Rafa’s on side of fans in Ash­ley row

Daily Express - - SPORT - By Ian Murtagh

RAFA BEN­ITEZ is back­ing an­gry New­cas­tle fans in their fight with club owner Mike Ash­ley. The Mag­pie Group is plan­ning an­other protest out­side Ash­ley’s Sports Direct store in the city cen­tre ahead of to­mor­row’s game against Chelsea at St James’ Park. And while Ben­itez has not pub­licly come out in sup­port of the demon­stra­tion, he has made it clear where his sym­pa­thies lie. In a clear en­dorse­ment of the fans’ ac­tions, he said: “They have been here for a lot of years and some­times you an­a­lyse things with the heart but a lot of them are analysing with their brain.” The Toon chief has so far re­sisted pres­sure from the club hi­er­ar­chy to sign a new con­tract. And a se­ries of barbed com­ments against the Ash­ley regime have un­der­lined the rift that ex­ists be­tween man­ager and the con­tro­ver­sial re­tail mag­nate. Ben­itez ad­mits he shares the con­cerns of fans, alarmed at the lack of in­vest­ment in the squad de­spite the club rak­ing in mil­lions from player sales and TV cash. “I have a lot of sym­pa­thy for our fans be­cause they are re­ally good,” he added. “They know the city, they know the club, they know the North-east and how well you can live here. They know all these things. “They would like to see the club do things in one way. We have the po­ten­tial to be a mas­sive club but we have to do things right. Every­body knows that.” Mean­while, Ben­itez has talked up Chelsea’s ti­tle cre­den­tials while writ­ing off Manch­ester United.

“There are three teams you could say are a lit­tle bit ahead of the others – Chelsea, Liver­pool and Manch­ester City,” he said. “Be­cause of the level, per­for­mances last year and the money they have spent. Then Manch­ester United, Tottenham and Arse­nal, they have to go back to things they were do­ing well.”

Ben­itez is weigh­ing up whether to give a first Premier League start to new sign­ing Yoshi­nori Muto to­mor­row af­ter­noon.

The Ja­panese striker, signed from Bun­desliga side Mainz in a £9.5mil­lion deal in the sum­mer, shares his com­pa­tri­ots’ ob­ses­sion for want­ing every­thing look­ing spick and span.

As part of the Ja­pan squad which reached the knock­out stages of the World Cup, Muto would reg­u­larly tidy dress­ing rooms af­ter the fi­nal whis­tle. Fans too drew praise for tak­ing their lit­ter home and leav­ing their seat­ing ar­eas look­ing pris­tine.

“It’s our nor­mal way of do­ing things,” said the 26-year-old. “It shows grat­i­tude to use their fa­cil­i­ties. We just acted as nor­mal and it hap­pened to get some at­ten­tion which wasn’t some­thing we re­ally wanted.”

Muto ad­mits the post-match state of dress­ing rooms in Ger­many and Eng­land has proved some­thing of a cul­ture shock.

And while he tried his best to be di­plo­matic about the habits of his new team-mates, clearly they don’t have quite the same house­keep­ing stan­dards as him.

“I will try to clean up a lit­tle bit of de­tail and maybe we can get slightly bet­ter,” he added. “Ob­vi­ously, I wouldn’t be happy leav­ing places dirty but this is what is nor­mal here and

that was nor­mal in Ja­pan. It’s a cul­tural dif­fer­ence.”

Dur­ing his days with FC Tokyo, Muto had the chance to join to­day’s op­po­nents Chelsea but turned them down, pre­fer­ring a move to Mainz where he felt he would play more reg­u­larly.

“I was 22 when I got the Chelsea of­fer and I didn’t feel the man­ager needed me at the time,” he said. “They wanted young play­ers with po­ten­tial and then loan them out to help them progress. I wanted to feel like I could make my own progress step by step so I didn’t take that op­por­tu­nity.

“So it would be a strange feel­ing play­ing Chelsea. They are ob­vi­ously a fan­tas­tic club, very strong.”

Muto is also keen to shat­ter the myth that the Premier League is too phys­i­cal for Ja­panese play­ers to flour­ish in. “It is easy to say some play­ers are not phys­i­cally ca­pa­ble,” he added. “So it is our job to prove our­selves on the pitch.”

We have po­ten­tial to be a mas­sive club

Main pic­ture: TONY MAR­SHALL

SEND­ING A SIG­NAL: Rafa Ben­itez says he has sym­pa­thy with protest­ing sup­port­ers

FANS’ TAR­GET: New­cas­tle owner Mike Ash­ley

CLEAN PAIR OF HEELS: Yoshi­nori Muto on the ball for New­cas­tle dur­ing Satur­day’s draw at Cardiff

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