Newcastle are within touching distance — one victory in Rafa Benitez’s eyes — of Premier League safety. They should reach that goal with games to spare.
After finishing tenth last season, and managing to do a similarly spectacular job this year, it beggars belief that the club have not seen the light, and tied him down to a long-term deal.
Benitez, of course, shuns much of the plaudits, and is usually the first person to pay credit to the players, the back-room team around him, and the fans, for the Magpies’ success — or at least what warrants the term success at Newcastle under Mike Ashley!
But you cannot underestimate the amount of work the Spaniard has put in to transform Newcastle from the doldrums they were in when he took over.
He has gone from a squad that looked bereft of ideas, or being able to raise their game when required. A squad who had dates of paydays circled on their calendars, instead of those of big games coming up, to one of commitment and belief.
It is down to Rafa… no one else.
Speaking to the Newcastle Chronicle about the squad he inherited, he described why the scenario is different now to 2016.
He has reduced niggly injuries within the squad, thanks to his personal fitness regime, and that has played a significant role in the upturn of fortunes.
He said: “It’s not the same and I will tell you why. When we just arrived, we had 13 injuries, something that you couldn’t see.
“I remember that we had to play with [Vurnon] Anita as a left full-back, and after with [Jack] Colback, because we didn’t have a left full-back or a holding-midfielder.
“Now almost everybody is fit, and we have some players that now have some experience in the Premier League.”
But significantly, he added another reason why things are rosier on Tyneside now — because he has a team that “cares” about Newcastle United, and a group where “everybody is focused” on what needs to be done, week in, week out.
He said: “We lost very, very important players when we were relegated. You see they are now playing in the Premier League – [Andros] Townsend, [Moussa] Sissoko, [Daryl] Janmaat, [Georginio] Wijnaldum. They are good players.
“We lost something but, little by little, we were building something new. What do we have now? We have a team that we know, and everybody knows, that every player cares, and everybody is focused – all these things. So it is different.
“I am not saying it is better or worse, but it is different. Those players, they were very good players in the Premier League, but in an environment that was not ideal.”
It is Rafa at his pragmatic, diplomatic best. He will not come out and say it, but his words are there to be interpreted — he inherited a team of individuals who cared about themselves, not the football club.
But the biggest difference, is Benitez himself.
He has single-handedly made St James’ Park a better place. His tactics. His squad management. His relationship with the fans.
It is all down to him.
He has united a club around him, and brought hope back to legions of Geordies who turn up every other week and sing his name from the rafters.
How Mike Ashley has put himself in a position where he might lose him, is beyond the fathoms of every fan, player and pundit alike.
But it is not too late. He can still come to his senses, and realise that he should buy in to Rafa’s vision.
For the future of your football club, you must sign him up, Mike!
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