Can Rafa Bring Back the Glory Days at St. James Park?

December 11, 2017

- Grant Whittington

In truth, Rafa Benitez doesn’t have a great deal in common with Newcastle legend Kevin Keegan.

Keegan was a stellar player,  while injury prevented Rafa from achieving any kind of top-flight playing career. Keegan is also an emotional character who wears his heart on his sleeve, whereas the Spaniard is more analytical and introverted in his interactions. Even their playing styles contrasts, with King Kev renowned for playing attacking, swashbuckling football while Benitez prefers a more structured and defensively resolute approach.

In fact, arguably the only things that connects them is the fact that they both succumbed to Sir Alex Ferguson’s mind games in the heat of a title race!

Despite this, Rafa must follow in Keegan’s hallowed footsteps by transforming Newcastle into a Premier League force once again, while helping the club to achieve its true potential. Can he achieve this, however, and will he receive the backing he needs if the club is sold by current owner Mike Ashley?

The Post-Keegan Era – A Steady Decline

During Keegan’s first stint in charge, Newcastle rose from a struggling First Division club to Premier League title contenders. Labelled as ‘The Entertainers’ by Sky Sports, they also played an incredibly attacking style that was too much for most opponents, backed by the ability of flair players such as David Ginola, Keith Gillespie, Les Ferdinand and the brilliant Faustino Asprilla.

Despite two consecutive runners-up finishes at in 1996 and 1997 and the £15 million signing of Alan Shearer after Euro 96, however, Keegan’s men blew a 12-point lead in the 95-96 season as Manchester United overhauled them. This marked the beginning of the end for an emotionally exhausted Keegan, who resigned in January of 1997 and brought a thrilling era of football at St. James Park to an end.

So began a period of decline of St. James Park, and even the returning Keegan could do little to halt the slide during a brief spell in charge in 2008. Following this and first of two relegations to the Championship in 2009, the Magpies have been able to reclaim their former glory or establish themselves as a consistent force in the Premier League.

The Ashley Era – A False Dawn for Fans?

 Interestingly, this period of decline coincided with the 2007 takeover of the club, when the J D Sport magnate bought Freddie Shepherd’s final shares and assumed control. Despite significant investment down the years, Ashley have never fully managed to win over the fans, with his outspoken style and perceived lack of passion for the club preventing supporters from ever really warming to him. Ashley has hardly been helped by the club’s erratic form during the last decade, or his failure to back certain managers during key transfer windows.

During his tenure, Newcastle have been relegated twice and flirted with the the drop on a further two occasions, while they also managed to secure fifth place and qualify for the Europa League at the end of 2011/12. Managed by Alan Pardew, the club even started the campaign with an eleven game unbeaten run, as fans dared to dream that an elusive league title challenge could be within their grasp.

Some of Ashley’s managerial appointments have also raised eyebrows, including the short-term recruitment of the abrasive Joe Kinnear, the ill-fated experience with an inexperienced Alan Shearer and the bizarre hiring of John Carver. In Rafa Benitez, however, Ashley managed to sign a truly world class performer with impeccable credentials, with the Spaniard being the only man to win the  UEFA Europa League, the UEFA Super Cup, the UEFA Champions League and the FIFA Club World Cup.

What’s more, Ashley has also managed to retain Rafa’s services, as the former Valencia, Liverpool and Real Madrid boss led them the Championship title last season.

Can Rafa Make Newcastle Great Again, and Will New Owners Help?

Make no mistake; Rafa boasts the credentials and the pedigree to help maintain Newcastle’s EPL status and establish the club as a force over the next few years. Just how far he can take the club will depend largely on the level of investment made by the board, as there is no doubt that the Geordies need reinforcements and some players with genuine top flight experience if they’re to compete aggressively at the highest level.

The issue here is timing, as Newcastle have earned just a single point from their last six games and plunged to 15th in the table (the club sit just five points ahead of the relegation zone). Rafa therefore needs to make transfer plans now, while he has also requested a minimum £20 million kitty to help bolster his squad’s attacking options. He’s been hindered by the uncertain future of the club, with controversial owner Ashley have stated his desire to sell his controlling stake by December and entered into negotiations with Amanda Staveley’s PCP Partners Capital Group to conclude a deal.

Discussions appear to have stalled, however, after Ashley flatly rejected an initial bid that was significantly less than his £380 million valuation. With a second offer yet to be tabled, the sale of the club is in limbo along with Benitez’ best laid transfer plans.

The completion of a deal could make all the difference, as the addition of two or three top class players could help to transform Newcastle’s season while empowering the manager to make the most of his experience, tactical knowledge and quality. This could also serve as the catalyst for Newcastle’s return to the top table of English football, and those halcyon days when ‘The Entertainers’ came within a whisker of winning the Premier League.

The Last Word

In this respect, it is not only the outcome of Newcastle’s season that currently hangs in the balance at the moment. It’s also their near-term future, as the failure to improve the squad could leave Benitez unable to resist the threat of relegation, sending the club back to square one and Rafa off to pastures new. This would be a shame, as the wily and successful Spaniard represents the best possible chance of the club recapturing the magic of Kevin Keegan’s first spell in charge.

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