At the core of this book describing Rafa Benítez’s time at Newcastle is a chronological description of ten matches from the failed Premier League rescue mission in 2015-16 through to the end of the vindicating promotion in the following campaign. There’s a sense of convergence, if not destiny, in the way that both parties became suited to each other by March 2016.
That’s illustrated by a convincing explanation of how Newcastle got to the moment when Benítez was appointed. The club had been changed by 1996’s final-straight collapse into one that expected failure, and “bad management, poor judgement and the wrong players” helped deliver it. Their financial advantage over most of the top division had been wiped out by improved TV deals, and communications between fans and club were so poor that the players could sense the resultant antipathy from the support.
Newcastle’s journey is mirrored by analysis of Benítez’s own development both personal and professional up to that point. There’s insight into where Benítez came from, how he works, how he plans, his philosophy, how he thinks about football. The logic behind all the Championship signings is examined in detail as illustration and there are entertaining anecdotes showing Benítez’s obsessive drive, including coaching a Merseyside school team while between jobs and behaving exactly as he would have in the Champions League. The precision and focus with which the manager set about his transformation of the club is fascinating, the need to reconnect Newcastle with their supporters being the most indispensable part of that. The author, Newcastle United editor for the local newspaper group, certainly has enough opportunity to observe and talk to Benítez for his opinion to carry weight.
The book gives even-handed treatment to Lee Charnley, Newcastle’s managing director who rose through the ranks at the club, promoted coach John Carver to manager to disastrous effect, then appointed Steve McClaren who he stuck with for too long. The unkind may suggest that’s because the author’s day job requires him to maintain cordial relations with those in charge at Newcastle, but it’s refreshing to hear both sides and it does demonstrate that the book isn’t a cynical exercise in saying what his most-likely customers want to hear. And Charnley did appoint Benítez too, after all.
If the book has a fault it’s that from the off it treats Benítez’s victory in the battle against the way Mike Ashley had previously run the club, won “without firing a shot”, as something already achieved and finalised. If time following Newcastle teaches you anything, it’s that an Ashely decision that seems final is always liable to be completely reversed and then reverted back again, any number of times. The final page says, on the post-promotion meeting between the two: “Benítez always wants more... Ashley consented.” Maybe August’s passive-aggressive back and forward in the media between manager and owner was just the latest episode of a recurring argument.