This time last year, over 52,000 Newcastle United fans turned out to watch their already-relegated team roll over Mauricio Pochettino’s electric Spurs side 5-1 at St. James’ Park.
This staggering attendance figure doesn’t stem from the fans’ desire to show their appreciation to the likes of Daryl Janmaat and Moussa Sissoko, both of whom contributed heavily to United’s relegation.
They came for one man and one man only. You couldn’t hear yourself think as the deafening chant of “Rafa Benítez, we want you to stay” rang around the Cathedral on the Hill.
For Newcastle fans, it doesn’t get better than Rafa Benitez. There are no “deluded expectations” on Tyneside. Despite what many pundits may tell you, the Magpies have – for the most part – a clever following.
Just the thought of a Championship campaign with anyone other than the Spaniard in charge was enough for thousands of Toon fans to leave their voice boxes in the ground that day.
They knew he would bring the club back to where it belongs.
We need him more than he needs us. He could have gotten a lucrative job in China, or indeed another top-level one in Europe. In the face of a monumental task, Benitez chose to stay.
Make no mistake about it, getting Newcastle United back to the Premier League at the first time of asking was no easy assignment.
Rob Elliot and Isaac Hayden recently spoke about how Rafa’s success in the Championship should not be undermined, and who better to know about how hard the job was than the players themselves?
The squad needed a complete revamp, and as demonstrated by Aston Villa this season, that can often lead to a massive anti-climax. Benitez was obviously told that to spend money, he had to bring in money; and that he did.
His experience and knowhow in the transfer market paid dividends. In particular, his stance on Moussa Sissoko; a player who was desperate to leave throughout the whole summer.
Waiting until transfer deadline day in anticipation that a top Premier League club would be forced into a panic buy was a masterstroke by the 57-year-old. It was a weight worth £30m off the shoulders of Newcastle United.
United raised over £80m in player sales but Rafa’s finest work came in the area of recruitment. The signings of Ciaran Clark (who almost everyone doubted), Isaac Hayden, Matt Ritchie and Dwight Gayle were distinctly effective.
Even those who rarely played – Matz Sels, Grant Hanley, Daryl Murphy etc – had important roles in Newcastle’s bid for promotion. They provided competition in a squad that lacked it in years gone by.
The importance of promotion is underlined by Benitez profiling perfect Championship players capable of playing their part for maybe just one season.
Overall, 12 players were shipped out and 12 players were brought in. At the start of the season, nobody knew one another. A relatively short pre-season schedule meant that Rafa and his staff needed to hit the ground running by forging bonds and team spirit in the squad.
Effectively implementing 12 new players into a squad does not happen overnight. They need to know each other’s habits and movements on the pitch. After two shaky defeats, United kicked on.
Another amazing success by Benitez this season has been breaking the club record for most away wins in a season.
To transform the mentality and performances away from home this season in the way he did is an absolutely outstanding achievement.
Newcastle, who were completely and utterly inept on their travels in the Premier League, were suddenly a side that knew how to get results away from their own stomping ground.
United had some problems to deal with at St. James’ Park this season also. After years of playing counter-attacking football at home, they had to adapt to playing against teams who parked the bus.
A trip to St. James’ Park, for most Championship clubs, was their big day out. They arrived with no fear, no pressure, and no expectation. All of the pressure was on United.
In spite of some forgettable home displays such as Blackburn, Sheffield Wednesday and Fulham, the Magpies scored 49 goals in 23 home games; only Norwich managed to score more.
Rafa built two successful formulas. One focused on how to break stubborn defences down at home, and the other amended the away day troubles of the past few years.
The manager, although sometimes repetitive, showcased his mastery of the mind game throughout the season. With three games to go, Brighton needed just one win to take home the league title.
They lost away to Norwich but were still in pole position. However, Rafa’s reaction to Newcastle’s two victories against Preston and Cardiff went a long way towards derailing Chris Hughton’s side.
“We cannot control and we must wait and see [what Brighton do]. Even if we do not win the title, we can be happy with our season,” he said.
He piled the pressure on Brighton and relieved it from Newcastle with just two sentences and low and behold, the Seagulls “bottled it” and United had a perfect end to a perfect season.
Benitez constantly reiterated how tough the Championship was to oversee such a triumphant return to the Premier League was nothing short of a terrific accomplishment.
Rafa dispelled the myth that managers need experience in the Championship in order to be successful, and with almost everyone willing him to fail, he made this division look like a walk in the park when in reality, it took a lot of hard work.
Watch how he held the league trophy aloft. Watch how he wore his medal in the post-match press conference and tell me that he is not proud of this achievement.