Benitez taking big risk at Newcastle


It will be no surprise when Steve McClaren is fired by Newcastle United. It is 19th in the Premier League having won only six games after spending £74 million over the last two transfer windows. There is no realistic argument for McClaren to remain in charge of this particular sinking ship.

What is more difficult to fathom out is why Rafa Benitez would want to risk his considerable reputation as manager of a dysfunctional club whose owner is reviled by the supporters and whose dressing room is heavy with overrated, underachieving players.

While both McClaren’s departure and Benitez’s appointment were waiting to be confirmed as The Japan Times went to press, it appeared everything was in place awaiting the final signatures.

Benitez won La Liga twice and the UEFA Cup with Valencia; he won the Champions League and F.A. Cup at Liverpool; the Europa League with Chelsea; the Coppa Italia at Napoli. He began the season at Real Madrid, leaving in January when it was third in La Liga and in the knockout stages of the Champions League. The Spaniard will end the campaign after being involved in his first-ever relegation dogfight involving four clubs (three, realistically, as Aston Villa is as good as doomed) and a genuine chance that next season Newcastle will be in the Championship.

It is not as if Benitez would be short of offers from leading European clubs, if not the heavyweights of the Premier League whose managerial posts are almost sorted for next season (a former Liverpool manager could not go to Manchester United while he has had one spell at Chelsea which was enough for both parties).

The drip-drip public hanging of McClaren should tell Benitez everything he needs to know about his new employers. Whatever his failings, McClaren deserved better than the embarrassment he has suffered, the final indignity coming when he learned of his inevitable fate via the media. For the last few weeks, McClaren has been toast. He knew it, the players knew it, everyone knew it, but Newcastle is set to keep him in a job until Benitez is signed and sealed.

Benitez has always harbored a return to the Premier League and loves a challenge, but Newcastle?

A vote for the worst-run club in England would no doubt attract many candidates, but given its financial clout, support and potential it is difficult not to conclude Newcastle deserves to be first in this particular Hall Of Shame.

A one-club city with 52,000 frustrated souls at every home game, Newcastle has failed to deliver . . . well, almost forever. In its 123-year history, Newcastle has won the old First Division four times, the last in 1927. It has not won the F.A. Cup since 1955 and the Inter Cities Fairs Cup success in 1969 was its last silverware. So two trophies in 89 years — no wonder its Wikipedia list of domestic honors includes Premier League Program Of The Year in 2015. Rejoice.

It is staggering that such a vast club has been a serial failure for longer than most of its fans have been alive and this sequence shows no sign of slowing down. With 10 matches remaining it has been another season of controversy, back-biting, buck-passing, finger-pointing, disastrous public relations, players on huge salaries producing little impact and losing. Oh, and a managerial sacking. Just another typical season at St James’ Park then.

There have been occasional highlights such as the first Kevin Keegan era in the 1990s and Sir Bobby Robson’s reign before he was inexplicably sacked in 2004. Since Mike Ashley bought control in 2007, Newcastle has, in the eyes of most, become an extension of his Sports Direct low-cost retail company. Turning the stadium into a giant advert for Sports Direct has made Ashley, the leader of the so-called Cockney Mafia on Tyneside, a toxic presence blamed for all Newcastle’s considerable ills.

Under Ashley, who avoids speaking to the media like his team avoids winning, there have been nine managerial changes and the latest on whom the axe fell, McClaren, was not only handed a three-year contract last June, he was given a seat on the four-man board though Ashley calls all the tunes. It was an underwhelming appointment of a man regarded as a fine coach, but not cut out to be a manager.

McClaren, who will receive £5 million in compensation, had limited control, but Benitez, on a three-year contract worth £25 million, will demand his own backroom team and the final say in all transfers. Whatever the fate at the end of the season, there must be a significant clear-out at St. James’ Park though moving on average players on well-above-average salaries will not be easy. Neither will attracting decent players to a club that is currently involved in its third relegation battle in five years.

On Monday, Newcastle travels to leader Leicester while its following two fixtures are against fellow relegation strugglers Sunderland and Norwich.

McClaren’s departure leaves the Premier League with only four English managers — Eddie Howe (Bournemouth), Alan Pardew (Crystal Palace) and Sam Allardyce (Sunderland) — but this is a discussion for another day.

Not pleased: Alan Pardew was understandably unhappy. Crystal Palace had lost 2-1 to Liverpool after Damien Delaney slid in from behind and his right knee made contact with Christian Benteke’s left foot. Benteke went to ground and after consulting his assistant, Scott Ledger, referee Andre Marriner pointed to the spot, and Benteke slotted home the penalty kick.

The popular view, including that of Pardew, was that while the Belgium striker was touched by Delaney he still dived — a contradiction in FIFA guidelines, which advise that it should only be deemed simulation if there is daylight between the players.

Pardew said that “if it happened at the other end we wouldn’t have got it (a penalty).” This is doubting the honesty, impartiality and integrity of the referee, implying bias toward a so-called bigger club.

The Football Association has written to Pardew to “ask him for his observations.” Goodness knows why. What else could he possibly mean? If the F.A. does not punish Pardew, it will be doing match officials a grave disservice.

Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.