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rafael benitez newcastle united

Newcastle United, Rafa and 15 years worth of missed opportunities

Newcastle United’s failure to hold onto Rafael Benitez is yet another disaster from Mike Ashley, who has only succeeded in doing the bare minimum at a club that has the potential to be hugely successful.

When news of Rafael Benitez’s departure from Newcastle United broke on Monday morning, my mind immediately went back to 2004 when the club parted ways with Bobby Robson. The parallels are clear. Two top class managers who took over at difficult times in the club’s history and ended up doing an exemplary job. Both men had coached some of the biggest teams in Europe, achieved domestic success and won two European titles each.

For Robson it was so much more personal for him to take over the side he had grown up supporting, but Rafa equally saw what the late, great Englishman saw in them. A storied institution with bundles of history, burgeoning potential and a huge fanbase.

It’s a shame, then, that owner Mike Ashley doesn’t see the same things, because if he did then he wouldn’t countenance letting a manager like Benitez leave the club. When the Spaniard took on the role the club were in serious jeopardy of being relegated, and so it turned out. He stayed nonetheless, guiding them back to the Premier League at the first time of asking while winning a trophy.

Their record in the Premier League since that promotion doesn’t look spectacular on paper — the past two seasons look almost eerily identical, in fact, winning 12 league games and going out in rounds two and four of the cup competitions in each campaign. It looks a hell of a lot like stagnation, but if anything, Benitez deserves high praise for the stability he brought to a chaotic outfit with a mostly Championship-level squad.

Aside from all of the off-field nonsense and the effects that has had on the team, Ashley has simply refused to invest the money necessary to push on. Last season the average transfer spend of every club was just under £75m, whereas Newcastle spent £50m. Only Burnley, Cardiff City, Crystal Palace, Huddersfield Town, Tottenham Hotspur and Watford spent less. Aside from the latter two clubs, it perfectly encapsulates the company they now keep.

That picture looks even grimmer if you exclude the record £21m they paid Atlanta United for Miguel Almiron, which only went through when Rafa threatened to walk at the end of the season if they didn’t buy anyone in the January window. Even that wasn’t enough to keep him on board, which shows just how bad things must have gotten.

Although Benitez is no longer the innovative manager he was once was, he still has tonnes of experience and tactical nous to offer, especially for a club like Newcastle. There’s a fair argument that he actually stepped down a level beneath where he should be at by going to St. James’ Park in the first place. It seems highly unlikely they will get someone of the same calibre again, or even in the same ballpark anytime soon.

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Read: Newcastle’s mostly terrible history of big money signings

The names linked with the vacancy won’t fill the fans with confidence: David Moyes, Garry Monk, Avram blooming Grant. Jose Mourinho is a coach on his level that has been tipped to take the job, but his anarchic approach to management and people in general could be a disastrous union. Then again, maybe their perfect for each other given the circumstances.

One argument for Ashley’s lack of investment is the fact that he wants to sell the club — why would he want to pump money into it when he won’t see a return? Aside from the fact that the current owner’s entire strategy in business is to do things on the cheap, this line of thinking just doesn’t wash.

In the Premier League you simply do not survive without spending money. In order to reap the rewards of the most cash-rich league in the world, you have to burn copious amounts of it at the same time. It’s a contradictory cycle that stays the same year after year. Spurs are the exception that proves the rule, and I suspect that if they don’t start spending soon then Mauricio Pochettino won’t be able to save them for much longer.

It is, of course, Ashley’s prerogative to spend little and make as much profit as possible — such is the twisted beauty of the free market. But this is so short-sighted. Even a small increase in investment in the playing squad, if spent wisely, could make a big difference, as the Almiron signing showed when he improved the team immeasurably down the stretch. With the catchment area, stadium and spending power at the hands of the club, there’s no way they shouldn’t be pushing for a top six spot every season.

Ironically the standard by which Newcastle should measure themselves is Spurs, a club that has recruited smartly over the years and built a strong squad that is one of the best in the country, while tapping into the massive London market to increase the fanbase. If Ashley took a leaf out of Daniel Levy’s book and got the side challenging for a spot in Europe and for honours more often, then the value of the club would inevitably rise and he could make an absolute killing from selling it on.

Sadly this is another missed opportunity for a club and its supporters, who deserve better. Ever since Robson was let go, the Toon Army has been a byword for mediocrity; in those 15 years they have had one top-five finish, placed in the top half four times (two of which were slap bang in mid-table), and two relegations.

Not challenging the upper half of the table and not winning trophies isn’t even the most upsetting thing for Newcastle fans. The worst part is the lack of direction and coherence from the hierarchy, and the disconnect they have created between the club and the fans. It no longer belongs to them, but they are the most important constituency in all of this.

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