Fans fear crocked Rafa fly­ing the Mag­pies’ nest

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - SOCCER - LOUISE TAY­LOR

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.

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