How Rafa took New­cas­tle to the top

> By show­ing steel in the board­room and through acts of sub­stance, Bene­tiz has over­come the dis­ap­point­ment of rel­e­ga­tion and bright­ened the mood of an en­tire city

The Sun (Malaysia) - - SPORTS - BY MARTIN HARDY

THEY CALL them the cages, and they were full. Nine 3G pitches. Black and white wher­ever you looked. It was a Fri­day night.

The thud of ball, of peo­ple shout­ing, clouds of breath and sweat lift­ing into the dark­en­ing sky of a Ty­ne­side night in Oc­to­ber. Flood­lights, ar­gu­ments, cel­e­bra­tions; foot­ball be­ing played.

And then a blue dou­ble door at the end of a cor­ri­dor very del­i­cately opened. One man in a track­suit. The other in his civvies.

Very sud­denly a grow­ing noise through­out the pitches at Soc­cer­world. Shout­ing, bang­ing, the re­al­i­sa­tion that less than 24 hours be­fore New­cas­tle United faced Brent­ford at St James’ Park, the club’s cap­tain and man­ager had turned up to watch.

A frenzy and a roar; two miles from St James’, up West­gate Road, into the heart of a dif­fer­ent New­cas­tle, the cul­tural mix of the city, United, at quar­ter past seven on a Fri­day, by foot­ball and by the city’s club.

Rafa Ben­itez tucked his hands into his back over­coat, walked out and smiled. Be­side him, Ja­maal Las­celles looked more pen­sive. There was a lot to take in. Just over a year ear­lier Las­celles had made his Premier League de­but for New­cas­tle as a sub­sti­tute. They lost 6-1 at Manch­ester City.

He had been 21 then. Three games later, in another dispir­ited dress­ing room, this time at Sel­hurst Park, he railed against the in­er­tia. The young sub­sti­tute that day asked a sullen dress­ing room why no one was both­ered any­more. Las­celles did not get a re­sponse.

He was 22 when he called out Daryl Jan­matt for go­ing off at half­time dur­ing a hor­ren­dous ca­pit­u­la­tion at Southamp­ton, later in the sea­son, dur­ing a 3-1 de­feat at St Mary’s.

There was much not right at New­cas­tle United then, not least a dress­ing room that had grown hard­ened and cyn­i­cal to the needs of the club and the city, poi­sonous even, with play­ers who had not ful­filled their de­sire to move on, stuck on the step­ping stone, left for­lornly like an unclaimed suit­case on an air­port carousel.

The un­hap­pi­ness had grown, a malaise left un­treated.

Back in Oc­to­ber 2013, the noise had been of a lone drum­mer, beat­ing a sad rhythm to a pro­ces­sion of dis­af­fected sup­port­ers who walked through the streets, from the Civic Cen­tre, up Bar­rack Road, past the Mil­burn Stand up to Leazes Park.

There was the odd, sym­bolic wave of a white hanky from those they passed. Around 400 fans, fed up with the owner and the man­ager and the drip, drip of am­bi­tion and hope, dragged their feet as the drum­mer played.

New­cas­tle drew that day, when a game of foot­ball started, against Liver­pool. Ev­ery­thing was at odds. The lo­cal news­pa­per, the Evening Chron­i­cle, was banned for what was deemed ex­ces­sive cov­er­age of the protest.

There was con­fronta­tion wher­ever you looked, con­flict and no con­sid­er­a­tion. No one lis­tened. The drum­mer played on, the dis­af­fected marched off. The ban was up­held. The club’s heart bled.

The man­ager then, Alan Pardew, lost six games on the trot at the end of the sea­son. There was a more vo­cif­er­ous out­pour­ing for the fi­nal home game of the sea­son, against Cardiff. He could not stand in his own tech­ni­cal area. Pardew left the fol­low­ing Christ­mas. He was not re­placed with a per­ma­nent ap­point­ment un­til the fol­low­ing sum­mer.

New­cas­tle spent money but still limped and when Steve McClaren’s limp spell had fi­nally reached its sorry con­clu­sion, wait­ing for­lornly for the ex­e­cu­tioner’s axe to fall, it seemed the club was con­clud­ing a long and weary trek to the foot­balling wilder­ness.

Then Ben­itez ar­rived. A light sparked. There was ini­tial de­light, but what has hap­pened since, acts of sub­stance, has changed the mood of a city. There was a spir­ited fight to stay up, a strange heady cel­e­bra­tion of a re­birth when New­cas­tle beat Tot­ten­ham 5-1 four days af­ter rel­e­ga­tion had been con­firmed. Then came the u-turn. Ben­itez called the shots in ne­go­ti­a­tions about whether he would stay. He got con­trac­tual guar­an­tees about con­trol and bud­get. The spin­ning doors at the front of the club fi­nally started bring­ing life and hope in and fir­ing out the malaise that had fes­tered.

The train­ing ground was over­hauled. New pitches were laid - for the first team and the acad­emy - Ben­itez dropped un­ex­pect­edly into meet­ings of sup­port­ers.

Walls have come down, doors have opened, the club is calmer, less an­gry, the Chron­i­cle has good ac­cess, the city has a leader, the foot­ball club, for the first time in years, has gen­uine di­rec­tion.

To that back­drop, the team has started win­ning and fi­nally, af­ter years of wait, the man­ager of New­cas­tle United is back in con­trol, able to walk into the light driz­zle of a Fri­day night and cause gen­uine de­light.

“It costs noth­ing to go to an event like that so it is not a prob­lem,” said Ben­itez. “The foun­da­tion is do­ing a fan­tas­tic job. One of the lads was from a small vil­lage near Madrid I used to play for when I was younger. Las­celles was bril­liant with the lads, and for me watch­ing and talk­ing about foot­ball is no hard­ship.”

Four nights later, at the top of the tun­nel at the side of the pitch at Oak­well, next to where 6000 ju­bi­lant and noisy New­cas­tle fans had filled their end, Las­celles, a tall and up­right man, talked of the evening in the city’s West End, the West­gate Kicks, or­gan­ised by the New­cas­tle United Foun­da­tion. He also spoke of unity and change.

“Yeah, they went nuts when we came out,” he said. “It’s nice to go down there and see dif­fer­ent eth­nic­i­ties play­ing to­gether. We know if we’re play­ing well and win­ning games the peo­ple will be happy.

“That is im­por­tant. The away fol­low­ing we take to games has a mas­sive im­pact on us as play­ers. We can hear it. Credit to them, we’re very thank­ful. We’ll al­ways give our all on the pitch. All we can do is keep giv­ing good per­for­mances for them.

“I’ve never been in­volved in a unity like this in the dress­ing room, noth­ing like it. Last sea­son was up and down. This sea­son is com­pletely dif­fer­ent. Rafa has brought in some great sign­ings and not just tal­ented play­ers but they’re great lads.

“Dress­ing room ca­ma­raderie is so im­por­tant. It does go a long way. If you do things to­gether away from the pitch then you’ll do it on the pitch for each other as well. That’s what we needed.”

Half an hour ear­lier, New­cas­tle had gone top of the Cham­pi­onship. – The In­de­pen­dent

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