Newcastle United’s win over Aston Villa tonight put an end to a hoodoo the Midlands giants seemed to hold over the Magpies, as Rafael Benitez’s side ran out 2-0 winners at St. James’ Park.
As dire as Villa’s straits have been over the past few years, they always proved a proverbial thorn in the Toon’s side over the years, as Newcastle’s failure to win in either game against perhaps the worst Premier League team of all time a major part of their relegation last season.
So, the atmosphere at St. James’ Park last night was the most indicative measure of just how much the club has changed in merely a few months. Largely down to one man: Rafael Benitez.
The Spaniard is widely regarded amongst the club’s sizeable support as the man to not only restore them to the Promised Land, but to bring back former glories once they’re there. Since taking over from the hapless Steve McClaren back in March, the 56-year-old has enjoyed the trappings of popularity mainly reserved in the North East for Sir Bobby Robson and Kevin Keegan.
Still, such is the soap opera nature of this club, there has already been doubt cast on his long-term future, just a few months into the revised three-year deal he agreed in May. Those reports, coupled with his rather tense post-match press conference following a 2-2 draw with QPR must have spread fear amongst the Toon Army.
The natural reaction to reports suggesting Mike Ashley had not sufficiently backed the former Liverpool and Real Madrid coach would be once again involve a tirade directed towards the Sports Direct mogul. However, that sort of mentality is not one upon which all those connected with the club can build a long-term project under Benitez’s watch.
He, himself, has been talking openly about the need for everyone in the club to pull together to achieve their dreams and, while Ashley clearly must hand him funds to change the complexion of a Championship team, the London-based businessman does have previous in that.
“If we want to be stronger, we have to stick together. When the fans are behind the team, we are stronger.”
In the summer of 2015, Newcastle were the second-highest spenders in the Premier League (per Sky Sports) splashing out around £46m. Amazing really, considering they were eventually relegated after a dreadful campaign in black and white, though their dismal fate didn’t come as a result of Ashley’s stinginess.
As disappointing as it was not to bring anyone in over the course of the January transfer market, Newcastle simply cannot plan for what is hopefully a successful future under Benitez’s watch if the notion of his swift departure rears its head at every hurdle.
Perhaps Ashley was within his rights not to splash his cash over the course of the New Year sales. Aside from a few panic buys here and there, that time of year is notoriously difficult to find value for money, particularly for a side who spent big money in the summer.
That’s not to say that Benitez’s arrival on Tyneside isn’t the best thing to happen to Newcastle United in years. It absolutely is. Still, there needs to be an understanding that there is more in play in the North East than just him, and that top brass may well also have the best interests of the club at heart.
It’s not Ashley vs Benitez. That won’t work. If Newcastle United really are going to build, they need everyone pulling together.
As Rafa said himself, this club need to learn from the mistakes they made in the past. Being so quick to distrust Ashley and fear for Benitez’s departure isn’t a long-term strategy.
Listen to Benitez, but listen to Ashley too.