta is an early favourite with the bookmakers but why would he leave the Premier League champions for chaos on Tyneside? He will surely get more attractive opportunities in the future.
Jose Mourinho has been mentioned but this is surely fantasy unless the takeover goes ahead and the former Manchester United boss is given guarantees of untold millions and complete control. What are the realistic chances?
Garry Monk is out of work after being sacked by Birmingham City, as is former Sunderland boss David Moyes – and while Ashley would probably love to appoint someone like Eddie Howe, why would such a highly regarded young manager risk his entire reputation in such a toxic environment when he has such control and popularity at Bournemouth?
Whoever accepts this role, they will have a hard act to follow in the hearts of Newcastle’s fans.
The battle no-one wins
Who emerges as the winner of this power battle at Newcastle? Answer: no-one.
Ashley has failed to keep arguably the best manager he will ever have – one who could have taken the heat away from his office because he is so beloved by supporters and one who actually gives Newcastle some gravitas with his record of managing clubs such as Valencia, Liverpool, Inter Milan, Chelsea, Napoli and Real Madrid.
This may not matter to Ashley as his sole victory appears to be keeping the club in the Premier League until such a time as it is sold.
And what about Benitez?
He has a £12m-a-year offer from Chinese Super League Club Dalian Yifang on the table, but this is a manager who has insisted his vision is to make progress at clubs of stature, putting them in the place where they deserve and want to be.
The big jobs in Europe that Benitez will believe fit his profile are not available, but is China really where the 59-year-old, whose family still live on Merseyside, wants to take himself at this point in his career?
And, as usual, the biggest losers are Newcastle fans as they digest the latest sorry tale in the soap opera that is their club.