Spaniard has a tough start at Leicester but not much time to improve his new team
14 March ~ When Steve McClaren was appointed manager of Newcastle United following the club's final day escape from relegation last season, it was seen as an uninspired if safe choice. It seemed likely he'd be an improvement on what had gone before anyway, purely based on how bad that had been. Only 28 league games later, Newcastle are firmly in the bottom three and he is out of a job.
McClaren had a lot of spending sanctioned by the owner but he was still hamstrung by the players bought in the summer being the choice of chief scout Graham Carr rather than himself, and a transfer blueprint which focused on the resale value of players rather than the role they might fill in the roster. The unbalanced squad riddled with gaping holes he was given certainly didn't help him but what players he did have he was unable to get the best out of. In the end his side looked identical to the one which had struggled under John Carver the year before, and under Pardew before that, still lacking an effective plan.
New appointee Rafael Benítez has ten games to win a four-team league at the bottom if they are to stay up. While a major complaint of fans in recent seasons has been that the club would be happy to finish one notch above the relegation places, this year that really is the best they can do now. Of their rivals, Aston Villa look doomed but Norwich and Sunderland are fighting and look like picking up points. Newcastle have all three yet to play so their fate remains in their own hands.
Fresh from a stint at Real Madrid, serial trophy-winner Benítez is used to addressing different problems than he'll be confronted with here. We're about to find out if his particular skillset is suited to fighting a relegation battle. He's the most exciting appointment in years, signified by the general air of disbelief he's taken the job. The excitement's partly due to his own qualities but also because he wouldn't have taken it without securing a change to the transfer policy that's been the main cause of the club's problems, along with a guarantee of a continuation of the spending.
His task begins tonight at Leicester City, the antithesis of everything Newcastle have become lately. It's an unlikely place to start picking up the points required but when you've won two games away from home all season, everywhere is. If Newcastle show any kind of improvement then that's a start of a kind. Benítez can't afford too many games to get things right though or the game will be up before it's even begun. Mark Brophy
Photo by Colin McPherson/WSC Photography: Club and sponsors' names on the East Stand at St James’ Park