Rafa Benitez may be interested in joining West Ham – and Newcastle must wake up to his needs
After the Magpies' 3-0 win over the London club, they could sack Slaven Bilic. Benitez is admired by the Hammers, and the feeling is mutual.
Rafa Benitez must feel like a broken record, stuck giving the same answers to the same questions for weeks on end. It is clear the Newcastle United he agreed to remain with twice, in May 2016 after relegation and 12 months later once promotion was secured, is a very different club to right now and the manager cannot, or will not, hide his frustrations over the lack of money available and the subsequent inability to clinch his main transfer targets.
But on Saturday afternoon, having just seen his side step away from the brink of crisis with a first win of the season at home to West Ham, Benitez was asked in his post-match news conference whether the 3-0 win had negative connotations for his pleas with the board going into the final week of the window.
His reply, typically straight and logical, was unsurprising and crucially correct; one win does not make a season, the problems remain and holes are still to be plugged.
Goals from new signing Joselu, Ciaran Clark and Aleksandar Mitrovic topped off a brilliant display as Benitez’s tactical plan finally took shape. West Ham, though, could scarcely have performed worse, and the forlorn expression on Slaven Bilic’s face throughout, not to mention the apparent lack of inner confidence and his body language, on the whole, suggested big problems for him in the not so distant future.
Three defeats in as many games have fuelled reports linking him with an exit from the London Stadium. Worse still, for Newcastle fans at least, Benitez’s is one of those on a list of potential replacements; the Hammers’ owners are said to be aware of a release clause in excess of £5million in his contract at St James Park, while he said in the week that he no longer sees Newcastle as a long-term project.
Most troublingly for those on Tyneside, Benitez has history with the current West Ham regime, having actually been their first choice before hiring Bilic in 2015. Only the Real Madrid job stood between him and taking the reigns of one of the most exciting and ambitious projects in England at the time, just a year ahead of their switch from Upton Park to their current 60,000-capacity home.
As a man of real integrity, Benitez looks for it in others and could not help but feel indebted to the club’s hierarchy for their understanding of him turning his back on them to head to the Santiago Bernabeu. He is also experiencing the sort of adulation from Newcastle fans he may only have sampled elsewhere at Liverpool; for saving the club and demanding they act like one of the big boys, he is nothing short of a king among those who have previously hero-worshipped the likes of Kevin Keegan and Alan Shearer. As he has admitted previously, the driving force behind his decision to stay was his relationship with fans and the obsession of a city that treats football like a religion.
From a professional point of view, West Ham are perfect for him, and if they do sack Bilic and come calling for him, the potential of the club is something that could turn Benitez’s head if things do not improve at Newcastle. When he took the job in the first place, he did so on the proviso that he would gain full control of footballing matters, contrary to his immediate predecessors, and with sufficient support to be able to awaken a ‘sleeping giant’, building them up in his image.
That has stuttered this summer and all of the excitement and positivity has been sucked out of the club because of the constant issues between Benitez and owner Mike Ashley. West Ham have given Bilic everything he needs and would be more than happy to back Benitez, having already signed one of his summer targets, Joe Hart, and bid £40million for another, Sporting Lisbon midfielder William Carvalho. More to the point, the money is flowing in East London and so is the ambition, with both in short supply at Newcastle, increasing Benitez’s angst.
Without these rumours, the ship may have calmed slightly. Not only has that win reduced the nerves and silenced the alarm, but Benitez was appearing more upbeat than before on the possibility of getting at least some of what he wants in the remainder of the window. There have been some critics of him in recent weeks, but as he pointed out, he is signing those he can rather than those he wants. Adding everything together, it is not hard to come to the conclusion that a switch to West Ham, while ironic given Saturday’s result, would not be completely out of the question.
If anything, it could strengthen Benitez’s hand at Newcastle. Throughout the summer and even before, he had been cryptically suggesting he was not going to stand for any issues with Ashley and the Newcastle like so many before him have. His idea is to change the mind set, take down the barriers that hold the club back; that does not solely come down to money, but the general attitude that there is only so much the club can achieve. All that has been created by Ashley and gradually taken a hold over ten years.
But Benitez’s underlying message has been one of defiance; he will get on with the job and try his best. Everything he has said and done has been clever and calculated, making it clear that Ashley has met his match. West Ham are the club he wishes Newcastle were right now, and should they approach him, he might just agree to move. That alone should spark his current boss into intense supportive action.