By now, we all know how the agreed narrative works on Tyneside. Mike Ashley is the big bad cockney bully who has dragged Newcastle United into a vortex of mediocrity, leaving them hanging in deep space with just enough oxygen to survive but with zero chance of ever reaching the planet where all the trophies are kept.
To the club’s fans, the intrepid space commander is Rafa Benitez, ever yearning to rocket those loyal supporters up, up and away to frolic on Planet Glory and… sorry, these space metaphors seemed like a good idea when I started.
Anyway, as far as everyone can see, it’s a classic clash of good versus evil… but maybe it’s becoming a little bit more blurred in the middle.
As a non-Geordie who lives in the region and supports their bitter Mackem rivals, I completely empathise with how and why passions run so high. The footballing fervour right across Tyne and Wear is unreal and the truth is that Sunderland and Newcastle could easily draw in 100,000+ fans collectively with half as many locked out desperate to get in, if they were both regularly challenging for honours.
To this outsider, it’s starting to look as though Rafa Benitez’s number one concern is Rafa Benitez. He’s been a shrewd operator right through his career, carefully cultivating ‘Brand Rafa’, and why not? He’s got a reputation to uphold and doesn’t want any failings blighting his long and impressive CV.
If I was a Newcastle fan, I’d be asking one or two questions about Rafa Benitez right now.
On Wednesday night, Newcastle crashed out of the Carabao Cup at Nottingham Forest, for the second successive year. Benitez went into the match having made seven changes from the side which lost at home against Chelsea on Sunday. Did he think that would be enough to beat Forest, knowing what he knew about them from last year (and their subsequent transfer market splurge this summer)?
Or was he happy to sacrifice a cup run, preferring to concentrate of what he deems to be a relegation battle for the Magpies?
If there’s one thing Newcastle fans crave, it’s a domestic trophy – they haven’t won one since 1955. A staggering SIXTY-THREE years. For a self-proclaimed ‘big club’, that’s a shocking statistic.
Now Nottingham Forest are faced with a home Carabao tie against Stoke City – if Newcastle fans had that to look forward to, they’d quite rightly be thinking ahead to a place in the last eight, and a decent crack at a trip to Wembley, and maybe even that elusive trophy.
If indeed this IS Rafa’s last season at Newcastle, his legacy would live on forever as the man who finally brought some silverware back to Tyneside. But no – instead, all they’ve got to look forward to is a trip to Manchester City and, quite probably, another defeat.
We all know that Benitez feels that he’s been short-changed by Ashley when it comes to a transfer kitty, but there’s more to success than just throwing cash at a situation. In the past five seasons, Newcastle have spent approximately twice as much as Burnley, who let’s not forget finished seventh in the Premier League last season thanks to Sean Dyche’s management skills and astute purchasing.
Then there’s Leicester City – in that same five year period, they’ve spent about £60m more than Newcastle, which considering they won the title two years ago, you’d say was fair enough. That title was also won by a combination of smart management and clever transfer dealing.
Rafa’s permanent huff is beginning to stink a bit, frankly – if he’s the world class manager we’re led to believe he is, he’d be getting more of a tune out of the players at his disposal. Constantly hinting that everything is s**t and that a relegation dogfight is imminent can’t be doing wonders for his players’ morale.
But that allows him to deflect any possible blame away from himself, keeping ‘Brand Rafa’ intact and allowing him to point the finger at Mike Ashley when his next potential employer quizzes him about any underwhelming achievements on Tyneside.
In that home match against Chelsea last weekend, he set the side out to try and avoid defeat – they somehow almost snatched a draw in spite of his negative approach, and it was the same at the City Ground on Wednesday, when their only shot on target came when Salomon Rondon scored in the 93rd minute.
The Geordies are renowned for their love of exciting, swashbuckling football and if ex-Toon alumni Graeme Souness or Sam Allardyce had set out a team like Benitez did against Chelsea, fans would have been grumbling all the way home afterwards.
It’ll be interesting to see how Newcastle line up against City on Saturday – and how happy the fans will be if there’s a repeat of the Chelsea display. They’re an astute bunch, and their goodwill towards Benitez might not be infinite.