Benitez stalls on new deal
Newcastle manager will decide his future after January transfer window, writes Luke Edwards
Rafael Benitez will wait to see how owner Mike Ashley responds to his requests in the January transfer window before he reopens talks about a new contract to remain as Newcastle United manager beyond the end of the season.
Although Benitez was annoyed that he was not allowed to spend any of the television money on players this summer, he is not ruling out staying.
His relationship with Ashley is a testing one, yet he will give the club one more chance to prove they want to back him financially in the winter window.
If they do, he will be willing to discuss extending his deal beyond June 2019. Newcastle signed seven players in the summer, but two of them – Kenedy and Salomon Rondon – are only loans, and they ended the window almost £20million in profit. Ashley’s view is that he would be foolish to allow a manager who intends to quit in less than 12 months lots of money for new players. It is a shortterm stance at best, given Benitez is the most popular and successful manager he has employed at St James’ Park and wants to stay if he is backed. “All the things that have happened during the summer have to be forgotten,” said Benitez. “Then we can talk about that [the contract], maybe, in April… we have plenty of time to talk.”
This feels like the beginning of the end for Rafael Benitez as Newcastle United manager, the start of a long and highly charged goodbye, with supporters braced for the agony his departure will cause – but perhaps all is not what it seems.
Benitez has, indeed, entered the final year of the deal he signed in 2016 and has steadfastly refused to sign the five-year extension offered to him.
Why should he commit his longterm future until he is satisfied owner Mike Ashley shares the same sense of ambition: to turn Newcastle into a top-eight club, striving to play in Europe again, chasing that elusive piece of silverware?
The proof, he argued, would come in the transfer market, with the tantalising prospect of building on last season’s impressive 10th-place finish. He had been promised “full control of the football side of the business” when he was appointed and would be given “every penny generated” to spend this summer. He wanted evidence.
Now was the time to back him, to prove Newcastle had fresh aspirations. It was not only about the size of the budget, but also how it was used. His targets, regardless of age or position, were not to be questioned. He needed to be listened to. He had to feel wanted. Trust had to be restored.
Ashley, though, ever desperate to prove his mettle as the toughest of negotiators, blinded by his insatiable desire to do things only on his terms, responded by insisting he would only free up the television money to spend when Benitez agreed to the extension.
When that contract remained unsigned, Benitez was informed he would have to sell to buy, only to end the window around £20million in profit. Newcastle’s net spend was the lowest in the top flight. It does not resemble anything like aspiration.
Benitez has public opinion on his side and even went so far on Friday as to suggest he supported the fans who were protesting against the owner and his Sports Direct retail chain – as long as they remain outside the stadium.
That will not have gone down well yet, despite the mistrust, regardless of the suspicion that the only reason Ashley wants to keep Benitez is because he will not have to worry about relegation – regardless of how little money he is given – for as long as he remains in the dugout, an agreement can still be reached.
Benitez loves Newcastle, the football club and city. He is adored on Tyneside and is largely bomb-proof when it comes to the things that most managers are damaged by – results. Even if Newcastle lost five games in a row, he would remain blame free.
“Obviously, I would like you to park this stuff about my contract,” said Benitez ahead of today’s game against Chelsea. “Because it doesn’t change anything. As a manager, I want to win every single game if I can.
“The supporters have been great, but some people are wrong when they say that Newcastle fans are too demanding. What they want is a team that competes.
“They also want progression. What we have is a team. And if the fans stay behind us then we are stronger. All the things that have happened during the summer have to be forgotten. Then we can talk about that [contract], maybe, in April.
“We can talk about January and what is going on [with recruitment], but after January... Have we done what we had to do or not? Then you have more answers to your questions.”
Newcastle signed seven players over the summer, but two of them, Martin Dubravka and Kenedy, were there on loan at the end of last season, while the most expensive signing, forward Yoshinori Muto, cost just £9.5million from Mainz.
Benitez did put his name to a club statement a fortnight ago in which it was argued the squad had been improved, but on Friday he added the caveat: “We brought in players to improve the squad, we will see if these players can improve the team.”
With that in mind, Benitez has warned an improvement on their 10th-placed finish is unlikely. “Everybody knows that finishing 10th was a miracle because we did really well,” he explained.
“The reality is that we have to be safe and if we are safe, then we can try to achieve something more. But if we finish 12th, it will not be a disaster, no chance. It will be quite positive.”
Despite it all, the same thing could be said about his own future.
United cause: Rafa Benitez has the support of the Toon Army in his battle to make Newcastle United competitive in the Premier League and domestic cups