This time last year Rafael Benítez was preparing Real Madrid for an assault on La Liga and the Champions League but, so far at least, he is finding life in the Championship at Newcastle United far from a culture shock.
“We’ve prepared the players the same way as at Real Madrid,” said the Spaniard, whose side kick off their promotion quest at Fulham on Friday night in the Football League’s opening match. “The difference is that this pre-season has been more football-orientated; with Real Madrid it was business, marketing and we were in Australia and China.”
In exchange, the former Liverpool and Chelsea manager was offered a degree of control unprecedented under Mike Ashley’s ownership of the club. Given carte blanche to rebuild, he has invested £45m in eight signings, most notably Matt Ritchie from Bournemouth, Mohamed Diamé from Hull and Dwight Gayle from Crystal Palace.
Most new faces are British and Benítez is suitably delighted. “I knew that, to create a positive atmosphere, I had to change things,” said the manager who has sold Georginio Wijnaldum to Liverpool for £25m and Andros Townsend to Crystal Palace for £13m and hopes to recoup even more by offloading Moussa Sissoko from a once heavily Francophone dressing room. “We needed players with experience of the Championship and of English football that knew about the physicality, the importance of every contact. It was important to get players with knowledge of this side of the game.”
Newcastle also gave serious consideration to signing the free-scoring Ross McCormack from Fulham but the Scotland forward has ended up at Roberto Di Matteo’s Aston Villa for £12m. Not that Benítez’s spending spree is over. “We’re still looking,” said the 56-year-old, who allowed Fabricio Coloccini, Papiss Cissé and Steven Taylor to leave before making Jamaal Lascelles his captain. “We’re looking at the loan market. Maybe there are Premier League players who aren’t going to get chances with their clubs – we’re waiting and analysing every option.
“The key is always the net spend but if you sell good players you have to invest. We’re able to spend because we’ve sold players. We also have a smaller wage bill and maybe a profit at the end of the summer because we’re doing good business. I’m happy we’re getting good value for money.”
Newcastle’s season-ticket sales are up on last year, with more than 33,000 already taken. “It says a lot about our fans,” said Benítez. “They’re really disappointed about going down but they’re still positive. We’ve changed the atmosphere and the mentality.”
Not that he agrees with the notion relegation could be a blessing in disguise. “Going down is never good news. It was very difficult but it does mean we can start building something new, something different which will hopefully be good for the future. Relegation can never be a positive but it allows you to change things and move in another direction.”
Many outside Tyneside are surprised he stuck around. “I felt the love of the fans and the city,” he said. “The assurances the club gave me about the way we’ll go forward. I want to be here managing a top side. Hopefully we’ll be in the Championship for just one season but it’s a very difficult division. There are a lot of good teams and it’s a very different league from past years. A lot of rich owners are spending big money. The prize of reaching the Premier League is so big in terms of TV money that everyone’s spending.
“We’re a good team and we can be one of the best teams but it’ll be tough. We’re still creating our style, there’s plenty of work to do to improve and it’ll take time. I’d like to say we’ll win easily at Fulham but I don’t think we will. For us, it’s going to be a long journey.”
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