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Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: For Benitez, it’s not all black and white

By Johnny Phillips | Football | Published:

Newcastle United manager Rafael Benitez masterminded another of those big game wins that have become a trademark during his outstanding coaching career.

Rafa Benitez. Picture: AMA/James Baylis

Last Sunday’s win over Manchester United was a much-needed one for the Spaniard, who has dedicated his all to keeping Newcastle in the Premier League.

His time at Newcastle has been dogged by battles with the owners, but the fans worship the ground he walks on. Rightly so. Benitez stayed with the club during their season in The Championship, spurning opportunities elsewhere in favour of overseeing a return to the Premier League.

He is one of those managers who develops a real bond with supporters, and it was their affection for the manager that helped persuade him to stay on. Now he has a harder job keeping Newcastle in the top flight.

The January transfer window was not so much a lifeline as another reminder that Newcastle’s owners do not share the ambition of their manager or fans. While relegation-threatened Swansea splashed a club record £18million on Andre Ayew, Benitez was restricted to loan deals – with six players leaving and just Kenedy, Martin Dubravka and Islam Slimani coming in. It was such underwhelming business, it would have been little surprise had he thrown in the towel once the window closed. But Dubravka showed on Sunday what impact a loan player can have.

Earlier this month I was able to spend some time in Benitez’s company at the club’s training ground. He spoke with passion and common sense and retained an admirable dignity despite the line of questioning offering him an opportunity to come out fighting at the failures from above.

“I can’t look at other clubs spending money,” he says. “The point was to bring in players that could be different to what we have already so they could create more competition.”

Benitez has every right to feel aggrieved at the transfer activity, especially as targets were identified months in advance of the deadline. None of his first choice targets were captured. Yet there was no swipe at Mike Ashley, despite increasing hostility towards the owner from the fans.

Strained relationship: Newcastle owner and Sports Direct founder Mike Ashley

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“Some of them will be expecting, ‘Rafa will say this or that’, but I’m telling the fans I don’t need to do that now,” he added. “My responsibility is to make sure the team is ready to get points. And the best for the team will be the best for the club and the city. It’s not that I am one hundred per cent happy or unhappy, that is not the point. What I have to do is stay calm and concentrate on my job. I don’t need to create any fight or polemic, it will not help the team.”

On the day of the transfer deadline, Newcastle were at home to Burnley. Supporters were in no mood to tolerate the paltry business done in the window and they made their feelings clear, unveiling a 62 word banner that spelt out a famous quote from Kevin Keegan, imploring supporters not to give up on the club despite Ashley’s actions. Again, Benitez was diplomatic when asked for a comment.

“I know the feelings of the fans, but my responsibility is to make sure we are strong on the pitch so we stay up. I understand their frustration. If I have to say something I will do it internally, but now it is just a question of staying united.”

It is essentially a Championship squad that is giving everything to stay afloat in the increasingly competitive waters of the bottom half of the table. The win over Jose Mourinho’s talented side on Sunday showed just how much they are fighting.

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“We have a team that is very young and we have to learn and understand that the Premier League is another level. I am sure if we stay in the Premier League this season we will be talking about top 10 next season not the bottom 10,” the manager added.

Benitez stresses that the day-to-day management of the team does not change, despite unrest in the stands and a constant stream of negative headlines. “On a daily basis everything is fine. It’s a normal club, with normal staff.

“Everyone here at the training ground concentrates on football. It’s more the perception outside that something is wrong, but it’s not on a daily basis.

“My commitment is there every day. I leave the training ground late and I come back early in the morning. My staff and everybody here are working really hard. We don’t have any problem in terms of the future. The future is bright because we know we can improve.”

But the long-term growth of the team goes back to the issue of investment. Something that continually tests his patience at a club he has grown immensely fond of. “How much we can improve depends on what is going on. The place is amazing. You have a city behind the team, with 52,000 fans coming.

“You have to try to enjoy it but for any manager to enjoy something you have to win games. I want to compete and I want to do well and that is my frustration sometimes. Because I used to be trying to win titles and now I am trying to save a team.”

If Benitez does keep Newcastle in the Premier League it will be some achievement. Few would be surprised to see him walk at the end of the season. The supporters would be devastated.

They know that such an elite manager as Benitez is unlikely to walk through the training ground gates again. It is just a pity the club’s owners don’t seem to realise what an asset they have in the manager’s seat.

Devastating for Ryan – but there is a future

Ryan Mason playing for Hull City

The news that Hull City midfielder Ryan Mason had to retire at the age of 26 was a real blow for the player.

It is more than a year since Mason suffered a fracture to his skull when competing for an aerial ball with Chelsea’s Gary Cahill during a Premier League game between the sides.

Mason had so much more to offer the game. Cahill sent his best wishes to the player on hearing the news and the overwhelming support Mason has received suggests he was a popular character within the game.

You’ll be able to hear from the man himself on Tuesday night when he will be appearing as a guest on our Gillette Soccer Special programme on Sky Sports.

I’m glad he has taken up our offer to come on as a pundit and talk about his experiences. Retiring early through injury is a crushing blow, but as another of our pundits has shown there is life after football.

Matt Murray first appeared on Soccer Saturday at the age of 29 and has gone on to make a success of his role in the television industry as well as becoming a top coach.

Johnny Phillips

By Johnny Phillips

Sky Sports Soccer Saturday pundit, giving his thoughts on football across the country.

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