This is the fourth instalment in Football FanCast’s Legacies series, which pays tribute to those players and managers who leave a compelling story behind as they move on to pastures new.
To the dismay of many Newcastle fans, Rafael Benitez has left the club and joined Dalian Yifang after failing to agree a new contract on Tyneside.
The Spaniard arrived needing to repair the club’s reputation and to an extent his personal standing after a disappointing end to his Liverpool tenure and poor spells at Inter Milan and Real Madrid. Since returning, he’s certainly quashed lingering doubts about his managerial prowess.
In the latest instalment of our Legacies series, we take a look at how Benitez will be remembered by the Toon faithful.
Benitez worked wonders with Liverpool, winning the Champions League and the FA Cup, though he never sustained a title challenge well enough to deliver the elusive, seemingly mythical trophy that fans crave on Merseyside. That 97 points was not enough to plant a Premier League-shaped slab of metal in the trophy room must be an accident of physics rather than genuine reality.
The master tactician, or rotund Spanish waiter to some fans, did bless Anfield with some wonderful players: Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso and Pepe Reina to name a few.
He was sacked after a very disappointing campaign for the Reds before taking the role of Inter Milan manager, a spell that didn’t work out after Jose Mourinho departed the club for Real Madrid.
Benitez then enjoyed a short spell at Chelsea in which he won the Europa League before enjoying two years at Napoli, half a season at Real Madrid, and eventually ending up at Newcastle United.
At the time of his appointment, Newcastle had suffered at the hands of Steve McClaren and were sitting 19th in the table. His arrival helped the Magpies to win 13 points out of 30 in the league, but they still missed out on survival by two points.
It was a positive start and it set the standard for a fruitful triumph over adversity under Mike Ashley’s tyranny. Life in the Championship was short lived and they returned to the top-flight after storming to the summit of the second tier, consolidating, dominating and eventually topping the pile after 46 fixtures, edging Brighton by a solitary point.
On their return, Benitez guided the club to a remarkable 10th place finish and followed that with 13th place the following season, despite earning a point more.
The talk of the Toon throughout the campaign concerned Benitez’s future, but the wait is over and fans have watched their demigod figure slide out the exit door.
Newcastle might have known they were onto a good thing when Benitez’s take-over immediately sparked a turnaround in performances and form in a side who managed just 14 points out of a possible 45 before his arrival.
While the win percentage may be higher because of the season spent in the Championship, his 24 wins out of 76 games since returning to the big time, a win percentage of 32%, is still very impressive considering the lack of funds and resources available to the ex-Liverpool boss.
A 10th place finish is also incredibly admirable, especially when you consider the teams he finished above: big spenders West Ham and Fulham and Premier League regulars Stoke City, showing just how hard it is to find consistency in the top-flight.
Winning the Championship was a brilliant moment in the club’s recent history, but the most important achievement in Benitez’s reign has been re-establishing the club’s Premier League solidity.
His departure may well have left said solidity in flames.
Benitez has had some standout moments at Newcastle, and two in particular will be remembered by fans as those that cemented the importance, with the first being the 5-1 win against Tottenham Hotspur on the final day of the season.
Spurs needed a point to secure a second place finish above north London rivals Arsenal, but Newcastle had other ideas as an inspired Georginio Wijjnaldum – in this final game for the club – delivered a brilliant performance, scoring a brace and helping his side put five past Mauricio Pochettino’s bewildered side.
Another notable and memorable giant-killing performance was the 2-1 win against Manchester City in January 2019.
With the title favourites in town and on the scoresheet inside 60 seconds, the writing was sprayed out on the walls of St James’. Only it wasn’t.
Newcastle put in a wonderfully resilient display, limiting the visitors endeavour to consolidate a slender lead before eventually staging a complete turnaround, one completed when Matt Ritchie smashed home an 80th minute winner from the penalty spot.
The result was a huge one for Newcastle and helped them on their way towards another strong and comfortable Premier League finish.
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Benitez did nothing but wonders for the club.
Of course, good managers have come and gone: Chris Hughton and Alan Pardew enjoyed good spells at the club as well, but the ex-Madrid boss was seriously over-achieving with a Championship level squad and a tiny transfer budget.
He got his wish for more transfer backing when Newcastle splashed the cash on Miguel Almiron in January, but the club haven’t been able to convince him to stay on the terms being offered.
The Champions League winner’s exit prompted protests in the streets against their owner, a consequence which aptly illuminates his legacy.
He will be defined by the way he was able to turn Newcastle into a solid, reliable Premier League team with minimal funds for most of his tenure.
But his legacy will transcend footballing achievement. He united a fanbase during a period devoid of spark away from the field and gave the fans a team to be proud of even while their cash-strapped overlord sat imperviously in his throne
That was his greatest achievement and how legacy ought to be remembered.