I had nothing but admiration for the way Rafa Benitez conducted himself throughout his time at Newcastle United.
I would rarely ever describe someone as ‘classy,’ but the ‘mighty’ Rafa oozed class.
I’d long made up my mind on this issue, but if ever a fragment of doubt had still lingered at the back of my mind, one sunny Spring afternoon I cycled past the gates of the training ground and sealed the deal.
Of course, by then we suspected his time at our club was limited, the whispers coming from media speculation, and the reading between the lines in his interviews, suggested Benitez and Ashley’s future visions for the club were incongruous.
The former had a long-term plan for the future success and viability of the club, a footballing brain acquired over decades of operating at the top levels of the game, and he felt like a man of the people, our people. In his final season in charge our form after Christmas was the sixth best in the league. The good times were back on the terraces. Witness the ‘show of flags’ togetherness, and having a ‘go’ against the future Champions in our 3-2 defeat at the hands of Liverpool. That game reminded me of the sort of intense, passionate atmosphere that had been typical of the Keegan/Robson years.
Miraculously, this had been achieved with meagre pickings, Rafa’s reign subsisted on the sort of grudging resentment from our owner, that we had long come to recognise as bordering on criminally negligent. And yet perversely, Rafa Benitez had handed Ashley a template towards a different, better future, one where the owner could blend into the background, reprieved from the criticism that had up until that point plagued his ownership of the club. He could take the back seat he seemingly so desired, free to pursue his many other business interests, recognising with humility that he made mistakes, and knew little about football. If only he could cede some trust and control to the passionate and worldly Spaniard’s extensive footballing brain.
Of course, Ashley being Ashley, we now know, had already splashed what would have been no doubt Rafa’s whole summer transfer budget on a ‘striker,’ with the intention of imposing him upon the manager, against his better judgement. He had previous form in this area but let’s not go there now.
Ashley saw something in the acquisition of Joelinton that no one else could see, a pretty underwhelming scoring record, and for Ashley, a totally uncharacteristic splashing of the cash and belligerent breaking of a transfer record followed. It wrong-footed fans and the press alike, in our bemusement at this most absurd of deals. Rafa believed Joelinton to have potential, but one that a transfer deal of half that amount would be hard pushed to justify. But what did he know?? Earlier in the season Rafa Benitez had pushed for a deal for midfielder Bruno Fernandes, a no one who has since, of course, disappeared into footballing obscurity. Besides, there was no need for a creative midfielder was there?
I’ll step back from the sarcasm of the last few sentences now, leave that to Ashley’s latest underwhelming ‘yes man’ drinking in ‘mighty’ Mike’s last chance saloon (see also Pardew, JokeKinnear, McClaren). Just wanted to add some context to this tale.
Anyway, as I was cycling along the wagonway towards the gates of the ground I was greeted by the surreal sight of three skinny Chinese lads, shivering in their Newcastle shirts, holding aloft a large piece of card on which was written ‘Hong Kong NUFC Official Fan Club,’ or wording to that effect!
As I was about to pass them, Rafa’s black car emerged out of the gates. Anyone who has ever hung outside those gates under sufferance will know there are signs informing fans that the players and playing staff will only stop for signings during school holidays, but this was an ordinary afternoon within the academic term.
Given Rafa’s generosity, complete respect and understanding of our fanbase, and the possibility that they had travelled across the world to visit our ‘no thrills’ training ground, I never doubted that Rafa would at least give them a friendly wave of acknowledgement. In a moment his car decelerated to a friendly halt, and within seconds, there was Rafa, window down, leaning out of his window to greet this most enthusiastic designation of our global fanbase.
I cycled past and out onto the main road, all the time keeping a watch out the corner of my eye for Rafa to pass me, knowing from previous spottings that he’d be driving towards the crossing at Four Lane Ends. I cycled slowly expecting him to overtake me at any second. By the time I approached Four Lane Ends, I found myself thinking what a great bloke to spend all that time with fans, despite the fact that he knew he was about to exit the latest mutation of Ashley’s banana republic.
I stopped near the Four Lane Ends crossing and waited for Rafa to pass, already nostalgic in the knowledge that this would probably be his final waltz past our local bus terminus. And I waited. And waited. I was about to give up, when fifteen minutes later the behind-the-wheel Rafa came into view. Well over fifteen minutes he’d spent with those lads, chatting and signing their shirts, probably fifteen more minutes than Lee Charnley has spent conversing with fans throughout the whole sorry fiasco of Ashley’s reign.
It’s in the small things that true ‘class’ is acknowledged, a respect for the community in which you live, the interests and well being of a fanbase that you feel at home representing. For Rafa Benitez, even at the point of farewell, it felt like he was on our side, he wanted the best for us, he understood the fanbase, the club and their sense of despondency in the face of Ashley’s unforgiving and joyless regime. He ‘got us,’ in the way that hundreds of tinpot media pundits, and the many volte-face representatives of Ashley’s never-ending ownership, have subsequently failed to do .
He was never going to compromise that to become Ashley’s latest passive stooge, in the same way that he wouldn’t rush to manage our club’s arch rivals if the chips were down. And he certainly wouldn’t resort to deploying sarcasm in the direction of the fanbase he was paid royally to represent, although the same could not be said of the slights he directed knowingly towards the owner who he was paid royally to ultimately resent.