With the publishing of the minutes from the first Fans Forum meeting of the year between supporters and members of the Newcastle hierarchy, managing director Lee Charnley included, one topic of discussion unavoidably dominated the agenda; the future of Rafa Benitez.
United’s official response to any and all queries regarding Benitez and the issues surrounding his current contract, which expires at the end of next season, was that the Spaniard’s representatives are presently talking to the club about an extension.
“The club stated that the manager has a year remaining on his contract. As the manager has publicly stated, discussions to extend his contract are ongoing,” the official club website stated.
“The club stressed that its conversations with the manager are ongoing and include discussions around the transfer pot available.”
Supporters are understandably anxious for Benitez to commit himself to Newcastle beyond 2019 after plotting a direct route out of the Championship last season and masterminding United’s escape from the threat of relegation this term, putting his side on course for a top-half finish with three matches to play.
His feat in guiding a Newcastle side largely composed of the players from last season’s Championship-winning squad will naturally attract the attention of clubs around Europe where a number of high-profile jobs have or will become available this summer.
Benitez has already had his name mentioned in the breadth of Arsenal, who are currently in the process of selecting Arsene Wenger’s successor, his former club Napoli and even Leicester City with Claude Puel rumoured to be in line for the axe at the end of the season should there be a continuation of the Foxes’ recent bad form.
Magpies fans are bound to be concerned that the upheaval on the continent could have serious implications for Newcastle and result in Benitez prematurely leaving St James’ Park during the close-season – an unthinkable but unlikely scenario.
The United boss has already intimated that he has envisioned remaining on Tyneside for a decade, but only if he is able to mould the club in his image. The word ‘project’ has been frequently used but seldom has Benitez been equipped with the tools to achieve his vision, being denied the funds and autonomy to upgrade a squad he felt had deficiencies in every area.
Newcastle spent around £40 million on players last summer – and even less in January when Benitez was restricted to three loan signings at the back-end of the window – with their outlay dwarfed by the £50m Manchester City paid for Kyle Walker alone, a detail that renders his achievement in giving Newcastle a realistic chance of finishing the season in the top-10 even more impressive.
There is no reason to be unduly worried about Benitez leaving in the short-term with Spaniard feeling obliged to see out the final year of his contract in honour of the fans whose unwavering and continued support initially compelled him to remain in charge in the aftermath of relegation.
Even with more attractive roles available to him it seems implausible that Benitez will abandon Newcastle, though this summer could prove pivotal in shaping his long-term outlook should he not obtain the written assurances he wants from Mike Ashley that pertain to his summer transfer budget, full control of ‘football matters’, the signing of experienced players and confirmation that the club share his ambition for the future of Newcastle United.
Benitez’s ambitions aren’t excessively unreasonable by any stretch of the imagination when you consider the transformative impact he has had on a club that was spiralling into the abyss two years ago before his arrival.
Ashley needs Benitez more than Benitez needs Ashley, especially with the United owner actively trying to sell the club.
Amanda Staveley stipulated that Benitez remain in charge during her failed takeover bid and one can imagine the presence of a Champions League winning manager in the dugout is a particular draw for interested parties.
Turning Newcastle back into a competitive force in the Premier League is Benitez’s ultimate ambition – but if Ashley fails to grant Benitez the assurances he seeks for a second successive summer then supporters should begin penning their long goodbyes.