It was on Christmas Eve when Rafael Benitez, perhaps caught up in the spiritual essence of that time of year, said Newcastle United would need a “miracle” to avoid relegation from the Premier League this season. While somewhat hyperbolic, he had a point. Newcastle were in a bad way and heading in only one direction – down.
With the end of the season now in sight, though, Benitez has seemingly delivered some sort of divine intervention.
Newcastle United will remain a Premier League club for at least one more year with Saturday’s 3-1 win over Southampton, coupled with Cardiff City’s defeat to Liverpool the day after, securing safety from relegation.
Of course, Newcastle are one of the biggest clubs in England. Merely avoiding relegation shouldn’t be the objective for an institution with the stature and heritage of the Magpies, but such is the reality of their current plight under the control of Mike Ashley – who must be the most hated owner in the history of the Premier League.
Newcastle United boast the 19th highest revenue in world football. In Premier League terms, only ‘The Big Six’ and Everton bring in more money than the Magpies. Their average attendance of 51,992 ranks them among the biggest clubs not just in England, but in all of Europe. And yet none of this is reflected in Ashley’s spending, or lack thereof.
Only Burnley, Huddersfield Town and Cardiff City have lower wage bills than Newcastle this season.
The January addition of Miguel Almiron was the first time the St James’ Park club have spent anywhere close to £20 million in a single player since the signing of Georginio Wijnaldum four years previously. TV billions have seen almost every other Premier League club spend big to outdo each other, but Ashley has done his best to suffocate Newcastle United.
All this serves to highlight the extraordinary job Benitez has done in the North-East. His achievements might not set the agenda in the way managers competing near the top of the table do, but the Newcastle manager deserves recognition. Forget Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, Benitez has been this season’s Manager of the Year.
In each of the past five years, the official accolade handed out to the Premier League’s best boss has gone to the man crowned champion. Tony Pulis was the last manager to buck this trend, named 2013/14 Manager of the Year after leading Crystal Palace to an 11th place finish. Before that, Alan Pardew was recognised for an impressive fifth-place finish as Newcastle boss.
The likes of Guardiola and Klopp are expected to compete at the top and deliver titles. Manchester City, for instance, have spent more money in the transfer market than any other Premier League side over the past five years, splurging over £760 million on players.
Liverpool’s transfer totaliser isn’t far behind, with the Anfield club spending close to £600 million on new signings since 2014.
While Guardiola and Klopp are providing the defining narrative of the 2018/19 season, with City and Liverpool’s duel going the distance, their achievements are in line with what is expected of them.
Benitez’s, on the other hand, will exceed what most (including the Spaniard himself) had predicted for Newcastle United this season.
Without Benitez at the helm, they surely would have faced relegation, not just because of the lack of investment, but the toxic environment the former Chelsea and Liverpool boss now has to work in at St James’ Park.
A lesser man would have crumbled and given in a long time ago.
However Benitez, both in terms of character and coaching ability, is an elite level manager toiling in the doldrums.
He might not be for much longer. There’s every possibility that Benitez will choose to exit his career purgatory this summer, with Newcastle United already, according to reports, drawing up a shortlist of potential successors. The drop-off would almost certainly be dramatic.
Ashley could find that reality catches up with him very quickly without his Spanish buffer to mitigate the damage. Success without Benitez might be where Newcastle United truly need a miracle.