Fans fear crocked Rafa flying the Magpies’ nest
IN football parlance, Rafael Benitez faces a late fitness test before today’s trip to Swansea City but is rated doubtful. Newcastle United’s manager has spent the last week recovering from surgery to clear infection from an old hernia repair, yet, despite being in considerable discomfort, he did not forget about a fan’s fundraising event for a food bank, which was staged on Thursday night. Benitez duly picked up the telephone and not only pledged a generous donation but asked what else he could do to help the cause.
It was a characteristically classy gesture, entirely typical of the wholehearted commitment the 57-year-old has offered both the city and the club since succeeding Steve McClaren, but the fear on Tyneside is that it could come to be remembered as the start of a painful farewell.
Should West Ham stumble at home against Huddersfield tomorrow night, further uncertainty will shroud Slaven Bilic’s future at the London Stadium. The big worry among Gallowgate Enders is that the Hammers may attempt to trigger the £6m release clause in the contract of the much-decorated Spaniard who, turning a deaf ear to his staff’s suggestion that he should watch today’s game at home on television, has placed a helicopter on standby to potentially whisk him to south Wales.
If his devotion to players and supporters burns as brightly as ever, Benitez’s trust in Mike Ashley’s regime has been thoroughly eroded by the failure of Newcastle’s owner to properly fortify an alarmingly under-powered squad this summer. The team currently lack a fit specialist left-back and, with the manager similarly distressed by the nonappearance of the new goalkeeper, winger and striker he had craved, any phone calls from West Ham are unlikely to be ignored. Admittedly, Newcastle thrashed Bilic’s side just before the international break, but Benitez is painfully aware that the transfer window ended with the Tynesiders’ net spend ranking below those of the other two promoted sides, Brighton and Huddersfield.
By way of further complication, first-teamers and the club’s hierarchy have become embroiled in a potentially damaging row about end-of-season bonuses. With Justin Barnes, a lawyer and key Ashley business lieutenant, exerting a significant influence, the St James’ Park purse strings appear more tightly drawn than ever. Accordingly the two parties are some distance apart.
It is understood that Newcastle have offered a basic sum to be shared among the 25-man squad for avoiding relegation, plus an additional £1m payable for every position the team place between themselves and 17 th place. With the players aware that survival is worth at least £120m, they seem in no mood for surrender.
Similarly jarring mood music surrounds Benitez’s relationship with Dwight Gayle. Last season’s leading scorer is well aware that only the failure to sign a suitable replacement prevented him from being sold this summer.
With Joselu likely to begin as the lone striker, Gayle can expect to be on the bench today, possibly alongside Jonjo Shelvey. The opinion-polarising former Swansea playmaker has just returned from suspension and could be kept out of the starting XI by Mikel Merino.
If the shades of Xabi Alonso at times visible in the Borussia Dortmund loanee’s game suggests all is not lost for Newcastle, their manager remains sore about his board’s failure to rubber-stamp another loan deal he believed he had agreed with Tammy Abraham in June. Instead, the Tyneside regime haggled too hard, the Chelsea striker joined Swansea and an important knot in the ties binding Benitez to Ashley’s administration loosened appreciably.