Why did it take so long to confirm promotion?
Given that Benítez invested £55m in 12 players last summer (although he achieved a £30m transfer profit after raising £85m in sales from his newly relegated squad) many neutrals expected Newcastle to be up by March at the latest. In contrast, those with intimate knowledge of the Championship believe Benítez has worked wonders, fully earning his £5m-a-year salary.
They point out that, during the previous five seasons, only one side, Burnley, have secured immediate automatic promotion the year after dropping out of the Premier League. Chris Hughton, who has taken Brighton up and also won the Championship with Newcastle in 2010, ranks among those who believe the second tier is infinitely tougher than seven years ago, with players considerably fitter and, thanks to advances in match analysis techniques, managers better prepared tactically.
The Tyneside challenge was further complicated by the reality that opponents viewed trips to St James’ Park, with its invariable 52,000 full houses, as “cup finals” and raised their game accordingly. Visitors also tended to turn up in packed defence mode, which does not suit either Newcastle’s or their manager’s preference for playing on the counterattack.
Will the club be sold in the coming weeks?
Watch this space. It is quite possible that nothing will happen and Newcastle simply continue under Mike Ashley’s ownership but senior club sources acknowledge that there has been discreet interest from assorted parties in recent months. If – and it is only an if – a takeover does happen, expect it to be as sudden and unexpected as Manchester City’s switch to Emirati control.
Possible buyers? Well, the state of Qatar is reportedly weighing up purchasing a Premier League club and rumours of Chinese interest refuse to disappear. Ashley would demand a high price, and is sufficiently contrary to suddenly decide to keep the club, but purchasers are attracted by those 52,000 crowds, Newcastle’s international reach – the former chairman Freddy Shepherd may have exaggerated slightly when he once claimed his was the world’s eighth most popular team but the club are undeniably high profile – their rare city-centre location in a regional capital and, of course, the transformative presence of Benítez.
Will Benítez stay?
The million-dollar question. In January – when Ashley refused to allow his manager to buy the winger and central midfielder he craved – the former Liverpool and Real Madrid manager indicated he could well depart this summer.
Benítez, long admired by, among others, West Ham United, would not lack offers but the January frosting of relationships has long since thawed. Indeed, harmony is said to now be restored, with two recent transfer summits to discuss summer spending having proceeded “positively”.
Critically, the manager appears to have regained charge of recruitment, with the influence of Graham Carr, the once powerful chief scout who has Ashley’s ear, much diminished. The big concerns are that Benítez and Ashley rarely speak directly and that the former is keener on buying the odd player older than 25 than the latter.
Benítez’s affection for the club and the city runs deep and he would like nothing better than to stay at St James’ Park, win a trophy and take Newcastle back into the Champions League – but he is not a complete romantic and will walk if things are not to his liking.
The problem is Ashley and the Spaniard like to be in control, and Benítez is perhaps far too practised a political operator for the owner’s comfort. Last summer Ashley’s edict to club staff was: “What Rafa wants, Rafa gets” but the mood music is no longer quite the same.
How important is the manager staying to the club’s future?
They say no one is indispensable but Newcastle fans would tell you that Benítez is the exception to the rule. His amalgam of tactical shrewdness, smart man management and genuine warmth – (long term “Rafaology” students say he is revealing his “human side” much more these days) – have helped re-connect previously fractured bonds, between club, supporters and city.
A regular at football related community events on Tyneside, Benítez has invested the job with the sort of class and dignity not seen since Chris Hughton’s days at St James’ Park. Significantly his CV dictates he possesses the sort of “pulling power” capable of attracting some of Europe’s best players to Newcastle but will Mike Ashley facilitate a top tier “Rafalution”?
The Spaniard is clearly not quite sure as, with promotion secured, the politics have begun in earnest. “You never know,” he said when asked on Monday night to confirm he would still be in charge come August. “That is football. I’m really pleased to be here. Hopefully we can put in the foundations for something that will be a guarantee for the future. I am sure if we do the right things, we can prepare everything to be strong enough for the Premier League.”
The subtext will not be lost on Ashley.
Does the squad need overhauling?
Most definitely. Benítez bought players specifically to win promotion but if he is to keep the team in the top division, let alone achieve his ambition of taking Newcastle back into Europe, major surgery will be required. It has been agreed that a minimum of six recruits are needed, with a centre-half, a left-back, a holding midfielder, a creative midfielder, a winger and a couple of strikers looming large on the managerial shopping list.
Who might Benítez buy?
Time will tell but there are a few clues to be going on with. Bas Dost, the prolific Sporting Lisbon player, is a striker he tried to sign last summer and could do with now – but the Dutchman would not come cheap. Carr, incidentally, is also a Dost fan, having urged Ashley to buy him for years.
Swansea City’s Gylfi Sigurdsson is another at the pricey end of the radar, while Crystal Palace’s Andros Townsend returning to Newcastle seems a real possibility. Hull City’s midfielder Sam Clucas and their centre-half Harry Maguire have been scouted by Newcastle and Benítez is said to also like the Stoke City defender Ryan Shawcross as well as Middlesbrough’s Ben Gibson.
Further forward, a move for Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge has been discussed and Newcastle have conducted background checks on the character of Burnley’s principal striker, Andre Gray.
Benítez remains very enthusiastic about the creative midfield talents of Fulham’s Tom Cairney and Manchester City’s Fabian Delph has been mentioned but the second ruptured cruciate ligament sustained by the Bournemouth striker Callum Wilson may remove him from the equation, scuppering a long-mooted move.
Who from the existing team should prosper in the Premier League?
Jonjo Shelvey, Matt Ritchie and Ciaran Clark. Isaac Hayden could also develop into a useful top-flight midfielder and Karl Darlow surely deserves a chance in goal. After scoring so many goals, Dwight Gayle, too, should play a part but it is not entirely inconceivable that he could be sold on for a profit to fund signings. Expect plenty of departures, however.
Will Benítez be able to take Newcastle back into Europe?
Why not? Europe represents the Spaniard’s natural habitat and an arena he feels Newcastle should be competing in. But, barring a takeover, it all depends on the scale of Ashley’s vision.
The Guardian Sport