It is too early to establish whether Rafa Benitez will be asked to negotiate diplomatic relations between Spain and England over Gibraltar yet after the Newcastle manager tackled Brexit last week,
there are worse candidates than the softly-spoken Spaniard orchestrating a quiet revolution in Newcastle,
A year after the uniquely-decorated managerr – Benitez is the only coach to have won the UEFA Europa League, UEFA Super Cup, UEFA Champions League and FIFA Club World Cup.“ – surpised the football world by joining Newcastle, he has The Magpies on the brink of promotion back to where the club belongs – The Premier League.
Benitez has not just inspired his players and football club, he has inspired an entire city by recognizing and restoring the inexorable and crucial bond between the special club who play at St. James’ Park and its loyal, passionate and long-suffering fan-base by encouraging closer links between club and community.
On the pitch, Rafa’s Magpies lead The EFL Championship by a point over second-placed Brighton – whom they have beaten home and away – and are a massive 10 points ahead of third-placed Huddersfield Town, who must now accept forcing their way into the automatic promotion slots is a very unlikely scenario.
Furthermore, Newcastle’s superior goal difference of +39 compared to Brighton’s +31 is worth an extra point in the title run-in, a race the black and whites will surely win with seven games remaining, four of which are at home.
Benitez described the 8-game final straight of the Championship steeplechase as a “mini-League” that Newcastle must win and the experienced boss wasn’t getting carried away after a 2-1 win against Wigan:
“We have to concentrate on the next game to get a result.
“It’ll be easier to talk about the gap if we can win the next game, but we concentrate on one game at a time.
“The 10 points is good [as a gap] and we’re talking all the time about what to do.
“You can see Brighton have problems, Huddersfield have problems to win easily – you can feel the pressure like everyone else.
“I said about Huddersfield feeling the pressure they know if they make one mistake…”
It is Benitez the strategician that separates him from his most successful recent predecessors in the St. James’ Park hot-seat, Kevin Keegan and Sir Bobby Robson, who respectively led Newcastle into Premier League title-contention and into The Champions League yet never quite got over the line and won a major trophy for the club.
Newcastle are not up yet by any means and while that elusive major trophy is in the distant future, Rafa’s Magpies do not look as if they will be taking their eye off the ball in the EFL charge – it is simply not the meticulous Spaniard’s style, that of a Champions League-manager operating in The Championship.
Benitez’s style of football is not without its critics for not being attacking or adventurous enough – some at the weekend said they would like to see a more gung-ho approach at home to Wigan with more strikers yet Rafa is quick to remind people his team are winning the League with the best attack and best defence in the division and isn’t interested in the crowd-pleasing thrashings that dazzle yet ultimately do not deliver silverware.
Rafa’s eye is clearly trained on the only prize that matters this season and on the long-term future while his ultimate challenge is to transform a club with a losing mentality known for being nearly-men for too long both in the Premier League as well as in Cup competition – painful Wembley FA Cup Final defeats courtesy of Arsenal and Man United in the late 90s, even Man City & Liverpool in the 70s linger in the NUFC fans’ collective consciousness.
Yet when his team find their confidence to overcome the ‘anxiety’ he detects in front of goal, Newcastle will be one step closer to calming any latent nerves about falling at the final hurdle and will certainly claim the Championship crown at a canter.
Rafa-lution Off The Pitch
Benitez’s universal popularity on Tyneside has even been likened to the Keegan-mania that surrounded the first, second and third comings of The Messiah King Kev and one great similarity Benitez shares with Kevin Keegan – along with the Liverpool connection of course – is bridging the club with the local community and fans.
Keegan was an arch-advocate that Newcastle United belongs to the Geordie people and Newcastle fans and hosted open training sessions in his spells on Tyneside as manager and encouraged, even made it the duty of his players, to go out and help the local community wherever they could.
Similarly, Benitez is doing the same and having previously endorsed The Gallowgate Flags fans’ initiative to help bring back the legendary St. James’ Park atmosphere, he spoke in his Wigan press conference about the NUFC Fans’ Food Bank intiative that is coming to the aid of the city’s poverty crisis:
Newcastle midfielder Isaac Hayden previously paid a visit to the West End Food Bank that the club’s fans contribute to via the NUFC Fans’ FoodBank and following that and Rafa getting on board with it, a record amount of 2.8 tonnes and £1414.98 was raised at Saturday’s match day collection.
Next up on the community agenda is Newcastle fans eschewing the opportunity to seek revenge on Sunderland supporters who hired a plane to fly over St. James’ Park as a final slap in the face after the club’s relegation last season – and instead simply to organise a big collection via JustGiving for the NUFC FoodBank, Premier class indeed.