Rafael Benitez will take charge of his 100th game as Newcastle manager when they face Everton on Monday Night Football.
The Spaniard has transformed the club since taking over from Steve McClaren in March 2016, lifting the mood around St James’ Park despite their relegation two years ago and putting them on course for a top-10 Premier League finish this season.
So how has he done it? From then to now, we plot the progress with Sky Sports News’ man in the north-east Keith Downie.
Newcastle were 19th in the Premier League table when Benitez took the job, only one point adrift of safety but with confidence on the floor and games running out. “They were almost relegated when he took over,” says Downie. “It was a really tough task to keep them up.”
It took four games for Benitez to claim his first win, but his impact could be seen in the six-game unbeaten run with which they finished the season. It wasn’t enough to keep them up but it was significant nonetheless. “Between the time he arrived and the end of the campaign, he got a bit of belief back into the players and a bit of organisation into the team,” says Downie.
The 5-1 thrashing of Tottenham on the final day – at which point Newcastle had already been relegated – was a significant moment. “The supporters sang his name from start to finish that day,” says Downie. “Even though there was nothing to play for on paper, it was the turning point which convinced him to stay on as manager.
“It was weird. Newcastle were relegated, but everyone left St James’ Park with a smile on their face. It got everyone excited about what could be achieved with Rafa. The supporters could see that although they were taking a step backwards by going to the Championship, the future was bright and progress was possible after so many painful years.”
In the wake of their relegation, Newcastle sold their three most valuable players. “They lost Moussa Sissoko, they lost Georginio Wijnaldum and they lost Andros Townsend,” says Downie. “That was around £70m worth of talent, but the feeling was that Sissoko was causing a few issues in the dressing room and the money on offer for all three was too good to turn down.
“What Benitez did was he reinvested well. Newcastle brought in proven Championship players, guys who were top performers in that league but could also play in the Premier League, like Dwight Gayle, Matt Ritchie and Ciaran Clark.”
All three of those players were key to the promotion that followed, and although it was not as straightforward as many supporters might have hoped, the players worked tirelessly and the supporters never doubted their manager.
“Sometimes results weren’t great – they lost to Blackburn home and away and there were a few other poor defeats – but they did what they had to do to get out of the Championship,” says Downie. “It wasn’t pretty at times but the Championship is that kind of league and I think the fans understood that. They knew the main thing was just to get out of it.”
Since the summer of 2016, transfer windows have brought repeated frustration for Benitez, which has made his man-management and coaching ability all the more important. “He was frustrated in January 2017, when Newcastle failed to re-sign Townsend on loan, and he was frustrated again in the summer, when he ended up getting nowhere near what he expected,” says Downie.
In lieu of major additions, Benitez has improved the players he has got. “People say Newcastle have a Championship squad but now it’s looking more like a decent Premier League squad,” says Downie. “Kenedy and Martin Dubravka have made a huge difference since January, but more important is that Rafa has improved pretty much every player.
“DeAndre Yedlin has improved, Paul Dummett has become one of the most stable full-backs in the Premier League, Jamaal Lascelles, who wasn’t getting a game under McClaren, is now a leader and arguably the top performer. Jonjo Shelvey has improved massively, Mo Diame has been a revelation lately, and guys like Gayle, Ritchie and Ayoze Perez have all chipped in.
“So Rafa has been frustrated and he has had to work with a shoestring budget compared to other clubs, but what he has done is he has got the best out of what he has there.”
His attention to detail and the emphasis he places on organisation and tactics have been particularly important. “He’s not the sort of guy who spends a lot of time getting to know the players as people, he’s not a Sir Alex Ferguson type in that sense, but what he is is a football encyclopaedia,” says Downie.
“He is obsessed with football. He spends all his time watching DVDs of other teams and players. He has got a database of stats on thousands of players, so he’s essentially got his own scouting system. He invests a lot of time in the players he’s got tactically and it has paid off.
“Jamaal Lascelles told me he was once walking along the corridor at the training ground and he got a shout from the gaffer, who had popped his head around a door and shouted ‘man on’. He was telling him how to turn and which way he should face. It tells you how focused he is on coaching. He is always looking for ways to improve the players and they all want to play for him because he is such a big name.”
Benitez’s devotion extends to off-field matters as well. “Any time there is a charity event or a dinner he’s invited to, he always goes along and he always takes his staff with him,” says Downie. “So he makes other people feel important and he makes the club and the city feel at one.
“He always talks about togetherness with the city and the club in his press conferences and it’s amazing to see how it has worked. St James’ Park is absolutely rocking now. I’ve always said that the supporters aren’t desperate to see free-flowing football, they just want a team who put in 100 per cent. That’s what they do under Benitez.”
Benitez’s current contract does not expire until next summer but his long-term future is uncertain. “He has intimated that tentative talks have begun over his future but I think they are at a very early stage,” says Downie.
“I think a lot of it will depend on what happens with the takeover. I’ve previously said that if the takeover didn’t happen, he wouldn’t stay, but recent results have made me re-think that slightly. I think if Mike Ashley was to promise him funds in the summer, he might sign a long-term contract.
“That said, he feels he has been made promises before that haven’t been kept in the past, so he would need to have something in writing or see something tangible about the financial backing in order to put pen to paper.”
If Amanda Staveley’s takeover does go through, Benitez will be expected to commit to a longer contract. “If that happens I think he will 100 per cent stay because he has been key in that process, but as it stands now it’s 50:50 whether it will happen or not,” says Downie.
“The issue now is that the more Newcastle win and the better they play, the more the value of the club rises, which will make it tougher to push through the takeover. The fans are loving the recent form and they deserve that, but for every place in the table, you gain more money, which might make Ashley more reluctant to sell.
“It’s a fine balance but what is certain is that Rafa is happy in Newcastle. He loves the club and he loves the city. He wants the club’s potential to be realised under his watch.”