Numerous former Newcastle United managers have bowed to the popular mantra about the club being constantly “a couple of defeats away from a crisis” but it is a perception Rafael Benítez refuses to buy into.
Despite losing his first two Championship games, he remains convinced the Rafalution will eventually see stability replace volatility at one of England’s best supported yet most underachieving outposts. Unfazed, the Spaniard has called for patience as he prepares for Reading’s visit to St James’ Park on Wednesday night.
After investing £45m on eight new players this summer – although £38m has been recouped from the sales of Gini Wijnaldum and Andros Townsend – the received wisdom was that newly relegated Newcastle and their Champions League winning coach would canter to the second tier title. They still might but those reverses at Fulham and at home to Huddersfield have provoked a certain nervousness on Tyneside. Stumble again against Jaap Stam’s side and even Benítez’s composure would surely become a little ruffled. After all, when Chris Hughton led Newcastle out of the Championship in 2009-10 they lost only four league matches all season.
A man in charge of Real Madrid this time last year did not expect to be pointless at this stage but still maintains a side in need of further re-modelling before the transfer window’s closure is doing more right than wrong. “Next spring, we’ll be fine, we’ll be where we want to be, it’s a long, long season,” said Benítez. “We know it’s just the start and we have to fix things, but I have confidence we’ll do well.”
Even so, he could do with signing the two new strikers, right-winger and left-back on his shopping list while offloading a string of fringe and/or unsettled and potentially dissenting players as soon as possible.
Desperate to depart, Moussa Sissoko has sustained a diplomatic ankle injury which rules him out of involvement against Reading. Several clubs – Crystal Palace, Everton and Internazionale among them – have expressed interest in the France midfielder but none has come anywhere near matching Newcastle’s £25m plus valuation.
“Moussa Sissoko’s just like everyone else here, he’s waiting for news,” said Steve McClaren’s successor. “It’s not ideal, it’s not perfect but we have to deal with the situation. We have clubs asking about Sissoko but we have to wait a little bit. You’re waiting for the right offer. After the transfer window everything will settle down and it’ll be easier.”
Until then Newcastle intend playing hardball over Sissoko. “Moussa’s the big name in the market – if someone wants Moussa, they have to pay,” said Benítez. “If we’re happy with the price, and he’s happy, then we can maybe consider. If we’re not happy, then he can stay and I’ll be really, really pleased to keep him.”
With no expectation of such a scenario unfolding, the Newcastle manager is looking forward to working with a considerably slimmed-down, more single-minded, squad.
“We’ll be stronger and more focused after the transfer window when we’ve brought in some more players and others have left,” said Benitez who is looking to move Cheik Tioté, Henri Saivet, Yoan Gouffran, Siem De Jong and, possibly, Tim Krul on. “But it’s not a case that everything we’re doing is wrong just because we’ve lost two games. A lot of things we’ve done are right. I’m not happy but I’m sure we’ll start winning soon.
“We still want to bring in another three or four players. We still don’t have our top XI and we need to balance the squad. Some players have not yet arrived but others will leave. If you have 31, 32 or 33 players, it’s impossible. We don’t need to sell, but I don’t want people who don’t have any chance of playing.”
With Mohamed Diamé injured, Jonjo Shelvey – a £12m, £80,000 a week McClaren recruit last January but mainly a substitute under his successor – may be handed a rare chance to remind everyone of the potential that once made him an England midfielder on Wednesday.
For the Newcastle manager Reading’s visit represents an evocative reunion. Stam played centre half for AC Milan in Istanbul when his then Liverpool side won the 2005 Champions League final.
“The good thing,” Benitez joked. “Is that he won’t be on the pitch this time.”
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