After a little over six weeks of silence Newcastle fans received the news they had been fearing most. Rafa Benitez, their much-loved manager, will leave the club at the end of his current contract on June 30.
“We have worked hard to extend Rafa’s contract over a significant period of time, however, it has not been - and will not be - possible to reach an agreement with Rafa and his representatives,” the statement read.
The news confirmed the end of a relationship between two people with very different ideas on how to run a football club.
Mike Ashley is now 13 years into owning Newcastle; his latest decision once again pushing them needlessly towards the edge of a catastrophe with just under 7 weeks until the season begins.
Rafa Benitez didn’t want to leave Newcastle. He wanted to build something. When he arrived in March 2016 he described Newcastle as a “legendary English club.” He suffered the disappointment of relegation early on, but helped bring the club back to the top flight at the first time of asking and restored optimism in the process.
Despite that, Newcastle fans could not ignore the nagging feeling in the background that Ashley would contrive to disrupt the momentum the staff and players had built. Even as the club celebrated winning the Championship in dramatic fashion on the last day of the season there was a sense of uncertainty about what the future held.
“What we need to do is enjoy today and after we’ll see,” Benitez said upon securing promotion to the Premier League against Preston North End.
During the two seasons that followed Benitez worked with limited investment to keep Newcastle in the Premier League — finishing 10th and 13th respectively. The promises, including ‘every penny the club generates’ being invested were broken and it meant this summer was always likely to be a critical juncture for the football club.
Benitez wanted to start aiming higher. He wanted to improve the club’s training ground and implement an infrastructure on par with those next to Newcastle in the Premier League.
“I’m fighting for the best for my club,” Benitez told Spanish-football journalist Guillem Balague. “So I am not fighting for what’s best for Rafa Benitez. The fans appreciate that. It has been the same in Napoli, Liverpool, here [in Newcastle], Valencia.”
Where they could not compete with clubs financially he wanted to at least match their ambition. “We must do things right,” was often his way of expressing that.
Such a vision sits at odds with what the Ashley era has come to symbolise. When pressed about the lack of investment in the club’s training ground managing director Lee Charnley provided a revealing response.
“Did it stop us getting promotion out of the Championship? Did it stop us finishing tenth? Did it stop us having a good season this season? No,” he said.
The idea of only ever aiming for adequate was never going to satisfy Benitez. The last decade of the club’s history has been defined by the suffocation of ambition as dysfunction became the norm. In ten years, Newcastle have been in European competition once but suffered relegation twice. More often than not they have battled against relegation.
By securing Benitez they had a chance at further stability. His demands were simple; as well as improving the facilities he wanted to buy experience when it was required. The club’s hesitation in securing Salomon Rondon permanently off the back of an impressive loan spell due to his age was another example of a regime that is governed by a spreadsheet.
Although the club have broken their silence it has not removed the precarious feeling surrounding the club. Benitez could not trust Ashley and neither do supporters. The start of the summer saw reports emerge claiming that Newcastle were in discussions regarding a takeover. As recently as this weekend it was claimed several interested parties were talking to Ashley.
News on that front has gone cold and a cynical eye might question if it is just another ploy to distract supporters, who themselves are left with the difficult decision of accepting the circus or abandoning their football club knowing that neither will guarantee the change that is so desperately needed.
That is why fans were so taken by Benitez. His arrival followed a spell in charge of Real Madrid, and his decision to take the job was confirmation that a Champions League winner saw the same potential in Newcastle that they did. His aim was to bring order and restore ambition, and that is why with Benitez departing it feels like those same elements are leaving with him.